I had the honour of reviewing “Bone and Blood: A Berlin Novel” by Margo Gorman for the Historical Novel Society. It is a fascinating historical novel with a narrative set in Berlin of 2005 during which events 60 years prior to this are slowly being uncovered.
Aisling, the contemporary protagonist, is an Irish woman who flies to Berlin for a family funeral There she finds unsent letters and information relating to her grand-aunts time in a labour camp for foreigners in Nazi Germany.
It is a lesser known area of history with little exposure in literature so far and will certainly be of interest to many readers. The historical details are accurate and paint a good picture of the time and place and there is good character development and much reflection.
Personally, I must admit that I found the narrative structure distracting, despite undisputed gains from this for the story. The book benefits however from strong writing and editing and has a wonderful cover.
I reviewed the book for the Historical Novel Society, Indie Section.
I am pleased to welcome Margo for a short interview. Please tell us a little about yourself as writer and as person.
In 2009, I decided to fulfil a lifelong ambition to find time to write literary novels. In November of that year, I was short listed for the Virginia Woolf prize, run by a small independent publisher, for, “Bone and Blood.” While redrafting it, I also worked on several other novels and spend my time between rural Donegal and Berlin.I was born in Northern Ireland and I’ve always been an avid reader of fiction where I have empathised with the experience of other histories and other cultures. I studied English Language and Literature in Queens University, Belfast where Seamus Heaney was one of the lecturers who inspired me. For many years I was distracted from writing fiction by my involvement in campaigns or professional work for equality and human rights – rights of women, children, young unemployed, Travellers and many others. I worked for Save the Children in England for 15 years and my interest in working with diverse communities took me to Lille in France and Brussels in Belgium. I met my husband in Germany along the way and that relationship takes me to Berlin.
Why did you choose to write historical fiction?
I would describe it as inter-generational fiction linked to real historical events rather than historical fiction. I explore identity and belonging in the 21st century and the impact social conflict in the 20th century has on family connections.
What in particular fascinates you about the era(s) you write about?
I am fascinated by how some people can follow a fascist leader like Hitler and how others risk their lives in resistance, while the vast majority are carried along by events and reaction to events. I am particularly interested in the dynamic of inequality, where women, young people or minorities are often marginalised, labelled and mythologised. This dynamic is dangerous to us all.
Tell us about the concept behind your books. How did you get the idea?
Bone and Blood” was inspired by a visit to Ravensbrück concentration camp near Berlin where I found out some Irish women had been imprisoned during the Second World War. My subsequent research has been built into the main character, Brigitte. The younger character Aisling came along to make the link between the history Brigitte survived in Berlin and present day Dublin.
What is your life like outside of writing?
I ‘m the sort of person who’s always busy. I love playing out in the garden, construction projects, walking, observing wildlife. There’s a lot of coming and going in my life. We rent out part of the house as a self-catering unit, so during the summer months there are visitors from all over the world. I have to travel to visit friends and family or for writing events.
What makes you laugh?
II like satire which makes me laugh at myself or which twists familiar situations like the writer Flann O’ Brien or the TV series Father Ted or Modern Family in US.
Who would you like to invite for dinner?
I’d love to invite Virginia Woolf but as she’s dead, her ghost makes for an easy dinner guest. I’d also like other women writers like Lia Mills (The Fallen), Martina Devlin, Louise Phillips.
What song would you pick to go with your book?
The title, Bone and Blood comes from an old English poem. A friend in Berlin who is a composer and conductor liked the poem so much, she wrote and tan original piece and it was performed by a choir at the launch. It’s on YouTube.
My second novel is based in Manchester and tells the story of three generations of women. Alex, the youngest, playa and studies music and makes several journeys exploring the impact of sectarianism on her grandmother, Mollie, in Glasgow and Northern Ireland. 2016 is the year for a major redraft plus working on a few other drafts of novels sitting in files.
Did anyone influence you / encourage you to become a writer? A teacher when I about 11 told me she saw me as a published writer and that image stayed with me. I’ve written unpublished poetry, stories, journals and literary analysis as a hobby for decades. I’ve had some non-fiction related to work published along the way.
Who would you cast to play the characters in a movie? I can visualise a film of Bone and Blood with Judy Dench as Brigitte and Saoirse Ronan as Aisling.
What are the best and the worst aspects of writing?
The best is when people tell me how my writing affirmed them or challenged them in some way. The worst is the isolation and insecurity.
How do you balance marketing one book and writing the next? I’ve been pretty hopeless at marketing Bone and Blood – lots of good intentions about blogging regularly and connection with my network through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have come to very little so far. I suffer from a block against social media. The demand for spontaneity and immediacy conflicts with the rewriting, redrafting creative energy on the novels I have in the pipeline. I don’t mind being public but don’t like self-promotion.
Who are your editors and how do you quality control your books?
My partner, Schorse Rennert, is the first to read a draft. I often make changes based on his reactions. My editor, Cressida Downing, the bookanalyst.co.uk provides great advice on pacing, structure, plot, characters. I do an entire redraft based on her comments and suggestions.
Who are your favourite authors? Virginia Woolf and Flann O Brien.
What is your favourite book? The Third Policeman by Flann O’ Brien
What book are you currently reading and in what format (e-book/paperback/hardcover)? I’m reading Lia Mills, The Fallen and Martina Devlin, Sisterland as e-books
What (not who) would you like to take to a lonely island? My laptop and a solar generator to power it.
Hot or cold? I’m mostly hot and salty rather than cool and sweet.
How have you found the experience of self-publishing? What were your highs and lows? I really enjoyed being involved in each step of the publishing process. Matador provide lots of services and I wouldn’t have managed self-publishing without the support of the team there. The launch of Bone and Blood in Berlin was a real high as lots of people came and got involved in an event that was more than a launch – a great tours of the graveyard, a reading by Seamus Heaney ‘s ghost etc. The worst experience is feeling solely responsible for the success or otherwise. It’s a lonely place at times.
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