EUI alumnus, Verena Boos recently previewed her debut novel Blutorangen at the Leipzig book fair in Germany. EUI Life asked her about her work and the transition between writing as an academic and becoming a published novelist.
What inspired you to write your novel?
I was thrilled by the tragic absurdity of war stories anywhere, fascinated by family dynamics, and moved by the dignity of those on the losing side. There’s a line by the Spanish singer/songwriter Luis Pastor which roughly translates as this: “For every song and every voice that dies away, mine rises up.“ Historical facts were a very important source of inspiration. The real historical background to my novel are the connections between German and Spanish fascism: when Hitler invaded Russia, Spain supported the campaign with a volunteer division, called the “Blue Division“ due to their blue Falange shirts under the German uniforms. Over the course of two years, roughly 45,000 Spanish soldiers participated in the siege of Leningrad. On the other hand, the Nazis deported Spanish Republican refugees from French internment camps to German concentration camps, in particular the camp in Mauthausen (to this day the only camp with a classification III). These facts are the backdrop to a fictional story about a young couple venturing to understand the histories of their father and grandfather and their entire families – and, ultimately, who they are.
My PhD at the EUI dealt with questions of identity in stateless nations such as Scotland and Catalonia. Coming from a background of Anglo-American Literature and Scottish Studies, that was when I first got in touch with Spanish history, politics and society. After finishing the PhD I worked in Valencia, which is the setting for the Spanish parts of the story I tell in Blutorangen. I moved on to Munich with my next job, which in turn is the setting for the German parts of my story. Apparently I connect to places quite strongly.
Did you find much time for creative writing while you were at the EUI?
Actually, not really. I was focused on my thesis and the academic writing, on my field work, on learning Spanish and Catalan. But a lot of that time has sedimented, as I realised afterwards. The experiences I made living abroad pretty much pervade the whole book. Without the PhD I would never have written that novel, maybe another one, but certainly nothing with such historical depth. I did a lot of creative writing in my teens and early university years, and I took that up again when I returned to Germany after the PhD and the years in Spain.
Would you recommend fiction writing to other doctoral researchers and did any of the skills you acquired as a researcher help you?
Absolutely! I found it a very rewarding way of dealing with facts. Because of the need to transpose research into literary writing, to turn historical facts into lives of fictional characters things touch you more deeply, they are much more in the flesh really. My being a researcher helped a lot, of course: I knew where to look for things, I was familiar with organising a huge amount of data, etc. Then again, it was a challenge to find a truly literary voice, after all those years of academic writing, to step back as a historian and let the fictional characters take over. Of course there is the capital-H History, Hitler meeting Franco, deportation trains, and the Spanish Blue Division in the Second World War. But then again, seemingly trivial things become important when you write fiction: it is really important to know how things tasted, to find out if remote villages had been electrified in the 1930s, how Christmas was celebrated on the Russian front, the brand names of typical beverages, cars and grenades – stuff you wouldn’t necessarily include in a thesis but which is vital to make fiction “real.”
Anyway – Blutorangen is not a historical novel in the strictest sense. It is more about how history still influences the presence, the past that just doesn’t go by. In the present, we are surrounded by history, we tread on it anywhere we go. The Spanish past is – despite the Pact of Silence – still very audible, and every day more so as the search for the desaparecidos of the dictatorship gains momentum. The bigger part of the novel is set between the early 1990s and the year 2004 and deals with how the second and third generations, the “grandchildren of war“, approach a history they have not themselves experienced. We learn about it through books, films, or witnesses – often enough pretty unreliable ones. It’s a story about guilt and remorse, about the questions of the after-born, about how memory works in loops, in telling and re-telling. About how silence can never be the solution but maybe the only possibility to live together as a family.