Interview conducted by Aliya Stacey.
Award-winning author Karen Bass takes readers on a suspenseful historical adventure in her new novel Graffiti Knight. Set in post-World War II East Germany, the book explores the struggles of living during that time and the courage needed to defy those in power.
Karen took some time to answer a couple of questions about the process of researching this book, writing for a younger audience, and getting in touch with her inner adolescent.
What attracted you to post-World War II East Germany as a setting?
The simplest answer is that it was a truly awful place to live. It had a dystopian quality that appealed to me – the city in ruins, society in upheaval, the enemy in control. From a storyteller’s perspective, what’s not to love about that? Not to be glib, though. The fact that it was a time and place that really existed means I also was able to tell an exciting story and at the same time can reveal a part of history to younger readers that is likely unknown.
What is the biggest challenge about writing a story set in the past?
Writing historical stories and fantasies have a similar challenge in that you have to be very familiar with the society in which the story is set (world-building). So while it’s true I need to do a lot of research about the time and place, possibly more important is figuring out the attitudes of the people who lived in those times. Sometimes I hypothesize that if things were like this then people would act like that. Sometimes I come across writings from the time that show me more directly how people thought and acted.
What kind of research did you do for Graffiti Knight? Did you enjoy it?
I read non-fiction books to learn about life in the Soviet Zone; they were heavy and grim. I’m not sure ‘enjoy’ is the right word for that part of my research, but it was fascinating. I did, however, travel to Leipzig in Germany to explore the city and its museum, and to interview a museum curator who answered pages of questions. That part of my research was fantastic. I also came home with some books full of pictures from during and after WWII, which I never would have found over here. Since those books were all in German it’s a good thing that pictures really do tell a thousand words. Discovering treasures like those books make the travel even more rewarding. (Note: my husband is advocating that I should write a book set in Fiji or somewhere similar so that we have to go there and do more research.)
Was there any part of this book that you struggled with or wanted to avoid writing? What was it and why?
I thoroughly enjoyed writing the first draft, as I often do. I love discovering the story as I write and fleshing it out. My struggles often come during revisions, making sure a character’s actions are true to his or her personality, deciding if that scene really adds to the story or is just taking up space. Editors are a huge help in this regard, and I’d never put a story out there without their input.
Is it awful that the more fraught a scene, the more I tend to enjoy writing it? Though it can be a struggle to make sure things don’t spill over into melodrama.
The horrible attack that Annaliese experienced did give me pause but I never seriously considered changing it, primarily because it was accurate historically. As I said earlier, it was a time of great trauma in many ways, and one of them was the way the Soviets treated the Germans, whether or not you think they deserved it. Maybe that’s one of the questions Graffiti Knight leaves readers with: should children be punished for the crimes of their elders?
What drew you to writing books for a younger audience?
My first novel involved a high school student on an exchange trip, so it quite naturally lent itself toward a teen audience. Writing that book made me realize I really enjoy creating stories for teens. Part of the allure is that it is an age of becoming. Young adults are just that; they are taking their first steps into full adulthood. It’s an exciting and sometimes confusing process, and all that undiscovered potential makes YA a cornucopia of story ideas. I also love to read YA and am constantly amazed by all the superb writing happening in the genre today.
As an adult, is it difficult to convey the realities of adolescence? How much do you draw from your own teenage experiences?
I actually think that as we age, most of us gain the ability to better understand other people’s points-of-view. If we let ourselves remember our teen years, then it’s not overly difficult to tap into those experiences to create common connections with modern teens. I’ve been on a kick lately, telling writers how important it is to be able to empathize. The key to writing for a particular group is empathy, seeing the world through their eyes. Readers, by the way, score higher on empathy scales – yet another reason to encourage young people to read.
That second question is loaded. Oddly, it’s one that I’m not usually asked by students when I do presentations. Some actual events from the teen years might make it into my stories, though I’m more likely to include isolated incidents that happened to others. That said, my own experiences do sometimes show up in my fiction, but in the form of emotional truths. Ways that I felt, struggles I had in understanding or in communicating my feelings, the elation or devastation I felt over some event.
The novel centres around Wilm’s need to speak out against social injustice. Do you think the young teens of today are as willing or motivated to do the same? Why or why not?
In North America, not many young people are facing the trauma and upheaval in society that Wilm faced, so it’s hard to draw comparisons. But here in Canada, Idle No More would be one example of young indigenous people stepping out to express their upset at the status quo. And there are other examples of young people fighting for things they believe in, such as unfair school rules, stopping bullying or drunk driving, and so on. Thankfully, in our society we can protest openly so teens don’t have to resort to the sneaky and illegal things Wilm did.
Ultimately, if young people feel as strongly as Wilm did, then they are just as likely to speak out. Teens have a very strong sense of justice, and when it’s tapped, they bring an energy to fore that leaves most adults in the dust. The biggest hurdle to overcome is that teens, like almost everyone, are so busy, so distracted, that getting them to pay attention to things that might be impacting them can be difficult. (But I think most of them are more aware of things than adults give them credit for.)
Learn more about Karen Bass at www.karenbass.ca