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Author Interview: Malve S. Burns

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Carolyn Haley is talking with Malve S. Burns, author of Stone Mother.

FQ: The scope and duration of the war allows for infinite stories. Why did you choose to tell this particular one?

BURNS: Marie’s story takes place after WWII has ended. She was born during the war and was still a baby when it ended. She is five years old when the story begins in 1949. People around her keep talking about the war and the suffering they endured, but no one speaks of the atrocities the Nazis committed. That really struck me when I was old enough to think about it: that loaded silence which I felt acutely as a child. Further, while there are oodles of books about Hitler, the Nazis and WWII, there are very few books on the experience of the generation of Germans who inherited this Nazi legacy.

FQ: I think it was an interesting choice to write the story in the first-person. What was the thought process behind writing the novel this way? So readers could connect with Marie or ? Also, given some of the awful things Marie experiences, was it emotionally draining at times? Did you have to step away from the story on occasion?

BURNS: Yes, I chose the first-person narration because of its power of immediacy, i.e. to draw the readers in and let them see the world through Marie’s eyes.

Yes, some of Marie’s experiences that reflect my own were very difficult to write, above all the chapter where Marie and her classmates learn about the Nazi concentration camps, murder, and torture. Neither Marie nor this writer can free herself from that horror that surpasses all imagination because of its inhumanity and massive scope. Then add to that the irrefutable knowledge that these acts were not committed by ruthless hordes from the Far Eastern steppes but by our own people: Germans had committed these acts. That was another terrible blow for Marie and my entire generation.

FQ: I see from your biography that you grew up in a thousand-year-old castle in Germany, so I have to assume your childhood home is the basis for Marie’s home. Am I correct? Would you tell us a bit about the “real” castle?

BURNS: Allow me to qualify your statement: Yes, I did live within the walls of a thousand-year-old castle, but only for a few years. The castle had a tremendous impact on me, both emotionally, intellectually, and even spiritually through its manuscripts and wonderful works of art, the sense of history it exhaled and more importantly, by providing shelter from an erratic mother. For Marie, it is the first home she can remember. She imbues the castle with life. The castle is indeed a major character of the novel. I hope that it is also a major character in the minds of Stone Mother’s readers.

For the first 30 years of my life, I dreamed of “buying the castle someday,” perhaps even marry a millionaire so that I could do so (shame on me). By the way, Michael Jackson did try to buy the castle as the locals told me during one of my return visits. But the Duke would not sell.

Finally, I gave up on my childhood dream and focused my attention on a nice little home in the suburbs. However, I kept visiting the castle many times over the years, the last time just before the pandemic.

FQ: For you personally, what stays with you most about growing up in post-war Germany?

BURNS: My people were somber. Downcast eyes, drab clothing, under grey skies—literally and metaphorically. Ruin after ruin in larger cities. Peoples’ skin color, the few cars on the road, even the rivers and entire landscapes often looked grey to me. By contrast, when I first met Americans, I was amazed by their fresh coloring, bright clothes, and their loud, cheery voices. Americans looked you in the eye and even smiled at children.

FQ: How much of Stone Mother is drawn from your own experiences growing up, or from things you might have witnessed?

BURNS: Overall, Marie’s story is based on life, but a life re-created and fictionalized. It was fed by memory, by listening to the radio, by my friends’ and classmates’ stories, and by reading as much contemporary i.e. end of war and post-war literature as I could. While the post-war literature featured broken families—like Marie’s—and reflected the disillusionment, shame, and guilt of grown-ups, which Marie senses but cannot trace, it did not really focus on the younger generation wedged between a defeated, reviled nation and the resurgent “Wirtschafts-Wunderland,” the Germany of the economic miracle. I wanted to show what Germany felt like before the economic miracle.

FQ: While I’m guessing that parts of your novel were drawn from your own lived experiences, it still must have required extensive research. Would you give our readers an idea of what such research entails, for instance: How long did it take to gain enough material to write the story? What kinds of records did you need? How did you acquire them?

BURNS: Researching the castle was easy. There were records on site and basic information was created for the tourist industry (I became one of the tourists that visited the castle over the years and was at first outraged that I had to pay money to enter the place where I had run free as a child).

Though my novel begins after WWII and the end of Hitler’s Third Reich, I did read standard works such as Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer’s personal diaries, and William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to try to understand the times before my cohort and I were born. And I read many of the writers who had suffered the most from the Nazis: Eli Wiesel, Primo Levi, Anne Frank, and Arnost Lustig (my teacher-friend Arnost Lustig was a teenager when first imprisoned in Terezin, later in other camps, including Auschwitz until he was finally liberated by the Russians). I was also inspired by Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us. These deeply moving, beautifully written books focus on Nazi Germany and the war but not on the generation that inherited the fruits of that war. Still, in their own way, they motivated me to move forward with my own story.

FQ: Making the transition to the United States when you arrived for graduate studies, it must have been quite a change for you. In line with my previous question, what struck you the most about the US when you first arrived?

BURNS: People’s friendliness and helpful spirit. Towns partitioned into white (usually larger and more affluent) and black sections. Policemen, even traffic cops, with guns. Telephone poles and hanging wires (electric wires were buried underground in Germany) that made places look sloppy and seemed at odds with a technology-focused society. The many churches of different denominations, even in small towns. At the time I left Germany the vast majority of citizens were either “Protestant” or “Catholic.” There were no sub-groups and, sadly, hardly any Jewish temples, at least not publicly identified. In America, I learned about Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, about Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches, about Jewish Synagogues, United Churches of Christ, and more, including Mormon temples. It looked to me as if Germany’s and much of Western Europe’s Christianity had unfolded like a fan in America, rather than being manifested in two opposing sides--Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other. Sadly, the two fought each other to the death in Europe for centuries, most famously and devastatingly during the Thirty-Year-War from 1618 to 1648.

FQ: The work for this book was surely daunting. What do you do when not writing to relax your mind and refresh your spirit?

BURNS: Go for walks through my leafy neighborhood, through parks and woods (in the past, accompanied by a dog, but my current apartment complex does not allow dogs); meet with friends; read; spend time with family members (none living in DC); travel; listen to music; go to museums and to the theatre; read.

FQ: You have also had several short stories published - is there a big difference for you, as an author, to write short stories versus an in-depth historical novel?

BURNS: Yes, there is a difference. Generally speaking, short stories condense the world and often show a particular slice of it. Novels develop the world and their characters more slowly and fully; they create a world. Using weather as a point of reference: short stories are a lightning strike or a down-pour, a spectacular sunrise, or a night of softly falling snow. Novels are all of the above or aspire to be.

FQ: Do you plan to write another novel? Or perhaps another short story? If you’re currently working on something, would you give our readers a sneak peek?

BURNS: Yes, I do. I have quite a few chunks of my next novel squirreled away in boxes and individual files. It is tentatively called…no, I better not tell or someone might snatch that catchy title away. The novel takes place on and around an American college campus during the turbulent seventies, experienced through the eyes of a newcomer to America.

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