Why I Used Real Life Inspirations for A Table In Berlin

4664101_1AContinuing the theme today of the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I want to talk about a very close friend of my brother’s who provided the inspiration for the character of Christian Bauer in the novel A Table In Berlin.

I write fiction. It’s not real. The idea is to entertain, to take the reader out of his or her actual life for a break. A Table In Berlin came about because a writer, Claire Elizabeth Terry, posted a photograph on Facebook of four young women at a restaurant, and gave the post the caption: Berlin 1989. It was literally from the banter that ensued on Facebook that I found, some hours later, that I had said I would write a novel, and by the following day I had the title. The entire story came about from looking briefly at the four faces in the photograph and imagining what might have been behind the expressions in the instant the photograph had been taken. From there I just went with the flow.

But being divided Berlin, it was inevitable that there had to be some intrigue and mystery and I knew immediately that I was going to give one of the women an East German boyfriend, and that there would be an attempt to escape.

My brother had a friend, a man exactly my age, named Holger Bismann. A hugely-popular and inspirational man, he worked at the sportswear giant Nike at the same time as my brother. He was from Leipzig and my brother liked to tell me that Holger was one of the last people to be jailed for trying to escape East Germany.

Sadly, Holger died in 2010, after a brutal battle with cancer. I didn’t know Holger personally, but I gave the character of Christian Bauer his physical characteristics. I didn’t want to attempt anything more because that would have been both unfair and unreasonable on Holger’s family and friends. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the novel is a work of fiction. However, it tickled me to know that if anyone reading my book reached the point at which Christian tells his friend Max how he intends to escape and thinks: do what? Come on! I know that someone in real life really did train and plan for an escape via trampoline!

Although I wasn’t writing one of those nerd-proof thrillers that reek of hundreds of hours of diligent research (rather than personal recollections) I did do plenty of reading here and there. What struck me – and this was essential in trying to understand the mind of Christian Bauer (as I could not, unfortunately, ask Holger himself) – is the speed of the political change when it happened. I accessed some declassified files and the Ambassador’s report to the Prime Minsiter Margaret Thatcher, sent as a review of 1988, specifically stated that there was no sense of any changes whatsoever in the political landscape of the DDR, despite all of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. So it seemed reasonable to me that a man would risk his life trying to escape so soon before the Wall suddenly came down.

Please read this interview with Holger, from when he was General Manager at outdoors clothing company Patagonia, for a horse’s mouth background to the inspiration behind A Table In Berlin’s Christian Bauer. (Opens in new window.)

The Berlin Wall and I share the same birth year. When I saw it, in the concrete flesh, in 1987, I would never have imagined that it would effectively be gone in two short years. But 1989 was full of surprises. Nelson Mandela walked free, setting in motion the collapse of another shocking anachronism of life that certainly I didn’t see coming. These two events passed me by slightly at the time. I was half way through a two year spell in another of the Canary Islands, curiously enough, and most of my evenings were taken up with performing shows. Also, and thank god because I hate it, there was none of the relentless rolling news that we have now.

I think it’s important for a writer to live some life before setting down to writing novels and the like. I know that all you need is your imagination, but I think it’s very important to have real emotional experiences built up over many years of being open and inquisitive. You can always write what you think your character feels as he sprints for his life, but you will choose better words and express yourself in a more interesting way if you did once literally have to run for your life. I think drawing inspiration (particular in the creation of characters) from real life – not simply recounting, one has to use the inspiration as a source – helps give your prose a sense of authenticity.

So, it was twenty five years ago today. I wonder what’s going to happen next year that we’ll all be sitting around celebrating in 2040?



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