David Young was a student on the inaugural Crime Thriller MA at City University – winning the course prize in 2014 for his debut novel Stasi Child – and now writes full-time in his garden shed. He will be taking part in the Endeavour Press Crime Fiction Festival.
In writing my debut novel, Stasi Child, and the follow-up, Stasi Wolf (due out in February 2017) one thing I’ve had to wrestle with is how historically accurate I need to be.
I think it’s a particular difficulty for me in that the novels are set in the mid-1970s, so still in many people’s living memory, albeit in the now lost world of communist East Germany. While Stasi Child has rung true for many people, it’s fair to say there are a few for whom it’s a fiction too far. But the problem is that people’s memories of East Germany vary markedly depending on whether the system persecuted them, or treated them kindly.
What I’ve attempted to do is create a historical framework for the novels which I hope is believable and by and large as accurate as I can make it. But inside that framework, I do cheat slightly. For me, the story is paramount.
What’s surprising, is that sometimes readers will try to pull you up for things which they say are unbelievable, when they’re actually based on facts. I’ve an important example of that in Stasi Child: the attempted escape of teenagers from the East and – the key thing – what happened to them afterwards. Were they all welcomed in the West with open arms? Many people today assume they would be, yet sometimes the old maxim that truth is stranger than fiction is absolutely correct. (To say any more would be too much of a spoiler for those who haven’t read the novel).
But I think historical novelists should be granted some authorial license. My biggest artifice is perhaps my relationship between my People’s Police detectives – led by my main character, Karin Müller, the youngest and only female head of a murder squad in the GDR – and East Germany’s notorious secret police, the Stasi.
For many East Germans, the People’s Police and the Stasi were part of the same state apparatus, and equally hated. But to make my stories work in the way I want them to, I needed to create relationships that possibly didn’t always exist in real life, and I needed my police to have a sense that solving crimes – and their police work – was more important than simply acting as enforcers for the communist party.
If you talk to former East German detectives today – more than a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall – they will insist, as they did to me during my research, that the policing they did was no different to that carried out in the West. That their aim was to catch criminals and put them behind bars, and that their headquarters – Keibelstrasse near Alexanderplatz – was no different to, say, Scotland Yard. But opponents of the regime, those targeted by the Stasi or the People’s Police, see it as almost as hated a place as notorious Stasi prisons such as Hohenschönhausen or Bautzen.
In Stasi Wolf – set in the supposedly utopian socialist city of Halle-Neustadt – I’ve also had to cheat a little. I’ve moved a visit by Fidel Castro to tie in with my story (it actually happened a few years earlier), I’ve adjusted the date of a government guesthouse confiscation programme, I’ve borrowed a key feature of a murder which happened in the new town five or six years later. All these things, I believe, are ok. It is fiction, after all. But I am sure there are some who will say you shouldn’t tamper with real events in this way.
So do I have a duty – as a writer of historical crime fiction – to educate people? There are some who argue that historical fiction writers do, and therefore all they write must be factually accurate. I’m content if – through reading my stories – people take an interest in East Germany, and are encouraged enough to find out the real history for themselves. And, of course, that by the end of my novels they’ve had a satisfying read.