Sunday 19 September 2010

I'm Virtually A Writer, But Definitely A Tourist

Firstly, a huge thank you to everyone who has donated books for the charity raffle. I truly appreciate it - you're all very kind. Still time to donate if you wish! The crime fiction community is a wonderful thing to be part of.

Secondly, I am really chuffed - I am now Writer In Virtual Residence at my lovely schools in the Kuspuk School District in Alaska. I already keep in touch with some of the teachers and students, but this will mean I can keep in more regular touch with all the schools. I'm planning to do podcasts (if I can work out what a podcast is, that is...) or videoblogs, set writing exercises, get the students to send me stories on which I can give feedback, perhaps get some of the older students to set up an online magazine to publish the stories, and I'm also going to read as many of their curriculum books as possible so that I can tie some of the writing exercises in with what they're reading. I'm really looking forward to getting started. I can't stop smiling about it. I love the students, and teachers, and the villages and I have had some very special times there. If anyone has any suggestions for me (given that I've never done this before, nor am I a teacher!) please let me know.

I must still be in Berlin mode (holiday photos to come in future posts, Dear Reader - I know that you will be champing at the bit. Don't worry, I have 895 of the little buggers) because this weekend's film viewing was two German films.

The first one was The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band) from 2009, and directed by Michael Haneke. It's set in a small town in Germany, just before the outbreak of World War I. A series of mysterious and cruel events take place, starting with the village doctor falling off his horse when the horse is brought up short by a wire strung across the track. The film is narrated many years later by the young schoolteacher at the time and focuses on people within the village who are defined by their status - the baron, the doctor, the steward, the pastor, the worker. We see their public faces and their private lives. It's difficult to say much about the plot without giving things away, but let's just say that some of the upstanding pillars of society don't necessarily practice what they preach. Disturbing, chilling enthralling, and beautifully shot in black-and-white.

The second film was The Lives of Others (Das Leben Der Anderen) from 2006, written and directed by Florian Henkel Von Donnersmarck. It's set in 1984 in East Berlin - a place where normal people are ground down by their daily life, where the secret police can come in and bug your whole house in double quick time, where no-one is going to tell you they've seen this happening, just in case something bad happens to them, and where you don't actually know whether your closest friend or relative is, actually, a Stasi informant. The film tells the story of the rather drab and unimaginative, staunch and idealistic Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler. He's loyal to the cause and loyal to the regime, and, when given the job of collecting evidence against playwright Georg Dreyman, he starts out with the same steely impassivity with which he interrogates suspects at Hohenschoenhausen prison. However, as he enters into the lives of Dreyman and his actress girlfriend - via the bugs which have been installed in every room in their flat, listening to hour upon hour of their lives from his secret hideaway in the building's attic space - he discovers things which threaten his idealism and may prove him to be not as soulless as he appears. Again, I won't say any more about the plot. It's an amazing film. Jealousy, envy, pettiness, fear, and quiet desperation. Wonderfully acted, powerful, fascinating, and it made me cry.

What made this film especially come alive was the fact that, a few days before, we had visited Hohenschoenhausen Prison - a place that not many people knew about at the time. What a good excuse for me to include a couple of gratuitous holiday snaps.

Hohenschoenhausen was a remand centre where people suspected of acts against the regime - whether that be trying to escape across the Berlin Wall, reading banned literature, publishing leaflets speaking out against injustice, or, it seemed, simply moaning about the hardships of daily life - were subjected to psychological torture and hour upon hour of interrogation until they confessed.

And, according to our guide, they always confessed. The prison has something like 102 detention cells and 120 interrogation cells - I think that says something about where their priorities lay! This is one of the interrogation cells we went in.

Prisoners were de-humanised by only being known by a number, by never being able to engage in conversation except when being interrogated, and by never seeing another prisoner. While watching the film, I could smell the interrogation cells - a distinctive mixture of cleaning fluid and lino. We smelled the same smell in a couple of other ex-official East Berlin buildings.

In the film there's also a Barkas van which is used to round up suspects. On the outside it says 'Fresh Fish'. We saw a similar van at the prison. Inside are 5 tiny cells, dark and cramped. They would pick people up, drive them round for a couple of hours, and then take them to Hohenschoenhausen. They would step out of the pitch black van to be greeted by a bright light shone in their faces, and the barking of the guards.

And, finally, an article in The Washington Post on The Hardy Boys. I had a very similar reaction when I read a Nancy Drew book a couple of years ago. When I was little, I wanted to be one of Enid Blyton's Famous Five and fight crime with the aid of only a basket of cucumber sandwiches and a bottle of ginger beer. I spent my spare time following mysterious strangers around the village where we lived - especially those with cockney accents and a couple of days' growth of stubble - until a complaint from the new local vicar put a stop to my sleuthing career. When I was about 12, we had an American neighbour who used to take me to the local American airbase every Saturday, and I would buy a new Nancy Drew book. Then I would take it home and devour it. So then I decided I wanted to be Nancy Drew - I coveted her cool friends, her dashing boyfriend, her understanding father and her lovely car. Sadly, after re-reading one recently I discovered that either Nancy or I had changed - she was a pompous prig, her friends were whiny and self absorbed, her father was uncaring and her boyfriend was a wet drip. I still liked the car though.

No Scottish crime fiction news today. Normal service will be resumed in the next couple of days, along with the threatened holiday post.


  1. I once tried to get my youngest daughter interested in Nancy Drew, but she took a phrase from P. G. Wodehouse to call Nancy a "turnip-brained fathead".

  2. Donna - So happy to hear your news about being a Writer in Residence! I just love the work you're doing at that school, and isn't it great to have the Internet, so you can connect with the school wherever you are.

  3. How sad to hear that about Nancy Drew. I too wanted to be her once upon a time and started out my copy-cat investigating career with The Case of the Missing Raincoat which I can't remember the details of now but know it involved tailing a grubby looking man through a local department store. Based on your experience I shan't revisit the books, I'll just stick with my dusty (and clearly faulty) memories :)

  4. Oh Donna! Gusskan, pilot, teacher! And much more. You have so much to share, with these wonderful students and teachers, you bring the world to them, in such a good way! I'm sure it will be a joy to interact with them in podcasts, whatever those are. :-)

    I must agree about Nancy Drew...maybe I put off reading her until I was too old, tried her in my 30's because my very tiny school had a very tiny library with none of these in it, and no bookstore anywhere and when I tried Nancy Drew, didn't like them, too silly and unbelievable etc.--basically your thoughts above. Glad that some can go back and still enjoy them. I've tried re-reading some of the mysteries that pulled me into this wonderful crime/mystery world and they are 'too light', 'not that well done', etc...but they got me here, so that's ok! :-)

    And of course after those photos in this post, can't wait for more! :-)

    Again, congrats on the Alaska teaching author post. You deserve it, and will be great! :-)


  5. Congratulations on becoming a Writer in Virtual Residence. You know, a lot of sites have Virtual Writers in Residence which has only just now struck me as odd. How does one become virtual? Does it involve going through some kind of de-atomizing machine and perhaps becoming a hologram?

    I loved the Lives of Others. The thing that blows me away is that it was based on fact and that this stuff happened in my lifetime, in Europe.

    Looking forward to seeing your holiday photos!

  6. Jerry - your daughter has excellent taste in quotes!

    Margot - thank you! And none of it would be possible without the internet.

    Bernadette - following people was fun. I would take it up again if it wasn't for those pesky stalking laws.

    Bobbie - thank you my dear! And exactly. I couldn't re-read Agatha Christie, but "they got me here" as you say.

    Helen - I decided that virtual residence was much more apt :o) I don't want to be de-atomised. And you may regret the holiday photos. There are squillions of them!

  7. Donna - I did send you an email before to say I'd be happy to donate a copy of each of my books. If you send me your address I'll pop then in the post to you.

  8. Hi Aly - many thanks indeed, e-mail sent!

  9. Great news about Alaska!

    I loved Nancy Drew. Kitty Drew to Swedes...

  10. Bookwitch - thanks! Why Kitty? Does Nancy mean something rude or something?

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