All the Beautiful Liars
Kia ora, Sylvia, and welcome to the blog. Congratulations on the publication of your novel All the Beautiful Liars, published by EyeBooks.
Eye Books are a non-fiction publisher. They describe your book as: “Inspired by [your] own life story,” and a “richly imaginative debut novel”.
In your blog post about your book, you call it a fictional memoir.
Fictional memoirs have caused controversy from their conception; Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel comprised of the ‘found’ letters of a house maid and provoked the satirical response Shamela. In the 1990s, the Australian author Helen Dale, publishing as Helen Demidenko, came under fire for her “literary deception” The Hand that Signed the Paper, when she claimed she was the daughter of ethnic Ukranians, writing from the point of view of a Ukranian peasant sympathetic to those who fought for Germany in WWII. Of course, the letters in Richardson’s novel were entirely fabricated, and Dale/Demidenko had English parents.
Dealing as your novel does with the Nazis, how do you delineate between the fictional and non-fictional aspects of your book? Why not write a ‘real’ memoir?
So good to be back in New Zealand, Rachel, even if only virtually this time. And thank you for such perceptive questions. Eye Books do publish non-fiction, but Lightning Books is the fiction imprint, so I´m in the right stable, although in a new imprint called Lightning Bolts.
I thought you might mention Demidenko, but I´m glad you ask why not a ‘real’ memoir? I´m from a generation where secrets stayed in the family, if they even got that far. I was born in Vienna, as was my father, and my mother was from the eastern part of Germany, which after WW2 belonged to the GDR for 40 years. We emigrated to Australia in the early 50s. I only know what I experienced and even then, what are memories, and are they really mine? How do they change over the years as we start to notice, wonder, explore?
No, I don´t trust memoir. I don´t trust autobiographical writings. How am I to know if accounts have been embellished or embargoed? I believe in the ‘truth’ in the lies of fiction.
Oh, and my novel doesn’t deal with nazis—I prefer to lower-case them—it deals with silences and lies. It deals with ordinary people and how they find ways to come to terms with their decisions, or the impossibility of such. We see it today all around us. People look away. Some because too much is at stake for their survival and that of their loved ones, some because they’ve given up, feel they can’t make a difference, and others who are swayed, who believe that the bully will win in the end. We must all see to it that s/he doesn´t.
Not only does your novel cover Nazi Germany, the family of your protagonist Katrina Klain were “involved with the Stasi in post-war East Germany”. Some writers might have felt one of those periods to be difficult material to address; how difficult did you find writing about these two very dark periods in Germany’s history?
No, my novel does not “cover” nazi Germany. It explores the behaviour of persons caught up with actors in that period of history, due to the places where they were born. Ordinary people living in two very dark periods, I agree, of Germany´s history. But we do not hear their stories. I grew up on a diet of “Hogan´s Heroes” when tv first came to our Sydney house. The victor gets to write history and the jokes, and the “lives of others” are often forgotten. So, I was not writing about periods, I was writing about, trying to understand ordinary people, often too young and too naïve, like myself in another life, to be relegated to boxes with labels like “nazi” and “stasi”. I think here of The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert.
I’m thinking now about one of your short stories, The Burka, from your collection of short stories Mercury Blobs, another difficult topic, and I want to ask you what draws you to a subject; what’s the jumping off point for you?
Ah, The Burka. That Viennese café is not there anymore. And I suspect the burka was really a niqab, but how come we can´t see the other having the same preoccupations we might? Losing hair due to cancer, but recovering, and making art out of teabags? Still laughing.
Like me, you’re not going to win Granta’s Best Novelist Under 40 award, but being over forty must have been of benefit to you writing your book – can you speak a little about what it’s like to have your debut published now, and how you think you might have responded if you’d been published earlier on?
I started writing fiction in my early forties. I think I was looking for my own words. My first draft secured me a wonderful agent to whom I now dedicate my novel. I was very lucky to have had someone who nurtured and supported me for many years. She let me do my own thing – play with words, try things out – these were early days on the internet, pre-web days. There was so much to learn. It was far too early for publication. I needed guidance. I still do. There´s a hunger for learning when you sense time might be running out. I got my PhD in Creative Writing at 60, and although I don´t think you need a PhD to write fiction, the course stretched me in many ways as I had enormous literary and philosophical gaps to fill. It wasn´t an end, but a beginning. Anyway, I didn´t even want to write as a younger person, the world was my oyster and I was slurping it all up, the good with the bad. I could never have processed all that as a younger writer, and I needed to understand the dirty underbelly of power, which I only was able to do in part thanks to an exciting and stimulating non-writing career.
I can’t wait to read your novel, Sylvia. Congratulations again on your publication. What can we expect next from you?
Thanks, so much, Rachel. Well, I do believe that even breathing is political and so there will always be elements of that in what I do. I´m working on a tongue-in-cheek cozy crime novel that I want to write in German as it deals with Austrian politics, and what Anglo-speak person would understand that, or even care to? And there´s Ambergris, the novel I did for my PhD for which Debi Alper has given me feedback, and enough time has elapsed now for a revision. There´s also an old travel romance with recipes to revise, and I´m keeping fingers crossed for a novella in flash currently out there. And stories, always stories.
Thank you so much for coming on the blog to answer my questions, where’s the next stop on the tour?
The next stop is at http://beinganne.com where there´ll be a Q/A and I hope the questions won´t kill me, even if they don´t make me strong?
All the Beautiful Liars
How true are the family histories that tell us who we are and where we come from? Who knows how much all the beautiful liars have embargoed or embellished the truth?
During a long flight from Europe to Sydney to bury her mother, Australian expat Katrina Klain reviews the fading narrative of her family and her long quest to understand her true origins. This has already taken her to Vienna, where she met her Uncle Harald who embezzled the Austrian government out of millions, as well as Carl Sokorny, the godson of one of Hitler's most notorious generals, and then on to Geneva and Berlin. Not only were her family caught up with the Nazis, they also turn out to have been involved with the Stasi in post-war East Germany.
It's a lot to come to terms with, but there are more revelations in store. After the funeral, she finds letters that reveal a dramatic twist which means her own identity must take a radical shift. Will these discoveries enable her to complete the puzzle of her family’s past?
Inspired by her own life story, Sylvia Petter’s enthralling fictional memoir set between the new world and the old is a powerful tale about making peace with the past and finding closure for the future.
Author Bio –
Sylvia Petter was born in Vienna but grew up in Australia, which makes her Austr(al)ian.
She started writing fiction in 1993 and has published three story collections, The Past Present, Back Burning and Mercury Blobs. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of New South Wales.
After living for 25 years in Switzerland, where she was a founding member of the Geneva Writers’ Group, she now lives in Vienna once more.