What inspired Phyllis Edgerly Ring to write about the friendship of two lonely women in Nazi Germany? What would she say to schools that are now teaching that the Holocaust was just a political scheme and never really happened? What is her favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
When you first learned about Hitler and Eva Braun, did you think of either of them as having friends?
I don’t think that Hitler really had the capacity for friendship. It requires a sort of mutuality of which he just wasn’t capable. But Eva Braun, characterized by many who knew her as warm, thoughtful, and full of love for life, most surely was. Regardless of how people make assumptions about her based on her link with Hitler, history shows that she was a genuinely caring friend to those who, in addition to being morally respectable people, were very appreciative for her friendship. As with the situation in the novel’s story, some of them did not know of her connection with Hitler until after her death.
What inspired you to write about the friendship of two lonely women in Nazi Germany? Do you know of someone who made a discovery similar to what Anna discovered?
I chose this focus, in part, because friendships were what helped many everyday Germans survive the war. Such friendships were also what helped protect and save those who were most vulnerable to persecution by the Nazis. Also, I was taken by the paradox that two people could know and care about – value – each other yet never know about complexities in each of their lives that could seem to put them on different “sides.” As for what Anna discovers about Peggy (her mother), my own war bride mother had many surprising secrets in her background, revealed only after she died. Some of them, much like Peggy’s friendship with Eva Braun, were things she might not, in her own history, have felt safe to share.
Some schools are now teaching that the Holocaust never happened, that it was just a political scheme. What would you say to these schools?
The evidence that it happened is overwhelming. I’ve certainly met too many survivors to ever doubt it. If those who deny it took place had the courage to meet the survivors and hear their stories, they would not possibly be able to deny that it happened. An excellent recent film that addresses how this topic surfaced post-war in Germany in the 1950s is Labyrinth of Lies. Another important point that was brought up to me by one German historian is that, initially, the persecution of the Jewish people in Europe was directed at seizing their money and assets so that National Socialism would have the material means to carry out its agenda. If we study the chain of events that led to the Holocaust, it’s possible to see abusive patterns of oppression and repression that have been used elsewhere since the war, as well.
What is your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
I love revisiting a time period and immersing myself deeply within it. An added plus is looking at it with the hindsight we have now. The tricky balance in writing the story, of course, is to be able to stay in the perspective of those times, even when you do have that hindsight. Realizing that many events were something people of that time didn’t know about or couldn’t see coming shows how much trying to judge them from the perspective we have today is unrealistic and even unjust. One very important reason for us to study history—and reflect on what patterns we can find there—is that without that reflective understanding, we will imitatively repeat it.
How much research, if any, did you have to do for this book?
Lots of reading—120+ books—about that time period in Germany and about Eva Braun’s life. I watched the many hours of films she made and spent many more hours reviewing her hundreds of photographs.
Then I made two trips to the U.S. National Archives to see photo albums of hers that were confiscated by the Allies after the war. I pored over those three-dozen albums, most arranged haphazardly with little attention to chronological order, watching for patterns and connections that formed a larger picture, one that conveyed the emotional tone of the circumstances.
I also spent time in various locations in Germany that are a part of the story and often spent spans of time there working on the book. A major turning point in the novel’s development occurred when I discovered, while researching the Trials at Nuremberg, that an action of Eva Braun’s in the last week of her life saved the lives of about 35,000 Allied prisoners of war. Two members of my mother’s family were among them.
One revelation I encountered in my research was that much of what had been written about Eva Braun was often incomplete, frequently inaccurate, and sometimes, the details of an entirely different person’s life. Yet these things have been widely accepted as truth. This made me wonder: how much of the truth do we miss because we approach finding it with ingrained, inherited — often blindly imitative — assumptions? In other words, how much do our biases trip us up before we even get started?
This led me to new levels in the unfolding story, spurred by the idea that the reality of situations is always deeper and more complex than things may appear on the surface. And also, the power of real relationships, no matter the circumstances around them, can have beneficial effects in many lives, even generations later.
Obviously Eva Braun and Hitler really existed, but how many of the other characters were taken from history?
The two individuals to whom the book is dedicated, and who are each referenced in the story, were under-recognized heroes in their time. Poet/artist Erich Mühsam and Jesuit priest Father Alfred Delp each resisted what the Nazis were doing. They took enormous risks to help others who were being persecuted, and ultimately paid with their lives—Mühsam in a concentration camp in 1934 and Delp by execution by the Nazis close to the end of the war. The stories of both men came to me quite serendipitously as the novel was unfolding. I felt it was as though those stores wanted to surface, to be known.
There was one character that I couldn’t help but hate. What about you? Did you loathe the actions of any of your characters?
Without a doubt, that must be Lowell, Anna’s husband. He is narcissism incarnate, a flaming, flagrant case of self-will run riot.
How long did it take you to decide on a title for your book? Were there many other possible titles you had picked out?
My original working title was The Ordinary Girl, as people often said of Eva Braun, “Why did Hitler choose her, such an ordinary girl?” The Munich Girl suggested itself as a title in an unexpected flash one day very close to publication. More than anything else, Eva Braun identified as a girl from Munich. This was even among the very last things she said before she took her own life alongside Hitler. The two other women characters in the book also have a strong Munich connection – plus, even the name Munich anchors the book’s story in the atmosphere of Germany within most readers’ minds.
How long did it take you to complete The Munich Girl?
The time frame from the genesis of the ideas and questions that launched it through to actual publication was about seven years. The first one or two immersed me mainly in research. The writing and revision took place over about four years.
I continue to learn as I hear responses from readers, which I love to do. I currently am having a great time visiting via video with book clubs and groups. I welcome reader response at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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