Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author CG FEWSTON about his writing and his latest novel, the second installment in the series of three interconnected novels and winner of BREW Book Excellence Award Winner & BREW Readers’ Choice Award Winner, A Time to Forget in East Berlin, a novel that’s vintage espionage, with a fine plot, consistent suspense, and a sympathetic hero. (Read the review here.)
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s been a member of the Hemingway Society, Americans for the Arts, PEN America, Club Med, & the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
Social Media Profiles & Links
You can also grab several blurbs & reviews from authors & magazines about the East Berlin novel here: https://cgfewston.me/a-time-to-forget-in-east-berlin/
Please use the below link for people to use to purchase the book at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Time-Forget-East-Berlin/dp/B09PMBJD4F
A TIME TO FORGET IN EAST BERLIN has recently won 2 awards:
BREW Book Excellence Award Winner
BREW Readers’ Choice Award Winner
How many hours a day do you write?
My writing life begins at nine in the morning and I write with a pen in a small soft-cover 9 x 14 cm Moleskine ruled notebook, which has 192 lined pages. I’ll take my Moleskine notebook and sit in a chair and work on one scene of a chapter for as long as it takes to get that scene finished, which can take anywhere between four or five hours. During that time, I am constantly reading and re-reading out loud my work and fixing and correcting and adding and subtracting as I go through that scene. That scene is finished when I can read it out loud without a break in the fictive dream. Sometimes, though, writing a scene can take multiple days. I will only sit down to type once I have finished multiple chapters. So, basically, my work routine is Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. without stopping and only minor breaks. If I work in the afternoon after lunch or at night, I consider these times as a bonus. These times in the afternoon and in the evening, I most usually use for doing reading fiction and non-fiction, doing research, marketing, answering emails, reflecting on my day’s work and thinking about tomorrow’s work, and countless other various tasks full-time writers must do. If I have ideas at night, I’ll make notes in the back of my Moleskine notebook and use these to kickstart the next morning’s work. In this way, I keep my head down and keep writing.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Energizes me. I can sit and write for five or six hours and to me it feels like only ten or twenty minutes. I easily get lost in my work because I love what I do.
After the writing’s finished, how do you judge the quality of your work?
I’m not exactly sure how to answer that question, but here’s how I do know if my work is ready enough to be finished and for me to move on to another longer project. After all the scenes and chapters have been typed (always constantly editing and rewriting during this process), and everything has been organized and structured and, for the most part, completed, I print out a hard copy of the manuscript, and do not read it for several weeks or even, perhaps, for several months. Once I feel I have forgotten my work, I sit down and open it up like any other novel and read it (out loud) with a pen in hand, marking and writing and adding and detracting from the words and pages as I go along. At the same time, I will be taking notes, in case there are more scenes to write. It might take me a whole week or two to read the novel this way, working every morning to stay fresh, and once I finish reading the whole of the manuscript, I will return to correct the mistakes and errors on the computer. The corrections might take another week or two. If there are more scenes to write, and sometimes there are, I will return to the Moleskine and get to work, writing and typing and adding to the manuscript. Once I finish with all this, I will print another hardcopy and repeat the process. I will continue to do these steps, correcting and printing and reading, until my pen fails to touch the page to do corrections. The only time my pen should touch the page is to make checkmarks on the side for the passages which move me as a reader, for the flow, for the enjoyable surprises, and for all the other vast story elements that I feel I have done smoothly and well and for any other reader to never notice what it is I have done. If I can sit and read the whole manuscript and only afterwards, I go back and check and see only checkmarks, then I know I have completed the novel to the absolute best of my abilities.
What’s more important: characters or plot?
Characters. Absolutely characters. Characters create and drive plot. Take two women and put them in the same room. The plot will unfold by itself, because people are naturally conflicted within themselves and with each other. Now, say one woman is a new wife and the other is her mother-in-law. Or a husband with his father-in-law. Or a child at the doctor’s office. If you find the characters, the conflict, the action, the story, the plot, all of it will come in due time. You might have to sit and be patient and watch your characters for weeks or months, but one day, when you least expect it, your characters are going to do or say something that moves the story forward in a sequence of events, because that’s all “plot” really is, the main events of a play, a novel, a movie, but after all those events are on the page, it’s the job of the writer to put those random events into an interrelated sequence that moves the reader to keep reading.
Does your family support your career as a writer?
Absolutely. My wife Axton and my son Thor support me as a novelist, and we consider it as a family business. Any success that comes from my writing is our family’s success.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Anywhere from 2 to 3 years.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Writing what the current market demands at any given time. People change. Cultures change. Fashions change. Times change. What readers read and want one year, change in the next. So, by the time a novel is finished after two years, the market will likely have already moved on. Try writing what inspires you, what moves you, what compels you. Write on a subject you are going to enjoy with mad passion over the next several years. Also, work without the internet. Certainly, you can use the internet to do research, but after the research is done, sit down and write what you know, what you have learned, and get it out on the page away from the furious noise of the internet and social media. Finally, travel as much as you possibly can. Even if it means getting out into your own neighborhood. Get out and watch people move and talk and how they interact with each other and with things, regardless if that is Bali or the park two blocks from your house. And one more thing: just write for the sheer joy of it.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
All of Marcel Proust, Joseph Campbell, Gabriel García Márquez, John Fowles, John Irving, Salman Rushdie, John Gardner, and Cormac McCarthy. Also, all of Haruki Murakami and Paulo Coelho.
One book, though, shook me and moved me early on as a young man and young writer when I read it in a literature class at Howard Payne University in 2000, and I recommend it to any writer, regardless of background. It’s Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel INVISIBLE MAN.
If you want to study the craft of writing, there’s no better teacher and mentor than John Gardner. Check out all of his work, especially ON MORAL FICTION (1978), THE ART OF FICTION (1983), and ON BECOMING A NOVELIST (1983).
Also, if you want to study the history and craft of storytelling and mythology, there’s no better teacher and mentor than Joseph Campbell. Start with THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES (1949) and also read all four volumes of THE MASKS OF GOD, which are PRIMITVE MYTHOLOGY (1959), ORIENTAL MYTHOLOGY (1962), OCCIDENTAL MYTHOLOGY (1964), and CREATIVE MYTHOLOGY (1968).
What authors do you like to read?
The authors I consistently look forward to reading each year are Haruki Murakami and Paulo Coelho. I can read Shakespeare’s work very easily and can read his plays all day. These are just a few authors, for me, that consistently bring a great deal of comfort and satisfaction to the act of reading.
With that said, I can read and re-read John Fowles for the years to come. John Fowles’ books THE COLLECTOR (1963), THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN (1969), and DANIEL MARTIN (1977) are classic masterpieces.
THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN is brilliant and is one of my all-time favorite books because it was written in the 1960s but feels like a true Victorian novel and because this novel actually has three different endings written into the story.
Would you rather read a book or watch television?
I have lived overseas since 2006, and became educated and experienced in the ways of the world. I’ve lived in South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and now mainland China, with having traveled all over Asia and Europe. So, it’s quite easy for me to answer this question, because it was also a strong motivation for leaving America to live abroad. Because I live in foreign countries, I don’t watch television because the shows are mostly in a foreign language, so this forced me in a way to read more than most people. In the early 2000s, I noticed while a young man living and working in Texas that I would come home exhausted and just naturally fall on the sofa and fall asleep in front of the television. So, by moving abroad, I knew that this American trait would naturally vanish from my life, and it did, and it was replaced with real adventures and real experiences.
What inspired the premise of your book A TIME TO FORGET IN EAST BERLIN?
Augustine once referred to memory as a “large and boundless chamber,” and we now know that the mind can be assaulted by forms of forgetfulness, whether it be dementia or structural amnesia. We must also not forget to mention about public memory discourse in forms of societal rituals that can include commemorations and historical self-reflections.
Historically, Remembering is often viewed as the hero while Forgetting becomes the villain in this ancient struggle for knowledge and truth.
Anamnesis (recollection) suggests that memory is an intellectual and spiritual truth while those who drank from the waters of Lethe (forgetfulness) were condemned to mundane lives that were unable to fulfil their highest spiritual and divine natures.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Cold War, East Germans went through a “memory crises,” where people felt so ashamed for what they did by betraying family, friends, and neighbors to the Stasi (East Germany’s Secret Police), that these people burned all their documents to hide their identities, and others committed suicide, because they were so overwhelmed by guilt that they could no longer live with such memories.
Tell us a little about how this story first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma or something else?
After the first book in the series A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN (2015), I knew the next book would take place in East Berlin & East Germany, and the last book in the trilogy would take place in Moscow and the former Soviet Union. That’s about it.
The story, though, first started with Nina. Like most fiction I write, it starts with a character standing in a strange room or in an unfamiliar place, and I must enter into that room and place as a silent observer, but most times they know I’m there watching, and we’ll have a discussion, and the character begins to tell me a story, their story, and I must follow them and watch them and listen to them over the next several months to get to know them, and in this way, I live with them and learn about them.
The action in this novel begins with John Lockwood, a little drunk, coming back to his East Berlin apartment, walking up the stairs, and finding Nina sitting on the staircase outside his front door.
When I first imagined Nina, though, she was standing by a second-story window in West Berlin, and she was looking out over the Berlin Wall into her native homeland of East Berlin and East Germany. And so, I asked her, “What are you looking at? What do you see? What are you thinking about?” And so, she told me her story, and I listened.
So, if you read my book, you’ll see the true beginning of the novel begins with Nina standing by a second-story window in West Berlin looking into East Berlin, and she’s thinking of the first time she met John one spring night in 1975, and their romance that followed.
Which character was most challenging to create? Why?
Herr Zehrfeld. He’s complicated, complex. Because he’s of such an old age, his backstory goes back to him as a soldier in World War II. He’s conflicted with what Germany did under Hitler in the past and with the state he currently finds East Germany in, and how his old Germany was broken asunder in two. In his old age, now mostly retired and fishing a river, he’s haunted by his own war memories, much like his American counterpart John Lockwood is haunted by his time during the Vietnam War (many specific events in the war for John are covered in the first book of the series).
Herr Zehrfeld is also a grandfather, so his two grandchildren represent the future of his family name and the future of both East and West Germany. So, in part, Herr Zehrfeld is dedicated to his politics and to his family, but deep inside him there’s a wound with how Hitler betrayed him and his country, and how the uncertainty of the present times brings a certain kind of discontent.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?
Without spoiling too much, my favorite is the last chapter and last scene which takes place in East Berlin’s Trӓnenpalast, a train station and border crossing point which was also nicknamed “the Palace of Tears.” This actual place still remains and is now a museum.
Which scene was most difficult to write? Why?
Towards the end of the book, one rainy afternoon, John Lockwood is invited to a wake where East Germans are holding a vigil for a man-husband-father who was recently killed for trying to escape to West Berlin.
This scene was most difficult to write because it was the most unexpected. I wrote a scene where John meets two Stasi agents by Berlin’s largest lake, the Müggelsee. But once he is left alone by the lake, a strange woman comes down to the edge of the lake and begins washing shirts, pants, and socks which belonged to her now-deceased husband. She came from nowhere, and, yet, somewhere.
It’s raining in the scene, so John goes over with his umbrella and helps the mourning woman. Her brother joins her and finds John there at the edge of the lake. Together, the three walk back to her house, and John is invited inside to join the wake.
Little did I know at that time, when the woman came down to the lake and John would be invited to attend her husband’s wake, that the following scenes would have a huge impact on the ending of my book.
What life experiences have shaped your writing most?
I’ve lived abroad since 2006. I’ve traveled and lived in foreign cities and foreign countries, many of which are Communist and Socialist. For extended periods, I’ve lived in South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and in mainland China. I’ve travelled all over Asia to Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia, Bali, Guam, Singapore, Japan, and many other countries and places. I’ve also traveled across Europe.
What’s next for you?
A sci-fi novel I began writing back in 2007, CONQUERGOOD & THE CENTER OF THE INTELLIGIBLE MYSTERY OF BEING is completed and the eBook comes out October 2022, and the print version comes out October 2023.
In 2183, Jerome Conquergood is at the lowest point of his life. He’s a homeless strayer, an outcast roaming the abandoned and crumbling skyscrapers of Old York City, post-apocalyptic.
Despite his hatred for the Korporation (referenced from the social system of Korporatilism – similar to Vollert’s German book called Korporation Der Berliner Buchhandler which was published January 1, 1898), Conquergood is compelled to save his mysterious twin brother Vincent by joining the Korporation, a mega-corporate and governmental entity in a world oppressed to peace. For the Korporation, the world is a well-crafted utopia.
Currently, I’m working on promoting my latest novel A TIME TO FORGET IN EAST BERLIN which has now become a BREW Book Excellence Award Winner and a BREW Readers’ Choice Award Winner.
I’m also writing my way through the end of my first trilogy with the book A TIME TO REMEMBER IN MOSCOW, which is really exciting and enjoyable for me.
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