Today we’re delighted to welcome author Sarah Pleydell to our blog. We’ll be discussing her beautifully written novel, Cologne, described as “wise and subtle…..as provocative as it is riveting.” Sarah has graciously shared a lot of information, so let’s get started:
Her Mentor Center: This is a work of fiction, but there are elements of autobiography/yourself in the story, correct?
Sarah: I started writing this novel while I was finishing my MFA thesis. I was ready to write a second book and was learning firsthand the task of writing a fully realized novel. I did a quick brainstorm and decided on the main themes and characters, perfecting the raw material that is based on my memories from my childhood. I have lived in America for 30 years, but spent my early childhood in Britain. The fact that I spent only a limited time there early in my life cemented my experience and made my memories all the more vivid. I lived in London during the time period the book is set in, and came to the US when I was 26. So I really understand that feeling of being the outsider, a migrant. I have a bicultural identity – when I go to England I feel like an American, when I’m here I feel like a Brit.
I have many very distinct images of my childhood that I put in the novel, but it is not an autobiographical story. It was such a joy to me to remember everything, as the images and places came to me. I did used to go to the gardens Café they go to, with the beautiful cakes and the glass cases. Also, the images from the beginning of two sisters playing WWII games in their bedroom came from experiences I had as a child with my brother and sister. From those kinds of isolated images and situations came these characters, but the characters are not my sister and I. However, I did build a wall down the middle of the bedroom and made her climb over the wardrobe because she wasn’t allowed on my side of the room. I did do that. I was the older sister, so I do identify with the Caroline – when you create a fictional character, you still often find lots of elements of your own self and your experiences. I have some experience acting, and it is much the same, when you must become a character and identify as strongly with the character as you can – then at some point you break off one way and the character breaks off in another.
Her Mentor Center: The setting is London, but the title is Cologne; what particular interest does Cologne hold for you?
Sarah: The idea to place Renate’s home in Cologne was not contrived. I write in the Library of Congress and I just open myself – true symbols come to you, and then you understand them later. The idea of Cologne came to me, and then later I realized the perfection of the double entendre of the name; the smell of the burning city that sort of lingers as a strange perfume, permeating everything and impacting everybody. That war generation’s traumas that come through and attack and violate the girls – the unresolved traumas of the parents that then violate the children – come down like cologne.
It was an interesting time. The British had won the war so everything was supposed to be hunky dory; it was supposed to be a triumphant time. Yet, they didn’t talk about it very much, and rather suppressed their memories of the war. They had not dealt with the trauma of the time, and their children suffered for it. In this family, for example, the mother is so suppressed she’s almost completely absent, while the children run wild. Memories of war linger for a very long time, like cologne, sort of an exotic haze of memory. It was supposedly Britain’s finest hour – we could have surrendered, but we refused to – however, we could not feel exhilarated by our “win.” Thousands of people were killed night after night after night – we sacrificed thousands of people, because we did not surrender. There were other fallouts as well, that not many people knew until later – such as the fact that there were a lot of Nazi sympathizers in Britain. In the story, we see that in Jack a bit, whereas Helen merely understands that for the Germans it is a lot more complicated than just “bad” and good.”
Her Mentor Center: The story presents a unique opportunity to view post-WWII events from the German perspective (e.g. Renate’s thought of “If we’re the normal ones, why are we the ones who lost the war?”). What would you like for the reader to understand about this perspective?
Sarah: Renate is very defiant, and you can see that she finds these people more damaged and strange than she is, but she’s also forced to confront the past in a way she does not want to. Helen keeps bringing it up, and she wants to move forward into the future – she wanted to go to America. And in the end, she goes home instead. Her relationship play with Jack was like playing with a more masculine, assertive part of herself that she usually keeps buried. She plays with wearing Helen’s clothes, the gown that her brother gave to Helen, but she puts it all away to return home – because it all goes so wrong. She plays with fire and gets burned. And by the end she’s got things straight, but what did she have to give up? Those parts of her she played with, and her dream of going to America.
Her Mentor Center: Another dominant issue is that of sisterly competition and differences – between three different sets of sisters! How is this related to your own experience?
Sarah: As I see it, sisters divide up characteristics – one usually falls into one category and the other naturally take the other. Maggie is kind of the wild, inarticulate but creative one, while Caro is very verbal. However, they do a bit of a switch throughout the book. At the end, Maggie has become the dominant and practical one, and she’s no longer the creative one. Caro is attempting to recapture her power by writing the book – as we discover at the end – but she loses her power and falls apart throughout the story. She’s the one who is more visibly destroyed. Maggie allies with the mother, and therefore avoids the kind of trauma Caro endures – her abuse is more overt and sustained throughout, and she is able to grow and deal with it.
This tradeoff of characteristics is the typical theme with sisters. Helen was wild during the war, while Eva was timid and afraid. We hear the stories of Helen making Eva jump in fountains and picking on Americans, yet now Helen is less expressive, fragile and brittle and haunted. We still see her creativity with her reading and piano playing, but now Eva is the eccentric wild one with wild picnics and poems and songs, seeming very extravagant. I really wanted to capture Helen’s more romantic nature in Germany, which is surprising to the girls because they have always known their mother as the quiet, practice woman she is now.
Sisters not only divide up characteristics between themselves, but these qualities are sort of mobile, and move between them at different times. When Maggie and Caro are up in the hothouse, they are much more equal, they are each whole unto themselves – but this only lasts a moment. It is as if they are up in the sky, and that is only place where this can happen. As they come down to the ground they start attacking each other again.
Her Mentor Center: The theme of childhood sexual abuse is clear, but never explicitly alluded to. What was the goal for the reader’s takeaway from this?
Sarah: A child cannot really configure sexual abuse, but rather remembers it in strange sensory details and disconnection. They cannot really contain the betrayal, it is just too big. Many children remember it as being a few very odd horrific associative images – you just remember the PTSD images that never leave you alone. I wanted to encapsulate the child’s experience, sensation-wise. What happens between Renate and Jack is much more specific and erotic. But with Caro we really feel the sense of the corrupted world, increasingly menacing and claustrophobic. There was clearly something emotionally incestuous with her father from the beginning, and what goes with that – a damaged, corrupt world intruding more and more – is physically embodied by the fact that she’s locked in the house, and feels as though the world is closing in on her.
Her Mentor Center: You have a very distinct writing style. Were you trained to write this way? Or does your brain work in lyrical fashion?
Sarah: When I was completing my MFA, I was encouraged to write in my own voice and style. I dedicate the book to my teachers, as they have all encouraged me to find my own voice – I was lucky: I wasn’t told how to write, I was given space to discover how to write.
Her Mentor Center: Who are you favorite authors? Whose writing do you most seek to emulate?
Sarah: I had a very strong education and background in English literature. Toni Morrison and Cynthia Ozick were some of my favorites, with their very strong lyrical and expressive voice. I loved them, and they certainly had a very strong influence on me. I really relish language and playing with language. Story and plot has always been the thing that has been hardest for me – language and character development come easier.
Her Mentor Center: Now readers you have a chance to ask Sarah some of your own questions. Are you an aspiring writer, wanting tips about how to take the first steps? Use the comment section below to ask Sarah about the writing process, her experiences, or more about the book itself.