In celebration of STASI CHILD being published in paperback by Twenty7 Books today, I’m re-running my interview with author David Young. STASI CHILD is David’s debut novel and the winner of the PFD 2014 Crime Prize. Here’s what he told us when he popped along to CTG Towers to chat about the book, his writing process, and his route to publication …
Your debut, STASI CHILD, is out this month. Can you tell us a bit about it?
It’s a crime thriller – part historical crime, part police procedural, part thriller, and I guess a dash of Cold War politics to boot. What it’s not is a traditional Cold War spy thriller – although it’s set in the era of the Cold War. It tells two parallel stories: one in third person past through the eyes of a female detective in the state police, Oberleutnant Karin Müller, who’s trying to solve a gruesome murder but has to battle obstacles put in her way by the secret police, the Stasi. The other, in first person present, follows the life of a 15-year-old female inmate of a communist Jugendwerkhof – which loosely translates into ‘youth workhouse’ or reform school. The two stories eventually collide in a climax on the snowy slopes of northern Germany’s highest mountain, the Brocken, near the border with the west. I think fans of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 would enjoy it, and also those who read Anna Funder’s non-fiction account of the Stasi’s methods, Stasiland.
STASI CHILD is set in East Germany in 1975. What drew you to writing about this moment in history?
No-one had yet written a crime series set in East Germany – at least not in English as the original language. So I thought it filled a gap in the market, was something a bit different and – given the success of books like Child 44 and AD Miller’s Snowdrops – could prove popular. The idea originally came from reading Stasiland while on a self-booked (and at times chaotic) mini-tour of eastern Germany with my indiepop band about seven years ago. I was fascinated that you could still feel the ghost of the communist east even though the Berlin Wall had been torn down, at that time, twenty years earlier. Müller’s office is underneath Hackescher Markt S-bahn station – where we played our Berlin gig. So I wanted to choose a time when East Germany was perhaps at its most confident, and yet with enough years to fit a series in, if the first book sold well.
Given the modern historical setting, how did you go about researching the book?
A mixture of things, really. Watching films like The Lives of Others and Barbara, episodes of the original East German detective show, Polizeiruf 110, and the current German TV series set in the period, Weissensee – which is a great watch but inexplicably, and annoyingly, only has English subtitles on the second of its three series so far. I also read a lot of memoirs of inmates of Jugendwerkhöfe, that sort of thing, and true crime books by former GDR detectives. I don’t speak German – so it was a case of tearing out pages, feeding them into an OCR programme via a scanner, and then putting it all through Google Translate! What came out was barely intelligible, but you could pick out the facts even if the actual storytelling was mangled beyond repair. I also had great fun visiting all my locations, and interviewing former East German detectives (with the help of translators). So I loved the research, and I’m itching to get back out to Germany again. I also keep telling myself I must learn German!
You recently completed the City University MA in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction), how do you think this helped you on your journey to publication?
I think it was the key to it, really. We had some great tutors who were all published crime writers: Claire MacGowan, Laura Wilson and Roger Morris were mine – although William Ryan, who writes in a similar genre to me, has now joined. Roger introduced me to Peter May’s Lewis trilogy, and the structure of Stasi Child – with its twin narrative – is quite similar to May’s The Lewis Man. Claire nurtured the original idea, Laura worked on the nuts and bolts as my main novel tutor, and then both of them read and fed back on the full draft. The result was that Stasi Child won the course prize sponsored by the literary agents, PFD, and by the shortlisting stage a young PFD agent, Adam Gauntlett, had already declared his hand in wanting to represent me.
So, what’s it like having your debut novel published? What’s your best moment so far?
Because my publishers Twenty7 (part of the Bonnier group) are e-book first, the biggest thrill was getting a physical copy of the proof. It’s got a slightly different cover, very minimalist, which I love. I’ve only got one copy, though, and the publishers have run out now so I guard it with my life. And then in the last few days [after the eBook publication], Stasi Child became the fourth bestselling Kindle book in the UK, and the number one bestseller in Historical Fiction – for ebooks and paperbacks. It’s fallen back since, but that was a champagne moment, figuratively sitting on top of luminaries such as Robert Harris, Hilary Mantel …well, everyone who’s anyone in historical fiction. Ha! It’ll probably never happen to me again. We made sure we kept the screenshots of the charts!
STASI CHILD is the first in the Karin Müller crime series, can you tell us anything about the next book?
Yes Karin returns, but this time in the model East German new town of Halle-Neustadt, where underneath the ideal communist city gloss, dark things are happening a few months after the closure of the Stasi Child case. The Stasi are heavily involved again, and we also learn more about Karin’s past – with several surprises in store for her. It follows the same twin narrative format, but the second narration this time is darker, more disturbed, and unreliable. In fact the whole thing is darker and more disturbed, which is slightly worrying as most people seem to think Stasi Child’s about as dark as you can get.
And, finally, what does the rest of the year have in store for you?
Initially, I’ll be concentrating on promoting the Stasi Child. Then it will be a combination of reshaping book two with my editor at Bonnier, and researching book three with a trip to Germany. Oh, and I might finally get around to starting to learn German … but no promises!
You can find out more about David by checking out his website at www.stasichild.com and follow him on Twitter @djy_writer
Stasi Child is a great read, perfect for fans of historical crime fiction. Here’s the blurb: “East Berlin, 1975: Questions are dangerous. Answers can kill. When murder squad head Oberleutnant Karin Müller is called to investigate a teenage girl’s body found riddled with bullets at the foot of the Berlin Wall, she imagines she’s seen it all before. But when she arrives she realises this is a death like no other: it seems the girl was trying to escape – but from the West.
Müller is a member of the People’s Police, but in East Germany her power only stretches so far. The Stasi want her to discover the identity of the girl, but assure her the case is otherwise closed – and strongly discourage her asking questions. The evidence doesn’t add up, and it soon becomes clear that the crime scene has been staged, the girl’s features mutilated. But this is not a regime that tolerates a curious mind, and Müller doesn’t realise that the trail she’s following will lead her dangerously close to home.
The previous summer, on Rügen Island off the Baltic Coast, two desperate teenage girls conspire to escape the physical and sexual abuse of the youth workhouse they call home. Forced to assemble furniture packs for the West, the girls live out a monotonous, painful and hopeless life. Stowing away in the very furniture they are forced to make, the girls arrived in Hamburg. But their celebrations are short-lived as they discover there is a price on freedom in the DDR…”
STASI CHILD is out now. To buy a copy via Amazon click here