If you’re interested in historical fiction and in the Nazi era then this new book Fragments of a Woman, may be for you.
I recently had the chance to chat with author and academic Dr Emma Venables about her debut novel, the inspiration for it, and the PhD that’s behind it. Ahead of its publication this June, here’s what you need to know.
Fragments of a Woman follows five different women during the Nazi era. There’s Lore, an SS wife and Nazi perpetrator, Ingrid, her mother and a housewife who, however, doesn’t fit the mould, Liesel, a Bund Deutscher Madel employee who hides her homosexuality by marrying a gay man, Greta who joins the anti-Nazi resistance and Gisela, a prostitute who is deported to a concentration camp. The novel threads these women’s narratives together, exploring themes of perpetration, of rape at the end of the war, of sexuality and ideology, and mental health. Above all it breaks down stereotypical representations of women in the Nazi era. In talking about the novel, I asked Emma what inspired her to write about this topic.
Emma: The novel has been about ten years in the making. It stemmed from my creative writing PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. My thesis looked at literary representations of women in Nazi Germany. What I discovered is that they are very stereotyped and cliched, characters with no depth. I was frustrated at the representations in English of women in World War Two. I wanted to challenge that by looking at a cross-section of society in my realist novel.
Hilary: You’ve said Fragments of a Woman has its basis in your PhD. Can you expand on your research process and how it led to this novel?
Emma: Sure. My research was practice-based almost three degrees in one, with creative writing, English literature and historical strands to it. For this novel I drew on a lot of secondary sources rather than archival ones; I know some German but stopped at ‘A’ Level. I went on trips to Berlin – visiting memorials to learn more and I also visited the Ravensbrück concentration camp memorial site one cold, grey November day. I also read a lot of existing fiction set in the period, asking myself how they aligned with my values as a writer, situating myself, and my voice, with what’s already out there. Those values included wanting to challenge stereotypes whilst drawing on historical research so as to lend my work an authenticity, and to avoid creating new cliches. Part of this process involved writing a journal on my practice, reflecting on what I was writing, my aims for the novel, as well as the experience of writing about women in Nazi Germany, yet without being able to speak much German – a fact I’m particularly conscious of, and know has closed off avenues for me. At the same time I was also influenced by the works of Hannah Arendt in particular reminding us that the Nazis didn’t simply arrive, as if from outer space, fully formed but that they emerged gradually from our society. I also drew on big historical debates – the German Historians’ Debate, known as the Historikerstreit, and how that changed perspectives, including of how women were represented.
Hilary: That’s really interesting. Would you say that Fragments of a Woman has changed over the course of its development, and can you explain how.
Emma: Yes, indeed it has. Originally, it was going to be a collection of short stories, but, it turned out that it worked better as a novel. In an earlier iteration I had seven women, but that made the novel too long and the structure just didn’t work. My thinking was that I couldn’t write from just the one perspective, I wanted an array of characters, which hopefully also helps in avoiding stereotyping, makes the novel more lively and allows me to explore a range of different perspectives and experiences. I also didn’t want to write a novel where all the characters knew each other, as if their once united world was torn asunder by the Nazis. So, I do draw some links between characters but not between them all; they are independent of one another.
Hilary: I’m interested in the writing process as well as the novel itself. What can you tell us about that?
Emma: It was a very long process, partly because it was bound up with my PhD so it has been written and re-written. It was also a long process because it is a very dark novel, a brutal one even about a very dark time. This made it difficult to write at times. I’d describe it as a layered process and a difficult one.
When I was writing Fragments, I was really conscious of how writers of historical fiction can cram in so much detail, almost as if they need to prove what they know, a kind of imposter syndrome manifesting itself in the volume of historical detail, that it is as if they’re hitting the reader over the head and saying – ‘hey, look what I know’. I didn’t want to do that.
Hilary: This is your debut novel, building on your already prolific list of short stories and non-fiction pieces. Do you already have a second novel in the works and does it connect to Fragments of a Woman?
Emma: I do. In fact I’ve been working on it for a while. It follows Lore in the immediate aftermath of the war – so 1945 and 1946 – exploring how she is going to deal with her actions – the perpetrator figure in the post-war age, how she sees herself in a world where values have shifted. I’m also really interested in the intergenerational relationships, so the novel explores Lore and her daughter Freja’s relationship in later years, as mother and daughter are divided across East and West Germany.
Hilary: I’m looking forward to hearing more as this second novel develops and to reading Fragments of a Woman, when it is out. I also look forward to hosting you on an online talk for Women in German Studies.
Emma: Many thanks, Hilary!
We’ll send round details of when the talk will be and how to sign up for it in due course. All welcome!
Fragments of a Woman by Emma Venables is published by Aderyn Press in paperback £8.99 and is available to purchase from your local bookshop or from: https://www.aderynpress.com/product-page/fragments-of-a-woman
Emma Venables‘ short and flash fiction has been widely published in magazines and journals. Her short story, ‘Woman at Gunpoint, 1945’ was a runner-up in the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2020. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and has taught at Royal Holloway, University of London and Liverpool Hope University .https://www.emmavenables.com/
Praise for Fragments of a Woman:
“A remarkable and memorable book, filled with hard light and raw love.” – Katie Munnik
“A novel that chronicles with an unwavering eye and sharp empathy the daily horrors of war.” – Douglas Cowie, author of Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago
“Strong and original… heart-breaking… lives are ripped apart, lives are lost, love is forgone and love conquers as each of these trapped women attempts to survive” – Jane Fraser