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Catherine Chidgey on writing The Wish Child

Catherine Chidgey. Photo/Fiona Pardington

In Catherine Chidgey’s new novel, two children are caught up in the propaganda and perfectionism that is Germany under the Nazis.

After 13 years, Catherine Chidgey is publishing her long-awaited fourth novel. Chidgey made her name with In a Fishbone Church (1998), a debut novel that won many awards and is considered lyrical, witty and deeply touching. She has also written two other critically acclaimed books, Golden Deeds (2000) and The Transformation (2003).

Her new novel, The Wish Child, follows two children living in Nazi Germany. Sieglinde lives with her middle-class family in Berlin where her father works as a censor; Erich is an only child living with his mother on a farm near Leipzig. Both families strive for the purity and perfectionism that guide all good Germans. Eventually, as the country falls around them, the children find each other in an abandoned theatre in Berlin.

Your new novel is an incredible piece of writing. Stories about World War II often are from the Allies’ perspective or focus on the horrors of the Holocaust. In The Wish Child, the main characters are German children and the story occurs in domestic spaces. The unnamed narrator, based on a real person, takes us inside the minds of the children and their families with such tenderness, humanity and psychological astuteness that it creates an understanding of why they loved and followed Hitler. At the same time, I was never in any doubt about the book’s moral stance. What made you write this particular story?

Germany has been in my blood since I stayed there for three months as a teenager. I also lived in Berlin for a few years in the 1990s, and I remember seeing a beautiful old building that had been bombed in the war; the facade featured caryatids in the form of children holding up the windows, but they were badly damaged. It suggested something rather poignant about a child’s experience of war, and I tucked it away to use in my writing. The real spark for the novel came, though, when I stumbled across a reference to the mysterious figure who narrates the book. I realised I had to give this forgotten person a voice, but at first I was frustrated when researching him; the sources did not agree on the facts of his life and death, or even on his name or gender. One story contradicted another. In the end, however, these contradictions were a gift, informing and shaping the novel. 

Talking about stories and contradictions, in the novel, Sieglinde’s father cuts “dangerous” words such as “promise” and “mercy” from books, but Sieglinde carries them like totems. Both children are persuaded by the story of Nazi Germany. Is The Wish Child in part about the power of imagination and stories, and of ideologies? What story did you want the reader to come away with?

Yes, one of the themes is the power that stories have over us – be they the stories we tell ourselves or those we are persuaded to believe. It is about the redemptive nature of story as well as the way it can be manipulated and corrupted. So yes, Sieglinde clings to her father’s deleted words; the children soak up the stories their teachers tell them about the Führer and are as entranced by them as by any other fairy tale. The two Berlin housewives who pop up as a kind of Greek chorus are swayed by the story, too – they blurt out dark rumours about life under Hitler, before taking back what they’ve said for fear of denunciation.

In later life, Sieglinde works on reconstructing shredded Stasi files – piecing together the unremarkable lives of ordinary people – because although The Wish Child is a story of destruction, of tearing apart, it is also a story of restoration and of what we can salvage. At its heart is a longing for a life that has not been led; a tale never told. That’s one thing I’d like the reader to come away with – the feeling that they have been let in on a suppressed story, a secret.

The Wish Child was emotional to read; I imagine it was emotional to write. Is that one of the reasons it was a long time coming? How did you go about living with and inhabiting these characters, and do you feel you’ve done them justice? What’s next?

I decided that the way to give voice to the story was to have the narrator speak in the first person. That allowed him to move from character to character, seeing the world through other eyes. I wanted the writing to have a fluid, almost dream-like quality as he shifts from skin to skin. It didn’t start out this way; before I decided to place his cryptic voice at the heart of the book, it was a story about a boy whose mother was a film star in Nazi Germany. Those sections ended up on the cutting-room floor, but I don’t see them as wasted work – what you remove from a book defines it as much as what remains.

One way I placed the characters within the period was to splice in songs, poems and speeches of the era – sometimes overtly, but often subliminally. For instance, a comment by Hitler on the attractiveness of German children finds its way into the mouth of Erich’s mother; a teacher quotes a speech by Goebbels as if the words are her own. This was a way of expressing something of the zeitgeist, and showing how complete evil can penetrate the attitudes of “ordinary” people; I hope, too, that it lends the writing a kind of heightened immediacy.

I cried over certain scenes as I was writing them. It’s an emotional story produced over an emotional period. The complexity of the subject matter is one reason that it took so long; the other reason is that I was grappling with infertility. Although I didn’t bring that experience directly to the page, it certainly coloured the story, and that grief is there, I think, between the lines.

I’m well into my next book, which is quite experimental – it’s a “found” novel that is part fiction, part memoir, part diary and part some other kind of beast. I’ve set myself the task of writing a daily entry for all of 2016, and the words have to come verbatim from my daily life. Sometimes I rework and rearrange the material until it’s fiction, and sometimes it’s much closer to the truth. It’s exhausting and exhilarating.

THE WISH CHILD, by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press, $45)

This article was first published in the November 12, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.