They’re both graduates of City University London’s Crime Thriller MA course, and they’ve both now got publishing deals. So who better to talk to David Young about his East German-set thriller STASI CHILD, than blogger and author Steph Broadribb (aka Crime Thriller Girl – her own novel DEEP DOWN DEAD comes out with Orenda Books in 2017). Here’s what David told You’re Booked – in the guise of Steph – about the book, his writing process, and his route to publication …
STEPH: You must be thrilled that your debut, STASI CHILD, was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. Can you tell us a bit about it?
DAVID: 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.
STEPH: STASI CHILD is set in East Germany in 1975. What drew you to writing about this moment in history?
DAVID: 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. And thankfully it has done … so hopefully there will be more beyond the three books currently contracted to Bonnier Zaffre.
STEPH: Given the modern historical setting, how did you go about researching the book?
DAVID: 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 much 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’ve just come back from a trip to help spark ideas for Book 3. I’ve also finally begun a German language beginners’ class, but I’m struggling with it!
STEPH: You recently completed the City University MA in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction), how do you think this helped you on your journey to publication?
DAVID: I think it was the key to it, really. As you know, 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.
STEPH: So, what’s it like having your debut novel published? What’s your best moment so far?
DAVID: The novel came out as e-book first back in October 2015, but it was a huge thrill to get the first print edition – which was a copy of the proof sent out to bloggers and reviewers at that time. My publishers Twenty7 (part of the Swedish Bonnier group) were a new imprint and Stasi Child was one of their launch titles, so I think they really wanted to make a mark and managed to get nearly all the big supermarkets to stock the paperback when it was released in February. The fact that Deutschland 83 was on TV was, I think, a huge help for sales. WH Smith has also been a key supporter. So it was a big moment for me when the book reached the official fiction paperback top 20 the week after publication, and was made Crime Book of the Month by Marcel Berlins in The Times. And of course, as a debut novelist, getting longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year was a total – and lovely – shock. But the best part of the process is when readers go to the trouble of writing me unsolicited ‘thank you’ letters. It’s very moving. One lady from Montrose in Scotland has sent me some fantastic handwritten letters about her own experiences in East Germany and the communist world. So to get that first letter from her was perhaps the best moment. I sent her a signed copy as a thank-you, and she gave me her only other signed book in return, which she’d been given by the author in the 1940s! Unbelievable, really.
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?
I’ve got a few literary festival and library appearances (including CrimeFest, the Open House Festival in Northern Ireland, and the Margate Bookie festival). I’m also honing the as-yet untitled Book 2 in the Stasi Child series, and will aim to get a draft of Book 3 completed by the year end. I thought by giving up my day job (as a news editor in the BBC’s international radio and TV newsrooms) I’d have more time on my hands, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I suppose that’s a good thing. I also hope I’ll be visiting Wembley to watch my beloved Hull City’s fourth appearance there in the space of eight years – should they get there, that takes precedence over the rewrites!
An earlier version of this interview appeared on Steph’s website, crimethrillergirl.com, but Steph and David updated it especially for You’re Booked. You can find out more about David by checking out his website at www.stasichild.com and follow him on Twitter @djy_writer