Thursday, July 29, 2021

Q&A with L.M. Elliott




L.M. Elliott is the author of the new young adult novel Walls, which takes place in Berlin in the early 1960s. Her many other books include the YA novel Suspect Red. A former journalist, she lives in Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write Walls?


A: I was a magazine journalist for 20 years before becoming a novelist. One of the biggest lessons I learned as a reporter was to look for “holes in coverage”—topics that hadn’t yet been fully plumbed.


These days, as a YA author, I spend many happy hours talking with teenagers, and a few years back during school visits, I “spotted” such a hole. Next to no YA books exploring how the 1950s Red Scare affected teens—despite the fact so many high schoolers study The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play that used the Salem witch trials as allegory for McCarthyism. 


So I decided to write a contextualizing historical novel—a precursor to Walls—titled Suspect Red.


During that disturbing era, fear-mongering politicians and their oft unsubstantiated accusations pushed Americans to turn on one another—resulting in blacklisting, book banning, Loyalty Review Boards and oath requirements, and labeling people as “un-American” if they challenged the status quo or advocated for change.


I hadn’t anticipated just how relevant to recent political polarization and rhetoric it would become.


Walls had a similar genesis. When the former president undercut NATO, I wondered if people remembered the frightening reasons NATO formed 72 years ago—Russia’s brutal annexation of Eastern Europe after WWII to create a Soviet Bloc of puppet states, and the Berlin Wall, which caged millions.


Beyond knowing that the alliance and the Wall existed, teens and Gen Zers I asked knew little else. I found several wonderful novels about life behind the Wall in later years, but nothing about the tense lead up to its raising or what it was like being American military kids stationed in a place where their dads could be mobilized at any moment against a nuclear-armed foe.


A hole in coverage. And what could be a more dramatic, show-rather-than-tell story humanizing the Cold War standoff between Western democracies and totalitarian communist regimes?


Especially given the fact that cruel barrier was raised literally overnight after methodical, secret plotting by East Germany and Soviet Russia.


While spewing disinformation to convince East Berliners that Americans and NATO planned to attack their “worker utopia” and “new just society,” East Germany quietly stockpiled 330 tons of barbed wire, concrete posts, and protective gloves. Then, following a strict, pre-set time-tick, “Operation Rose” kicked into gear just a few minutes past midnight on August 13, 1961.


It was a holiday weekend and most Berliners had been joyfully preoccupied with children’s festivals and citywide fireworks and did not notice military armed vehicles quietly gathering on the city’s edges.


Mobilized at the very last moment to avoid detection, thousands of GDR soldiers, paramilitary police, and factory workers began unfurling the wire. By dawn, they had strung up a 27-mile barricade through Berlin’s streets—splitting the city in half. East Berliners awoke trapped. Without any warning, families, neighbors, and sweethearts were separated—most forever.


In Suspect Red, I wanted to give proverbial beating hearts to the Red Scare hysteria from both sides of the debate, since communism was a real threat.


My protagonist is the son of an idealistic FBI agent. His friend, and foil, is the son of a State Department diplomat and a native Czechoslovakian artist, precisely the type of liberal intellectuals McCarthy ridiculed and targeted.


It was a creative formula that seemed to work well. So for Walls, I again created two teens from enemy political philosophies in a divided city. This time they are cousins—an American Army kid stationed in West Berlin and an East German raised in the Soviet sector. 


At the novel’s opening, people can still cross back and forth within the city’s free and Soviet sectors. The boys’ mothers want them to be friends despite all the obstacles and the dangerous scrutiny it brings both teenagers. Soon the cousins are embroiled in the spy-thriller-worthy intrigues that swirled around Berlin as the Cold War’s toe-to-toe epicenter.


The question of what it would take for that East Berlin youth—inculcated in communist dogma, bombarded with anti-American propaganda, spied on by ardent Freie Deutsche Jugend (“Free German Youth”) and paid neighborhood informants —to trust a Westerner, and vice versa, felt a poignant and powerful question to explore.


Q: How did you create your character Drew?


A: I so enjoyed writing Drew! Growing up in Northern Virginia, I knew many military “brats” whose parent was doing a “Pentagon tour.” My junior high BFF was an Air Force kid who went on to become an intelligence officer herself. And as the daughter of a WWII veteran and 22-year reservist, I heard my dad’s peers tell extraordinary anecdotes of their service.


So I grew up with a deep respect both for our military and their children who follow parents into perilous overseas postings and are uprooted constantly in service to our country.


I researched and built Drew by interviewing a number of “Berlin Brats,” whose fathers were stationed in West Berlin when the Wall went up. They were incredibly generous with their memories and time.


Drew’s experiences and outlook—the menacing overtures and harassment of Allied personnel and their families by the KGB and their East German minions, the Stasi; the unnerving aura of being 100 miles behind the Soviets’ “Iron Curtain” and surrounded by 400,000 Russian troops; the eerie anxiety of traveling in a duty-train through the communist zone to play other high school teams; and living in a landscape still dotted with reminders of the Nazi idealization of “the master race”—are all haunting details these gentlemen shared. 


Because of them, I think I was able to capture (I hope convincingly!) the gutsiness of Americans holding “an outpost of freedom,” deep within communist territory, outnumbered 10 to 1.


Where a teenage prank or mistake could potentially spark an international incident or undo a parent’s military career. No joke, as those “Berlin Brats” would say with a characteristic touch of bravado.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "An afterword points to similarities between the Khrushchev-led Communists’ disruptive sowing of fear and suspicion in 1960 and Putin’s in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections." What parallels did you hope to draw with this novel, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: History shows that disinformation and propaganda are terrifyingly potent tools in suppressing nations, creating mob beliefs by deadening free thought and obliterating resistance. Look to Hitler’s Third Reich and the then Soviet Union for example.


It also, however, can be more subtle in its impact—seeding fear and distrust to poison the productive conversation and sense of collaboration for a greater good that is the engine of a democracy.


Calculated conspiracy theories or outright lies knowingly repeated and spread, build prejudices and unyielding tribalism that make a society vulnerable to in-fighting, all-or-nothing thinking, scapegoating, cults of personality, and the rise of authoritarianism.


Nikita Khrushchev, Russia’s combative leader from 1953 to 1964, famously threatened, “We will take America without firing a shot. We do not have to invade the U.S. We will destroy you from within.”


He did not hide his contempt for JFK or his hatred of Nixon. He believed Kennedy was less experienced, overly idealistic, and would be a weaker adversary.


He bragged about manipulating our 1960 presidential election by refusing to release captured U-2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers, during Nixon’s term as vice president to deny him that boost in public opinion.


“As it turns out,” Khrushchev wrote, “we’d done the right thing. Kennedy won the election by a majority of only 200,000 votes or so, a negligible margin if you consider the huge population of the United States. The slightest nudge either way would have been decisive.” In his memoirs, Khrushchev claimed he told JFK, “You know, Mr. Kennedy, we voted for you.”


Today, Vladimir Putin, the current leader of Russia—which is credibly reported by all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee to have interfered in our 2016 presidential election—seems to adhere to Khrushchev’s hopes of “picking” our leaders and that ginning up titillating conspiracies to smear the integrity of foreign leaders will unravel a rival society.


Putin was well schooled in such tactics, having served as a KGB secret police officer for 15 years. Stationed in East Germany for six of those years, Putin worked with the infamous Stasi to monitor the thoughts and movements of its citizens, arrest dissenters, and recruit informers to steal Western technology and NATO military secrets.


When Putin rose to power in 2000, Russian dissident writer Feliz Svetov said he was a typical KGB type. “If the snow is falling,” said Svetov, “they will calmly tell you, the sun is shining.” Spreading lies dressed up in catchy phrasing, then perpetuating the deception with denial, distraction, re-direct, and “what about”ism are all proven blue-smoke-and-mirrors disinformation tactics.


There are so many things I’d like readers to take away from this story—like enjoying what I hope is a fast-paced and compelling narrative!


In your question’s regard, though, I hope the narrative will inspire teens to resolve to think for themselves, to work for what educators call “media literacy.”


To not swallow unsubstantiated accusations or labels without doing a little reading and thinking on their own.


To not stubbornly hold onto opinions promulgated by their community, parents, or peers that do not stand up to the light of fact. (Just as Drew’s cousin Matthias had to do.)


To listen and open up their hearts and minds to others who differ from them (like Drew), and to accept our responsibility as a free people to not simply stand by when witnessing others fighting for their rights—whether in a foreign nation or marching peacefully on our own streets.


Our country is anything but perfect. But it is formed on the most magnificent of ideas and the promise to work toward betterment and equality for all. We have much work left to do to achieve that.


And that requires our voters to be informed and involved, respectful and empathetic, in whichever party they affiliate, remembering that e pluribus unum means: out of many, one. 


I love writing YA novels because our youth tend to listen with instinctive compassion and curiosity—they fill me with hope.


Q: Can you say more about how you researched this novel, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?


A: As I mentioned, the “Berlin Brats” shared so many anecdotes and “revealing details” that gifted the narrative substance and authenticity.


I also was able to get my hands on some stunning and heart-breaking eye-witness reporting about the night the Berlin Wall went up as well as vivid descriptions of the city before that night of infamy—facts that often were startling in their irony and surreal quality. (See my webpage for a bibliography of books and film.)


Here are some examples:


In East Germany (the GDR), youth were encouraged and rewarded for spying on one another. If teenagers didn’t shout the state-prescribed greeting of “Freundschaft!”  (Friendship!) with enough exuberance, or admitted to being religious, or cut-up during a classmate’s presentation on a Soviet martyr, or didn’t wave a flag high enough during a parade, their “friends” might report them to school authorities, destroying that youth’s chances of going to university.


Offenders might also be pulled in front of a peer tribunal for questioning and a Selbstkritik (self-criticism).


Matthias’ poignant recounting of what his supposed friends accused him of—everything from his less-than-neat personal appearance being disrespectful of “workers’ dignity” to Kultubarbarei (spreading culture corruption) because he tuned his radio to catch American music broadcasts from the other side of town—were all culled from memoirs of survivors.


Despite the dangers, East German youth so longed to hear Western music they even managed to make pirated recordings of American jazz bands on old, discarded X-ray film.


To counter “degenerative” American dances like the Twist, the GDR created a state dance called the Lipsi, an arms-length, odd mixture of waltz and rhumba movements in 6/4-meter—which, according to GDR authorities, was pure and free from “trash, hot music, or wiggle-hip dance.”


Rubble from WWII bombing remained everywhere, and East German children played in gutted lots under gargantuan photos of Khrushchev, blood-red Soviet flags, and billboards turned toward the America zone proclaiming: “Marxism means Peace!”


During the year leading up to August 1961 when the Wall was raised, East Germans fled in droves. But they’d have to cross the “death zone” of Soviet sealed borders that encircled Berlin, the city being the only escape hatch to the West still open.


They would leave behind everything to slip through forests and bluff their way past checkpoints. Any suitcase, any pockets bulging with belongings, might get them pulled aside and questioned.


If they got past those guards, they then had to fake their way across town into Berlin’s American sector, where they could finally seek asylum in the Marienfelde refugee camp and eventually be airlifted to the safety of West Germany.


Most were caught along the way, charged with Republicflucht and sent to re-education labor camps. If they did manage to escape, family and friends who remained behind could be imprisoned for three years in punishment for not alerting authorities. The German film The Lives of Others opens with a chilling portrayal of a Stasi interrogation of such a hapless friend.


1961’s Miss Universe was actually a GDR refugee representing West Germany. An electrical engineer, she had been well-employed and favored in the GDR’s socialist state and had no plans of leaving—until she was threatened with jail for not turning in her own sister and mother.


The GDR condemned her as being seduced and prostituted by the West, a victim of Abwerbung (Americans wooing away talented citizens) and Menschenhandel (Western abduction, capitalist “man trade”).


On the other side of town, American military kids faced far more dangers than I imagined. If their fathers were intelligence officers, for instance, and they got too close to the sector border, they were vulnerable to Stasi secret police picking them up to hold overnight as a way of threatening, or trying to turn, those parents.


“Berlin Brats” had to be careful if they volunteered at Marienfelde, as Stasi double agents posed as refugees to eavesdrop on conversations to gain useful information about American personnel or relocated Germans for coercive blackmail.


One Berlin alumna shared that being picked for the cheerleading squad could be adversely affected by a girl’s prettiness. Cheerleaders traveled with the teams to away games on the duty-trains that had to go through multiple checkpoints in communist territory.


It was out of concern for a girl’s safety—the worry being that a particularly beautiful teen, through no fault of her own, might be singled out for harassment by Soviet troops.


There’s a lot more, but please read the book!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve just finished writing another WWII narrative, titled Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves that Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins) will publish in March.


This one’s a little different for me. I use a slightly younger, more regionalized, first-person, and (I hope) poetic voice than I typically do for one of my historical works. (Not unlike Ariel’s voice in Storm Dog.) Louisa June just spoke to me that way.


I am so grateful to Katherine, who is such a gifted and generous editor and has nurtured me through nine novels, for letting me experiment a little with this story and grow myself as a result. 


Set in Tidewater Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay, the historical peg is an attack on a tugboat by a Nazi U-boat.


It’s a little-discussed fact that immediately following Pearl Harbor, Hitler’s submarines relentlessly attacked our merchant ships sailing along the East Coast, averaging a sinking a night during the first six months of 1942.


Louisa June’s overarching odyssey is learning to cope with her mama’s pervasive depression and the grief of sudden loss—something, sadly, that many teens will be dealing with post-COVID. I hope readers can find solace in her story and joy in the quirky, endearing characters who help her find her way.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with L.M. Elliott. 

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