Marcel, writing and discovering his own heritage

Today we’re talking to an author among our own contributors, and following last week’s interview with Alexey, today we also have a Russian connection. Marcel (PocketCultures contributor in Berlin, Germany) is currently writing a book about his grandmother, who spent five years in a Soviet labour camp before settling in West Germany.

To research the book Marcel traced his grandmother’s journey from Poland to Russia by train. Although his first language is German, Marcel writes in English, blaming his proficiency on several years of small talk with the Irish whilst living in Dublin.

Marcel slightly confused in Russian traffic

Why did you decide to write a book about your grandmother? Can you tell us a bit about her?

I’m carrying the idea of writing about my grandmother Cäcilie, short ‘Cilly’, with me for quite a while now. Mostly because her story is an extraordinary one: in 1945, when she was 23, she was taken by the Red Army from her parents’ farm in East Prussia (a former part of Germany that is now Polish) and spent five years in a Soviet labour camp in the Urals before she returned to West Germany where she met my grandfather, and never returned to her home country. She died in 2009 at the age of 86. But I also wanted to learn more about her native country as part of my own heritage – when I was a child, she always kept telling stories about East Prussia, of wolves in the woods and sleigh rides in the snow and deep cold lakes, so I traveled there myself last year.

I think the reason why I’ve started writing down her story now is that I feel I have developed enough as writer to sit down and tackle her story in a way that is true to her character – she was always full of lust for life and never bitter about her experiences – and also entertaining and thought-provoking enough to make it interesting for potential readers. Not that you ever stop developing and learning when you’re writing, but in the past I was very unsure of techniques and styles and even how to properly edit a manuscript before you send it off and so forth…

Tell us a bit about the process of writing this book. Did you do a lot of research? Is the book purely factual or did you employ your imagination at all?

The first thing I did was follow Cilly’s journey. In the summer of 2012 I traveled from Berlin to Olsztyn in Poland (where she was born), and from there I took the train via Warsaw and Moscow to Yekaterinburg in the Urals (where she spent time in the camps). I blogged about this at inthedarknight.com, where I also published some of the first results of my research – for example an interview with a 89-year old lady who was in the same camp as my grandmother. And then for the last 12 months I’m hardly reading other books than those about World War 2, displaced people after 1945 and Stalin’s GULAGS.

My book will definitively be a (creative) non-fiction book. I’m trying to juxtapose my travel experiences in Poland and Russia with Cilly’s journey and experiences throughout the story. Though I have to say that for certain aspects of her trip I have to stretch the creative part a bit and fill in bits and pieces with my own imagination. For example I have collected written eye witness reports and interviewed contemporary witnesses myself, so I can pretty accurate describe the circumstances during her 4-week trip in cattle waggons filled with women to the east, but when it comes to describing Cilly’s thoughts and feelings I can only rely on the stories that I and my family members remember – and my own imagination.

Cilly

Does your day job involve long hours? How do you find time to write?

I work as a Content Manager for an online company, so I do have a 40 hour work week. Besides that, I try to write between 750 and 1000 words every day, these days mostly for the book about Cilly. And this works surprisingly well – I tend to write a lot first and edit the hell out of it later, so I get 1000 words down in roughly an hour. I do this most days of the week and then sit down on the weekends for editing. A great tool I use is 750words.com, which is based on The Artist’s Way morning pages and allows you to keep track of work progress, word count and other fancy statistics on a daily basis. I mostly write in the evenings and at night though – I’m not really a morning person, haha.

What language are you writing in? Why?

I write in English. For whatever reason I feel more secure and clear when I write in English, and also allow myself to try out more. My English grammar is actually better than my German, haha. My life in Dublin may have something to do with it – I have seldom experienced another European city where language and literature is as appreciated as here, and the Irish basically force you to do small talk with them whenever possible. Great training.

Do you ever translate your writing?

I haven’t done this in the past, but will try it now for the book about Cilly. I try to offer the manuscript to both language markets. I had some of my articles translated into German by others, which is the weirdest thing though. I always felt like I should have done it.

How can we read your book when it’s finished?

I tried to secure a book deal and am already in touch with a literary agency here in Berlin, so fingers crossed you’ll be able to buy it from a bookshop soon. If that fails however I’ll go ahead and self-published it on- and offline , as I’ve done with another shot story collection in the past. I really want to make Cilly’s story available to as many people as possible. In any way, you can keep having a look a inthedarknight.com from time to time – I’ll blog more frequently there about the book-writing process and more interesting things I discover in my research.

Read more
Slow Travel’s Berlin chapter
Memories of war: The German-Russian museum in Berlin
Alexey from Russia: writing on the Moscow – St Petersburg railroad

About the author

Lucy (Liz) Chatburn
Lucy is English and first ventured out of the UK she was 19. Since then she has lived in 4 different countries and tried to see as much of the world as possible. She loves learning languages, learning about different cultures and hearing different points of view.
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3 Comments

  • Thanks for telling us more about your book Marcel, it’s a really interesting project. All the best with getting published. By the way I recently listened to an interview with the Turkish author Elif Shafak, who also writes in English and then gets her books translated. So you’re in good company :)

  • I hope I get to read this book as it sounds fascinating. I also love the photo there of Cilly. It could almost be my own Polish grandmother up there with that hair style and coat. Must’ve been the fashion of the times.

  • Rachel Barquero

    Hi!
    I was just doing homework and I found this fascinating article. I loved it!
    I’d like to know if I could have Marcel’s e-mail in order to contact him, please.

    Thanks! :)