Suzanne Goldring on The Woman Outside the Walls

Suzanne Goldring

The novelist discusses the bombing of Hamburg, the role of women during the war, and her new novel.
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Suzanne Goldring, congratulations on your new book! How much research do you tend to carry out for your novels, and was The Woman Outside the Walls different?

All my books require research which I carry out either by visiting the locations involved or by reading non-fiction books on the period.  For Burning Island I returned to Corfu, The Girl With The Scarlet Ribbon required a trip to Florence and for The Girl Without A Name I visited Lynmouth in North Devon.

However, I can’t deny that I often turn to Wikipedia in the midst of writing, when I suddenly need to know something like what brand of cigarettes was smoked at that time in that country. I also feel very strongly that my job is to write a good yarn, not a history book, so while I think it is important to be as accurate as possible with dates, events and details, my main task is to evoke the period through my characters and tell a gripping story.

The bombing of Hamburg in 1943 was a horrific campaign that resulting in approx. 40,000 deaths. How did you learn about it and why did you want to write your story about it?

I have to start by saying that I wasn’t sure at first where this novel was going to be set. As I worked out the basics of the plot, I realised I had to choose a location that fell within the British zone at the end of the war. That was so I could engineer the marriage of my character to a British soldier and thus arrange her arrival in Britain as a war bride.

I then started looking at locations that would work for my story and selected Hamburg precisely because of the devastation. The more I read about the bombing and the aftermath, the more I began to think it made the story even more interesting to see the impact on German civilians. We are so used to reading about the Blitz that it made a fascinating change to look at the other side of the coin.

Which books/historians did you find most helpful during your research?

Three books in particular were hugely helpful and I have credited these and other sources at the back of the novel. I am very grateful to Keith Lowe for Inferno: The Destruction Of Hamburg, to Richard Bessel for Germany 1945: From War To Peace, and to David Stafford for Endgame 1945: Victory, Retribution, Liberation. All of these books were not only immensely helpful in terms of facts, but they were also filled with eye witness reports and anecdotes, which I unashamedly purloined to give the novel colour and character.

The experience of women in the war is increasingly a story being told – was there anything that you didn’t know about before but which surprised you when researching the novel?

I am in awe of the resilience shown by women in many areas affected by the war, as they struggled to protect and provide for their families. However, what struck me most in this particular case, and maybe Hamburg was no exception, was the degree to which women were prepared to sell their bodies to survive. It came through very clearly in all the research I did and for that reason I felt it was a legitimate element for this novel. I thought it was interesting to examine how a character who had not previously earnt her living on the street, would feel when it was obvious that this was now expected of her. It also gave me the opportunity to include the arrest of Ribbentrop in Hamburg in what I hope was a plausible plot development. He had been trying to escape Germany and was found in the company of a young woman in a rooming house near the main station in Hamburg. It suited me to think that young woman could be my girl.

The bombing campaign is controversial, because whilst the human cost was massive, both the RAF and USAF argued Hamburg was a legitimate military target in the days when precision bombing did not exist. What’s your view?

I think that at least we can argue it was a legitimate military target based on the best information at the time. That was a sound rationale, unlike the Baedeker bombings ordered by Hitler in retaliation for certain other bombings of German cities. And I was also struck in my research reading, by reports that our pilots didn’t realise quite how terrible the destruction of Hamburg would be. Certainly, when the British troops arrived in the city, they reacted to the devastation and thought it worse than the impact of the Blitz on London.

When writing your historical fiction, do you build the plot around historical events, or have the plot in mind and then find the right historical setting?

I’m afraid I’m going to have to give a spoiler alert here as I always start with a concept or a nugget of information in mind. That then leads me to search for the best context for the story I want to develop. In the case of The Woman Outside the Walls, that nugget or ‘seed’ was a newspaper report about the charges being brought against an elderly German woman who had worked as a secretary at Stutthof concentration camp. It made me think about how such a person took up that position in the first place, as well as how they might feel years on. So I knew from the start that I had to think about where my character was brought up, how she was educated, why she might choose this particular job and whether she realised what might be involved. I then asked myself questions about whether she would hide her involvement and how she might feel about that years later. Hopefully, I’ve thrown up a few discussion points for book clubs.

In the case of previous books, Burning Island was written to examine the almost forgotten destruction of Corfu’s Jewish community during WW2. The Girl Without A Name was sparked by the memorial to the Lynton and Lynmouth flood of 1952, which listed the victims, ending with the words – An Unknown Woman.

Which authors have inspired you when writing your novels?

Funnily enough I haven’t read much historical fiction and I am inspired by authors who have complex plots and fascinating characters. I like a puzzle and some twists, so I love Kate Atkinson, Sarah Winman, John le Carré and Patricia Highsmith. But I recently read Andrew Taylor’s Ashes of London series and thoroughly enjoyed them because he writes a gripping yarn, which is what I demand first and foremost of a novel.

What’s next?

I am already working on my seventh novel, which like all my previous ones will be based around a dual time line. I like writing with this structure, because it allows me to examine how the past has shaped the present and gives me an opportunity to develop characters who have been influenced by earlier events.

In this case I am writing about two elderly ladies who have been friends since schooldays, who now live together in a remote country cottage, with one of them more or less acting as a carer for the other. They each played an important role during the war, with one of them working in the Plessey factory situated in the underground tube lines at Gants Hill, while the other has never talked of her role and only ever says that she ‘did a lot of filing’. The novel’s framework will enable me to throw a light on the importance of what each of them did and also the troublesome memories they have carried with them since that time.

Suzanne Goldring is the author of The Woman Outside the Walls, published by Bookouture.