I am back in Toronto now, having been detained in Europe for eight more days than I had expected, by a cloud of volcanic ash that hung over us there. I am looking forward to the launch, and I am making this post a day earlier than usual this week.
Therefore Choose is a love story in which an English medical student, George Smith, visits Germany in 1936 with a university friend, Werner Vodn. In Berlin he falls in love with Anna von Kleist who runs a literary magazine there. The book took me about three years to write.
I was born in London, England, six months before the start of World War II and it came as a shock to me recently to realize that of the ten earliest memories of my childhood, eight of them had to do with the war. These memories include being in an air-raid shelter, seeing a doodle-bug (V-1 flying bomb) coming over my house, seeing my father—rather unfamiliar to me—a medical officer in an artillery regiment, come home in uniform (before what I now realize was the Normandy invasion) with a jeep that he parked in the driveway! In part, the book was written to imagine myself into the lives of people at that time, somehow distant but somehow very close. In part, too, it was written to explore some of the complicated effects of this terrible war on everyone, then and since.
Patrick Colm Hogan has written a brilliant book, The mind and its stories, in which he describes reading stories from all round the world from before the age of European colonization. He found that some kinds of story are so common as to be human universals. The most common is the love story: two lovers are impeded from being united, usually by a relative or by a rival. The second most common is the story of angry conflict, usually is experienced as a battle of good against evil; the fight against the Nazis was certainly of this kind. My novel projects the theme of a love story into the theme of angry conflict, and in this story it is the conflict that impedes the lovers' union. Hogan has described how, in stories of conflict, after the killing has stopped, there is often what he calls an "epilogue of suffering" in which the victors feel guilt for the ways in which they themselves have behaved, and empathy for the vanquished. This idea is central to my novel. The question from which my book grew was this: what would it be like, after the war, to be a German who thought and felt in the ways the Allies believed Germans should think and feel at that time? In the novel, Anna does think and feel in this way. She and George are separated during the war. After it, George, on the side of the victors, continues to feel for her.
As I started on the book, I found that I was writing an existentialist novel. One makes choices all the time in life, but how does one choose when one has absolutely no idea what the results of such choices will be? Here is how I start a chapter towards the end of the book: "Life can only be understood backwards. That’s what Kierkegaard said. But then he said, The trouble is one has to live it forwards."
My goal in writing fiction is to put literature and psychology together, to enable readers to experience certain situations as they immerse themselves in the story. My intention is for these situations to resonate with people's ordinary lives, for instance with everyday episodes of love and conflict, but to be different from the ordinary so that readers can experience recurring situations in new ways. I think that, in the imagined scenes of fiction, we can sometimes reach into emotional issues that are closest to us more deeply than we often can in ordinary life.
Patrick Colm Hogan (2003). The mind and its stories: Narrative universals and human emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.