"I will never, ever write anything that is as difficult as this again because I will never write anything where I have to - so surgically, carefully and painfully - make sure that everything ties in to what can be known," says Anna Funder of her first novel, All That I Am. Set mostly in 1933, it follows four young Germans, left-wing activists who risked their lives to tell the world about Hitler. All That I Am is a novel, but it is based on real events and real people.
The novel opens in present day Australia, when elderly Ruth Wesemann receives a package which takes her mind straight back to Berlin in the 1930s. When Hitler becomes chancellor, Ruth, her husband Hans and beloved cousin Dora along with others in their small circle are forced into exile to escape certain death - they are socialists. London should offer a safe haven, until a truly shocking betrayal. It's a powerful story, beautifully told.
Funder, now in her forties, met the real Ruth when she was a 19-year-old Melbourne University student, reading English and German with Law and applying for a scholarship at Berlin's Freie University. Ruth, then 79 years old, helped Anna with her written application and their friendship grew from there. Over the years that followed Funder learned Ruth's extraordinary life story - resistance, exile, imprisonment, subsequent escape to Shanghai and internment before eventually reaching safety in Australia.
So remarkable was Ruth's story, Funder was inspired to record her speaking in 1995: "She was very old and I loved her very much," says Funder, softly, on the telephone from her home in Sydney. "I just wanted to have her voice on tape." Funder would go on to use these tapes as a basis for a radio documentary about Ruth's life but it wasn't until much later that she decided Ruth's story might form the basis of a book.
Given the success of Funder's first book, the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize-winning Stasiland (2003) which took readers into the bizarre world of the East German secret police with stories from ordinary people and the Stasi themselves, why not give Ruth's life the non-fiction treatment? The appeal of a novel, Funder says, was "that leap of intimate invention" - the opportunity to get inside someone else's head. "The limit of non-fiction, possibly its only really significant limit, is that you cannot represent what any particular thing was like from inside that person's point of view."
All That I Am is not a straight-forward retelling of Ruth's life story however. The novel really took flight in Funder's imagination when deeper research into her life - after Ruth's death in 2001 - led Funder to the real-life mystery of two dead bodies discovered inside a locked flat on Great Ormond St in 1933. The mystery was first explored in an academic book by Professor Charmian Brinson. The dead women were Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm, political exiles and probable victims of the Gestapo although nothing was proved at the time. Ruth featured in Brinson's book slightly, as a friend of Dora's, says Funder, but she was immediately drawn to Dora herself and portrays Dora as Ruth's cousin in the novel. "How extraordinary she was, how clever and how brave" explains Funder, "and even more than brave, just kind of fearless in every way . . . not in a way that was reckless or mad at all. She knew what risks she was taking and she took them anyway and that kind of courage has always fascinated me."
This story-within-a-story, of two dead women and an unsolved crime, forms the crux of the novel and also reveals the little-known extent to which Hitler's henchmen were active in London in 1933, a full six years before the start of the war and so soon after Hitler came to power. Funder agrees: "The idea that the Gestapo were knocking off the opposition within Germany people are familiar with, but knocking people off who got out [of the country] is something else altogether . . . I still find it shocking and I've been living with it for five years!"
Funder worked as a lawyer in Australia before turning to writing full time, and both Stasiland and All That I Am are concerned with resistance, courage and "doing the right thing" under extraordinary circumstances. "It's the moral compass that really interests me," she says. But she's planning to leave reality behind as the basis for her next novel and is looking forward to the "sheer, freewheeling invention" of fiction, albeit with one reservation. "All That I Am was clearly a story that should be told. I could have completely stuffed it up . . . but I knew that if I could do it properly it was worth telling. The thing about inventing something . . . from absolute scratch is another leap altogether." But, I think, not one she'll have any trouble making.
All That I Am by Anna Funder is published by Viking.