Aurora: What was the inspiration behind your most recent novel, This Terrible Beauty?
Katrin Schumann: In 1989, I flew with my father to the German island of Rügen, up north on the Baltic Sea. A Berliner, my father had spent summers there as a little boy (it’s a bit like Martha’s Vineyard). But for decades, the island had been on lockdown: after WWII, half of Germany fell under Russian control, trapping millions of Germans behind a wall. Luckily, my father escaped to the West and eventually made his way to freedom in America.
A few weeks before our trip to Rügen, the actual wall that split Germany in two—patrolled by sharpshooters and dogs, lined with bombs—had finally come down. Truth be told, until that visit to the island, my family’s history felt distant and confusing to me.
That all changed after my father and I crept into my great aunt’s abandoned cottage on a medieval square in Saßnitz. The fisherman’s cottage was filled with debris and broken bottles, unloved and unlived in. In a corner of the cramped living room was a large iron firepit, and behind it a huge coal stain had blossomed over the floral wallpaper. For decades, East Germans relied heavily on brown coal to heat their homes. The damp wallpaper itself was peeling off in places, and underneath it I saw layer upon layer of designs from past eras.
In that moment, it struck me just how many German women had struggled to live ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances, first under fascism then under communism. That was when my novel’s protagonist, Bettina Heilstrom, first came to me as a character: a young woman who yearns for love and finds herself in conflict with political forces entirely outside her control.
Do you fight? Do you give up? Do you accept guilt and seek redemption? How on earth do you keep going? History is complicated, and there are stories that haven’t been fully told yet; Bettina’s is one of them
What character do you most relate to and why?
This Terrible Beauty has two main characters, Bettina and Werner (who are unhappily married), as well as another important character named Peter, a writer Bettina falls in love with.
I think I identify with each of these characters for different reasons. I have a soft spot for Werner, who is weak and susceptible to influence, because he just wants love and acceptance. That is such a human need and it can make us behave abominably (I’m really interested in nuanced, imperfect characters). I also relate to Peter who is a writer and teacher trying to share his ideas with the world.
But most of all, I feel close to Bettina, a young German woman forced to make choices in terrible circumstances—and then live with the consequences. I understand her yearning for community and family, and her desire to have a voice and a sense of agency.
Why do you feel books with powerless characters are so popular and have such a voice right now?
I think what resonates with readers is a character who is stuck in a situation that’s make or break, when the stakes are really high. In This Terrible Beauty, Bettina has no personal power at all, she’s completely at the mercy of her government, and—to a lesser extent—of her husband. World War II has just ended, the Germans lost the war, and the country and its people are devastated. They have to find a way to rebuild, and then half the country falls behind the Iron Curtain.
Even though this book is set in a specific bygone era, many people nowadays can relate to this feeling of not having a voice, of struggling to be heard and counted.
Readers are pulled along, wondering what will happen. Will she give up and give in, surrender to her powerlessness when she’s forced to leave her homeland? There’s a kind of hope that keeps readers turning pages: maybe she’ll find a way to fight back? How?
In novels, readers want to be transported, to learn and experience something new, and they also want a shred of hope—something that makes them feel wiser or stronger after they close the book. Novels like mine seem to strike a chord because they remind us how indomitable humans really are: we can’t stop fighting for what we want and deserve even when we know it may end tragically.
Please describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from the read.
Set on a wind-swept island in East Germany and gritty Chicago as the Cold War is escalating, This Terrible Beauty explores the sacrifices we make in order to find love and build a just world. When Bettina Heilstrom—now a successful photographer living in the US—receives unexpected news of the child she was forced to leave behind in Germany, she embarks on a quest that takes her behind the Iron Curtain, and forces her to re-evaluate what family really means. This Terrible Beauty is a timely exploration of power, what we will do to survive, and how we learn to forgive others and ourselves.
What’s next for you in the book world?
I’m working on a novel which is a loose reimagining of Madame Bovary set on a scorching Mediterranean island during the summer of 1969, a time of immense social upheaval. It centers on a troubled young wife and mother who insists on accompanying her husband on sabbatical to Ibiza, where the freedoms they encounter and the choices they make change their lives forever.
Who is your favorite writer right now and why?
I tend to gravitate toward writers who break the rules—perhaps because I’m both a rule-follower and a rule-breaker, and I believe that great art is created when “rules” are knowingly disregarded.
Right now I’m loving Donna Tartt, who breaks almost every writing rule known to man. I love that she sprinkles her work with adjectives and adverbs. I love that she gives her story room to breathe and isn’t afraid of digressions. Her characters pulse with life and the specificity of her descriptions is delightful. She doesn’t churn books out. It also helps that I find her novels to be page turners!
Which character was the hardest or most interesting to write in This Terrible Beauty?
I really loved developing Werner as a character. He is nominally the “villain” in this book—a weak man who is tempted by power and becomes a rising star in East Germany’s notorious Secret Police force. But I wanted to reveal him as a human being who is flawed and vulnerable just like the rest of us.
What was challenging was to show him behaving badly, and yet also get the reader to sympathize with him. In the end, Werner makes a critical decision that changes the trajectory of Bettina’s life and that decision had to feel organic and honest. It had to come from him and be real, rather than coming from the needs of the plot, either to tie things up or make them exciting.
I felt the book was done when I wrote those last few scenes—that’s when I thought, I’ve done it, I’ve created a character who feels real. I’m so glad his voice is in this book; I think it’s surprising and eye-opening.