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North Melbourne Books: It’s 1945. Germany is losing the war. Three Prussian children – Liesl, Otto and baby Mia – flee the advancing Russian army. The Wolf children (that is their surname) have lost their mother and beloved grandparents in the mad exodus, and their physically disabled father has been drafted to fight. The children muster all their survival skills to find food and warm places to sleep, while also trying to avoid danger.
How did you find out about this story and what made you want to turn it into a novel.
Katrina Nannestad: I was searching online for something quite different when I came across an article about the Wolfskinder. I read on and followed the links at the bottom of each page. I was fascinated by these stories of children, surviving on their own, in the harsh end-of-war environment that existed in East Prussia. I was also surprised that I’d never heard these stories before. I realised that if I hadn’t heard them, perhaps they’d be new to others as well. It’s always exciting, as a writer, to think you might be sharing something that is completely new to your readers.
The other significant factor in my decision to write this book is that these stories of the Wolfskinder have a timelessness about them. They deal with big themes – war and the scars it leaves on everyone involved; the plight of refugees; personal and cultural identity; and the power of kindness and love to change lives.
NMB: We Are Wolves has a realistic feel. How did you go about researching the novel to get all the details right? Did you have to read a lot?
KN: I did a lot of research – before and during the writing of my book. I started by looking at the stories of the Wolfskinder and the German people fleeing East Prussia at the end of the war, reading whatever I could find online and in books, watching documentaries and interviews. I read two great autobiographies – one long, detailed account by a Wolfskind, and another short humble account by a child refugee. Both were gold, providing wonderful personal details from a child’s point of view. When I ran out of information specific to the Wolfskinder and the child refugees, I expanded my search to read about the history of East Prussia and the tumultuous events surrounding the end of World War II.
There were many times when I stopped mid-writing and searched some more to fill the gaps in my knowledge. How did people ever write historical novels before the internet existed? It must have taken sooooo long!
NMB: There are some quirky, unusual scenes in the novel. In one part of the story Russian soldiers throw their socks in a toilet bowl, thinking it’s a washtub. Did things like this really happen?
KN: I read a lot of stories about the Red Army and their behaviour on entering East Prussia and other German regions. There were many terrible things done to the German population, but there were also funny stories and those that were a mix of tragedy and comedy.
The wealth found in Germany was bamboozling to many Red Army soldiers – the paved roads, the fine buildings, industry, farms, the individual wealth of families, household objects like washing machines and fridges. They couldn’t understand why such a rich country would bother to invade the Soviet Union, which had so little in comparison.
Interestingly, I seemed to come across a lot of poop stories! Indoor bathrooms were foreign to many Red Army soldiers, particularly those from a peasant background. The true purpose of flushing toilets was not always understood, and they were occasionally used to keep things cold. I imagine a small bottle of vodka or a wrapped cheese would sit comfortably in the porcelain bowl, surrounded by water, keeping cool and fresh! But one flush could make a light object vanish and so the toilet was named by some as the ‘stealing machine’.'
Drunkenness, too, was a huge problem once the Red Army entered Germany. At one place, a few soldiers found a basement filled with kegs of wine. They thought the fastest way to get to the drink was to shoot holes in the barrels and fill their canteens as the fluid poured out. They drank so much that they passed out, but by this stage, the floor was flooded with a foot of wine and they drowned.
Of course, many of these stories were not appropriate for a children’s novel but made for some interesting (and confronting) reading.
NMB: Liesl goes through a transformation in the novel. She starts out loving Hitler as a good man, but reality eventually crashes through this false image. Did you find this a complicated transformation to write?
KA: I didn’t find this really complicated, but I did have to plan the process of revealing Liesl’s growing awareness. At the start of the book, we see that Liesl has been completely indoctrinated by society and the education system, and she has not been exposed to anything that would conflict with these ideas of a great Germany, a benevolent Hitler and a bright, prosperous future.
In writing my story, it felt quite natural that, as Liesl was exposed to the horrors of war, she would begin to question the disparity between what she was promised and what was actually happening. The war ends with Germany’s defeat and Hitler’s death, and then there is no doubt in Liesl’s mind that she has been deceived.
Another aspect of Liesl’s growing awareness comes from her interaction with the Red Army. She learns of German cruelty and greed in the Soviet Union, and experiences the kindness and generosity of individual enemy soldiers firsthand. She begins to understand that nationality and race have nothing to do with good and evil, that war is damaging to everyone, and that love is what matters most.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
KN: I’ve just started reading Northanger Abbey, for the millionth time. I adore Jane Austen’s rant, early in the book, against society’s disgust for the novel as a literary form. She declares that the novel is ‘only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language’. I find it very affirming.
I’ve had a full year of writing and I’m tired, so I’ve been comfort reading. For me this means snuggling up with old favourites (like Northanger Abbey) and choosing new books that are filled with humour. I’ve just read Two Caravans and We Are All Made of Glue, both by Marina Lewycka. They are wonderful – colourful stories with rich characters, a great plot and lots of laugh-out-loud moments.
We Are Wolves, by Katrina Nannestad. Published by ABC Books. $19.99