Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sarah Pleydell - Cologne: A Novel - Author Interview

About the Book

London, 1960: Renate von Hasselmann, a nineteen-year-old German au pair, arrives at Victoria Station prepared to meet her new charges, Caroline and Maggie Whitaker. Yet she is ill-prepared for their parents: the mother, Helen, knows more about Nazi Germany than Renate does, and the father, Jack, disarms Renate with his quicksilver charm.

In Sarah Pleydell's debut novel, childhood and history collide, blurring the distinctions between victim and victor, ruin and redemption. With delicate humor, Pleydell presents a portrait of a family on the cusp of great social change, while reminding us that the traumas of war revisit the children of the peace.

Author Interview

1. How did you come up with the title?
I chose the title, Cologne, because of its ambiguity. It represents the city where Renate von Hasselmann grew up, and that Helen visited as a young girl just Renate’s age; it also suggests the lingering scent of these duplicate experiences, (Helen’s and Renate’s) and how their essence—their joy and their pain -- is passed down to the children of the next generation to pervade their childhoods too. Caroline and Maggie Whitaker, Helen’s children, know their mother’s war stories and play “war games”; thus they experience her trauma second hand. Their father, Jack Whitaker, also wears cologne as does his chauffeur, Mario. Their charm also “scents” the book with an odor that lingers, half sweet, half sour.

2. Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I want my readers to intuit how the unclaimed traumas of war are passed down to the children of the peace. Helen, Jack and Renate suffered the consequences of World War 11 first hand, but they have not had the time nor the occasion to process them. Their unexamined, unresolved pain, therefore, invades the childhood of Caroline and Maggie. The two girls experience their domestic lives as though they were at war themselves. The political becomes personal, and the unexamined after effects of war come home.

3. How much of the book is realistic?
The novel is written in figurative and lyrical language, which could be interpreted as un- even sur- realistic. However, the experience it conveys is all too real for so many children, then and now. Emotional and physical child abuse is still epidemic the world over. Maggie is both neglected and tormented by her father, for whom “one girl was enough, like too much of a good Stilton”. Caroline is abused by her father, who in his drunken condition mistakes her for his wife.

4. If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your book?
I might try and develop the character and context of Renate’s character even further than I did under my editor, Molly Tinsley’s expert tutelage. I think there may be more to know about the von Hasselmann family. I also wrote a chapter about Caroline taking her incapacitated father to a distant Scottish monastery hoping to heal both herself and him. After I decided to end the novel with his death, this chapter was no longer relevant. However, I would love it to have a life somewhere, as it is quite a tender interlude.

5. What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Writing about child sexual abuse is very costly to an author, especially one who has lived through it herself. I decided to write it through the point of view of a child, as a fragmented, discontinuous experience and not as a literal and linear one. Some readers, therefore, miss it altogether. This was a risk, as it may have seemed I was avoiding the subject, and I wrestled with that. But for a child this kind of violation and betrayal breaks the world apart; it is, therefore, too broken an event to register as a complete narrative. It is rather a hideous hodgepodge of sensory horror that does not add up: moreover, putting it all together would be more knowledge than most children could tolerate.

6. Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I learned that any novel, whatever its theme, must have a strong and galvanizing narrative drive. If it does not grip the reader as a story it does not matter how beautifully it is written or how well crafted the characters are. This was the aspect of the novel I had to work the hardest on. Next time it will come first!

7. Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I had an inspiring English teacher in my high school, who encouraged creative writing and especially mine. The book is dedicated to her and to my other teachers. She instilled a confidence in my unique voice and vision, which has never faltered. I owe her so very much even though she could be a fierce critic with high high standards. But that is a good thing too!

8. Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Toni Morrison is my gold standard. Her prose is above reproach, but more than that she runs full force into the open arms of the thorniest, most challenging subject matters. Beloved and the Bluest Eye are my favorites, the former about slavery and the latter about sexual abuse. I was also thoroughly engaged by her most recent book, Home, which sets indentured servitude and slavery side by side. She does not flinch and that courage is what has inspired me to dig deep and to be brave.

9. Tell us your latest news.
I am thrilled that FUZE has published my book, and I am working hard on my next one titled Deep in the Heart, which is set on the Texas Mexico border. It takes on big subjects too, but I will keep them a secret for now.

10. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Take your time with this book. It is short so there is no rush to the end. There are hidden meanings behind every phrase, sometimes every word. I have placed them there like clues in a treasure hunt. With months and months of premeditation, believe me. They are yours to discover.


Price: $14.95 paperback, $6.47-$12.95 ebook
ISBN: 9780984990856
Pages: 252
Release: September 18, 2012
Buy Links: Kindle, Nook, Fuze Publishing (paperback), Fuze Publishing (ebook)

About the Author

A graduate of Oxford and London Universities, Sarah Pleydell is an award-winning writer, performer and playwright who teaches English and writing at the University of Maryland. For the past twenty years, she has been a master teaching artist and arts integration specialist, working with institutions that include The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Luce Institute. In 2000, she won the American Association for Theatre Educators’ award for best book of the year with co-author Victoria Brown. Most recently she wrote the script and played the role of Isadora in Revolutionary: The Life and Times of Isadora Duncan with Word Dance Theater.

Based on her childhood in London, "Cologne" (Fuze Publishing) has been twenty years in the making. It has benefited from fellowships at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and input many generous and gifted writers.

Connect with Sarah:
Blog Tour Site
Fuze Publishing Web Site
Fuze Publishing Blog
Fuze Publishing Facebook
Fuze Publishing Twitter


  1. What a marvelous interview. Thank you, Sarah :)

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