Sigrid, the main character of City of Women, has a secret: Rather than worry over her husband who is on the front line in World War II, she dreams of her Jewish lover—and eventually faces a stark choice.
This impressive debut novel reads like a thriller—one that’s “full of sharp twists, sex, muddy morals and a Berlin that breathes,” writes BookPage reviewer Sheri Bodoh. In a Q&A, debut author David R. Gillham tells us about inspiring fictional heroines and shares how he so vividly captured war-era Berlin.
World War II fiction (in the form of novels and movies) is perennially popular. What is unique about City of Women?
While there have been countless novels and films about World War II Berlin, I can’t recall many that tell their story from the point of view of an ordinary woman. It’s 1943 at the height of the war. The men are at the front, and Berlin has become a “city of women.” The reader follows my protagonist, Sigrid, who is a strong, passionate woman, trapped in a dismal existence on the Home Front. There are many twists and turns and sub-plots woven together by a host of characters, but the essential core of the book is Sigrid’s story, as she breaks free of her oppressive existence, and re-invents herself.
Why are you drawn to write about the lives of women? As a male writer, do you think there are distinct challenges to writing from a woman’s point of view?
When I’m writing, I never think, what would a woman do? I think about what the character would do. But having said that, I am always so pleased when readers think I’ve done an effective job of writing from a female character’s perspective—or when they’re surprised to find that City of Women was written by a man. Certainly, when I was a stay-at-home parent for three years, there were very few other men at the playgrounds, or the sing-alongs, or the libraries, and I often found myself immersed in my own sort of “city of women.” So, maybe that helped.
I am always so pleased when readers are surprised to find that City of Women was written by a man.
On your website, you write that your “connection to history has always been palpable, especially to certain times and places.” Do you have any personal connection to World War II Berlin?
I have no personal connection in my background to wartime Berlin, but I have always been intensely interested in the drama of history, and by that I mean its dramatic possibilities. Reliving history through fiction is especially rewarding for me, because it allows me create a world built on historical detail, but populated with characters of my own invention, who then pursue their own adventures or misadventures against as realistic a backdrop as I can manage to create.
As a writer of historical fiction, when do you know that you’ve done enough research? Was there a particular source that you found especially instructive in writing City of Women?
I continue to do research while I’m writing, and don’t stop till the manuscript is sent to the printer’s. But I began City of Women by using my Baedeker’s Berlin travel guide from the 1920’s as a blueprint of the city, and then combed the history books, memoirs and documentaries for every detail that I could use to create a mood, build a character or enrich the action. I always attempt to avoid long history lessons in heavily descriptive passages, and depend, instead, on the evocative details of daily existence to draw the dramatic backdrop for me. Some examples of this from the book are the apartment windows taped up against the bombing, the acrid stink of Mother Schröder’s ersatz cigarettes ground from acorns or the songs on the wireless suddenly interrupted by the staccato warning signaling an impending air raid.
Sigrid is a memorable heroine, and I imagine that book clubs will soon enjoy discussing her choices and motivations. Are there any fictional heroines who have made a strong impact on you?
Sophie from William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice comes to mind immediately. Sophie was another ordinary person, faced with such a horrific choice, that, in the end, she couldn’t live with her decision. Also, there’s a touch of Madame Bovary in Sigrid’s unapologetically boundless desire, and the sort of evolving strength and self-realization that is a part of the heroine’s journey in almost any Margaret Atwood novel you’d care to mention.
Name one book you think everyone should read, and why.
Sophie’s Choice still fills that bill for me. It’s a testament to the human condition, the limits of survival, and continued pursuit of redemption even in the face of insurmountable odds. It’s a beautifully crafted novel, though there’s also no denying that it contains a heavy dose of darkness. So, if the reader is not quite in the right frame of mind for it, I’d recommend Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres for many of the same reasons. It’s a stunningly brilliant retelling of the Lear myth from the daughter’s point of view, set in the modern American heartland.
What was your reaction when you found out your first novel would be published?
I’m not sure there’s a word in the English language that would capture that moment. “Ecstatic” seems too pale a description. Even the German falls short; Verzückt! Perhaps, I’ll have to ask my wife to find a word in Bulgarian.
What can you tell us about your next project?
Well, I’m working hard on the next book, but it's still at too fragile a stage to expose it to the open air. All I can reveal at this point is that it’s set in both post-war Amsterdam and 1950’s New York.
Read a review of City of Women.