Thursday, January 17, 2013

Interview with Author T.H.E. Hill on his Upcoming Book Reunification: A Monterey Mary Returns to Berlin

The interview was initially published on
Today I'm talking with T.H.E. Hill, the award-winning author of two novels about Berlin. Hill's first novel-Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary-is ostensibly about an Army Security Agency Russian linguist working the Berlin Spy Tunnel in the mid-1950s, but, according to Wikipedia, it is closer in reality to the mid-1970s. His second novel-The Day Before the Berlin Wall: Could We Have Stopped It?-is based on a "legend" that was still current among U.S. Army soldiers in Berlin in the mid-1970s. According to the legend, we had advance knowledge of the Berlin Wall, and we knew that the East-German troops who were going to build it had been told to halt construction if the Americans were to take aggressive action to stop them.

Hill's forthcoming new novel-Reunification: A Monterey Mary Returns to Berlin-is also about Berlin.

Novacheck: Why this fascination with Berlin?

Hill: Berlin was the epicenter of the Cold War, and the Cold War and I grew up together. I was born during the Berlin Airlift, and came of age in a U.S. Army uniform inside the confines of the Berlin Wall. Now, Berlin is the capital of the "new," reunited Germany, and the epicenter of the Eurozone Crisis. It's a city that captures your imagination and won't let go.

And it's not just me. Berlin is the scene of the stories that German authors and screenwriters who are distilling the literary truth of German Reunification. Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye Lenin, Thomas Brussig's Am kürzeren Ende der Sonnenallee (On the Shorter End of Sun Avenue), and the Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Picture of 2007, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck are all set in Berlin. They are thought provoking, poignant literary and cinematographic treatments of German reunification from the German perspective.

So, while there is lots of competition to tell the story of German Reunificationfrom the German perspective, an American perspective on the reunification of Berlin is sadly lacking. For almost fifty years-from 1945 to 1994-there was a large and vibrant American Community in Berlin. I was once a part of it. It stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Berliners during the Berlin Airlift, and through the Berlin Wall from rise to fall. It deserves to have a literary resolution to its disappearance. That's what I hope to do with Reunification.

So what's the storyline?

It's a multi-threaded story, based on the premise of an American who was stationed in divided Berlin during the 1970s returning to reunified Berlin on an academic Fellowship to write a book about how the Stasi dealt with dissidents. As he works on the book, however, it becomes clear that there are broader implications about the role of the CIA, from which Mike, the first-person narrator, has retired.

The next major thread is romantic. The novel opens at a reception where Mike is "reunited" with Ilse. She was his girlfriend during the time that he worked at the Army Security Agency Field Station in Berlin. She is not pleased to see him, and breaks a plate across his face to emphasize the point. The reader wants to know why she did that, but she's not talking, and neither is he, because his jaw is taped shut to help the cut from the broken plate heal. They have to figure out if there is still an "us" in their relationship.

The other big thread of the novel is a spy whodunit. When the narrator reads his own Stasi file, he discovers that somebody was reporting on him while he was in the Army in Berlin. Since nobody ever really retires from intelligence work, he can't rest until he finds out who it was. The prime suspect is Ilse, but he refuses to believe it was her, and sets off through the dark inner recesses of his memory in search of other suspects, and there are plenty to be found in the rogue's gallery of characters that he served with in the Army Security Agency. With his case-officer hat on, he imagines whom he could have recruited, if Field Station Berlin had been on his target list.

As more clues come out of the reconstructs produced by the special software that the Fraunhofer Institute developed to reassemble to files that the Stasi case officers shredded just before the GDR collapsed entirely, Mike develops a clearer picture of MUZIEK, the cover-name for the Stasi source who was reporting on him. The detection required to solve the whodunit mystery is molded on the classic fair-play mystery novels of detectives like Ellery Queen, whose works present the reader with all the same clues that the detective has, so as to give the reader a chance to solve an intellectually challenging puzzle along with the detective.

The plot thickens when Mike's daughter comes to visit him, and falls in love with the Director of the Stasi Archive where Mike is doing his research. The Director is none other than Ilse's son. Since the course of true love is never easy, there is a barrier to creating an "us" out of this German-American couple. In this case it is the question of whether the Archive Director is her half-brother.

Then add an IRA informant in witness protection who thinks that Mike is a hit man sent to rub her out, and serve stirred, not shaken in a classy cover.

The advance copies of the chapters that I have seen hint at a political thread in the novel. What's that going to be about?

The political thread is just that: a hint. It runs parallel to Mike's reunification with his Ilse, and her angry reaction to seeing him again. The political winds in Berlin changed after the Berlin Wall fell, and Germany was reunited. When I lived there in the 1970s, Kennedy was still incredibly popular in Berlin for his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech a decade before. Now, a generation after the Berlin Wall fell, German politicians are steering a new policy course intended to demonstrate their independence from America, and Americans are not as popular in Berlin as they used to be.

I guess that this is to be expected when you consider that German President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angel Merkel were both raised in the East. We didn't do them any favors when the country was divided among the four victorious Allied powers.

The merger of East and West Germany made some unexpected changes in the German Weltanschauung [mindset]. The thread of 'is there is still an "us" in U.S.-F.R.G. relations,' plays out in the background in parallel to Mike and Ilse trying to figure out if there is an "us" in their relationship.

There was a cryptologic contest to break the encrypted message in The Day Before the Berlin Wall: Could We Have Stopped It. Will there be another one in Reunification?

Yes, there will be. The display quote at the beginning of the book will be encrypted. The prize will be the same as the other cryptologic contest I run on my website: a signed copy of one of my novels.

Has anyone claimed a prize yet?

No, and I'm surprised. The system used is a 'paper-and-pencil' system, one that was actually used by the Russians, and there is enough depth to break it. I only had one submission, and it didn't even get the character count right. That's a hint for anybody who's interested. For the crypies who are worried that I might be giving something away that the Russians don't know about, the system is described on Wikipedia, but I'm not going to say where, of course. That would make solving it too easy.

From what I have read in the press, it seems like some of the Germans are suffering from a sort of "buyer's remorse" about reunification. A great number of East Germans now find themselves strangers in their homeland, suffering from East nostalgia. Like John Galsworthy said, one has "to leave one's country to become conscious of it," but in their case, they didn't leave their country. Their country left them.

I know how they feel. The same thing happened to us Americans. When my wife and I went back to Berlin after the Berlin Wall fell, and returned to the American Kaserns, the housing areas, the school, the hospital, the PX and the Commissary that had once been so familiar to us, these places were like a ghost town inhabited by living people who couldn't see the apparitions that shimmered before us. The sensation was as surreal as an episode of The Twilight Zone or The X-files. Thomas Wolfe's message was clear: you can't go home again. Your old home has been taken over by strangers.

The similarity of the German and the American experiences is the reason that I think that Reunification will find a welcome among both American and German audiences alike. That's why it's going to be released simultaneously in the States and in Germany.

It seems pretty clear that the flashbacks to divided Berlin come
from your personal experience while there in the U.S. Army. What are you basing your modern-day Berlin episodes on?

Like I said, we've been back to Berlin since the Berlin Wall came down, and the Internet brings the Berlin dailies like the Berliner Morgenpost, the Berliner Zeitung and the Tagesspiegel right straight to your computer screen. That's enough to get the ball rolling, but not to complete the novel. To put the icing on the cake, we're going back to Berlin in spring 2013 for an extended stay. After that, Reunification will go into final editing.

When can we expect to see Reunification on bookshelves?

The trade paper edition will come out on 13 August 2013, the anniversary of the start of construction of the Berlin Wall, and the eBook edition will follow in time or Christmas. While 2013 is the fifty-second anniversary of the start of construction of the Berlin Wall, it is the fiftieth anniversary of the first permanent SIGINT collection presence on Teufelsberg in Berlin, the operational home of Field Station Berlin. This anniversary is being marked by a reunion of Field Station Berlin veterans in Berlin, and the issue of a sheet of Cinderella stamps commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Field Station Berlin on Teufelsberg.

Can we read a sample somewhere before then?

Sure. The first chapter is up on the book's website.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

Thank you for inviting me.

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