If someone were to ask me “Where did you get the idea for your novel?”, I would imagine seeing myself in an old black and white movie where the picture would go all soft and blurry as I slipped into the briefest of reveries before replying that the idea came after a chance encounter at the birthday party in Munich some twenty years ago.
Or maybe I would just shorten my answer to “Schloss Blutenberg, 1996″.
Schloss Blutenberg is a 500-year-old castle set in a picturesque park, just a 15-minute bicycle ride from where my in-laws were living. Built for a Bavarian duke, the white-walled former hunting lodge complete with a chapel, now serves as a restaurant, wedding reception centre and place to hang out if you just want to stroll or sit by the lake and feed the swans.
The family had come together at Blutenberg to celebrate the birthday of one of my wife’s many aunts. There were about twenty of us at the restaurant, many of my in-laws of whom I was meeting for the first time.
Unfortunately, my German in those days was woeful at the time, and my grasp of the Bavarian dialect more or less non-existent. My conversational skills were capped to mumbling “Guten Tag”, “Bitte” and “danke”. And so found it easier to just sit back with my beer and listen to the guttural chatter swirl around me.
After a while, my wife told me that there was an elderly lady at the other end of the long table; a neighbour of the aunt-in-law we were honouring, and she wanted to meet me.
Looking back after all these years, Karen Maria Kane was one of those spritely, intelligent octogenarians who still had a sparkle in her eye and, better yet, a pretty good command of English (better than my German at any rate). Her first words to me were ‘Do you know the films of Fritz Lang?’
‘Do you know who wrote those films?’
Caught off guard, and feeling less confident, I confessed that I didn’t.
‘They were written by his wife, Thea von Harbou. She wrote all of the films that he made in Germany before he went to America. Thea was my aunt.’
And with I was hooked.
I learned that her aunt had first published a book of poems when she was 14. It was the start of a writing career that would see her become Germany’s best-selling author with over 50 screenplays and novels to her credit. As a screenwriter, she wrote not only for Fritz Lang, but also the A-list directors of Weimar Germany, including F.W. Murnau, E.A. Dupont and Carl Dreyer.
But it is the cumulative story of Thea’s career and life outside of writing that is truly fascinating, complex and intriguing. For Thea’s story – I was to learn – was one of talent and fame reduced to notoriety through the choices she made. And finally a redemption.
And with that, I think I have adequately answered the question “Where did you get the idea for your novel?”