City of Women cover
City of Women
by David R. Gillham

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with David R. Gillham,
Author of City of Women

By Diane Slocum

November, 2012

Sigrid Schröder has an office job in World War II Berlin, a live-in mother-in-law and a husband on the eastern front. She also has a Jewish lover and a secretive young neighbor who needs help evading police inquiry. Daily life with rationing and British bombing raids is hard enough before Sigrid gets dangerously drawn into the lives of people who rarely are quite what they seem to be.

“I wanted to write about what it was like to be living on the wrong side of history.”




AUTHORLINK: Why did you choose to write about women on the German homefront during WWII?

GILLHAM: I chose the German homefront because I wanted to write about what it was like to be living on the wrong side of history, and how people faced the daily moral choices that life under a criminally repressive regime imposed upon them. I specifically wanted to write about the women in this situation, because few novels about the war have been devoted to the lives of the female population left behind after the men marched off to the front. My protagonist, Sigrid Schröder, is the embodiment of the German “war wife,” whose husband has been conscripted into the army, and who must finally make her own choices about how she’s going to live her life.

AUTHORLINK: As the title, City of Women, implies, most of the central characters are women. You’re a man. Did you have any problems writing from a woman’s point of view?

GILLHAM: No, I didn’t really. 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. But honestly, as I was writing, I never thought, what would a woman do? I thought about what the character would.

Actually, it was originally my idea to write a novel with a completely female cast of characters, because I wanted to explore wartime from a feminine point of view. But after 100 pages, that approach lost steam. Can you imagine City of Women now without the male energy of Egon or Wolfram? Also, as did all German women, Sigrid lives under the oppressive weight of a highly misogynistic regime that viewed women as fodder for motherhood. So, adding male characters to the mix was important for the sake of contrast, though it remained my intention to make women the focus of the book. Sigrid is a woman who has been censored all her life. She’s been told she was a bad daughter, a bad wife, a poor housekeeper and cook. And now, in the chaos that only war provides, she finally has the chance to find herself. To unleash all the passion and brilliance that has been pent up inside of her for so long, as she breaks free of her oppressive existence, and re-invents herself.

AUTHORLINK: Every scene has details of buildings, clothing, food and more of 1940s wartime Berlin. How did you do your research?

GILLHAM: I’ve been doing research on the period for a very long time, but sitting down to recreate Berlin, I started with my Baedeker’s Berlin travel guide from the 1920’s as a blueprint of the city. Then I 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, such as the windows taped up against the bombing, the stink of the cabbage stew brewing on the cook stove, or the songs on the wireless, suddenly interrupted by the staccato warning signaling an impending air raid.

“. . . it was really the story of Sigrid that I wanted to tell. How this woman rises above the grim circumstances of her daily rut . . .”




AUTHORLINK: The whole book is in Sigrid’s point of view. Did you ever consider using Ericha’s, too?

GILLHAM: What a great question. Ericha is a strong character – so driven and damaged. But she also has so many secrets, that I didn’t dare give voice to her while building the suspense of the narrative. I couldn’t afford for the reader to spend time inside her head, because she would give too much away. And really, no matter how strong the other characters in the book are, or how much the reader learns to love or loathe them (or both!) it was really the story of Sigrid that I wanted to tell. How this woman rises above the grim circumstances of her daily rut and begins to love life even as she risks it.

AUTHORLINK: Were the “present” events always in the present tense and her memories in past tense, or did you think of that technique as you wrote?

GILLHAM: Several years ago, I switched from writing in the past tense to writing in the present tense. I think it brings an immediacy to the action of the story. Also, since I like to use flashbacks to flesh out the character’s back story, it makes it easier to tell the difference between current action and past.

AUTHORLINK: Sigrid has few aspirations before she helps Ericha. What do you hope people will think about after they finish the book?

GILLHAM: Well, I don’t want to give too much away about the end, but I hope they will think that here’s a woman whom they can hardy recognize in comparison to the poor creature stuck in the mire of her daily grind that we meet in the first chapter. That, as Sigrid makes the decisions that lead her to the book’s climax, I hope they will see a woman with the courage to risk everything, even if she must sacrifice her heart.

AUTHORLINK: How did you feel when the book sold?

GILLHAM: 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.

“Never give up. If you have a story to tell, keep telling it.”

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have for other writers trying to sell their first novel?

GILLHAM: Never give up. If you have a story to tell, keep telling it. Think of the advice given to a young painter by his mentor in Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name is Asher Lev. “Remember, Asher Lev. As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except yourself and the truth as you see it.”

About David R. Gillham:

Gillham studied writing at the University of Southern California and spent more than ten years in the New York book business before selling City of Women, his first novel. He lives in Massachusetts with his family.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.