Author Carmen Korn has a great fanbase in Germany. Her trilogy about four women, the Jahrhundert Trilogie, has now left a big impression on the Dutch audience as well. The emotional last part, now translated into Dutch as De tijden veranderen, takes you into German riots, jealousy and love between East and West. I spoke to the author about her inspiration behind this beautiful portrait in a divided Germany.
After Töchter einer neuen Zeit/Dochters van een nieuwe tijd and Zeiten des Aufbruchs/Tijd om opnieuw te beginnen, the latest book Zeitenwende/De tijden veranderen closes the story that started in 1919. The four friends Henny, Käthe, Lina and Ida have grown into strong women who managed to hold their own after the war and, as they have done for decades, are always by each other’s side.
The last book is set in 1970. Henny is celebrating her seventieth birthday, where the friends and their familie share their happiness, sorrow, and both insignificant as great moments with each other. In the light of the 1970s and 1980s, at the time of a divided Germany, the Vietnam War and ultimately the fall of the Berlin Wall, we say goodbye to the four women in Carmen Korns latest book.
In the trilogy we follow Henny, Käthe, Lina and Ida. Mostly Käthe you based on one of your great aunts. Can you tell us a bit more about that? How did you get inspired to write the story of these four women?
“When I was a child, both of my grandmothers were still very active in their social lifes and they enjoyed to come together with their sisters, sitting around the table for coffee and cakes and later ‘Schnäpsken’. They talked about men and life and the past times. I took quite often part of these get togethers, sitting behind the tablecloth and listening. So I started early collecting stories for my story pool.”
Do you describe, besides the historical facts, a lot of events of stories that have really happened within your family?
“In the first book of the trilogy is a scene where Rudi saved his friend Hans from falling in the hands of the ‘SA’ (Sturmabteilung) when the drunken Hans rants against the nazis standing on a table in a pub. This exactly was what my drunken grandfather Eduard did and a good friend of him pulled him from the table to flee with him and hide him in the cellar.
In the second book Hennys son-in-law Thies strands in Erfurt when he comes out of Russian captivity and is on his way home. A woman is standing in the window of one of the houses, asking him to come up. She offers him a meal and clothes of her son who died in the war and had looked like Thies. Exactly this happened to my twenty-two year old father on his way home from a Russian prison camp.
In the more peaceful times of the third book I invoke the atmosphere of broadcasting houses I learned to love when I was a child.”
The first book starts in 1919 and the story ends in book three in 1999. Why this exact time span?
“After the first world war began a new time for women. In Germany they got the right to vote. Their chances to live a self-determined life grew a lot. They cut their hair and shortened their skirts. I thought that was a good time to begin with the story. First I planned to let the story end with the fall of the Berlin wall, but my editor proposed to let it end with the turn of the millenium.”
Which character do you identify yourself most with?
“Oh, that changed. In the beginning of the story mostly with Käthe. In the third book I identified very much with Henny in her life with Theo. My husband and me adopted habits of them. But I find myself also in some of the male characters.”
When we get to know Henny, Käthe, Lina and Ida they come from different social environments. What do you thinks binds them?
“Henny and Käthe are friends from early childhood. Lina will become Hennys sister-in-law. In a very dramatic moment in her life, Henny meets Ida. Between her and the other three women is the most social difference, but I think they like each other. Only Käthe has a long way with Ida.”
When you started writing the trilogy, did you always have in mind how Henny, Käthe, Lina and Ida’s story had to end?
“No. It was a long development, like in real life. And sometimes my characters were quite stubborn and didn’t want to do what I had planned for them!”
While Zeitenwende/De tijden veranderen is now translated into Dutch, the original book got published two years ago. Was it hard to say goodbye to the characters? You write with so much love and empathy, I can imagine they feel like friends or family.
“It was awfully hard. And I still miss them. I wrote a new book and now I’m writing the sequel. It made me very happy when these new characters also found their way in my heart, but the ‘staff’ of the trilogy will be always with me. They belong to my life.”
You write about the suffering and misery of war. How do you manage to make sure readers also find hope and light in your books? Is it hard to find a balance to make it not too heavy?
“Indeed. A lot of wars, even though the Vietnam War is only mentioned. But I think even in the hardest times there is hope and light. And this is one thing I learned: whatever life has in stock for you on impositions, don’t give up. Surviving is the thing.”
You’ve worked as a journalist for Stern. How did you manage to go from facts to fiction? Is the research for your books different or does it feel the same as when you worked in journalism?
“There is no difference in the research, it helped a lot that I came from journalism. The old rule that you need more than one source of information. And honestly: I think writing fiction is much easier. Like the writer Michael Ende said: ‘The only reality we can describe with a good conscience, is the one we invent.’”
Is it hard to write fiction as a journalist? I can imagine that you want even the smallest details to be right.
“You are right. I’m obsessed with details. That is a lot of work, but not hard.”
Many of these details are about Hamburg, giving readers the feeling as if they have visited or even lived in Hamburg themselves. What’s so special to you about Hamburg?
“I love Hamburg, it’s open-minded and very complex. All the important things of my live took place here. Working as a journalist and writer, marriage and bringing up our children.”
What are your plans after the Jahrhundert trilogy? Will you keep writing historical fiction?
“For the next ten months I will write the second volume of Und die Welt war jung (will be published in Dutch under the title En de wereld was jong), which tells the story of three families in Hamburg, Cologne and San Remo. I’m still not sure if I will write a third book for this saga. And I can imagine to write a book which is set in our time.”
De tijden veranderen, the Dutch translation of the last book in the Jahrhundert trilogy by Carmen Korn, has been published by A.W. Bruna in The Netherlands today. Do you want to read this interview in Dutch? You’ll find it right HERE.
Would you like to win the full Dutch trilogy? I’ll be giving away two packages with all three Dutch books. Read the Dutch article HERE.