CAN YOU TELL READERS ABOUT REMOTE SYMPATHY?
Remote Sympathy tells the story of three Germans during WW2: Lenard, a doctor with Jewish ancestry; Dietrich, an SS officer at Buchenwald concentration camp; and his wife Greta, living in a beautiful house a stone’s throw from the compound she tries to ignore. In the early 1930s, Lenard invented a machine he thought would cure cancer, which operated via ‘remote sympathy’ – delivering electrical impulses to one part of the body in order to treat tumours elsewhere. Years later, at Buchenwald, Dietrich orders the imprisoned Lenard to rebuild the machine and treat Greta in secret. Lenard believes by then that it doesn’t work, but in order to save his family and himself, he must pretend that he can indeed cure her. It’s a story, then, about the power of belief as well as the corrosiveness of self-deception; each of the characters refuses to look the uncomfortable truth in the face – until they can no longer ignore it.
WHEN AND HOW WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR SUCH A MOVING AND CREATIVE STORY SPARKED?
As a student living in Berlin in the 1990s, I visited Buchenwald on a class trip and we slept in the former SS barracks (though not very well). I saw just how close Buchenwald was to Weimar – that cradle of German culture and enlightenment lay just a few kilometres down the hill. Our professor showed us the stump of a tree known as the Goethe oak in the middle of the camp; supposedly Goethe would rest beneath it on his hill walks and write poetry. When the land was cleared to build Buchenwald, the Nazis spared this tree – for them it represented all that was noble and pure about Germany, but for the prisoners it stood for a Germany long lost. The extraordinary contradictions of the site stayed with me, and I knew they belonged somehow in my writing. Much later, when researching another novel, I read about experimental medical treatments – including electrotherapy – in Nazi Germany. Those two seeds produced my story of a doctor/prisoner ordered to save a patient using a machine he is certain can’t succeed. The plot came fully formed, which is rare for me, and was too intriguing to resist.
YOU MUST HAVE DONE A LARGE AMOUNT OF RESEARCH; CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THE INVESTIGATIVE PROCESS?
I read prisoner memoirs, interviews, letters, publications by the Buchenwald Memorial, and I returned there in 2018. Often I was faced with contradictory information, or political bias – many East German sources mythologise the role of communist prisoners. I corresponded with the chief archivist at the Memorial for two years, who gave me access to valuable ephemera: floorplans of the officers’ beautiful villas designed by an architect prisoner; greeting cards made by prisoner calligraphers for the SS; information about the zoo and falconry located next to the camp for the SS and their families; clandestine photos of conditions inside the fence and official photos that supposedly showed conditions inside fence. He gifted me an ammonite fossil found in the area – evidence of a much more distant past, which wove its way into the book’s symbolism too.
I based Dietrich on the head of administration at Buchenwald, in terms of his duties and some of his actions. I read 6000 pages of transcripts from the Buchenwald trials, and more from the Nuremberg trials – and what struck me was that he and the other accused most often sounded completely normal. That was the key to shaping his character.
WHAT ARE YOU HOPING READERS WILL TAKE AWAY FROM READING YOUR NOVEL?
Most simply, I hope that readers will enjoy the unusual intersections the book presents – the way these very different lives brush up against one another and mesh together. All of the main characters in Remote Sympathy are complicit in varying degrees in the persecution of innocent people: even Lenard, a prisoner, must make compromising choices in order to survive. Apart from wanting readers to find satisfaction in the gradual revelation of the characters’ stories – and without wanting to sound too preachy – I hope that they might think about their own willingness to look the other way in ethically uncomfortable situations.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AT THE MOMENT OR WHAT BOOK YOU READ RECENTLY WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO READERS?
I’ve just finished John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky, which I loved. It’s a mesmerising tale of ruthless literary ambition, and I took particular delight in the arch bitchiness of some of the writers Boyne brings to egomaniacal life.