Travelling Through Time: An Interview with David Downing
by Myfanwy Cook
Myfanwy Cook talks with David Downing, author of the atmospheric John Russell and Effi Koen spy thrillers, set in Berlin during the Second World War.
“Evocative,” “outstanding,” and “addictive” are just a few of the descriptive words used by reviewers to praise the world of historical spy fiction that David Downing has created. His series opens with Zoo Station (Soho, 2007) at the outbreak of the Second World War, and concludes with the fall of Berlin and its partition. The sixth and final novel in the series, Masaryk Station, was published this year. But thankfully, another tough and intriguing character, Jack McColl, will take centre stage in Downing’s new book, Jack of Spies (Old Street, September 2013), timed to coincide with the forthcoming centenary of the Great War.
However, the question remains: what is it that has made the Station series stand out for its readers? It appears to be a combination of the reluctant hero, John Russell, whose role as a reporter provides him with a degree of protection and mobility, with a girlfriend who looks Jewish, but is a well-known face in Nazi propaganda films. Their survival is interwoven with the fates of ordinary people struggling under a totalitarian and oppressive regime. Equally compelling is the almost tangible feeling of gloom, oppression and hopelessness hanging over Berlin and its inhabitants, which Downing conveys in his descriptions, that makes his novels compulsive reading.
Responding to the question of what he likes most about his main characters, Downing said: “Two things. Russell and Effi are a settled couple, so the suspense in their relationship is not the usual ‘will they? won’t they?’ – it derives instead from their situation in the world, at a time when ‘doing the right thing’ often meant putting yourself at risk. And secondly, that Russell, though frequently threatened with violence, usually survives by the use of his wits.”
Each novel’s title is that of a station in Berlin, which helps to place the action but also adds to the feeling that you are indeed making the journey with the characters. It is impossible to travel back in time, but the wistful and doom-laden sense of time and place that Downing creates feels so authentic that one cannot help but imagine that this is how it was. Downing himself believes that creating a sense of atmosphere is, “Absolutely crucial. And it’s about much more than changing costumes. Getting the visual picture right – the clothing, the food, the look of the streets – is important, but you also have to factor in stuff like communications technology and the way people entertained themselves, not to mention the sorts of dreams and expectations which were typical of the time. Everything changes.”
Downing has published nonfiction articles and even an atlas on border disputes, which helps to explain why meticulous research was paramount in enabling him to recreate for his readers a picture of how it felt and looked during the period, from the change in the taste of the coffee to the sight of overcrowded trains packed with human cargo en route to concentration and work camps. His novels bring home how desperate the conditions were for the ordinary people, whose personal battle for survival often numbed them to the plight of those around them. When asked how much research was involved in order to evoke the spirit of the city, its inhabitants and the period, he answered, “A lot. Of course, I couldn’t visit Nazi Berlin, which was wrecked by bombs and shells, nor the ruins of the immediate post-war years, which were eventually cleared, so I had to rely on contemporary records – novels and memoirs written by those who were there, along with photographs, maps and films of the time. And then there’s all the history – social, economic, political – which you need for the wider context. A character like my NKVD officer, Yevgeny Shchepkin, is – I hope – morally convincing because he embodies a quarter-century of Soviet dreams and nightmares.”
About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK is a prize-winning short fiction writer. She also teaches creative fiction writing and is on the editorial team of HNR.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 65, August 2013