Interview with Sarah Pleydell, author of Cologne

Publisher: Fuze Publishing

Publish Date: September 18, 2012

Order From:  Fuze Publishing / Amazon Kindle / Barnes & Noble NookFuze Publishing ebook

Sarah Pleydell's Bio: A graduate of Oxford and London Universities, Sarah Pleydell is an award-winning writer, performer and playwright who teaches English and writing at the University of Maryland. For the past twenty years, she has been a master teaching artist and arts integration specialist, working with institutions that include The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Luce Institute. In 2000, she won the American Association for Theatre Educators’ award for best book of the year with co-author Victoria Brown. Most recently she wrote the script and played the role of Isadora in Revolutionary: The Life and Times of Isadora Duncan with Word Dance Theater.

Based on her childhood in London, Cologne has been twenty years in the making. It has benefited from fellowships at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and input many generous and gifted writers.

Author Interview: Q. Please tell us about your current release.

London, 1960, Renate von Hasslemann, a German au pair, arrives at Victoria Station prepared to meet her new charges, Caroline and Maggie Whitaker. Yet she is ill-prepared for their parents: the mother, Helen, knows more about Nazi Germany than Renate does, and the father, Jack, disarms Renate with his quicksilver charm. In my debut novel Cologne, childhood and history collide, blurring the distinctions between victim and victor, ruin and redemption. With delicate humor, the novel presents a portrait of a family on the cusp of great social change, while reminding us that the traumas of war revisit the children of the peace.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for your book?

After living for twenty years in the United States, I developed an overwhelming nostalgia for England, the country of my birth, a longing for the consolation of native not adoptive soil. I loved the United States but felt in my bones that these were not my lands, mountains, rivers or streams. I think this is true for many expatriates. As I journalled and reflected, I realized that Kew Gardens, the affluent London suburb where I grew up, presented the perfect setting for a novel. It had a beguiling beauty and melancholia than was distinctively British but also fertile soil for more universal themes.

Q. Can you tell us about the journey that led you to write your book?

The characters in COLOGNE emerged from the environment of memory. I grew up in London in the fifties and sixties, and as I began to remember the sentient details of this world certain characters began to assert themselves within in. At first they resembled people in my childhood, but the more I wrote the more they assumed their own discrete fictional identities.

For example, Renate the au pair. We had fifteen au pairs in our household as I was growing up and the character of Renate draws on them all. As the fictional Renate developed her own history, temperament and fate, the personality that evolved bristled with anger but was confused both by its source and the fact that the longer she was in England the fiercer it became. As a result she was forced to recall the personal and collective traumas she had been so determined to suppress.

This story thus became informed as much by the history of Germany pre and post World War II as by the World War history of England, specifically the history of the city of Cologne. I did research at the Library of Congress and discovered that the British firebombed Cologne as they had so many German cities. I also learned of the city’s rich cultural history. Questions began to emerge about Renate and her family’s lived experiences. What if Renate’s father were a museum curator ? What if the family left Cologne to escape the bombings, but he remained to protect his artifacts? How would Renate, as a small child, feel abandoned by her father because his art mattered to him more ? What about her older brother, who would have fought on the side of the Nazis? What if he were maimed by the Russians instead of killed? How would that tragedy have impacted an impressionable, fatherless young girl like Renate? And how would a sophisticated family like hers fare after so many personal and economic losses? Finally, I began to reflect on the way those Germans who were children during the war would have reacted to carrying a legacy of shame and crime they had no part in.

I began to understand then how Renate would have been susceptible to the charms of an opportunist like Jack Whitaker, the kind of mercurial person who emerges in a time of change, chaos and stress. With no strong male figures in her own life she would be vulnerable to the ersatz affection Jack offered her, but in the end, I discovered as I wrote, she was strong enough to resist him. But at what cost?

Q. If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about the book?

I might try and develop the character and context of Renate’s character even further than I did under Molly Tinsley’s expert tutelage. I think there may be more to know about the von Hasselmann family. I also wrote a chapter about Caroline taking her incapacitated father to a distant Scottish monastery hoping to heal both herself and him. After I decided to end the novel with his death, this chapter was no longer relevant. However, I would love it to have a life somewhere, as it is quite a tender interlude.

Q. What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Writing about child sexual abuse is very costly to an author, especially one who has lived through it herself. I decided to write it through the point of view of a child, as a fragmented, discontinuous experience and not as a literal and linear one. Some readers, therefore, miss it altogether. This was a risk, as it may have seemed I was avoiding the subject, and I wrestled with that. But for a child this kind of violation and betrayal breaks the world apart; it is, therefore, too broken an event to register as a complete narrative. It is rather a hideous hodgepodge of sensory horror that does not add up: moreover, putting it all together would be more knowledge than most children could tolerate.

Q. Do you have a musical playlist you listen to when writing? If so, what kind of music?

When I am writing I listen to the music sung by silence because within it I can discern my own lyrics, hear the stories I must tell and pluck them from the air, as sentient beings almost, as I reach for the right word, the right phrase, the stories waiting to be discovered, to be told.

Q. What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

I write in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC where I sequester myself for three or so hours at a time: brainstorming, revising and refining. I have a very specific ritual that I always stick to. I get a lovely breakfast at a French cafe with café au lait and an omelet or fruit crisp, (I order it ahead so I have no excuse not to show up and will lose face if I do!)

Q. Do you plan any subsequent books?

I am thrilled that FUZE has published my book, and I am working hard on my next one titled Deep in the Heart, which is set on the Texas Mexico border. It is about three generations of an intercultural family and touches on guns, drugs and human trafficking.

Q. Please tell us your latest news.

I am headed off to the United Kingdom in a few days to see my mother who is ninety-two and still very much kicking. I love visiting home!

Q. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Take your time with this book. It is short so there is no rush to the end. There are hidden meanings behind every phrase, sometimes every word. I have placed them there like clues in a treasure hunt. With months and months of premeditation, believe me. They are yours to discover.


  1. Star, thanks for sharing such a personal interview with Sarah with your blog followers.


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