For Peter Behrens, dead doesn't mean gone. "The dead have a claim on me in some way," says the author of The Law of Dreams. But while his mother's ancestors have haunted his past novels, Behrens' latest, Carry Me, draws on his paternal family history in Europe during the fraught period of 1910-1938, straddling two World Wars and a deeply problematic dual identity: British and German.
In his own words, Behrens describes what it's like telling a family story that's at once fictional and utterly personal.
In 1988, I was at my father's bedside in a Montreal hospital as he was dying. At one point, he kept sitting up in bed - he was moving in and out of a coma - and telling me to get his suitcase out of the closet because he had to get out of the Frankfurt train station before the border closed. I'd tell him, Don't worry, Dad - it's 1988, we're in Montreal, that's Montreal out the window. And he'd remember where he really was, but would then tell me to get the suitcase out again a few hours later. He was reliving probably the most pivotal moment in his life. In 1938, my father got the last train out from Frankfurt to Rotterdam the day before war was declared in Germany. And in Carry Me, I really hinge the characters on that same moment. That sense of desperation - of having to go - is certainly something my father had.
When I went to Rotterdam for the first time, I took my father's passport with me and relived the two anxious weeks he spent there trying to get a boat to New York. It was a powerful thing for me to have his papers there, those papers that were so important. The fact that he had a British passport was what got him out of Germany. On the one level, I was writing the book as a writer, and on the other, I was living through it as a son, trying to imagine the horrors my father must have dealt with.
I have, on my office wall, the telegram my dad got from the British consul in Cologne, telling him "Get out of the country now" written in very terse diplomatic language. Those documents and photographs, my father's old passports, were the physical reality of the story. They were very much an inspiration for this book - old postcards, letters - that was very important to me.
When I was writing Carry Me, there was an urge to have pictures up on what I call "the family board" as I was writing. Those ghosts were always with me. I write because I've always been very aware that I'm part of the continuum of the living and the dead. And they, the dead, have a claim on me in some way. And I write these books to investigate that. That's why I don't see myself as a historical writer. I'm writing social and psychological novels about people who died before I was born.
One trait my father carried with him throughout his life, after Europe, was his sensitivity to anything that had to do with outsiders, refugees, strangers. He knew first hand what it meant to be someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I see Carry Me as a book about refugees fleeing a murderous regime. It's not historical - it's what's on the TV every night. Refugees are always despised. My dad was despised for being too German, and then despised for being too British. So the modern element of refugee life very much resonated for me when I was writing this book.
My wife says I seem very dazed when I'm really deep in the book. I'm kind of distracted, and she knows it. I've come to recognize this in myself. Porch lights are on, but nobody's home. I fully acknowledge the difficulty of living with somebody when 80 per cent of their emotional life is engaged in something that's totally internal. I have a son now and my wife travels a lot for work, so I've had the opportunity to be solo dad a lot of the time. That's really helped me keep a grip on reality throughout the writing process.
There was something really important about Carry Me that I didn't really realize until I finished this book and gave a talk at Harvard [where Behrens is presently a Radcliffe Institute Fellow]. When I talked about my three books and saw them all together, I realized that what I was doing was writing a history of my family for my son. It's my metaphorical history of our family for him.
Peter Behrens' comments have been edited and condensed. Author photo: Winky Lewis.