Monday, February 04, 2013

A chat with author Peter Bernhardt


Today I'd like you to meet Peter Bernhardt, who is one of the better Indie authors I've come across.

Peter Bernhardt
Q. The Stasi File and Kiss of the Shaman’s Daughter both feature Rolf Keller and his friend Sylvia Mazzoni. Tell us about the genesis of your series.

A. When my wife and I moved to Sedona in retirement I was casting about for plot ideas for a novel I had been dreaming about writing during my later years of practicing law. While I had done lots of writing, essays and short stories in school in Germany, law journal articles and legal briefs, I knew nothing of how to go about writing a novel. I devoured every how-to-book I could get my hands on and attended a local writers’ workshop. One of the mantras bandied about is to write about what you know. As a newbie, I took that advice to heart.

What did I know about? Growing up in West Germany, coming to the United States in my early twenties, and practicing law in this country. I had also developed a passion for opera when a seed, planted during my school years (when I would rather have listened to Elvis Presley and the Beatles), sprouted in my thirties. Thinking that writing a spy thriller might be easier than other genres—little did I know—I wanted to find a plot that would incorporate my experiences as well as my passion.

After many weeks of cogitating—mostly during my morning runs through Sedona’s red rock country—I finally settled on a story that would include three of the most remarkable events in post-World War II Germany: unification, which most Germans thought would not happen during their lifetime, the terrorization of West German society by the Red Army Faction, and the East German secret police, the most feared institution in that communist state.  

Q. You and your character Rolf came from Germany to the southwest United States. I understand you grew up in Stuttgart, in West Germany. What drew you to the Southwestern U.S.? Same question for Rolf.

A. While I’m in many ways an atypical German—which is probably why I emigrated to the U.S.—I share the fascination most Germans have with the American West. One of the most popular series of novels in Germany are the Westerns by Karl May who penned these wonderful tales of the Wild West with Old Shatterhand and Apache Chief, Winnetou, without ever having set foot in the U.S. So much for writing about what you know. I’m not sure I can put into words (not good for an author) the allure the Southwest holds for me. I could cite the open spaces, the huge sky, the red cliffs, the Native American culture, but if I had to pick one thing it would be that the landscape is totally different from Germany. It seemed only natural to instill my protagonist, Rolf Keller, with the same kind of enthusiasm, not to mention to give him the opportunity to reunite with Sylvia as further incentive.

Q. Talk a bit about your character development. How much of yourself did you put into Rolf and Sylvia?

A. There are obvious parallels between Rolf and myself. We both emigrated from Germany to the U.S. We both became lawyers. We both are passionate about opera. That’s where the similarities end. While I grew up with the beer and wine drinking culture of Germany and in my younger years imbibed extensively on occasion, I never lost control (another German trait I share) and never suffered from the addiction of alcoholism that afflicts Rolf. However, I’ve had friends who were alcoholics and got sober through Alcoholics Anonymous. I learned a lot from them about this twelve-step program, so it seemed natural to give Rolf this disease and thereby follow the advice of many a writing coach that to humanize your protagonist you must give him a flaw or two.

As for Sylvia, what caused me to draw her character is my intense admiration of opera singers, her determination to overcome a youthful mistake of a romance with a terrorist, to lift herself from an upbringing by a single mother, an Italian guest worker in post-war Germany. In short, a strong female character who has my utmost admiration. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, and if I get to choose, I’ll return as a soprano gracing the stages of the world’s great opera houses. Of course, by then opera may be extinct.

Q. What inspired you to write about a rebellion that took place four centuries ago? How did you go about researching that part of the novel?

A. When I finished The Stasi File, I had a deep sense of loss. Sylvia and Rolf had been with me for several years and there was hardly a morning when I didn’t think about them during my jog through Sedona. I had already planned to write another spy novel involving the Stasi Romeos—the novel I am currently working on—but several readers encouraged me to write a sequel. What better place to send Sylvia to perform than at the Santa Fe Opera, which is where we attend performances every summer? A magical setting, which I hope I managed to convey in Kiss of the Shaman’s Daughter.

Once I settled on Santa Fe, I let my imagination go to work, considering several scenarios that would create danger for Rolf and Sylvia. The news accounts of traffickers in Native American artifacts in Utah gave me the idea of including archaeology and the illicit trade in the plot. Not knowing anything about the subject, I did a lot of research on the Internet and read numerous books. I had never heard of the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 and most readers I have asked haven’t either. The subject fascinated me and somehow this German without one drop of Indian blood came up with the idea of creating a young daughter of a Pueblo shaman and giving her a crucial role in the revolt. Add to that a news account in an Albuquerque paper of the lore of lost treasure of Indian artifacts and Spanish gold, and voilĂ .

But how do you combine two story lines over three hundred years apart? I wanted to experiment with a novel approach that might stretch some readers’ imagination. I chewed on that for a long time until I came up with a technique I was happy with. So I wrote the contemporary chapters in past tense and the Pueblo Revolt chapters in present tense.

Q. What’s next for Rolf and Sylvia? Can we expect any more run-ins with the Stasi?

A. The third novel I am writing now involves a strong female protagonist who tracks down a Stasi spy in the West. Sylvia and Rolf may well return after that, but whether they will battle the Stasi or other bad guys is undecided. With Sylvia performing on opera stages the world over, there will undoubtedly exist many opportunities for her and Rolf to get into all kinds of trouble. 

Q. You’re a lawyer with an obvious love of opera and the Southwest, and your novels look like clear examples of writing what you know. How much research do you need to do? 

A. Prior to outlining a plot and penning the first chapter, I spend weeks and months on research. Then while I write the novel and update my outline, I keep researching because numerous details I hadn’t considered inevitably will need to be addressed. As a reader I am always disappointed when a novel contains something that couldn’t possibly have occurred in the way the author wrote it. I do not want to write anything that isn’t at least plausible for the time period and the location of my plot. For instance, after thoroughly researching the Stasi, I settled on numerous military titles for the various characters. Only after additional research did I discover that I had assigned one of the Stasi generals a rank that existed in West Germany but not in East Germany. I was glad to have caught that so I could make the change.

While I’m a passionate opera lover, I am not a musician; I never learned to read music. So when I visited my mother in Stuttgart, I contacted the Stuttgart Opera and requested a tour as well as access to a professional who could answer the many questions I had. They put me in touch with a former professor at the opera school who at that time was a role coach at the opera. He not only answered all my questions, but arranged for me to sit in during a rehearsal of students at the opera school and an interview with a soprano who was about to graduate. The retired professor has since reviewed all the opera parts in my novels for accuracy and plausibility and I have listed him in the acknowledgment section of my novels. He happens to be from Colorado and he put me in touch with a friend who is an archaeologist who in turn checked over the archaeological parts of Kiss of the Shaman’s Daughter.

A long answer to your question how much research I need to do. I do a ton of research. The trick is to do exhaustive research and then use only so much as will enable your characters to appear genuine in a plot that moves in a way that seems inevitable.

Q. What (or who) are the major influences on your writing?

A. There are several authors whose novels I admire. From the classics like The Great Gatsby, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Animal Farm to the authors who wrote in the spy novel genre. The ones who influenced me the most are John LeCarrĂ© (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), Ken Follet (The Eye of the Needle), Charles McCarry (The Tears of Autumn), and Gerald Seymour (Traitor’s Kiss). Those four spy novels are the best I have ever read.

But as great as those novels are, I must say that what influences me the most is my imagination. Even during my legal career, I tried to write creatively. When I decided to give fiction writing a try, I didn’t know what to expect. To my surprise and delight I found that I have a muse that feeds me ideas and gives me inspiration.

Q. You’re a member of the Internet Writing Workshop. Are you active in any writer’s groups in Sedona?

A. After attending a few local writers’ groups, I joined the Sedona Writers’ Group at the time I began to write The Stasi File. A few years ago the facilitator resigned and asked me to take over the group. Our membership fluctuates from a low of six to a high of twelve. Unlike many groups where members read from a chapter or short story and others comment, we submit chapters or stories in a format that would be acceptable to an agent or publisher. We take the submissions home, mark them up in red, and then critique the major points at the next meeting. We find this approach superior to on-the-spot critiques.
In addition, I suggest certain writing topics for discussion. For example, I put on the next meeting’s agenda a discussion regarding an assertion in one of the articles I read on the Internet Writing Workshop: using coincidence to get your protagonist into trouble is wonderful, but using it to get it him out of trouble is cheating. We had an animated email discussion among our group already with some of us (including me) agreeing and others disagreeing with that statement. 

Peter Bernhardt, Author: “The Stasi File,” Quarter Finalist 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award; Amazon Kindle, http://tinyurl.com/88uvo6b; Sequel: “Kiss of the Shaman’s Daughter.” http://sedonaauthor.com 

6 comments:

Maryann Miller said...

Enjoyed the interview. What an interesting life you have led, Peter. I think we all incorporate our life experiences into our writing to some degree or another.

Peter Bernhardt said...

Thank you, Maryann. Yes, how can we write authentically without incorporating our life experiences?
Peter.

Rick Bylina said...

Good interview. Way to talk about the organic aspect of the writing process--stealing growth from all experience. Boosted you and Bob on Twitter and elsewhere. Should have a couple thousand extra sales today. ;-)

Bob Sanchez said...

Everything we experience can be grist for a writer's mill.

Francene Stanley said...

I know what you mean about your characters remaining with you long after the book is finished. It's been a pleasure knowing you. I always enjoy your writing. Long may it last.

G. K. Adams said...

Interesting interview. Don't often come across an opera loving author. I have to check this out.