Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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A story of many kinds of homecomings

A highlight for me as my novel, The Munich Girl, came into the world was my return to the first place in Germany where my family lived when I was a child.

On the cloudy November afternoon that the book published, I faced the Main River in the tiny village of Dorfprozelten and offered my thanks at the grave of Herr and Frau Geis, who shared their house with my family back in the early 1960s.

It was because my military family lived “on the economy” with them that my sense of myself as a citizen of the world began so early. The fact that my family established close ties with German people in post-war Europe also inevitably led me to want to understand the experience of Germans themselves during the war.

I’d never have imagined that this path would take me through Hitler’s living room as it drew me into the life of his longtime mistress, later wife, Eva Braun.

“How will you ever get readers past the fact that it’s her – that she’s such a large part of the story?” is a question I grew used to hearing.

I wouldn’t. I knew that from the start. Readers would embark on that particular journey only if they were willing to.

This story in no way seeks to exonerate or “redeem” her, Rather, she makes a good motif for looking at the ways in which many people, women in particular, suppress our own lives – or often don’t even claim those lives fully at all.

The story of The Munich Girl is about many things, including, of course, Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, and many facets of history from the time of the war in Germany. It is also about the power of friendship, and the importance of our often ignored and overlooked inner life, without which our world careens increasingly out-of-balance, as it did in those wartime days.

Much like the book’s protagonist, Anna, I repeatedly experience what invites me to look beyond what I think I know, and have understood about life. The process of uncovering the story has helped me remember many kinds of homecomings, spiritual and material, that life brings to us.

At its heart, it’s a story about outlasting that chaos and confusion that unavoidably visit us, in both public and private wars. We seem to do that by valuing, and believing in, the stronger possibility in all of the good that we are willing to contribute to building together.

Part of our ability to do that, I’ve come to believe, rests in being able to recognize that human beings aren’t usually all good, or all bad, but a complex mix of where our experience, understanding, and choices have led us.  As one character in The Munich Girl observes: “Sometimes, we must outlast even what seems worse than we have imagined, because we believe in the things that are good. So that there can be good things again.”

Eight years ago when the process of this book began, I also couldn’t have imagined what those words might come to mean in the atmosphere of our world today. I thank every reader who’s giving the book time, and also offering thoughtful reflection that helps me to continue learning from the pathway of this story, every day.

More about The Munich Girl: https://www.amazon.com/Munich-Girl-Novel-Legacies-Outlast/dp/0996546987

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The Munich Girl and Nazi Germany – and now

Photo montage courtesy of Patricia Mueggler.

 

As I landed back in the U.S. from a span of time in Europe, I received this kind message from writer Stephanie Villegas:

“Just wanted to let you know that my latest blog post was a list of the best WWII books (for Middle & YA readers) and your book The Munich Girl is on the list.”

I am honored that the novel has been recommended this way, and it’s in great company on that list –

http://easypeasyfiction.blogspot.com/2017/10/25-best-wwii-books-for-middle-grade-and.html

Discovering the “Girl” on a library shelf in Kendal, UK.

Stephanie’s blog is well worth visiting for some intriguing posts, too, especially one about what sort of very human lives we need to see better represented in fiction. Be sure to look for some of her own short stories while you’re there.

As I revisited the trail of The Munich Girl over these last weeks, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what my experience with writing the book revealed for me, and what I continue to discover now.

Many readers, both in their questions and their reviews, draw parallels between the historic time frame of the novel and the events and atmosphere of our own time.

Fun and new friends in Munich.

Earlier this year, I enjoyed an interview with author Elizabeth Horton-Newton, whose good questions led me to exploring some of my own reflections on this, especially as they relate to the imbalances playing themselves out (and quite intensely!) all around us:

  1. You’ve chosen a very unusual subject to write about. How did you come up with the idea for The Munich Girl?

My original intent was (and remained) to explore more about the lives of everyday Germans during WWII. When life led me to information about Eva Braun, it opened up whole new questions, particularly because she came from a background of everyday Germans – not what many would expect to be Hitler’s choice at all.

When the question: “What if you had known Eva Braun, but hadn’t known the role she played in his life?” arose, the story’s momentum became unstoppable for me. A number of people actually did have this experience with her, didn’t find out the truth of her situation until after her death, because she was required to remain an invisible secret in Hitler’s life. That way, he could sustain the adulation he received through the myth that “his bride was Germany”.

 

  1. Did you anticipate the amount of research you would need to do? How did you decide where to begin?

Because my interest had been hooked, I welcomed the research process. I stumbled into this focus because, as I sought to understand the experience of German people during the war, the very first book I read was about Eva Braun.

The author pointed out that Braun’s experience with Hitler mirrored Germany’s. First he seduced them, then abandoned them, and finally, led them into destruction.

Through further reading, I gained a more complete view of the time period in Germany, and of the world Eva Braun inhabited. I then I began to study her films and photographs more closely, since photography was such an essential part of who she was. It’s why we have such personal visual records of Hitler, and many of her images reveal a lot about the tone and circumstances of her life, too.

  1. As you did your research did your feelings about the real people, Eva Braun, Hitler, any others, change? In what way?  

As I learned more about Hitler than I’d ever want to, it was unmistakable how flawed his psyche and personality were. Textbook narcissistic personality disorder, later compounded by the erratic results of a mixture of unstable drugs.

But once you get beyond the significant inaccuracies published about Eva Braun over the years, you find a more rounded and humane personality, one whom many credible sources even admired.

She was dismissed by historians as unimportant when, in fact, as one German biographer noted, she holds the key to better understanding Hitler.

But only if we’re willing to allow that, in addition to behaving monstrously, he was also human. For some, that idea’s still something like heresy.

However, a paradox that I think could tell us a lot about our present imbalances of inequality is that the very sorts of caring, nurturing qualities that the Nazis sought to demean and suppress were exactly what Hitler came home to Eva Braun for.

One question for me is, when, and how, will we find the collective will to value and honor these qualities in both genders, and all situations?

It is the devaluing of them that has allowed, and continues to allow, atrocities like the Holocaust to happen.

You can find Elizabeth’s full interview, along with her review of the book here:

https://elizabethnnewton.com/2017/02/17/the-munich-girl-by-phyllis-edgerly-ring/


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Facts, fiction, and female characters

Autumn in Murnau, Vassily Kandinsky, 1908.

Author Dianne Ascroft, who writes historical fiction, offered me a wonderful interview.

Her questions are some of the most enjoyable I’ve received and as I explore the path of The Munich Girl in my current memoir writing, they’re especially helpful:

Describe how you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel.

PER: Invented characters act as catalysts for what a writer discovers about the story, so that’s a huge part of the pleasure of coming to know them.

Characters who were real people require research accuracy, of course. A paradox I encountered is how very much information published about Eva Braun is inaccurate, including many photos in which someone else, including her own sister, is identified as her.

While she’s not the protagonist, I was looking for more of the emotional story that her life showed. The novel’s goal has never been to try to exonerate or “redeem” her, or how she is perceived. She’s an excellent motif for examining how people, especially women, suppress our own lives, and what forces and factors lead us to do that.

She also offers a way to look at the reality that human beings are complex. She clearly had a conscience, and acted on it, tried to make good choices.

She also made ones that served neither herself nor others very well. Do we negate or devalue the contributions that someone makes because they also do things that are misguided, ill-advised, or even personally destructive? Do we not all share this same complexity in experience? These are themes I wanted to explore.

How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?

PER: As closely as possible when it came to information from the WWII era and the years that preceded it in Germany. As my husband says, if the characters ride a train on a certain line at a certain time of day, there had to really be one.

There’s a lot of factual information in The Munich Girl and I’ve heard from readers that it can be hard to know where the factual leaves off and the fiction begins. It’s easy to know where: in the emotional lives of the characters, including those people that history remembers. That’s where my own attempt to read between the lines of daily life watched for the signs of interior life I could recognize and convey as the story revealed itself.

In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?

PER: This was one of the most delightful parts, for me, as I spent extended spans of time in various locales in Germany that are a part of the story.

Also, in the time I spent poring over Eva Braun’s photographs and films, I got to know both the interiors and exteriors of the settings as they appeared during the 1930s and ‘40s.

A fun element of research was what has become, for me, a growing collection of vintage postcards that show scenes from that era in many of the settings of the story.

There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters.

Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?

PER: I love stories where there’s a balance that hints at what a world with equality might look and feel like. This novel has a lot more scope for female characters. At its heart is a friendship between two women, one of whom was a megalomaniac’s mistress, and the effect their emotional intimacy had in each of their lives, and in the lives of those who came along in a next generation.

But it’s really about two facets of human experience that matter a great deal to me, ones I imagine are still characterized as more “feminine” than “masculine,” though I believe they apply in all of our lives. The first is the inner reunion of “coming home to” our truest self that we all must eventually encounter. The second, and even more intriguing facet, for me, is the mysterious role that others play in that process, often in highly unexpected ways.

One particular paradox I discovered might open the door to a deeper conversation about gender equality, one that examines it from the perspective of human virtues. It’s that the qualities of compassion and care that Hitler and the Third Reich sought to demean, reject, and suppress are precisely what he came home to Eva Braun for. This unexamined and very common imbalance, which distorts and abuses the value of the very things we need to heal as a world, continues to play out on a massive, violent scale in human life.

Find the full interview here:  https://dianneascroft.com/2016/08/05/meeting-the-munich-girl/


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An over-shadowed life

As I continue to receive valued feedback from book-discussion groups and readers, I reflect on how much the world’s continuing hunger to “understand” Hitler is aided by understanding more about Eva Braun.

Much of what’s conveyed about her (huge amounts of it inaccurate) has been based on presumed understanding about him.

But the reality is that more complete information about her can help us better understand more about why Hitler, despite the evil he represents (or perhaps because of it), has occupied collective consciousness for more than 70 years.

Far from attempting to redeem her, my novel, The Munich Girl, follows along patterns of how Braun’s life in Hitler’s shadow, which ended alongside him when she was 33, is emblematic of what many women have done, and still do, in a world still hobbled by inequality. Unable to enact their own potential in a direct way, they resort to doing so from the invisible sidelines and background.

Eva Braun with her mother, Franziska Kronberger Braun.

In Eva Braun’s case, that public invisibility lasted the entire 16 years she spent with Hitler.

One reviewer notes: “The Munich Girl looks at the role of women in different cultures and periods in a way that is quite relevant right now. Do women choose to play the lead in their own lives or do they sacrifice themselves for others? Ms. Ring also leads us to ask what we know of our parents’ lives. How might their experiences or traumas be passed down to us? How open are we to the changes that can come from deep healing?”

Another reader writes: “Women, even well-educated women such as [Anna], the novel’s protagonist, are groomed to give up their lives for the ‘larger’ missions of their husbands and lovers. … one of the many ways in which the feminine aspect of humanity is subjugated, Fascism being the most extreme form.”

The story of The Munich Girl is about many things beyond Eva Braun and the time of the war in Germany.

It’s about how women share our lives with each other, the power of our friendships, and the way we protect each other’s vulnerabilities, perhaps as part of how we begin to gain compassion.

So that our world can, too.

Find more about The Munich Girl at:

 


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A life between the lines

Following the trail of The Munich Girl

Seventy-two years ago this spring, Eva Braun’s world, and life, were coming to their end as Germany succumbed to defeat and ruin.

From a bunker under Berlin, she wrote her final letters, to her younger sister, Gretl, and longtime friend Herta Ostermayr Schneider.

She writes to Herta of preparing to die, and bewilderment at how things are ending, for Germany:

“Greetings to all my friends.

I’m dying as I have lived. It’s not difficult for me. You know that.”

Footage of Eva Braun with her childhood friend Herta Ostermayr Schneider.

On this same day, she chose an action whose significance would only be revealed later, during the war crimes trials in Nuremberg. In testimony there during the Ministry Trials of 1948, a high-ranking German officer credited her with ensuring that one of Hitler’s last desperate orders had come to him, rather than to someone who would actually carry them out.

As a result, the lives of about 35,000 Allied prisoners of war were saved.

Among them were likely two relatives of mine, and a whole lot of those who were the loved ones of tens of thousands of people.

When writing fiction that includes elements of history, accuracy must always trump creative possibilities. It’s been suggested to me several times that Eva Braun’s “character” in the story might be conveyed through letters.

However, her very last letter, to her younger sister, Gretl, asked that most of her correspondence be destroyed, and the remaining small amount hidden. It has yet to surface, and those who’ve tried to track it down doubt it ever will.

So, any story true to Eva Braun’s consistently private personality must reference only the handful of pieces of her correspondence that are still in existence.

And seek, as so many stories do, to find the story of a life between the lines.

 

More about The Munich Girl: A Novel of the Legacies That Outlast War at:

http://www.amazon.com/Munich-Girl-Novel-Legacies-Outlast/dp/0996546987/


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Writing’s invitation to wholeness

Eva Braun taking her love of animals to an extreme.

I’m very grateful to share a guest post at the creative blog of writer Nicola Auckland.

Nicola was one of the very first to read and review my novel, The Munich Girl, and offer insightful feedback about it.

Her Sometimes Stellar Storyteller blog features delightful Six Word Story challenges, and explores one of my favorite things — creative process.

As she hosts me this week, I’ve done my best to address some of my own experience with it:

“Nine years ago, I made a bid on an eBay item that would change my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined at the time.

“Something within me was strongly drawn to it, though I didn’t yet understand why. It was a portrait of Eva Braun drawn by an artist who never gained acclaim for his work — though his infamous name is branded on history forever. Eva Braun chose to die with him 72 years ago this spring.

“That portrait is at the heart of everything that became a part of my latest novel’s story, set largely in the Germany of World War II. The experience of writing The Munich Girl showed me that, rather than being something I ‘do,’ writing is a process that acts upon me, strengthening my sense of connection with my own wholeness.

“My responsibility, I feel, is to listen and watch, rather than impose ideas or plans of my own on what comes forth as a story.

“Albert Einstein described the intuitive mind as ‘a sacred gift’ and the rational mind as ‘a faithful servant.’ We have, he said, ‘created a society that honors the servant, and has forgotten the gift.’ ”

READ THE WHOLE POST AT:

Stellar Guest Post from Phyllis Ring

 

 


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Writerly hospitality from author Linda Tiernan Kepner

I am honored to be a guest this week at the blog of author and librarian Linda Tiernan Kepner:

In her writing, Phyllis treats the most amazing people as simple, understandable human beings. But it takes a lot of work to create that illusion

The Munich Girl is a case in point. This is a work of fiction, but it is not entirely fiction. The war-trophy exists. Eva Braun, the ordinary girl from Munich, Germany, was indeed Hitler’s mistress.  She never did join the Nazi Party, had Jewish friends, and was credited at the Nuremberg Trials with saving 35,000 Allied lives.

Yet she stayed out of the limelight for sixteen years before her lover publicly acknowledged their relationship.  He only married her at the time he was throwing in the towel, as if that marriage emphasized his defeat.”

Linda Tiernan Kepner: Phyllis, what are you working on, currently?

I’m alternating between two projects. One is what I’d call spiritual memoir, based on my experience with writing my novel The Munich Girl and some of the nearly inexplicable synchronicities that it brought. The other is historical fiction set in 19th-century New England.

LTP: When you look back … what works are you proudest of?

PER:

I’m truly thankful for every book I’ve been able to publish.

The newest book, just released, is my first for children — Jamila Does Not Want A Bat In Her House. It reinforces for me the importance of never giving up, as it first took shape 19 years ago

The book that has absorbed the most of my time, both during the writing process and since publication, is The Munich Girl. I’d never have imagined writing a novel in which Hitler’s wife was a character. 

Yet as someone whose earliest life experience unfolded in Germany, I had always known I’d eventually want to explore what the experience of WWII had meant for everyday Germans, especially because for so very long, they didn’t talk about it — felt they weren’t “allowed” to.

Find my full interview with Linda at:

http://www.lindatkepner.com/guest-page.html