“There is no better way for readers interested in Germany’s history and the dilemma and cultures of the two Berlins to absorb this information than in a novel such as this, which captures the microcosm of two individuals’ love, relationship, and options and expands them against the blossoming dilemmas of a nation divided.”

That assessment, from D. Donovan at Midwest Book Review,  describes the essence of the latest book in C.G. Fewston’s historical fiction trilogy, A Time to Forget in East Berlin.

Several months after the ending to A Time to Love in Tehran (the first book of the trilogy), our hero John Lockwood (a former CIA officer) is living a new life with a new identity in East Berlin, where he is dating the young Antonina “Nina” Rosenberg. Suddenly, his peace living a new life with a new identity in East Berlin is cut short when the Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, recruit John for another mission.

However, the book is more than just a poignant story. As Fewston himself puts it, “I specifically write about overcoming the past.” The author reminds us that for many, forgetting is the primary tool by which people use to overcome their pasts, and to that end, “The book seeks to question individual and social memory as part of a cultural quest.”

We were able to get a behind the scenes look into the making of this ambitious novel and what makes CG Fewston tick in this Q&A

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: In my book A Time To Forget in East Berlin, Nina tells John, “Deep down I know a wende, a change, must happen. Die Gedanken sind frei. My thoughts are free. They can’t expect people to live like we do. Not forever. Can they?”

Die Gedanken sind frei” means “thoughts are free” and it’s also a German song about the “freedom of thought.” Something tells me that this idea is also extremely relevant in today’s America, both physical and virtual — if not the entire world.

I also specifically write about “Vergangenheitsbewӓltigung which can mean “overcoming the past” and it’s also associated with Memory Culture in East Germany after the fall of the communist dictatorship and the fall of the Iron Curtain. It was also a process by which many chose to come to terms with history (personal and national) by choosing to Forget (hence the title of my book).

The book further seeks to question individual and social memory as part of a cultural quest and discourse that includes cultural memory and cultural symbol systems as forms of meaning construction.

Q: What interests you about this era?

A: In a cultural sense, the times and settings I write about (specifically Tehran, East Berlin, and Moscow in the 1970s) exist primarily in people’s memories, in art, and in historical archives. Certainly, the cities and locales and peoples still exist in some regard, but they have been radically altered since by world politics and regime changes.

Before 1979, Iran was extremely westernized with women wearing the latest fashions from Paris, swimming in bathing suits, studying in universities, and going out dancing. Women also held high-level positions in all sorts of various careers, and these kinds of cultural traits were the public norm. Instantly after the Revolution, though, Iran became an Islamic Theocracy or a “theocratic republic” with women being removed from universities, fired from their beloved careers overnight, and forced against their will to wear the burqa and hijab. As a result, much of the intelligentsia fled to Europe or to America. There’s a great BBC article which sums up the changes before and after 1979 called “Iranian Women – before and after the Islamic Revolution” (Feb., 2019). These contrasts fascinate me.

East Berlin was once the de facto capital of the communist German Democratic Republic (or East Germany, which ended in 1990). Now, East Berlin (as it was then) no longer exists, having been swallowed by West Berlin and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to form a unified Berlin and Germany. Yet, the East Berlin culture persisted into the 1990s and, to some degree, to this day. Some chose to forget, but some chose to remember what life was like in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. There’s a fantastic article by The Guardian which further describes the changes in Berlin called “Berlin after the Wall – then and now” (Nov., 2019). It’s these societal shifts which drive me to better understand history and humanity.

Q: Each book in the series takes place in a different locale that has a large role to play during the era. What are you hoping to portray in each of East Berlin, Moscow, and Tehran?

A: That love ultimately transcends and conquers times, places, wrongs, and it is love that binds a variety of cultures, traditions, and peoples as one.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this series?

A: At the heart of modernity, traditions and societies are continuously broken down and dissolved through changes that include a simultaneous union and interplay of remembering and forgetting, which has caused many artists and scholars to point to a “memory crises” because as cultures change so do the practices of what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget.

This memory crises and the existential need to remember has been represented in the arts and in literature, with such acclaimed novels by ProustJoyce, and Mann, among others. Remembering leads to a reconfiguring that can include distortions, gaps, omissions, contradictions. In short, whether we are dealing with the processes of individual or social memories, reflection or reconstruction, the remembering can create the forgetting.

Q: In the crowded field of international war/spy fiction, what makes you stand out?

A: The direct first-person experiences I’ve had living in Communist and Socialist countries for over ten years.

For six years I lived in Vietnam, where I founded and owned a childcare and kindergarten to help educate thousands of children, and after deeply studying Tehran’s history, I noticed that Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), was (and still is) going through many of the same westernizations Tehran went through in the 1960s and 1970s in Iran, especially the economic effects of the people from poor rural areas flocking into the huge commercial and modernized centers of both those cities, then and now.

I also lived in Hong Kong for five years where I witnessed the massive citywide 2014 protests called the Umbrella Revolution (or also called the Occupy Movement), and the subsequent years which followed gradually, but methodically, revealing silent political, economic, and cultural changes the city has gone through under China. Like the cities I write about in my novels, the Hong Kong we once knew is never going to be as it once was.

I’ve also lived in mainland China since 2019 and that opportunity has given me the chance as an American to witness multiple historical and world-changing events over the last several years.

These international and historical experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have most certainly have shaped me as an international writer, as a man, and as a father.

Q: What, of your own or from others, are you currently excited about?

A: Anything by Haruki Murakami and Paulo Coelho. All of John Fowles. They are the standard by which I write.

If you haven’t done so already, check out Matthew Harffy’s stunning historical novel A Time for Swords, Ian Skewis’ acclaimed A Murder of Crows, Ted Flanagan’s riveting Every Hidden Thing, and Martin Geraghty’s brilliant George Bunce and the Black Wave of Fear.

Other books I’m reading are Sarah J. Maas’ House of Sky and Breath, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, and N.K. Jemisin’s multiple award-winning The Broken Earth trilogy.

A Time to Forget in East Berlin is available for purchase here.

About CG Fewston:

The American novelist CG Fewston has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s been a member of the Hemingway SocietyAmericans for the ArtsPEN AmericaClub Med, & the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.