Fiction or Biography? Imagining the life of my grandmother

After taking time out to write a memoir, I am now 12,000 words into a new novel. This one is different in more than one way. For a start, it’s not pure fiction but a story based on the incredible life of my grandmother. And unlike my two previous novels, it’s not set in Spain but in various central and eastern European countries where Oma (as we called her) lived before arriving in England in 1939. Stories about her life intrigued me already as a child: her elopement with a Jew, his escape from prison and subsequent leap from a bridge onto the roof of a train; the family’s midnight flit from Bulgaria to Vienna in the late 1920s, followed by six years of hand-to-mouth existence in a village on the Danube, which then gave way, thanks to some shady deal, to a life of luxury in Rome. As I began to engage in a bit of superficial family research for the memoir, I found myself drawn in to my grandmother’s life story. 

With my mother

It has to be a novel because I’m familiar with only the bones of her story: the origins and religious background of her parents, the main events of her life including her marriage, the dates of her movements from one country to another and what motivated them (few were of her own choice). I know rather more about her life in England, first as housekeeper to a refined older lady in Surrey and then, at far too young an age, in a residential home – years when I saw her fairly regularly. My brother recorded an interview where she talked about her life; my mother shared a few stories. I know too the details of her horrific death. The rest will have to be conjectured, the lengthy gaps covering her day-to-day existence through the years filled, the framework of known facts incorporated into a coherent whole. The last of Oma’s children, my Aunt Inge, died only last month at a very advanced age. Any childhood memories she might have had are now lost. So it will be fiction certainly, but my intention is to follow as closely as possible the trajectory of my grandmother’s ninety-two years of life.

I can imagine conversations, guess at emotions (aided by the recording and my memories of her), but the background details that would make her story come alive: the ambience of fin-de siècle Vienna or pre-1st World War Bulgaria or pre-2nd World War Rome might just defeat me. Researching the background to her peripatetic life is a huge challenge – even more so in these times of restricted travel. I can’t visit museums in Vienna or Ruse (the town in Bulgaria where my mother was born) or Rome. My German is rusty, my Italian was never that good and my knowledge of Bulgarian is non-existent. Only so much can be sourced from the Internet. As I construct scenes from my imagination, I am constantly stymied by my lack of detailed knowledge. In the last few weeks, I’ve had to investigate such varied topics as corsets and bust bodices, the marriage rules of both Calvinists and Jews in early 20th century Austria, the type of German shorthand used in 1910, the history of elevators, socialist parties in 1930s Austria, Gustav Klimt’s paintings and attitudes to them, the Hispano-Suiza luxury car… And I’ve only just started.

Oma with my mother

How can I make my novel authentic in the face of so many unknowns? It was far easier to create vivid, true-to-life backgrounds for my novels about Spain, a country I’ve lived in for over twenty years and where I speak the language. I could use my own knowledge, read Spanish sources and interview Spaniards who have lived through similar experiences to those of my characters. Previous unpublished novels were set in the familiar geographical and cultural landscape of England, where I was born and lived until 1999.

So this project will certainly be challenging. However, despite the difficulties, I intend to carry on researching and writing, because the story of her life is truly remarkable. No one, on meeting her in her later years could have guessed that this quiet, modest woman, fond of pottering in the garden or knitting for her grandchildren, had lived a life so full of drama. 

With me

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