Riveting Chat with L. M. Elliott, the talented author of WALLS
L. M. Elliott, bestselling author, answers our questions about her latest title, WALLS.
The New York Times bestselling author of ten young adult novels, L. M. Elliott has long been known as a master of historical fiction that humanizes and illuminates contemporary issues. Now, in the unofficial follow-up to her 2017 Suspect Red, Elliott turns her attention to the espionage-riddled standoff between America and Soviet Russia in WALLS (Ages 12 – 18). Set in the tumultuous year leading up to the surprise overnight raising of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, and punctuated with real-life photographs, headlines, and personalities of the time, WALLS explores the budding friendship between two cousins on different sides of the communist/democracy divide and the very real dangers their growing bond presents their families.
What inspired you to write WALLS?
I was a magazine journalist for 20 years before becoming a historical/biographical novelist. The biggest lessons I learned as a reporter were to look for “holes in coverage” and to humanize a large topic through the story of an individual coping with it, someone who could stand as an “everyman” of the experience.
When the former president had his first meeting with Putin in Helsinki, and undercut NATO, I wondered if people remembered the frightening reasons NATO had been formed in the first place—Russia’s brutal annexation of Eastern Europe after WWII to create a Soviet Bloc of puppet states and the Berlin Wall, which caged millions. Thinking of my YA audience, I started asking teens what they knew. I received mostly blank stares or “Yeah, I know it existed” but little else.
A hole in coverage.
And what could be a more dramatic, heartrending show-rather-than-tell story encapsulating the perilous Cold War standoff and Russia’s longstanding antipathy for Western democracies than the Berlin Wall?
Especially given the fact that cruel barrier was raised literally overnight, on a holiday weekend when unsuspecting Berliners had been distracted by children’s festivals and fireworks. The planning was so cunning and meticulously timed-out, shielded with intense, anti-American propaganda that claimed we and NATO were about to invade them, that East German troops were able to unfurl and secure 27 miles of barbed wire between midnight and dawn on August 13th, 1961. East Berliners awoke trapped. Without warning, families, neighbors, and sweethearts were separated.
I decided to depict both the harsh tragedy of the Berlin Wall and the stunning courage of those who fought it through two cousins from opposite political beliefs—Drew, an American Army kid stationed in West Berlin, and his East German cousin Matthias, raised in the Soviet sector. The question of what it would take for that East Berlin youth—inculcated in communist, anti-West dogma, caught up in the fervor of the FDJ (“Free German Youth”)—to trust a Westerner, and vice versa, felt a poignant and relevant question to explore in this time of extreme political polarization within our own country and the alarming role of disinformation in that divide.
I’m so grateful to my wonderful editor, Algonquin’s Elise Howard, who also saw the humanity encased within this serious, complicated time period, that the story could be told in a compelling way to resonate powerfully with today’s teens despite current trends in publishing away from historical fiction, and then embraced—with zeal and patience—the painstaking extra work of a novel threaded and underscored with a photo essay.
What do you hope readers come away with after reading WALLS?
Oh gosh, many things.
My main hope is WALLS provides a compelling, suspenseful adventure that also asks whether two teens can learn to trust and care about one another—despite what they’ve been fed about the other’s world—before it is too late. Showing (I hope!) in a powerful, relatable way the importance of forming your own opinion based on personal experience and reflection. To listen to others with the purpose of hearing. To not swallow propaganda, conspiracy theories, unsubstantiated accusations, or catchy, demeaning slogans as fact—even if friends or family remain entrenched in them.
My first “political history” docudrama novel in this format, (chapters punctuated with factual headlines and photos of that month) was Suspect Red, about McCarthyism. While talking to school groups about my WWII novels, I’d spotted a similar “hole in coverage” about the Red Scare. So many high schoolers read The Crucible, without realizing Arthur Miller wrote the play as an allegory for McCarthyism. So, I wrote that historical novel as a contextualizing complement to Miller’s play, depicting the trickledown effect on teens of the 1950s political rhetoric that pushed Americans to blacklist and turn on one another.
Not to compare myself to Arthur Miller by any stretch of the imagination! But Suspect Red and WALLS follow his lead in terms of using a historical era to explore issues being relived today. Somehow that time-distance takes the knee-jerk heat off discussion and allows for easier revelations and more clear-eyed comparisons.
I’ve been thrilled by the outpouring of Instagram and blog reviews that praise WALLS for “entertaining and educating.” That’s the magic of historical fiction—if researched and written well, world-building to create a rich but unobtrusive backdrop tapestry—readers are caught up in a compelling story, unaware of being “taught” anything. Like osmosis!
On a final note, I love writing for young adults because they want truth—not platitudes or sugar-coated because they hate being patronized—but truth wrapped in hope. Teens believe that if they work hard enough, stick to their moral compass, that they can make a difference in the world. We need that idealistic energy, that unsullied righteous indignation of theirs about injustices. I hope WALLS reminds them that existing together in a society is a collaborative effort and a wondrous communion of ideas. Drew’s girlfriend quotes her nana as saying the worst sin toward our fellow creatures is indifference. And to all my would-be creative artist readers: during the Cold War, it was music drifting over the border in radio broadcasts that connected those trapped in the East to the promise and delight of Western freedom of expression. The arts can indeed change minds and chip away at barriers.
Was it a challenge to get into the headspace of each of the boys and their differing worldviews? How did you manage as a writer to do that (did you easily switch or did you write all of one and then the other)?
Yes, it was a little with Matthias. I’m often asked how I “write boys” convincingly. My answer is research, especially primary documents that are so evocative and visceral. I soak myself in all that info, internalize it, and then imagine, trying to stand in the shoes of characters who can be very unlike me. Before I write a word, I steep myself in an era’s lingo, music, movies and books, pop culture trends, and societal expectations (and constraints!) to keep my narrative authentic. As a magazine reporter writing long profiles (6-8,000 word articles), I’d followed and interviewed people for weeks at a time, watching and writing down what they said word-for-word so I could capture the personality, the quirks, and patterns of their comments, and just as importantly physical hints of the emotions behind those words. I wrote frequently about people in crisis and about mental health issues, which trained me to think about the backstory and underpinnings of people’s behaviors, I hope, with empathy.
All that helps me get into the headspace of very different personas in my novels and to make them speak in historically plausible, believable, and distinct, individualistic ways.
With Matthias: I use historical fact to create the events of my plot and to present my characters era-specific moral dilemmas they must face as part of their emotional journey and “coming of age.” But I am also looking for “revealing details” that I can use to paint their temperament. Consider these: Russia-controlled East Germany encouraged and rewarded youth for spying and reporting one another; membership in the FDJ and pledging oneself to the country was required to advance to university; being deemed insufficiently enthusiastic at a state parade or being caught listening to a pirated rock ‘n roll record could get a teenager hauled in front of a peer tribunal for a Selbstkritk (self-criticism) and if he/she didn’t seem contrite enough sent to a “re-education” camp. Those stark facts told me to create a distrustful teen who was painfully wary of new people and constantly looking over his shoulder.
Seeing the anti-American propaganda posters that would have surrounded an East German youth like Matthias, it made sense for him to be totally brainwashed by disinformation and defensively spew communist dogma at Drew. But to keep him sympathetic (both to Drew and my readers) I also depict him being drawn to American music, even while terrified of it, like so many real-life East Berliners were. Then I use factual tidbits like the Lipsi (an odd state dance created to distract East German youth from the “wiggle-hip” decadence of Elvis Presley) to write scenes giving Matthias moments of self-deprecating, deadpan, even playful, and ultimately endearing humor. Making Matthias a typical music-loving teenager underneath all his anti-capitalist banter and a naturally inquisitive one who actually listens to new ideas foreign to his beliefs, helps us root for him as he slowly evolves into trusting his American cousin and into shaking off the lies perpetuated by a police state that had completely perverted the original philosophy of “a new just society.”
My editor at the Washingtonian magazine, Jack Limpert, wisely told me the hardest but most important thing to do with “human interest” stories (which are what novels are!) is to make people laugh and cry. Given everything I learned about living in East Berlin, Matthias was ripe for that. (And it’s easy to insert moments of levity like spitball fights and drop-the-mic soccer showdowns when dealing with a large cast of teenage boys!)
Writing Drew was far easier. My dad was a WWII veteran and in the reserves for 20-plus years and I grew up near the Pentagon. Many of my childhood friends were military kids. I have a deep respect for the resiliency of our military children who follow parents into perilous overseas postings and are uprooted constantly in service to our country. Drew is emblematic of a type I came to know and admire: earnest, wanting to do right. He just needs to learn how, to grow into his potential.
I was blessed to interview several “Berlin Brats,” as they call themselves, whose fathers were stationed in the divided city when the Wall went up. They were incredibly generous with their memories and time. Drew’s 1960 experiences and outlook—the menacing overtures and harassment of Allied personnel and their families by the KGB and their East German minions, the Stasi; the unnerving aura of being 100 miles behind the Soviets’ “Iron Curtain” and surrounded by 400,000 Russian troops; the eerie anxiety of traveling in a duty-train through the communist zone to play other high school teams; and living in a landscape still dotted with reminders of the Nazi idealization of “the master race”—are all haunting details these gentlemen shared.
Because of them, I was able to capture the gutsiness of Americans holding “an outpost of freedom,” outnumbered nearly 35 to 1, where a teenage prank or mistake could potentially spark an international incident or undo a parent’s military career. I hope I did justice to those military kids’ matter-of-fact bravery.
In terms of writing Drew and Matthias separately and then switching voices? No, I wrote them and their exchanges simultaneously. Dialogue is one of the quickest “character reveals” and the give-and-take between my boys is the best illustration of the evolving dynamics between them. Being right in the middle of their back-and-forth as I wrote was far more effective for me.
Share a failure and how you overcame it or moved on despite it?
I completely blew my first rendition of Storm Dog, (which happily survived my falter and came out, much changed, last summer). Storm Dog is a little unusual for me since it’s not a historical or biographical novel. It’s contemporary, whimsical, told in first-person by a whip-smart, slightly sassy, and poetic fourteen-year-old misfit named Ariel, who needs to find self-definition and a sense of belonging. She does so during the novel, through nature, music, her own creativity, friendship with an Afghanistan-war veteran, a lost dog, dog-dancing, and the Shenandoah Apple Blossom parade. Yes, dog-dancing—which has become a big thing in international dog shows. (You can view some enchanting videos of “musical canine freestyle” on my website.)
Ten years ago, in my first version, I tried telling Ariel’s story through magical realism, putting in an odd, mystical character named Birdie. I discovered I’m a total failure at that type of story! I infused Birdie with way too much geeky myth born of my five years of taking Latin. My editor rejected it—rightly! Eight years and two books later, though, reading the narrative totally fresh and with editor Katherine Tegen’s encouragement, I could see that the bones of a good and metaphorical story were definitely there. I’d just ruined it by this one very large problem. The distance of time let me see the flaw quickly and dispassionately. Luckily, it was fixed by extracting that “magical” character and replacing her with one very much rooted in reality—a K-9 handler named Sergeant Josie—which changed the narrative’s tone and focus entirely. Thank goodness!
Interestingly, even though a vastly different kind of story, Storm Dog shares some of WALLS’ themes—the dangers and hurts born of preconceptions and stereotypical labels.
What’s the weirdest object on your desk right now? Is there a story behind it?
Other than the much-loved, charmingly misshapen ceramic objects that my adult children made in elementary school? I’ll choose something on my shelves—a rusty mule-shoe, its u-shape pointed upward so its “luck doesn’t run out.” I found it buried in weeds when exploring the field adjacent to what had been my Dad’s childhood farm in Tidewater, VA. Like so many of the “Greatest Generation,” Depression-era/WWII veterans, my father had survived dozens of harrowing moments. One of them was when he was a little younger than Drew and Matthias, plowing a field by himself, down by the James River. He didn’t see the enormous poisonous water moccasin snake before it lunged and bit him. Immediately dizzy from the venom, my then thirteen-year-old dad managed to undo his mule’s harness and ride it bareback across twenty acres to the house before collapsing, where his father and mother could give him first aid. That ornery mule had never been so obliging before and most likely saved my dad’s life. I don’t know if this shoe had been one of his—my dad’s family had several mules over the years—but I like to think so. There it sits, a talisman for me on tough days, a weathered, steely reminder of my father’s quick-thinking tenacity, and the fictional character he inspired in my first novel, Under a War-torn Sky.
Check out WALLS and other historical fiction books by L.M. Elliott on her site.