In the epilogue to 98 Reasons for Being you thank your family for putting up with your obsession for Hoffmann. What triggered it? How long did it last and just how did it manifest itself?
I wasn’t really as obsessed with Hoffmann as I was with Wegener. But I suppose though in order to write any book about a person, especially one about a historical figure, it is necessary to be a little obsessed. My main preoccupation was with getting myself in the time – trying to think about the mind and the body in the mid-nineteenth century way. It was quite a challenge but I found it interesting. One thing that really surprised me was discovering that before Freud there was already an idea of the id, the ego and the superego, although they were called different things, and that other people had started a sort of counselling which would eventually lead to Freud’s psychoanalysis.
I visited Frankfurt last month and there are hardly any traces of the old city remaining. How did you research the novel?
There is a biography of Hoffmann in German, and his case notes – but I also used the case-notes of other psychiatrists of the time to help. I went to museums – the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt
and also the Judengasse Museum. I recommend this – they’ve excavated the old street where Hannah lived and you can walk in it. I went to the Art Gallery where Hoffmann was patron, the Struwwelpeter Museum and the Henrich Hoffmann Museum. The curators were all very helpful. I went to the library at the University of Frankfurt and looked at his letters. I had old maps of the city, and I found plans of the asylum in the University library – someone had written a dissertation about the place – that was very exciting. I went to the town Museum in Frankfurt and looked though records in the town Hall.
The town hall square is very photogenic. (I envisaged Hoffmann encountered Ingrid here – the autistic child-woman with perfect pitch.) This is just a mock-up because nearly all of Frankfurt was flattened in the blitz – but very close to how it was in Hoffmann’s time so I understand! I also went to Heidelberg because he was a student there. I generally retraced his steps as much as I could – and even though the buildings were different it helped me get a feel for the place.
I also found some useful sources in this country such as the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London – a really gruesome place which has a great display of equipment used in the heroic phase of medicine (and before anesthetic). One interesting thing I did was to go to a local hospital and look at their leeches which they use for plastic surgery. They used a lot of leeches in the nineteenth century, so I wanted to look at them properly. Then I looked at lots of papers and books to try and think like a nineteenth century psychiatrist. I used modern psychiatry books just to make sure I got things as accurate as I could.
98 Reasons for Being is historical fiction, so you must have taken some liberties with the facts. Which liberties did you take and why?
I suppose the biggest one was that although Hoffmann treated Jewish people and had lots of Jewish friends, there is no evidence that there were Jewish patients in his asylum at the precise time of my story – although there were immediately before and after. The Jewish people had their own hospital, and Hoffmann treated patients there. So Hannah is made up. I wanted her to be Jewish for several reasons. One was that Hoffmann was a great supporter of the Jews in Frankfurt and fought for their full emancipation – I liked the way this chimes with one of the stories in his Struwwelpeter book – the role reversal signifying revolution.
Another reason was that there was a strong anti- racist message in another of the stories (the one about the Inky-boys) and the only other race Hoffmann is likely to have come across in Frankfurt is a member of the Jewish community.
And lastly, as soon as I found out about how the Jews were treated in Frankfurt I was fascinated because of how it would inevitably lead to the holocaust in another century.
All the patients are made up, but are based on various doctors’ case-notes of the time.
The activities of the nursing staff are based on accounts by psychiatric patients of the time. Assisting at the asylum was a very unpopular thing to do so asylum superintendents had to make do with anyone they could get. The assistants were not trained in any way and had to live in with the patients, so I doubt they would be at all sympathetic. I wanted to convey this – also the mentality that would lead less than a hundred years later to Mengele.
Almost everyone’s missed this! Obviously I made it too subtle. It is on one page – Hoffmann exclaims at his friend that he has 98 patients in his asylum, and all he wants to do is look after them – and cure them.
It’s been 5 years since the publication of 98 Reasons for Being. Is there something new in the pipeline?
Yes, I finished another novel in 2007, which Seren are going to publish in 2010. They’re not very big and only publish four novels a year. It’s about the Welsh going to Patagonia and Seren is the leading English language literary publisher in Wales. That involved a lot of research too since it is based on a true story. I had to cross the Patagonian desert on my own, learn how to become a shaman, and I also did a course in Welsh. I think it’s my best book so far, but I had to sell it myself because the sales of my first two books weren’t very good, so the agent I had then said we had to part company. I was very sorry to have to leave her but I have an excellent agent now.
Which do you prefer – novel-writing or blog writing? (Clare is also The Keeper of the Snails.)
This is difficult because there are so many. BELOVED by Toni Morrison because the writing is so magnificent and it only gradually becomes clear what’s going on. OSCAR AND LUCINDA by Peter Carey – an absorbing story really well told, which touches on obsession. WILD BOY by Jill Dawson – based on a true story of a boy rescued by wolves, which Dawson portrays as autistic. It’s a fascinating blend of voices – one I think I shall always remember.
Thanks, Clare for your illuminating and honest interview. Also for your generosity in offering a signed copy of 98 Reasons for Being to one lucky reader of Lizzy’s Literary Life.
If you would like to read Clare’s historical novel with a difference, please leave a comment. The winner will be selected via random number generator next Sunday. Worldwide entries permitted.