My special guest today is Phyllis Edgerly Ring. We’re chatting about her historical fiction novel, The Munich Girl: A Novel of the Legacies that Outlast War.
Phyllis Edgerly Ring lives in New Hampshire and returns as often as she can to her childhood home in Germany. She has studied plant sciences and ecology, worked as a nurse, been a magazine writer and editor, taught English to kindergartners in China, coordinated programming at a Baha’I conference center, and serves as workshop facilitator and coach for others’ writing projects.
She is the author of the novel, Snow Fence Road, and the inspirational nonfiction, Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details. She is co-author, with Ron Tomanio and Diane Iverson, of With Thine Own Eyes: Why Imitate the Past When We Can Investigate Reality?, an exploration of how to achieve balance between the material and spiritual aspects of life.
Welcome, Phyllis. Please tell us about your current release.
The novel’s protagonist, Anna Dahlberg, grew up eating dinner under her father’s war-trophy portrait of Eva Braun. Fifty years after the war, she discovers what he never did—that her mother and Hitler’s mistress were friends. Plunged into the world of the “ordinary” Munich girl who was her mother’s confidante—and a tyrant’s lover—Anna uncovers long-buried secrets and unknown reaches of her heart, to reveal the enduring power of love in the legacies that always outlast war.
What inspired you to write this book?
German families were among my very first friends and Germany made a deep impression on my heart when my family lived there in the 1960s. I wanted to understand more about Germany’s experience during the war. Shortly after I decided this, I received a copy of British/German writer Angela Lambert’s biography of Eva Braun. Then a combination of still somewhat baffling circumstances led to my owning the portrait of Eva that features in the story. You never know where a decision will lead. At the time, I was simply looking to learn and understand, not necessarily write a book. I certainly never imagined that the pathway of my discoveries about Germany would follow the life of Hitler’s companion.
Excerpt from The Munich Girl: A Novel of the Legacies that Outlast War:For my extra day of freedom, I planned to linger over breakfast at a table with a sunny view of the mountains. But the dining room was a frenetic symphony of clinking and clattering when I arrived and the maitre d’ stuck me in a dark corner.
I had just poured my coffee when a young male voice shrilled, “Fräulein Peggy Adler?” from the entrance.
I turned as he reached my table in a handful of long strides. He wore the stiff uniform of Hitler’s Leibstandarte: dark tunic, breeches, tall boots, and rounded helmet. All that was missing was the rifle customarily slung over the shoulder.
“Come with me, please.”
Terror struck so hard, I couldn’t speak—not even to ask where. Especially not that. It seemed incriminating. At last, I stammered, “I-I—”
“You have been requested for an interview,” he said.
What kind of interview? I still couldn’t find words to ask. Should I get my stenographer’s pad? Or was this about questioning me?
“We have a car waiting outside.” His tone was threaded with impatience, as though I were already taking too long, being too slow to understand. I’m surprised he didn’t check his watch, tap his foot. His face had a youthful softness. He was perhaps 19 or 20. I thought of my brother, Peter.
I noticed a waiter at the neighboring table and glanced at my unfinished cup of coffee, as though it might offer some possibility of reprieve—he would insist I stay, since I hadn’t finished.
He also seemed uneasy around the guard as he said, “No trouble, Madam. We will keep your table for you.”
But would I return to it?
Then I remembered my co-workers, and Erich, and blanched with fear as cold as the sweat that rose instantly on my neck. Hadn’t I been careful enough, yesterday? Had I said too much? Had someone besides Eva been listening, or had my cohorts from the Foreign Office somehow been found out?
My mind raced to the worst of all possibilities—they’d been apprehended. I refused to let that thought take root, claimed my mind back from it the way I try to rescue my breath from panic each night in the air-raid shelter back in Berlin.
Appear unfazed and cooperative. I’d heard this tactic from Erich and others in the Resistance. If stopped by the Gestapo, or called in for any reason, seem slightly surprised, untroubled, and entirely willing to comply.
I reached to gather my things. I had only my purse, and the book I’d brought along. “Will we be going far?” I found courage to ask.
“It is right nearby.”
When we reached the car, his brisk movements included a snap of his heels as he opened the door for me. Clearly, he wasn’t going to manhandle me like a suspected criminal. Not yet.
I clambered into the back, toward the middle, and closer, of the two bench-like seats. The mammoth Mercedes had as many huge tires as a delivery truck. Its convertible top was down, and bright sun blinded my eyes.
The young uniform joined the driver in front. The car exited the Platterhof parking lot, made a hard left, and rolled down a sharp incline, though only a short distance.
Goering’s house was somewhere off to the right, hidden by trees. I’d learned recently that beneath us was a burgeoning network of tunnels and bunkers under construction, a subterranean complex that those who dwelt above ground might not even know was there. Perhaps it would open up suddenly and swallow us all.
The car blocked the narrow road when it stopped at a guardhouse barely big enough for one person to stand inside. Behind it was the Hotel Türkenhof where Aunt Paula and I had once stayed. It looked to be in use as barracks of some kind. Is that where they were taking me?
The uniform turned and said, “Your papers, please.”
I had them ready in anticipation of this, though I’d already gone through all the rigmarole of admission to the Führer Zone two days ago.
He took them, got out, and strode to the guard shack.
I’d been taken in for questioning once before, after I’d accompanied Jewish children to England as an escort with the Kindertransport. A petty Nazi bureaucrat summoned me because of my dual citizenship. I’d dressed conservatively in a simple cotton print skirt that hinted at a dirndl’s lines, and a borrowed white blouse tied loosely at the throat so the top half of my décolletage was visible, while the rest remained virtuously concealed.
During my inquisitor’s first burst of questions, I’d offered simple answers with a demeanor of complicit meekness. Finally, I’d evoked tears by imagining the inevitable fate of that Jewish child I’d seen pulled back through the train window into her father’s arms. “Can’t you imagine how thankful I am that Germany is my birthplace?” I nearly shouted at him. “That my mother is so faithful?”
More advice from those in the Resistance: act indignant, insulted even, at the very dishonor of being suspected of disloyalty.
“There are many spies,” he said. “Dual citizenship makes an excellent cover.”
It does, indeed, my thoughts concurred.
“How can you even suggest such disgrace?” I tried to sound hurt. “When my British blood is disgrace enough, for me?”
Then I’d covered my face in the refuge—and strategy—of sobs. It had been over-dramatic, but I wanted to leave no doubt in his mind. I used my best high German for these impassioned declarations. Once I saw he was softening, I lapsed into the Schwäbisch dialect I’d detected in his own speech, thanking God for my ear for nuance and language.
The inquisitor turned almost paternal, even invited me for coffee. I’d had to pretend disappointment, say I was expected home to help Mutti.
“You are the kind of maid who will assure the Fatherland’s triumph!” he’d avowed, like the final line of some Wagnerian drama.
“Whatever you do, use the language of the current view, and mold it to your needs,” Erich had advised me before I’d accompanied those Jewish children to safety.
It was the only way to deal with these fools. These very dangerous fools.
What exciting story are you working on next?
My next book is likely to be a memoir-style reflection about where this novel has led me. Nothing about it is what I would ever have imagined or predicted on my writing path, and there are experiences I’ve had in the course of this book’s coming together that I’m probably never going to be able to understand, let alone explain. One of the most personally stunning was a phone call I received while staying in Germany that neither the person on the other end, nor I had initiated – twice in a row! She was someone with whom I was glad to connect in relation to my research, and she had a delightfully philosophical view about “connections” being made in such a way.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Sadly, not until others first published my writing, when I was in my late 20s. But I recognize now that I was a writer all along.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
Writing is both my life’s work and my pleasure. When I have a project of my own I want to advance, I go to a very public place on a set schedule in order to either generate the pages or work on revising what’s already been captured down. Typically, my best energy for any of that is from very early morning until late morning or early afternoon. Once I realized this, I also recognized that I have always, essentially, been a “morning person.” I love the start of the day, and love to give it to myself and my work. My life as a writer also stays fresh through my involvement in accompanying others in their writing projects, both as editor and what I like to think of as “doula.”
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I absolutely love revision, the experience of passing through the world of the story again and again until it comes whole. It’s so entirely absorbing with fiction-writing that I couldn’t let myself do it until our kids were grown, because I knew it required the level of attention I’d want to never deny our children. My writing “style” is to write all over the place in a work, not the least bit chronologically, until I can begin to feel the themes that are uniting the various pieces, and then it all becomes more beginning-middle-end in an ordered flow.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Someone who could do exactly what I wanted to! Isn’t that what most of us most truly want? I suppose I wanted to be a story crafter of some kind, as I was always creating worlds and stories of some type in my play.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
One of my greatest privileges is hearing from readers with their thoughts and reflections about the book. They can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks very much for this opportunity.
Other ways to connect with Phyllis:
Happy to have you join my blog, Phyllis!