Field of My Dreams
A LIFE LOST AND FOUND IN THE GRASS
The field pictured above is a real place, located near the border separating the neighboring German states of Bavaria and Thuringia. I took this west-facing photo in June 2011 while standing atop a grassy mound of dirt, in the middle of untamed pastureland.
I remember being weak in the knees as I snapped the shot. About five months earlier I’d pictured this place, while writing a scene for an MFA class in my tiny room at the Pod Hotel in New York.
A version of the scene shows up toward the end of my unpublished novel, What Birds Know. In it, my protagonist, a former East German escapee named Thomas Hart, returns to the field where he witnessed the fatal shooting of his teenage son, Erich, during an escape attempt 25 years prior.
Nothing about the field is familiar to Thomas, which leaves him at first bewildered and then angry—
Save for a single black, red and yellow border marker stamped with the German Democratic Republic-GDR sickle and compass seal, there is nothing to identify the place as the former dividing line between East and West Germany. All the telltale landmarks—the steel mesh border fence, the watchtowers, the floodlights, the tilled no-man’s land that he and Erich ran across in the early morning dawn—are gone. Gone except in Thomas’s memory.
THE WHY BEHIND THE BOOK
People ask me why I wrote What Birds Know. The short answer: I had no choice. I was working on another novel, based on a short story, when my then MFA instructor Ursula Hegi (a German author) assigned me a writing prompt: Turn a real-life conversation that changed you in some way into a fictional scene. It could be a conversation with someone known to me or even a stranger—
Ursula had barely finished speaking when I saw myself in a window seat on a TWA flight to Germany beside an American serviceman stationed along the East German border. He was telling me about an escape attempt by an East German father and son that went horribly wrong…
The father made it. The son didn’t.
Can you imagine? You are free and your loved one is dead?
I could – which is how I ended up in that field with Thomas 30 years later. There’s a four-minute video on my website that talks about that father in more detail.
FICTION AS FAMILY
I lived with Thomas and his story for so long now he feels like family. We’ve gone on umpteen trips to Germany together and also slogged away in my office. Together we’ve conjured escape sequences and justifications for turning a back on a one-time informant sister. When I’ve thought of giving up on the project, Thomas, who looks like @SteveKerr (coach of my beloved Golden State Warriors), won’t hear of it.
On November 9, it will be 32 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and its adjoining inner-German border. Yeah, I know, for some of you, this is the stuff of museums and collectible nostalgia. But for the families of those 600 people who died—including that boy I told you about—the Wall goes on standing, if not as a barrier, then certainly a painful memorial.
“It’s estimated some 100,000 East German citizens tried to escape across the inner-German border or the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1988. Of those, some 600 were shot and killed by GDR border guards or died in other ways during their escape attempt.“
– Wall Museum, Berlin