Article published on February 8, 2018.
Paul Burke was very much impressed by A Darker State, especially the layering of the very complex story, and he had a number of questions for author David Young:
Paul Burke: You did an MA in writing at City University, what impact has that had on your fiction?
David Young: It was the key to my getting a deal – so I owe it a lot. I didn’t know when I started that the winner of the course prize got representation with its then sponsors, the Peters Fraser & Dunlop literary agency, and a young agent there, Adam Gauntlett, signed me at the shortlisting stage (Stasi Child went on to win the prize). Both my main tutors – Laura Wilson and Claire McGowan – are respected crime writers, and their input was invaluable. We were also encouraged to write the opening chapter of several different novels. I think that was a great idea, and gives a lot of other novel ideas to fall back on.
Paul Burke: Similarly, you were a journalist, which could be a big help as a writer (research methods, interviews, etc.), but the style and structure of fiction are totally different. How does this work/help your writing in practice?
David Young: I think the big help is in research, and also the ability to meet deadlines and write quickly. The downsides are it’s easy to lapse into “journalese” – and writing fiction is very different. I’ve been approached to write non-fiction books as a sideline, but have always resisted because it would be too much like going back to the old day job. But as a journalist, you’re well used to stories being spiked and torn apart by editors – so it helps prevent you becoming too precious.
Paul Burke: A Darker State is the third book in the Karin Müller series set in the East Germany of the Cold War era. What first attracted you to the idea of writing about East Germany during the 1970s?
David Young: I suppose we all write what we’d like to read – or try to – and I’d enjoyed Child 44 and similar novels. But I was looking for something a bit different and realised no-one had yet attempted a crime series in the English language set in East Germany. The idea came via a tour to Germany with my former pop band (very much a ‘dad’s band’ for me – the tour was in my fiftieth year!) when most of the little venues that booked us were in the eastern part of the country, and that left a big impression – the fact that so much of the GDR infrastructure was still visible, though it’s disappearing fast.
Paul Burke: Your novels are very intricate/detailed, and based on real historical events, so they must involve meticulous research. That must have been interesting, especially getting into the DDR archives and records. Could you tell us about what it was like to be there uncovering the dark past of a very secret state?
David Young: Most of my research is via memoirs, internet searches, and talking to former East German police officers. I haven’t really delved into the archives as such – my German isn’t good enough! But research is probably the part of the job I enjoy the most, especially my research trips to the former DDR.
Paul Burke: Karin Müller is great character but what made you chose a female as your lead investigator?
David Young: I knew that Cold War type spy novels often appeal to a male audience, but I wanted to draw in a female readership too. But it also reflects the reality of East Germany – where women played a much greater role in the workplace than their counterparts in the west at the time.
Paul Burke: When the Berlin Wall fell, some people who accessed their Stasi files were shocked to discover that their neighbours and family had been spying on them for years. Of course, the East Germans were better at this than any other nation. You capture the air of mistrust in A Darker State. Did you have to write your characters with this constant suspicion of each other in mind? That must have been an added layer of complexity for character development?
David Young: I try to remember to do that, although the prevalence and extent of the Stasi’s operations has only become fully known since the fall of the Wall. But I think that is what makes the novel a little different from the usual crime tale. But let’s not pretend the levels of duplicity in East Germany were copyrighted by the leadership there. Deliberate mistruths are endemic in society today in what we consider is the free world. So is snooping. But yes, I think the ever-present potential menace of the Stasi is a key ingredient.
Paul Burke: A Darker State delves into some very dark issues. Some well known to history, for example, drug doping young sports stars (now recognised as a form of child abuse) and the use of young prostitutes for spying (something you point out was common to both sides). However, the novel gets into even darker issues. I won’t say what to avoid plot spoilers but were you shocked at the level of depravity of the regime, the chilling abuse of individuals?
David Young: I was shocked by the key scientific research from which the (fictional!) plot of A Darker State draws its inspiration. But perhaps that is looking at it with 21st century spectacles on. The research was controversial at the time, but it was in the open, and the most shocking suggestions in that research – of brain operations on humans – was, as far as I know, never acted upon. The scientist involved has distanced himself from those earlier views. And let’s not pretend the west wasn’t culpable. It’s been shown that western pharmaceutical companies knew East Germans were being used as human guinea pigs in the 1970s and 1980s in research funded by the west (a scheme overseen by the Stasi). IKEA has had to apologise for knowingly allowing Stasi prisoners to build some of their furniture (which inspired a key plot point in my debut Stasi Child).
Paul Burke: I see parallels in the themes in A Darker State and current issues. Müller is a woman, an equal under the constitution of the DDR, but she is at the heart of a man’s world. Drugs in sport and issues of sexuality and identity are still very relevant today. Were these echoes intentional?
David Young: Not really, no! But perhaps some of it filters through by osmosis. To be honest, all I ever do is set out to write a good tale, but I hope that in doing so I might encourage a few readers to find out more about the DDR from proper history books.
Paul Burke: The relationships between Müller and Tilsner and Müller and Jäger are very complex, both professionally and personally. This helps to drive the stories in all the novels. Did this develop organically? It certainly enriches the books.
David Young: I guess I suppose it did. They’re probably all inspired by characters I encountered during my too-long career at the BBC – certainly the ones who work for the Stasi are, anyway. But yes, I enjoy the shifting dynamics of the relationships. They shift even more seismically in Book 4 – due in 2019.
Paul Burke: Did you come across police officers under the DDR system who stood up and tried to tackle difficult cases with Stasi involvement? Or the state passing off operations as the work of rogue agents?
David Young: No. Most of the police I spoke to insisted that the two organisations were completely separate, and that the criminal police in East Germany were identical to the CID in the UK, or indeed criminal police the world over. So I’ve allowed myself some literary licence there. But there’s no doubt there was liaison at a high level between officers, and at a lower level where some members of the police would also be unofficial informers for the Stasi. And a German TV documentary last year revealed the extent of the Stasi’s Special Commissions – who would take over potentially embarrassing criminal investigations from the Kripo. So there’s a ring of authenticity to what I write – I think so, anyway!
Paul Burke: A Darker State is the third in the series, are there plans to have more Karin Müller novels? Any hints about where she could be going next?
David Young: There are five novels under contract in the series so far. I’d love to do more and continue the series up until the fall of the Wall. But that depends on readers continuing to buy them. Next up, in Book 4, is a fictional murder hunt in the 1970s linked to a real-life WWII massacre, and more problems for Müller’s relationships with both Tilsner and Jäger.
Paul Burke: What are you currently reading? If you were to recommend a crime author to people, maybe someone who deserves a bigger audience, who would it be?
David Young: The last book I loved was Stephanie Marland’s My Little Eye and I’m just about to start Fiona Barton’s The Child. I thought The Widow was excellent so I have high hopes for it. Who deserves a bigger audience? My other fave William Ryan and his superb Korolev series, and my fellow City University MA graduate, Rod Reynolds. I can’t wait for his next Charlie Yates tale.
Paul Burke: What do you enjoy most about being a writer?
David Young: Not being directly involved in office politics and being – to some extent – in charge of my own destiny. Research trips of course, and writing the first draft when your fictional world takes shape. What I hate is tearing it apart in the editing process.
Paul Burke: I heard somewhere about the rights to the Karin Müller series having been optioned. Is there any chance we could see her on our screens in the future?
David Young: Many books are optioned, few get made into TV or film. I think the success of Deutschland 83 and The Same Sky means at the moment the TV market is probably saturated so there is nothing imminent. But Deutschland 83 was great for book sales as it coincided with Stasi Child. I just hope they schedule the follow-up when my next book comes out!
Our thanks to David and Paul for this interesting Q&A.
A Darker State by David Young
Zaffre 9781785760709 pbk Feb 2018