The Pursuit of Pearls, an Interview with Jane Thynne
The Pursuit of Pearls is everything you hope a novel will be. And, I’m not exaggerating. Except, perhaps, in my ambitious use of the word “you,” because this assumes we share similar criteria. A perfect novel means I’m entertained and I want to keep reading even though I have other things to do. And, I’d love a chance to meet the author for cocktails because I know they’d be fun and fascinating to talk to.
It is so blindingly obvious that Jane Thynne is bright, thoughtful, and a great conversationalist. Just read her Clara Vine series and you’ll know these statements, while sounding suspiciously hyperbolic, are only the truth.
Amy M. Hawes: In The Pursuit of Pearls, your heroine, Clara Vine, experiences varied encounters with those inside and outside the Nazi regime. You do a wonderful job of showing the many shades of grey between hero and villain by revealing how hypocritical, and therefore distinctly human, these characters are. How important was it to you to convey that even in a regime as inhumane as Hitler’s, the people involved were indeed people?
Jane Thynne: Hi Amy and Book Club Babble! I’m so glad you understood one of my main interests in the Clara Vine thrillers, which was to get a glimpse behind the private life of the Third Reich. I think viewing the Nazi leaders on the human scale – as fathers, lovers and husbands – is not prurient – it just makes their activities more repellent than ever. Yet it was the predicament of the women that really fascinated me. I wanted to explore what it would be like to be married to a man who was responsible for such atrocities. Would it be a gilded cage, or did these women actually support what their husbands did? I discovered that some, like Lina Heydrich, were considered more fanatical Nazis than their men – whereas others, like Emmy Goering, actively interceded on an occasional basis to save friends. Henriette, the wife of Baldur von Schirach, went further and protested to Hitler himself, and was banished from his presence thereafter. The Pursuit of Pearls features Annelies von Ribbentrop, the wife of the Foreign Minister. She was an ardent Nazi and it was her hatred for England that was considered to have influenced von Ribbentrop in 1939 when he urged Hitler towards war.
AH: I was particularly fascinated with your portrayal of the Nazi-run finishing schools for girls, such as the Faith and Beauty Society, where every girl “must be blond and blue-eyed–the precise color was measured against a chart containing sixty different shades . . .” And before marriage to a member of the SS, potential brides were quantified and tested as if they were inanimate objects for purchase. Interestingly, all of these practices were dictated by a man who didn’t meet any of his own standards for male Aryan perfection. Nazi Germany may have taken the objectification of the female to its ultimate extreme but there is no question there are still different standards for men and women when it comes to their physical appearance. Do you believe looking at this concept in its most exaggerated form helps underscore the inherent unfairness and danger of engaging in this practice on any scale?
JT: I really do. It seems incredible to us now that ordinary twentieth century German women would submit to having their noses and foreheads measured and their bodies examined in bathing costumes in order to qualify for marriage to certain men. The extreme misogyny of this society meant that every aspect of women’s lives was patrolled, from the ban on smoking and cosmetics, to Hitler’s creation of a Reich Fashion Bureau promoting wide-hipped traditional dresses that were intended to encourage the right body shape for fecundity. The more I studied Nazi institutions like Bride Schools, which taught women how to obey their husbands, the more I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. I think we absolutely should draw lessons about the objectification of women, and the way women are encouraged to conform to a male-given agenda, but also to the double-standards some people are willing to live by. Clara Vine manages to exist as a single woman in the Nazi echelons because she is a glamorous actress and they were exempt from the strictures that governed the rest of Aryan female society.
AH: The concept of performance is a constant thread through your novel, and seemingly throughout Nazi Germany. From the parades involving fifty thousand soldiers, the propaganda newsreels before films, or Hitler’s obsession with film itself, the notion of performance is always “on show.” Pun intended! As I see it, this focus reflects an absolute obsession with caring what other people think. So much so, the goal is to control thought and opinion by controlling what is seen. Was this concept of performance involved in your choice to make your heroine an actress?
JT: You’re right. When I decided Clara Vine should be an actress, it made so much sense. Not only was Babelsberg the Hollywood of Europe in the 1930s, responsible for iconic movies like Metropolis and The Blue Angel, but Clara’s acting talent gives her access to VIP circles and the ability to conceal her espionage. Acting highlights the difference between how things are and how they seem; a notion that underlies much of the novel. As you say, this was a regime that was obsessed with acting and film. Hitler would watch two movies a day and Goebbels saw the visual portrayal of a powerful, orderly Nazi Germany as a vital accompaniment to Hitler’s territorial ambitions.
AH: I’ve been playing with makeup and clothes from the moment I had a concept of what they were. And like a mynah bird, anything sparkly immediately grabs my interest. So when your novel taught me that makeup, fashion, and adornment of the female figure was discouraged in Nazi-controlled Germany, it got me to thinking what it would be like for me to live in that sort of culture. Most of your characters either embrace or reject the Nazi recommendations in manners of appearance, but what do you think the level of internal conflict was within the young women who grew up under this regime?
JT: Obviously it wouldn’t be the worst thing about the regime, but the strictures on women’s appearance were very strong, especially in the early days of the Third Reich. Smoking was frowned on – shops were banned from selling cigarettes to women, and storm-troopers were encouraged to dash any cigarette from women’s lips. Lipstick, hair dye, nail polish, even perfume were degenerate, but as was typical of the Nazis, the VIP women who were supposed to embody these values generally did the opposite – Eva Braun used to take Hitler perfume shopping, Hermann Goering gave out Elizabeth Arden gift sets. I think these ironies, hypocrisies, and mixed messages were what fascinated me about the period. Yet for the ordinary young woman, life was very regimented and most seem to have adapted willingly to this iron control. It’s the ones who didn’t that interest me!
AH: One of the most enjoyable aspects of your Clara Vine novels is how replete they are with historical fact. For example, I never knew Linzer tortes were named after Hitler’s birthplace. And I must admit, I can relate to Ms. Vine’s reaction while gazing at one of these tortes, “despite its unfortunate associations, Clara could not stop her mouth from watering . . .” I can only imagine you adore research since you incorporate so many facts with such effortlessness. Is it truly effortless? How do insert the truth in fiction without making it appear forced and do you enjoy the challenge?
JT: Oh, I really do love the research. It’s my favorite part I think. Walking around Berlin and Munich, seeing in my mind the buildings that were there like a palimpsest beneath what has replaced them. Finding buildings like the Berlin Bride School that I never knew existed. Or discovering a tiny piece of color – like the fact that Hermann Goering always kept a lion cub in his home. The danger with research of course is that you have to lose most of it, or you end up as a history lesson, and not a thriller at all.
AH: I recently listened to a radio exposé regarding the use of group gymnastics to instill a sense of hegemony within a people, while simultaneously subverting the notion of individuality. Apparently, it is an incredibly effective training tool. It’s no surprise that Nazi Germany employed this resource, as you reference in your novel. The dynamic between the goals of the government and the irrepressibility of the individual is beautifully contrasted in The Pursuit of Pearls. Do you enjoy exploring this contrast, as much as your work seems to suggest?
JT: Totalitarian societies make for miserable living but great fiction. Just look at any of the novels set in the time of Henry VIII, or The Hunger Games series, or 1984. (I hasten to say I wouldn’t dare compare myself to Orwell!) But there is great dramatic tension between the masses who conform, the state that polices that conformity, and the individual who slips through the cracks. That’s what interests the novelist – the outsider who survives in a repressive society. The Nazis put a premium on group activity – they tried to arrange it so that people spent as little time alone as possible because solitude promotes individual thinking. As a spy, Clara herself is an outsider posing as an insider, but so is the character of Lottie Frank, who is considered too intellectual and subversive for the finishing school she attends, and ultimately pays for her free spirit.
AH: It’s always been a belief of mine that if too many restrictions are put on a person, whether they are self-imposed or otherwise, it is human nature to revolt against them. I think of the man who is very polite and stoic in nature but when it comes to his favorite sports team he allows himself to turn into a raving, barely-controlled lunatic who is permitted to yell and curse at people he doesn’t even know. As I read your book, I wondered if the Nazi encouragement of sexuality, purportedly for the purpose of creating more babies for the Aryan nation, might have been an unconscious reaction to a hyper-regimented existence? Considering the shortages in food, was it really wise to be increasing the population? Hah, of course–“They had been told that bread, sugar, and coffee were in short supply because the Führer wanted to increase the facial fitness of the nation.” Your thoughts?
JT: The Nazi attitude to sexuality was, typically for such a dreadful regime, a mess of contradictions. An emphasis on female modesty was allied with encouragement of unmarried motherhood, and a traditionally Protestant nation was asked to welcome ideas from Himmler such as superior men having two wives. At its extreme it embodied horrors like the Lebensborn, which encouraged girls to Give A Child to the Führer through casual sex with an SS man. It also meant the criminalization of homosexuality. The drive to increase the birth rate was so strong that the League of German Girls, the BDM, was nicknamed the Bald Deutscher Mutter – soon-to-be German mothers – and 16-year-olds would regularly return from the Nuremberg rally pregnant. But I don’t think anything was ever about female sexual pleasure. Ultimately, official attitudes to sexuality were governed by one thing – what suited men, and in particular the top men of the regime.
AH: The era you center your novel in was one which yielded profound worldwide consequences, I have to ask if beyond the undeniable entertainment and thought-provoking qualities of your Clara Vine novels, are there any other sentiments you hope to touch in others through your writing?
JT: I’m always very conscious that I’m writing about a period that wrought devastation to so many millions of lives. I may be writing about individual murders but they are taking place against a backdrop of far greater crime. Even while I’m mostly focused on the lives of ordinary Aryan women in Nazi Germany (though Clara herself is part-Jewish) I never want to forget the actions of the men I write about. The value of writing a chronological series is that I can chart the changes in people’s attitudes as they either accommodate or resist the Nazis. In particular, it’s the efforts of resistance by ordinary citizens, such as the group featured in The Pursuit of Pearls that I want to bring to light.
Jane Thynne is the author of several novels, including The Scent of Secrets and The Pursuit of Pearls. She was born in Venezuela and educated in London. She graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English and joined the BBC as a television director. She has also worked at The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, and The Independent and appears regularly as a broadcaster on television and radio. She is married to the writer Philip Kerr. They have three children and live in London.