The Girl Behind the Wall is the latest book from author and former journalist and midwife Mandy Robotham. Set in Berlin in the aftermath of the second world war, the story follows the fate of twin sisters separated by a divided city.
Mandy (56) lives in Gloucestershire with her partner Simon and mini schnauzer Basil. She has two grown-up sons. “When my children began to grow up I thought ‘it’s now or never’ if I’m going to write this book,” she says. “Since I was a child, I’d wanted to be an author; I went into journalism straight after university but then got waylaid by midwifery after having a baby – a total epiphany on the day Harry was born. So, for the next twenty years I juggled daytime work and night-time births, kids and bits of writing for midwifery journals. When it came to seriously producing a book just over five years ago, I signed up for a masters in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University and that was my springboard. For a couple of years I wrote in coffee shops, in hours snatched before and after work, but now I’m in the happy position of being a full-time writer. I absolutely love it!”
According to Mandy, location is often the lynchpin of her writing: “I always start with place, or an event that’s related to a location, and my story builds from there,” she explains. “Usually from some sort of nosy question in my head: what if two people were separated – how would they feel? And live? A lot of my stories are about human survival and tests of character, so I like to think they could be transported to different scenarios. However, I think war is the ultimate test of a person’s mettle, and that’s why World War Two is a such a rich backdrop for writers. You can pick almost anywhere in the world and there’s a good tale to be explored.”
The City of Berlin
Fascinated by the city of Berlin and the indomitable spirit of its people, she says she is, “Endlessly fascinated by how people simply lived and got on with their daily lives. In the last year or so, we’ve been tested to a degree, but WW2 was a long, five years of constantly shifting boundaries, while the Wall stood for twenty-eight years. Berlin survived more than most: it went from being the capital of freedom in the 20’s and 30’s with risqué cabarets and liberal thinking, to the centre of the Nazi machine, through the Wall years and out again to being an open city. I admire that ability to change – the people are so friendly, and they are not afraid to mark those dark years as an example of what not to return to.”
The characters of Karin and Jutta gave Mandy the opportunity to explore the relationship between twin sisters and her own interest in lives that are removed from her own. “I don’t have a close relationship with my sister,” she explains, “and so I love to explore others that do. It’s odd that I find myself writing about sisters quite a lot – it’s not envy, just a fascination. My father was a twin who was separated from his brother from birth and that might have some small influence. I tried to imagine how Karin and Jutta would feel in being divided by something so unnecessary, and what they would do to fill in that void in their lives. It all stems from my being incredibly nosy about people,” she admits.
With The Girl Behind the Wall safely published and going down well with critics and readers alike, Mandy has chosen to return to the second world war for her next storyline. This time, the drama will be set in Scandinavia, “Again, I’ve chosen somewhere that hasn’t been overly explored by writers, and because it has some enticing history to be revealed.
“Writers always have other projects ‘bubbling under’ and I tend to write something alongside my main text – it’s a nice distraction without the pressure of a deadline and you can choose to alter your style, so I’m also tinkering with a spy book that’s set in the 60’s and also having fun with the memoir of an entirely fake person.”
The Girl Behind the Wall by Mandy Robotham (Avon) is out now £7.99.