Identities – of people and of places – form slowly over time, through the sedimentary accretion of multiple overlapping layers. Even the oldest or most deeply buried stories never entirely disappear. Sometimes it takes the archaeologist, or the psychoanalyst, to do a little digging.
Paul Scraton’s Ghosts on the Shore enacts a sustained process of such digging – into the complex past of a place and into the psyche of its people. The book is an exploration of Germany’s Baltic coast: a place not only of leisure, trade and wholesome family holidays but also of hidden pasts and some of the blackest moments of the twentieth century. The book excavates these different layers through a series of journeys – journeys that investigates the personal stories invariably tangled up in the great sweep of history, yet so often overlooked by it.
Taking as its starting point his wife’s collection of family photographs, Scraton’s Ghosts on the Shore weaves together history and memoir, fiction and nonfiction, travel, politics, literature and art into a text that is at once lucid and murky, precisely observed, and full of questions that remain unanswered, maybe even unanswerable.
Ghosts on the Shore is published by Influx Press (who also published my own book, Signal Failure).
I emailed Paul with some questions, which he was kind enough to answer…
TJ: Firstly, congratulations on the book. How has the response been so far?
PS: It has been an interesting few months. Ghosts on the Shore is my first full-length book, and so everything about the experience was new. Because it was part of a crowdfunding campaign for Influx Press, I knew that there were quite a few copies being sent out in the first week after it was launched. And it was a strange feeling, having had these two lovely launch events in Berlin and London, and then being left to wait for the responses to trickle in. But thankfully the response has been very positive, and one of the nice things about being on Twitter and things like that is that I have had the chance not only to get people’s responses directly, but also to have conversations about the book.
TJ: Which parts of the whole process have you found most rewarding?
PS: At its core, Ghosts on the Shore tells the stories I discovered during a series of journeys along the (East) German Baltic coast between the former inner-German border outside Lübeck and the island of Usedom, which is shared between Germany and Poland. The result is a mix of travelogue, history, reportage and fiction, to attempt to create a portrait of this coastline, and I think the most rewarding elements of the whole process were the trips I made with Katrin (my wife) and her family, who spent much of their life in the German Democratic Republic living up there on the Baltic shore. To walk through memories, especially with Katrin’s parents, was not only really rewarding in terms of writing the book, but an incredible privilege in the sense that they trusted me to write about them, and do right by their story.
TJ: Which parts have been the hardest?
PS: The answer is basically the same. If the travels with Gabi, Fritz and Katrin herself were the most rewarding, sitting down to write those chapters was the most challenging aspect of the whole process. And then waiting, once the book was done, to find out what they thought about how I had portrayed the family and their history on the page… that was the hardest wait of all! That was the response I was most waiting for and most nervous of, but I think I did okay.
TJ: How long have you lived in Berlin now? Do you feel like you write about Germany from the perspective of an outsider or of an insider? Or is this not an especially significant distinction for you?
PS: I have been in Berlin for almost exactly (as I write this) sixteen years. That is four times as long as I have lived anywhere since I left home at the age of eighteen, so if I cannot write about Germany from an insider perspective, then I can’t write about anywhere as if I belong. And yet, I certainly do not feel like an insider in this country, nor do I feel like an outsider. I think I am somewhere in-between, which is not necessarily the worst place from which to write about a country or a city.
To be honest, I have only thought about this question with the publication of the book, as I have had it a lot. I think good writing about place is about observation, and there is something to be said both for writing about a place that you know intimately, like Iain Sinclair in London or Nan Shepherd in the Cairngorms, and for writing about a place that you are seeing with fresh eyes, as with the best of travel writers, such as Jan Morris or Colin Thubron. They both have their place. And with Germany and the Baltic, I feel like I am somewhere between the two.
TJ: Did you feel a sense of duty or responsibility when writing the book? If so, to what? The people, the places, the truth, the reader – or something else completely?
PS: Beyond the obvious responsibility I felt to Katrin’s family, which I already mentioned, there was an issue about this that came up early in the process of starting to write. As I mentioned, there are fictional elements in the book, which can be found in three linked short stories that tell the tale of a Baltic family through three generations. In the beginning, I had wanted to make the blending of fact and fiction a little less obvious. But as I started to compile the stories I wanted to include, and realised I was going to write about the RAF accidently bombing a ship filled with concentration camp survivors, or the story of an East German man who swam for more than 24 hours to reach West German waters, I realised that the reader had to know which stories were which. The three short stories are ‘true’, in the sense that they are inspired by real experiences, and the folklore and legends of the shoreline are also ‘true’ in the sense they exist, and they shape people’s response to and sense of place, but I wanted the reader to be clear as they moved along the coastline with me, which was which.
TJ: In terms of those fictional narratives, there is one story – about the family-run hotel – that really lingers in my mind. Is this threading together of fiction and non-fiction something that you’ve done before or was it a specific response to the places you’re exploring? Or a totally different reason entirely?
PS: Ultimately, with Ghosts on the Shore I was trying to tell a series of stories about a place, to help readers – many of whom will have never been there, and never will go there – get a sense of how the Baltic coast is today, and how it came to be that way. The short stories were key to this, I think, because by linking the stories through three generations of the same family, it helps show how history shapes a place and a people and continues to do so, even within the context of momentous events that dramatically change lives, communities and landscapes, such as the Second World War or the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989.
The approach of blending different place-writing techniques – travelogue, history, fiction, reportage etc – allows us as writers about place to explore different aspects of the story of a city, a country, an imagined but not yet built railway line, or the ghosts along the shore. I didn’t feel the limitations of structuring this through a first-person narrative as it is also important (I think – other writers might not agree!) to hold it together in some way. So the sense of me, following the coastline between Lübeck to Usedom, creates the line along which the different stories, digressions and fictional elements can hang.
TJ: When it comes to this kind of writing, is imagination more important than research?
PS: I think they are both as important as each other. Imagination is, I suppose, what you use to conjure the atmosphere, the spirit and the sense of a place for people who may never go there. But the research can give you the most powerful stories. Sometimes I think we forget, for example, how catastrophic and destructive the Second World War was, especially on the Eastern Front. I was recently in Gdansk, visiting the new Museum of the Second World War, and although I did not learn anything about a conflict I have not only studied for A Levels and in my university degrees, but also read about a lot in the twenty years that have followed, I was still shocked and appalled when the truths of that conflict were laid out in front of me via the photographs, film footage, personal testimony and other exhibits gathered together there.
Interestingly, a lot of readers have responded most strongly to the short stories in the book, while to others it was the “unknown” stories of the Second World War. The sinking of the ship of concentration camp survivors, I mentioned earlier. The destruction of a refugee ship filled with German-speakers from East Prussia fleeing the advancing Red Army, which remains one of the largest maritime disasters in history and yet one which many people don’t know about, because it is hard to view any element of the Second World War in which the Germans, responsible for the Holocaust, might be seen as victims. So the research is important, and then the imagination to try and bring those stories to life.
TJ: You’ve launched your own magazine, and published your book with independent publishers Influx Press, as well as previous titles with Readux and Slow Travel Berlin. What is the appeal of working with smaller-scale organisations?
PS: Because they publish books that the big publishers won’t, or are unwilling to take a risk on. I am in Germany, so I feel a bit out of the loop when it comes to the British publishing industry, but I am so incredibly proud to be an Influx author. Just look at the books they published in the past couple of years…Jeffrey Boakye, Eley Williams, yourself, Linda Mannheim, Gareth E Rees… all very different and yet they say something interesting and important. And through working with Influx I have discovered other independent publishers, such as Galley Beggar and Dead Ink, and they are doing fantastic stuff as well.
TJ: What other projects are you working? What would you like to be working on?
PS: Right now I am working on a collection of linked stories set in Berlin and the surrounding countryside. I also have ideas for a novel, and a non-fiction project exploring ideas of memory and memorialisation… not so much about simply what the stories of the past are, but how we tell the stories of the past. I would like to be working on all of them at once, but it is not so easy!
TJ: Could you describe the publishing process briefly? What aspects of the process did you especially enjoy / not enjoy?
PS: I think the answer to this relates a little bit to the question you asked about independent publishing. I loved every stage of working with Gary [Budden] and then later Kit [Caless] and Sanya [Semakula] because I always felt close to every aspect. Because the book wasn’t written when they agreed to publish it, Gary and I had loads of conversations about it as we went along, meeting up for walks in London and even once along the Baltic coast itself. They only publish a few books a year, so the level of commitment to each one is fantastic for a writer.
So there was not much I didn’t enjoy… apart from the waiting. But that’s all part of the experience.
TJ: Now that Signal Failure and Ghosts on the Shore have been published for about the same amount of time, there are definitely things I would change about Signal Failure – or rather, aspects I don’t like that will feed into the way I write my next book (if I ever get around to it). Is there anything you would like to change about Ghosts on the Shore?
PS: I’ve been thinking about this. Clearly, that is the case. I am nowhere near arrogant enough to think that I have produced a perfect book and that is that, and sometimes when I do a reading I think “oh, I wish I had written that line differently”, or “should that bit have come earlier” etc etc. But I also think that way madness lies, and you become the musician with a hit album written in his bedroom without really knowing what he is doing who then spends two decades attempting to write and record the follow-up. Once it is out there, get on with the next thing. Try and do better with the next book, the next article, the next story. That’s what I try to tell myself, anyway…
Paul Scraton, Ghosts on the Shore is published by Influx Press.
Paul is also the editor-in-chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place.
Photo credit: Katrin Schönig