A forgotten history, a lifetime of secrecy and one woman’s search for the truth.
Alexandra Ford’s debut novel What Remains at the End sheds light on the lesser-known history of the former Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans – the Danube Swabians – and the horrors inflicted on them in the aftermath of World War II under Tito’s partisan regime. In this interview, we talk to her about writing the book, its themes and what she might have in store for us with her next novel.
What Remains at the End focuses on the forgotten history of Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans—the Danube Swabians. What first drew you to this topic?
Like Marie, I have a family connection to this history. My grandparents were survivors of the expulsion. And much like Marie’s grandparents, my Oma and Opa, while they spoke a lot about the war, didn’t go into detail about what had happened to them, to their communities. So, in many respects, researching for and writing this book was my own way of grappling with and understanding my family’s history.
What was it like doing research for this book and where did you focus your search? Have you visited any of the places Marie travels to in her own search for answers?
Researching for this book was a challenge. I interviewed my grandparents when they were still alive, but unfortunately, we’re at the point where many of the people who lived through World War II are gone. At least in the English language, there aren’t many written resources available, and the resources I did find were often written and compiled by people with a strong connection to the history. So, they weren’t academic texts, you could say, and there was a lot of understandable emotion—anger, indignation, horror—written into them. Which didn’t always make them reliable sources. But they were human, and they were primarily composed of personal stories as told by victims. Which is what I was most interested in as a writer—that and those grey areas of morality in Western culture.
And yes, I visited pretty much all of the places Marie travels to in her search for answers. I think it would have been very difficult to write this book without having seen Vojvodina and these places where so much horror took place—both for the historical short pieces and for the modern narrative, to understand what Marie would have felt living her experience.
The book shifts between 1940s Yugoslavia and modern day, connecting Marie’s journey with the experiences of her grandparents. What made you decide on this structure to tell their story? Are the historical sequences based on real events?
This book began with the historical pieces. The first one I wrote was the one about Emma Marzluft and her family being forcibly removed from their home. I created the characters and put them into very real, researched circumstances. A number of my stories came in this way. Others drew heavily on personal accounts. Which is a very roundabout way of saying yes, these stories are based on real events, real people, real places, often real details.
The structure didn’t take long to follow. I knew I needed something to balance the bleakness and violence of the historical pieces, something that wouldn’t trap me in the same place as my resources: coming across as indignant or self-righteous, leading me—and readers—down a path that doesn’t differ terribly from hate. The book needed to make room for complication in the landscape, and paradox, if only because it’s arrogant to believe we are incapable of the things other people have done, that we are better. Maybe we’re not. Western culture as a whole has a lot of blood on its hands.
I also felt it was important to show who these surviving victims became and perhaps why their stories have remained unspoken into the present day. So, I knew what I needed, but I didn’t know how to build it. It was actually in conversation with one of my mentors that I realised Marie was my way forward. I told my mentor about my upcoming trip to the former Yugoslavia, my connection to this story, and she said, ‘That’s it. That’s the answer.’ And it was like someone pulled open a window blind and all the light came rushing in.
You often opt to describe the horrors inflicted on Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans through the eyes of a child. What was it about the child’s voice that made you choose them as key narrators of these events?
Part of this, I think, is that, of the personal accounts I’d heard or read, many had come from people who were children during the war. If they were old enough to be telling me their stories, as my grandparents were, they could only have been children at the time. And sometimes in their retellings, I could hear the childhood language they may have used to describe it all before they grew up. It made sense for me to tell it from that point of view. But also, I find something particularly compelling about a child’s perspective. They can be much wiser than adults. They speak a language more evocative and open than grown up language allows.
What Remains at the End makes the reader consider several moral themes that will be challenging for some: ethnic cleansing, racial prejudice, infidelity. Do you think it’s important to challenge readers by discussing difficult/undiscussed topics?
Absolutely. Where, if not in books, can one wade through these things? I love the space fiction leaves for the reader to think and feel their way through complicated issues. I look for that, as a reader. Life is complicated—both personally and on a macro level. Getting stuck into moral dilemmas is part of what it means to be human. But I acknowledge that some of the themes in this novel are particularly challenging. They were challenging for me as well. I asked myself often if anyone would even want to read about ethnic German victims of World War II. If it was right to tell the story of German victims, if the process of doing so would belittle the millions of victims of the Holocaust. But what I came to, and what I hope readers come to as well, is that it’s important for us to look at our history in its entirety. Because if we don’t look at all the things that have made us, how do we know who we are?
Your book has a dual purpose, firstly to entertain readers, secondly to shed light on a lesser known but significant part of history. Why did you think it was important to bring the horrors of these events to light and why now?
It certainly feels relevant to share this story today. We’re in the throes of Brexit, after all. So much has changed in the decades since WWII, but not as much as one might hope. Donald Trump, the rise in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, right-wing populism—Western society is swinging the pendulum back toward nationalism and the rhetoric of otherness. I never thought I’d quote Mark Twain, but here I am. He said, and I’m paraphrasing: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
Sometimes those rhymes are riddles. Sometimes they’re terrifying echoes. But we have to know the lines that came before to feel the rhyme. And this seems a pretty good time to brush up on our poetry.
This is your first novel, although you have been writing for a while. How did the process differ from what you have done before and how did you find the process? Was it harder than you expected?
The biggest difference between the writing I had done before and What Remains at the End was moving from short forms into writing a longer narrative. I felt comfortable in the world of short and very short fiction, where you have to be super economical with your writing to pack a whole story into a small space. Longer narratives don’t work in quite the same way, so there was definitely a learning curve. Weaving the historical short pieces through Marie’s story was surprisingly one of the more intuitive parts of the process. But I suppose the thing that was most difficult, and definitely harder than I expected, was how long it took to revise. It took two years to write what I felt was a strong first draft—and five years of revisions after that before it was finished. I learned the importance of embracing a book’s evolution and to accept that that evolution takes time. And it needs people. Writing a book is not a solitary journey.
You are currently working on your second novel. Will it be exploring similar themes or are you looking at something different the second time around?
It’s early days for my second novel, so it’s difficult to talk about with clarity. I’ll continue exploring challenging themes, but with a much more acute scope. It will tell the story of two women isolated together in a rundown house—a mother and her grown daughter—as they navigate life, death, grief, and healing from past trauma. I don’t know if it will be a book about forgiveness, but it will be a book about the idea of home, about memory and longing. And about morally complicated people doing the best they can and coming to terms with the possibility that their best isn’t enough for their loved ones. If it turns out as planned, it’ll be a bit of a dysfunctional Marches pastoral. But one thing I’ve learned is that the process of writing a book is full of surprises. So, we’ll have to wait and see, but it feels really good to be writing something new, not knowing where it might lead.
Join us for the official launch of What Remains at the End at The Hurst (The John Osbourne Arvon Centre, SY7 0JA) on Saturday 23rd November from 4pm. Alexandra will be reading from the book and there will be wine, cake and a signing afterwards.