Thanks so much to David W. Berner at The Writer Shed for this nice review and interview. You can see the original review here.
Back in the D.D.R. by Rick Kaempfer
Reading Rick Kaempfer’s novel Back in the D.D.R. will feel for many like echoes of a childhood — anyone who grew up in the era of the Cold War and under the belief that Soviet spies, and American spies for that matter, could be anywhere. But what makes this book such an enjoyable read is not nostalgia, spy suspense, or even history, but instead it is the story of Rudi, the book’s protagonist, and his coming of age in those tenuous yet remarkable years.
Rudi is German yet trying to find his way in America. He loves baseball and the favorite TV shows of the early 1970s. But his parents decide to return to West Germany, and it is only when he crosses the Iron Curtain into East Germany that he begins to discover the real reason why his family has come back to their homeland. It is certainly not a vacation.
Matching history with Rudi’s awakening to the times makes Back in the D.D.R. a compelling story, giving the tale deep roots both emotionally and culturally. Rudi’s maturation comes alongside striking events in the world and reminds the reader how global history can impact a singular life, especially that of a 13-year-old boy.
The Writer Shed Interview with Author Rick Kaempfer
1. Why this book at this time? Why this period in history, Cold War Europe?
I hadn’t written a novel in ten years, because I was writing more non-fiction, and concentrating on my publishing company, but I always knew I would someday write this story about my childhood growing up in Cold War Europe. I think the events in Ukraine really sealed the deal for me. After what I had seen and heard and experienced growing up where I did (West Germany), I wasn’t surprised in the least by Russia’s actions in Ukraine. I was, however, surprised by the American public’s reaction. I realized that a whole generation of Americans have grown up not understanding or appreciating the value of NATO and America’s commitment to democracy. I thought maybe this story would at least remind readers what the stakes are, and what a Europe divided by an Iron Curtain really looked like. I saw, heard, smelled, felt, and experienced it all firsthand and wanted to bring it back to life so others could too.
2. So many novelists put a bit of themselves in their fiction? Is some of you in the main character, Rudi? (You make a nod to this s bit in the acknowledgements) if so, what specifically did you take from your own experiences?
Yes, the main character of Rudi is definitely similar to me at that age. I opted to write this as fiction rather than a memoir, however, because the events I write about here took place over six years instead of one. Also, I honestly don’t know some of the details of what really happened because they were hidden from me. The one person who could answer those questions, my father, died more than 30 years ago. That allowed me to include speculation, heighten the action, and more deeply explore the events of that time. What is real to me is the emotional part of the story. The fears, the worries, the difficulties. The humor is real too. Those were my actual “fish out of water” observations from that time.
3. Although it’s somewhat unnecessary to categorize a book these days. It’s mainly for the reader to understand what they are getting into. That said, this book may be hard to categorize — is it a coming-of-age story? Historical fiction? Suspense? Mystery? How would you characterize it? Readers love to know this.
First and foremost, it’s a coming-of-Age story. Yes, it takes place in the past, but it’s set in the past more than historical fiction or a spy thriller. Let’s call it a coming-of-age-historical-fiction-spy-thriller.
4. It’s clear there had to be a great deal of research done while writing this novel, considering its content. Can you summarize your process?
You are right that I did a ton of research, but it was kind of fun, to be honest. I have friends in the military who helped me find answers to my military questions. I even got in touch, through an old high school pal who is now a General, with former NATO commander Alexander Haig’s old chief of staff. I have relatives who lived in East Germany, so I knew all about the STASI, and those STASI files are all out there now. Most of my family fled war-torn Nazi Germany, so I knew all about the Nazis growing up, and knew exactly where to find that information. (I also speak and read German, which helped a lot). In addition, I personally visited every single location I wrote about (and it takes place in seven different countries), so I didn’t have to imagine what any place looked like. But the funniest thing about my research is that I watched so many documentaries about the Nazis and the Commies that my Amazon Prime and Netflix “Suggestions for you” section looks like I should be put on some sort of a government watch list.
5. Might there be another Rudi story in the future?
As much fun as I had writing this book, I’m pretty sure there won’t be another Rudi novel. There could be some more stories, though. I have a few more from that era that are quite entertaining.