PW: In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, you were publishing a novel every two years. Secret Father is your first in nine years. Is there a reason you chose not to write fiction during that period?
James Carroll: I started writing a weekly column for the Boston Globe just as I was finishing my last novel. I came back to the nonfiction voice in that column, and I found it very natural. It was in that voice I finally found a way to write my own story, which resulted in my nonfiction book, An American Requiem. And the privilege of addressing large questions in a public forum led me to my next work, Constantine's Sword, a history of Christian anti-Semitism, a book which took me away from everything for a good number of years. For me, fiction is a kind of imaginative North Star. The needle in my inner compass was constantly pointing back toward fiction, and I couldn't wait to get back to it.
PW: You've always mined your own life for your novels.
JC: That's true. The brackets of this novel, Berlin 1961 and Berlin 1989, amount to two brackets of my own life. I was in Berlin in 1960 when my father was stationed in Europe. I was a young high school kid, so the context for the novel is drawn from my own experience. Once I realized I could return to Berlin, to the period of my own youth, the structure of the novel presented itself to me. I'm drawing from my own experience but hoping it's transformed by something much larger, in this case the political drama of our time. The novel begins with events leading up to the building of the Wall and ends with the Wall coming down years later.
PW: One of the themes in Secret Father is that the Wall was actually acceptable to Americans and West Berliners. Most readers will find that an unusual concept.
JC: The rhetoric of the American government has been to emphasize the opposite, that the Wall was an affront. I went to Berlin in 1980 on assignment for the Globe to write about the Wall, and the young Berliner who took me around was the first person I heard refer to the Wall as the "Peace Wall." And I said, "What in the world do you mean by that?" He said the Wall established peace between East and West, and in Berlin, people understand its importance. He was saying that as a West Berliner, someone who was supposed to have been affronted by the wall. That was the beginning of my understanding that this event was much more complicated than we think.
One of the things I'm working on in the novel is the irony that the entire project of the Cold War was a very delicate act of mutuality between the Soviet Union and the United States. They avoided the nuclear exchange precisely by cooperating with each other, by anticipating each other's moves, and by always giving the other side the minimum of what they needed to save face and maintain position, to avoid the desperate act of belligerence. We don't think of it normally, but the actual fact that the Cold War ended nonviolently is an accomplishment of the Soviet Union and the U.S. cooperating with each other. That was going on even while there was this rhetoric of opposition on the surface. And even someone like Ronald Reagan, who seemed to indulge that rhetoric, was quite ready to cooperate with Mikhail Gorbachev and in effect made possible the bringing down of the Wall.
PW: Do you still write a column for the Globe?
JC: Yes. I just finished writing a column about Sammy Sosa's bat.
PW: And your verdict?
JC: Human fallibility.