Beatrice Colin: A History Maker
This article is from 2009.
Beatrice Colin is firmly rooted in contemporary Scotland. But she tells Kirstin Innes that her novels occupy the Europe of decades past
Beatrice Colin’s entry in the Book Festival catalogue describes her as a ‘debut novelist’, which may confound anyone who’s encountered The Luminous Life of Lily Nelly Aphrodite. The Glasgow writer’s huge, beautiful 2008 novel takes in Berlin from 1900-1936 through the lens of the booming, then busting German film industry. There’s a confidence in its scope and ambition that’s very rare indeed in debut novels.
‘It’s because it’s actually my third book!’ Colin explains. ‘The other two were only published in the States by a very small company.’ To some extent, her work to date has been a preparation for Lily. The idea for the novel crystallised in her early twenties, when she would accompany an elderly great aunt on holiday as a companion, a relationship which has influenced much of her fiction since. ‘Great Aunt Nina was originally from Russia, but she’d emigrated to Berlin after the war and somehow worked her way up to be a press officer at Ufa, the major German studio of the European Hollywood. She was one of the press officers for Metropolis and had this glorious period in the 20s and 30s when she’d been extremely glamorous and travelled round to different film festivals in furs and an open-topped Citroen.’
Reeled in by the second-hand glamour, Colin became intrigued. She’s been researching this period since the mid 1990s, and Lily took her five years to write. ‘It was an amazingly active, creative time in Germany in the 1920s, with films like Metropolis and The Blue Angel. And then it became Goebbels’ propaganda tool. He got rid of lots of people in the industry because they were Jewish. Some of them left, went to Hollywood, some of them got sent to concentration camps. By 1935 the whole thing had been killed.’
Although she doesn’t describe her work as ‘historical fiction’ – her first two novels had contemporary settings – her next book, The Songwriter, is set between 1920s Russia and 1950s New York. ‘You get writers like Ian McEwan and Peter Carey, who write books set in historical times, and no one calls them “historical novelists”. I hope I’m like them, reinterpreting historical events in a contemporary way. What pulls me in is the domestic side of conflict, how politics and everyday life cross over.’
22 Aug (with Anthony Quinn), 7.30pm, £6 (£4).