Interview with A.B. Decker – Author of The Dark Frontier
Peter: AB, your book ‘The Dark Frontier’ is a wonderful story that fascinated and intrigued me. I would like to congratulate you on writing it and I am delighted we can conduct this interview. Many thanks for making the time available.
Peter: A very unique story, and I’m intrigued to know what inspired you to write this book?
AB: Before I moved to Switzerland, I applied for a job in Germany about 50 miles up the road from where I live now. I was offered the job and sent the contract, but turned it down at the last minute. While I sensed a strong pull to move there, it didn’t feel right. Then, a few years later, I was offered a job nearby in Switzerland. I never applied for the job, so maybe it was this that made me feel instantly this was the one for me. There was a sense of predestination, that I was always meant to be here. This brought to mind ideas about paranormal concepts which coincided with a fascination at the same time for my location, living so close to where three national frontiers meet.
Then, when I came across a memorial stone to a French resistance fighter who died in the war about 100 metres down the road from where I lived, just across the border, it got me thinking about what life must have been like on the border at that time, particularly during the years leading up to the war, when so many refugees were pouring into the country – especially in Basel, a Swiss city that accommodates both a German and a French railway station. And the deeper I dived into the events at that time, the more I felt there was a story I wanted to tell.
Peter: Frank is the main character of the story but what were the challenging aspects of his personality and what was most important for you to convey to the reader?
AB: Probably the most challenging part about the character is that there are two Franks. One of them is seen through the eyes of his wife Ellen, while the other is seen through Frank himself as an émigré adrift in a world that is out of kilter and out of time with Ellen’s world. He has no allegiances, no commitments and no firm beliefs except that what is happening in his home country is a calamitous disaster. He’s a fence sitter, whose trust in the fence he sits on is only confirmed when his friend Achim persuades him into action. It’s not until Patricia comes into his life and things get personal that he can be truly tempted down off his fence.
Peter: I was fascinated with the relationship between Frank and Patricia Roche and you particularly threw me at the end. You avoided a traditional romance but that must have been challenging to address. What was the most important aspect of their relationship to create and what was your intention on their contribution to the story?
AB: The relationship with Patricia is key to the whole story. It’s the glue that holds the story together. The link that connects the two Franks – Frank Goss and Frank Eigenmann – and unifies them, so to speak.
Peter: The relationship between Ellen and Marthe was another compelling connection and also created the mechanism to cover much of the psychological and historical background. Can you speak to your intentions here and what aspects you wanted to convey most?
AB: Yes, the idea of Marthe, as a history graduate with an interest in psychology and a psychiatrist husband, was really to do just that. Ellen’s relationship with her was actually not part of the original intention. But when they were thrown together, it grew organically in the course of writing. Since the whole story essentially revolves around the crossing of borders (its working title was actually Grenzgänger – i.e. a crosser of borders), it struck me that in this part of the story – set as it is at the time of Switzerland’s referendum on women’s suffrage – the protagonists were crossing another boundary. So, alongside the story of Frank, I also wanted to explore what Ellen might be going through as she pondered over her relationship with Frank after he vanished from her life.
Peter: I loved the era and location you used in the novel. How much research did you conduct to gain such a deep feeling and atmosphere for the setting of your story? What research did you uncover that surprised you most?
AB: Yes, I did quite a lot of research. But much to my irritation I recently learned that, despite all this research, there is still a tiny historical inaccuracy. Absolutely miniscule and of no importance, but it’s there and it shouldn’t be, because I had all the information to hand, but just made a reasonable yet lazy assumption. So that’s a lesson learned: never make assumptions.
Probably the most surprising discovery – and the most disconcerting – was that so many Nazi flags flew in neutral Switzerland before the war and that there were so many active branches of the Nazi party in the country at the time, even in a city like Basel, which had a long history as a hub of socialist and social democratic thinking.
Peter: I love the suggestion of psyche transference between two different time periods and seeing Jung’s name reminded me of stories that have also utilised his theories. What excited you about exploring and using this concept?
AB: It was the idea of déjà vu and the sense of predestination that had me thinking: what if? I initially tackled this story as a first-person narration from both Frank’s and Ellen’s perspective. It was maybe a little too experimental and certainly quite complicated. So, after completion, it spent some time gathering dust. Then one day I came across Ian Stevenson’s work in the US on past lives (Marthe mentions him briefly). It was as if someone had sneaked up behind me as I was sitting at my desk in the evening gloom and switched on the light. It seemed a really interesting way of approaching it. So I took out the manuscript, dusted it off and completely rewrote it.
Peter: Do you use story boarding or mapping processes to develop your plots and interactions, or do you go with the flow and follow your instinct and gut feeling? Would you therefore describe yourself as a plotter, pantser or plantser?
AB: In the first version of this novel, it was all gut feeling. When it came to rewriting it, I realised I had to develop the plot more, but much of this was still done in my head – only the bare bones were physically sketched out. I’m not a great fan of maps, something my wife always complains about when we visit new places: she likes maps, I like to explore.
When it comes to my second novel, there has been much more plotting with a clear outline of the various characters and chapters. But in the course of writing it, the story has also taken on a life of its own and has developed in unexpected ways. So here too I’ve gone with the flow to some extent and allowed one or two interesting new elements to develop. I suppose you could say I’ve grown from a pantser to a plantser. I doubt I would ever become a complete plotter.
Peter: Have you ever experienced writers’ block, how disruptive is it, and do you have any tips for addressing the problem?
AB: I have slow days, inactive days and good days. But I can’t really say I’ve ever had writer’s block. I know what I want to write, and sometimes I hit a problem in the story that needs to be addressed. But I just let it sit for a time and eventually come up with a solution. My biggest problem with the novel I’m now working on was to come up with a murder weapon. I could not even begin until that was sorted. But I’m not sure that counts as writer’s block.
Peter: Do you use software applications or utilities to support your writing activity? For example, Scrivener or Grammarly.
AB: No. I’m confident both in my ability to organise things and in my own grasp of grammar and spelling, and don’t appreciate being told by an algorithm that I should consider using a different word or whatever. I prefer to rely on a human to suggest how I might improve a text.
Peter: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
AB: That’s difficult. I’m bad enough at taking advice, so it would be arrogant of me to assume I could offer anything more than to say: believe in your writing and never give up. Oh, and find a good editor for your work.
Peter: How much time do you spend on writing compared to promoting your books?
AB: I’m a lousy promoter with minimal marketing skills, which probably tells you all you need to know about the ratio of writing time to promotion time.
Peter: What authors have you most admired and have had an influence on your writing?
AB: In my younger years, the people I most admired were probably Hemingway, Huxley and Orwell. In later years I came to enjoy Chandler and especially Grahame Greene, and they have been quite an influence on me.
Peter: What is your favourite book you’ve read over the last 12 months? What one book jumps to your mind, as you think of your top 10 books of all time?
AB: For my birthday I was given The Tobacconist by Austrian author Robert Seethaler, which I very much enjoyed, perhaps partly because it was set in a period and location that will always fascinate me: Nazi-occupied Vienna in the months leading up to the flight to London of Sigmund Freud, as told by the (fictitious) tobacconist regularly frequented by Freud. As to the top ten, there is no question that 1984 would be very close to the top.
Peter: If you had a dinner party and could invite 3 personalities from any period in history who would they be and why?
AB: A tricky one, because so many fascinating personalities throughout history had or have such overblown egos that they would completely dominate the dinner party, and it would prove a dull affair. So I would pick some modest and sadly less celebrated personalities (there are many to choose from): a poet, a painter and a potter. Christopher Logue, because I loved the wit of his poetry and the silken quality of his voice, and I would want him to recite some of his work; Francisco Goya, because I would like to know whether he really did paint the so-called black paintings; and Clarisse Cliff, because I would like to discuss her pottery designs, which appear to draw so much inspiration from Picasso, Mondrian and the Expressionists.
Peter: Can you give us any insights into any future books or projects that you’re working on?
AB: I’m currently working on a novel set in a Turkish resort against a backdrop of political tension. It’s a tale of revenge that I have been wanting to write for some time as a kind of tribute to a lovely person I knew who died under mysterious circumstances.
Some years ago, I also wrote a couple of stories for younger readers. They’re too long at present and also a little out of date in places, so I’m considering revamping them, because I think they’re great stories that kids would enjoy.
Peter: How can readers learn more about you and your work?
AB: I have an author’s website, abdecker.co.uk, where there is a little information about me and The Dark Frontier. But not a lot, since visitors will likewise see when they read the content that I’m also an admirer of B. Traven, who once wrote: “The creative person should have no other biography than his works”. It was a principle he stuck to so completely that no one truly knows to this day who he was. In the world of social media, of course, it’s not so easy to follow that example and, while I’m not (yet?) on Facebook or Instagram, readers can find a little more about the kind of person I am on Twitter @decker_ab.
Peter: AB, I appreciate you taking the time for this interview. If there are other snippets of information you wish to provide, please feel free to share. I would like to congratulate you on this wonderful book and I wish you massive success for the future.
AB: Many thanks, Peter