Jenny Mayhew has worked as a TV researcher, studied International Relations in Sri Lanka and written film screenplays on both contemporary and historical storylines. In 2003, she was nominated for a BAFTA special achievement award for her screenplay To Kill a King. Jenny has a doctorate in English literature and has taught creative writing courses at Oxford, Bristol and Manchester. She now lives in Edinburgh and A Wolf in Hindelheim is her first novel. Jenny talks us through the creation of a wonderfully atmospheric mystery and an unusual and affecting love story.
Where did you get the idea for A Wolf in Hindelheim?
The setting came first. I wanted to set a story in a quiet, remote, unremarkable 1920s neighbourhood which would be the opposite of the glamorous roaring-twenties world of The Great Gatsby and Al Capone-era gangster movies. No tycoons, no bootleggers, no sophisticated artists hanging out in smoky Berlin jazz bars: I wanted to write about unsophisticated folk with ordinary lives and old-fashioned habits and prejudices, scratching out a living in the decade before Nazism took hold.
It’s always puzzled me how ordinary people could be persuaded by the Nazi regime to become obedient Party members and turn on their neighbours. What were those people doing and thinking in the years before Hitler’s rise to power that would eventually make them susceptible to his propaganda? I wanted to edge tentatively towards this question rather than attempt a full-on war story. An ordinary German village in the 1920s seemed like a quietly potent setting for some kind of gradual, disturbing shift of mood.
Starting out with this vague sense of an ordinary community quietly going about its business in the lull before Hitler’s storm, I stumbled on a bizarre claim that helped to focus the idea. It was on a website of unexplained supernatural events, a sort of spooky alternative timeline of world history, and there was a one-line entry that said something like: ‘In a German village in 1925, a man shot a witch who was turning into a werewolf’. I’m not sure it was that year, but it was definitely sometime in the 1920s, because that’s what caught my eye. I remember thinking, really? In 20th century Europe there were still people who believed in such things?
This puzzling statement (which was just a one-line assertion, with no sources or references) gave me the idea of starting an improbable rumour in my imaginary village, and getting different characters to respond to the rumour in various ways. It also encouraged me to be quite bold with the inner lives of my characters, and to let their imaginations run wild. Their grievances and desires and jealousies and credulous fantasies could become quite extreme, I decided – especially if the villagers were still suffering from the experiences and effects of the First World War.
How did you research the book?
The short answer is, I didn’t. All of the places, incidents and characters in the novel are made up; so there was nothing specific to look for in the archives. Hindelheim is an imaginary village in an invented region – ‘south-west Germany’ – which is deliberately notional and unspecific. My aim was not to document anything that actually happened, but to speculate on what might conceivably happen if … and if … As for geographical or historical detail, it’s 99% guesswork.
I showed the first draft to a scholar of German history who very gently highlighted some implausible features; but no doubt there are others. By lucky accident I came across of a book of photographic portraits taken by August Sander in the 20s, I think, which helped me as a kind of aid to speculation. Many of Sander’s subjects – people from all walks of life, and from different regions – look directly at the camera in a way that makes you wonder what is going on behind the eyes.
Where did the characters come from?
The residents of Hindelheim were invented, like everything else in the story, bit by painful bit. They did not arrive one day fully-formed and walk on to the set I’d created for them, unfortunately. For me, building a character on the page is the same laborious, trial-and-error process as building anything else on the page: try this, no that’s not working, take it out and try something else. Tap, tap. Cringe. Delete, delete, delete.
It was clear that the story would need a point-of-view character; not a spotless hero, but someone whose perspective we share more than any other. Theodore, the local constable, has this role. It was also important to have a character who could be drawn into irrational thinking; someone susceptible to persuasion, whose choices would affect the course of the story. That part is played by Eckhardt, a young veteran of the First World War. I also wanted a character who would be a kind of barometer for the sexual climate of this imaginary place, where fear and desire go hand in hand, and where neighbours are both too close to each other and at the same time, are strangers; hence Ute.
What kinds of folklore and tales inspired the story?
The novel has a fairly realistic setting and narrative (I hope!), but there are references to folklore and fairy tales peppered throughout. My reason for alluding to these tales and beliefs was to suggest something about the inner lives of the characters – particularly their inherited notions of good and bad, normal and abnormal, purity and danger. I hoped to give a sense of how the characters think, both individually and collectively. In the tight-knit community of Hindelheim, some thought patterns are shared, like patterns on a common type of wallpaper; but not all. A few individuals – like Theodore, the sceptic of the story – manage to stand apart and question the tales they are told.
As the book’s title suggests, there’s a symbolic wolf prowling around the edges of this story, which means different things to the different characters, depending on what they are inclined to believe. In Hindelheim as in Red Riding Hood, wolves are associated with sexual power and dangerous transformations. And because there’s a wolf, there had to be a character called Peter. Another familiar children’s tale that is mentioned is The Elves and The Shoemaker, which to my mind has a very slightly creepy, controlling aspect to it. (If there were do-gooding elves rummaging around in my workshop at night without an invitation, I wouldn’t be too happy about it!)
One of the central characters, Ute, mentions her aunt’s belief in troublesome ‘night people’. What I had in mind here is a set of legends that were, as I understand it, current in the Middle Ages across Europe, relating to supernatural ‘wild hunters’ who flew by night and disrupted communities in various ways. Ute’s aunt has several other superstitions, most of which I made up. In fact, there is quite a bit of invented folklore in the novel. Members of the fictional German People’s League propagate some weird ideas that I more or less invented at random, hoping to make them seem credibly sect-like and occult. It didn’t seem necessary to be constrained by a single folkloric tradition, or to tie the story down to one particular set of historically documented practices. It’s fiction, not anthropology! As I see it, what’s important and revealing about the characters is not the precise nature of their beliefs, but how they come to persuade themselves, or others, to believe.
Truth is stranger than fiction, though; and none of the made-up rituals or folkloric ideas in this novel is a match for the horrifying beliefs that did, in fact, circulate in medieval Europe. The ‘Jewish blood libel’ was a sort of malicious, long-lasting whispering campaign which asserted that Jews killed Christian children for ritual purposes. The perceived crimes of witchcraft were for a long time punishable, and punished, by death. Preachers regularly exorcised ‘demons’ from people who were suffering with certain symptoms. These things were in my mind as I was writing, even though the novel is set in the relatively modern world of the 1920s. Did irrationality suddenly and completely vanish from Europe at some point before the start of the 20th century? I doubt it. In Hindelheim, old habits of mind prove slow to change – slower than technology or transport, for example – and while the official doctrine of demonology has long since died out, the impulse to demonise remains.
In the years after my story ends, in the 1930s and 40s, the Nazis would revive and utilise symbols from folklore, portraying themselves as legendary warriors ridding the world of dirty Jewish rats. With its rather simplistic images of heroism on the one hand, and of a nightmarish menace on the other, fascist propaganda seems to have captivated audiences by playing on infantile fears and fantasies. This is not explored directly in the novel, but I hope the folklore allusions will help to convey a sense that Hindelheim is nurturing some potentially dangerous habits of groupthink.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing something else set somewhere else – nothing to do with Hindelheim. My rate of progress is as slow as ever. I’ve completed one novel in 44 years, so maybe ask me again in 2058?
A Wolf in Hindelheim is available now in paperback.