Interview with Anna Funder

UTS alumna Anna Funder has gained critical acclaim for her two award-winning books. The former lawyer reveals how her writing trajectory evolved, and the true intimacy of connecting with readers.

Anna Funder has a perfect strike rate – her two books have each won prestigious literary awards.

For struggling scribes around the world, it must seem that the writing caper comes easily to the celebrated Australian author. She insists, however, that crafting a book is difficult and leaves her feeling somewhat battered at the end of the journey.

It's not easy," says the Brooklyn-based UTS graduate. "They are big books full of thinking and experience and emotion."

Funder is the 2012 winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel All That I Am, a gripping story about an elderly woman living in Sydney and her memories of the tyranny of Nazism in prewar Germany. The honour puts her in the company of previous winners such as Thea Astley, Thomas Keneally, Ruth Park, Peter Carey and Tim Winton.

The book has also won seven other awards and follows on from the success of her first book, Stasiland, which in 2004 won the world's most sought after award for nonfiction, the BBC Four Samuel Jackson Prize.

Funder, a former lawyer and documentary maker who turned to full-time writing in the late 1990s, believes it is for others to explain why her books have struck a chord with readers and judges alike, but she offers this appraisal. "What the books have is, I think, a sense of intimacy," she says. "So that the reader is transported into the life of a housewife in East Germany who is trying to get to her baby who has ended up on the wrong side of the Wall; or a louche alcoholic rock star, or a shilly-shallying ex-Stasi man, or an anti-Hitler activist who finds herself washed up in London and can't stop doing what she is doing."

What writers must strive to do, according to Funder, is create a bond of trust with their readers. This is especially so in an era when news is saturated with every imaginable kind of private fact about politicians and celebrities.

"Real intimacy is different from knowing the Monica Lewinsky story or which bits of Nicki Minaj are plastic. Real intimacy is about trusting somebody's world view and enjoying someone else's headspace and personality. And writing can be the most intimate thing if it works."

Rare in the sense that it focuses on pre-war Germany, All That I Am draws from the extraordinary life of Funder's late friend Ruth Blatt, who joined the resistance movement against Adolf Hitler before World War II and spent five years in solitary confinement in a German prison. She later secured passage to Shanghai and then Australia in the late 1940s and spent the next five decades living in Caulfield, Melbourne. It was there that she befriended Funder, then a young student learning German, and gradually revealed the tales of her early life.

What would Ruth, who died in 2001, have made of the book and all its associated literary and media fuss? Funder surmises that she would have loved the fact that someone was telling her story, albeit a partly fictional account.

"And then she would have told me all the things that I got wrong," Funder laughs.

My brilliant career

First showing an interest in writing as a young child, Funder is the product of what she describes as a "very intellectually argumentative" household as a child in which the key influences were her father, an acclaimed medical researcher who wrote exhaustively in his area, and her mother, "an extremely witty and profound" woman. Today, she describes her love of writing as a "condition" that helps her process and make sense of the world.

"I don't want to be anything else … but there are easier things in the world to be."

Funder has no doubt her time at UTS has helped shape her success. She graduated with a Doctorate in Creative Arts this year, producing All That I Am as the creative component of her thesis.

"UTS was very important to me in all sorts of ways," Funder says.

For a start, it gave her a physical place to think and write.

"But also the institution was fantastically welcoming. I had a brilliant supervisor in [writing lecturer and Professor] Cathy Cole. And access to the library was fantastic … Just to be able to think that I can get pretty much any document from any era from anywhere in the world that I want to look at, and I can have either the document or a facsimile copy delivered to me. That was fabulous."

A former human rights lawyer with the Australian Government, Funder admits now that she was "not a natural lawyer".

"I couldn't do it," she reflects. "It was like I was trying to be a left-hander when I am a right hander. I could intellectually do it and I did, but I couldn't believe in it."

Dissatisfaction with the law led to a career change, with a writer-in-residence role at the University of Potsdam and a stint in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall ultimately leading to the publication of Stasiland, a compelling and confronting account of the victims of the Stasi surveillance regime in East Germany that immediately won critical acclaim – and 23 reject slips from German publishers.

Funder wears those rejections as a badge of pride.

"Those rejections were not actually emotional buffets to me at all. They were very interesting signs that I had put my finger in a wound and I felt that I was absolutely right to do that."

On life, loves and the e-book

As a writer of great talent, Funder not surprisingly is inspired by other books and authors. Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is a particular favourite, and she has recently been reading Edmund De Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes, Orhan Pamuk's Silent House, the poetry of her British friend Nick Drake and David Foster Wallace's essay collection Both Flesh and Not.

As e-book readers such as the Kindle grow increasingly sophisticated and popular, Funder acknowledges their convenience but still prefers the presence and feel of a hardcopy book.

"I do love the paper book … If it's something that I think is going to be really important to me, I will buy it in paper because I have a visual imagination when I read and I know what paragraph is on what side of the page, and I know where it was on a page that I read a particular sentence, and often I know where I was when I read that. I want it in hardback for those reasons and also because I then want to keep it in my house where I can see it on my shelf."

Living in and loving Brooklyn, Funder's books and the associated awards have opened doors and opportunities. In the past year she has travelled to India, Greece, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Australia as part of writing and promotional events. In between times she has been enjoying the company of her husband and packing school lunches for her three children.

Now starting to work on her next project, Funder admits she is still drawing breath after a whirlwind of tours and speeches since the release of All That I Am a year ago. As that new novel materialises, she is certain that she will engage – and occasionally argue – with her editors and fact checkers – "They are like your absolute best friend who tells you that you've got spinach in your teeth" – over the final wording of the book.

A close relationship with such experienced editors is crucial to the final quality of any book, according to Funder, who is bemused that book editors get such little fanfare compared to their counterparts in the film business.

"The editors of books are completely unseen forces, but massively important. You only notice when they have done a bad job; you never notice when everything is smooth and wonderful. I've been very blessed with good editors – not that I haven't fought with them!"