I’m fascinated by characters who don’t fit into simple categories – hero, villain, survivor, victim – so I was intrigued to hear more about Gaby Koppel’s first novel, Reparation.
Here she writes about the inspiration she drew from her mother’s life and their complicated relationship in writing Reparation.
Late one night in the 1980s, I was alone at home in my flat in Camden when the phone rang. It was my dad from Birmingham International Airport to say that my mother had gone missing after being thrown off a plane for being drunk. Having escaped from police custody, she had walked out of the terminal building into the dark, wearing a camel car coat and patent leather loafers. An overweight, middle-aged woman poorly equipped for cross-country hike had disappeared into the fields, and after searching for over an hour my normally rational father was at his wit’s end. He threatened suicide.
When I sat down to write the opening scene of my first novel, that choking moment of frustration and fear came back to me vividly, and – carefully reworked – became the springboard for my book. Mum had turned up eventually, of course, but the incident spoke volumes to me about her disturbed pattern of behaviour and the painful knots of love and hate that bound the three of us together. The decision to create a character based on my mum was difficult and I could only do it because she’d died many years before.
Though I had a powerful urge to write all my life, deciding on a subject and story for a novel was challenging. Until this point, I’d poured all my creativity into journalism – never having to dig deep inside myself because I’d always had the excuse of reporting on other people and events of which I was merely an observer. Impartiality and objectivity were the disciplines in which I was trained – cutting out my own personal opinions, feelings, and sensitivities.
And then when I came to write fiction, I had to turn all that on its head. In unfamiliar territory, I was floundering around for a story that had the kind of emotional depth I was looking for, but more than that – I needed to feel I was writing about something. Well, my mother was difficult to live with but I realised quite quickly that as a character she’d be pretty much unique. A beauty in her youth, she’d lived through the war in Budapest and left Soviet-era Hungary on forged black market papers. But she could never really escape the trauma she’d endured heaped on top of a dysfunctional home life, and long before I came into the world she had a drink problem.
But there was something completely magnificent about her too and I saw too that creating a character based on my mother would allow me to weave in some of the themes close to my heart. As a BBC producer, I’d worked on Holocaust Memorial Day, which meant I read many memoirs and met quite a number of survivors too. In person and on the page, it was impossible not to be impressed by the quiet dignity with which they bore their terrible experiences. But, I always wanted to ask – what about the ones who crumble under the burden of their memories? The ones like my mother who drank, fell over in public, rambled on the phone for hours or blamed others for things that went wrong in their lives, who threatened suicide time after time, and for whom no amount of therapy seemed to help?
Not all survivors behave nobly or with dignity, I imagine that even those who did or do so in public were and are less restrained in private. And they pass it on down the generations. Scientific research has now shown that trauma results in genetic mutation, so even if second generation survivors haven’t been emotionally battered by living with their parents, then we physically inherit the damage in our DNA.
In the moment that my mind was suffused by the memories of hearing my dad on the phone from the airport screeching ‘I’m going to take a powder and end it all now!’, ground down by yet another escapade trailing after my mum, I instantly knew that horrible as it was that event could help me open the door into my story, the one only I could tell.
Gaby Koppel grew up in Cardiff and studied at the University of Sussex. She is a journalist, film-maker and producer with credits across a broad range of factual television including Crimewatch UK and Watchdog for BBC TV. In 2001 she staged the first ever national event to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day.
Gaby started writing her debut novel Reparation while doing a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at City University, where it won a prize and was later long-listed for the Bath Novel Award. She continues to work as a television series producer and freelance print journalist while working on a second novel. She is married with three children and lives in North London.
1997. Elizabeth’s eccentric, often inebriated émigré mother Aranca is approaching retirement in straitened circumstances. Her novel solution is to seek compensation from the Hungarian Government for what she suffered during the war.
In the wake of her father’s sudden death and her mother’s increasing obsession with wartime Hungary, Elizabeth is struggling to keep her job and her relationship afloat.
Then she gets a phone call to say that her mother has been arrested in Budapest and Elizabeth is forced to confront the nature of motherhood, love and loss as she puts together the clues to Aranca’s past.
Can either woman escape their past and the historic events that have shaped their destiny?