By Tracy March
Award-winning novelist Rebecca Cantrell’s novels have been called “chillingly realistic” by USA TODAY, and KIRKUS REVIEWS says, “Cantrell keeps the close calls and cliffhangers coming.”
In Rebecca’s most recent release, A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS, Journalist Hannah Vogel is in Poland with her son Anton to cover the 1938 St. Martin festival when she hears that 12,000 Polish Jews have been deported from Germany. Hannah drops everything to get the story on the refugees, and walks directly into danger.
Kidnapped by the SS, and driven across the German border, Hannah is rescued by Anton and her lover, Lars Lang, who she had presumed dead two years before. Hannah doesn’t know if she can trust Lars again—with her heart or her life—but she has little choice. Injured in the escape attempt and wanted by the Gestapo, Hannah and Anton are trapped with Lars in Berlin. While Hannah works on an exit strategy, she helps search for Ruth, the missing toddler of her Jewish friend Paul, who disappeared during the deportation.
Trapped in Nazi Germany with her son just days before Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, Hannah knows the risk of staying any longer than needed. But she can’t turn her back on this one little girl, even if it plunges her and her family into danger.
I had the opportunity recently to chat with Rebecca about her work.
A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS is the fourth novel in the Hannah Vogel series. What about Hannah caused you to cast her as your heroine in four books—maybe more? And what has surprised you about her as you have told her stories?
When I started the Hannah Vogel books I didn’t know that they would be a series so I didn’t plan her to be the protagonist for multiple books. If I had known it was a series, I would have killed different people.
But I didn’t, so I started out with the idea for a standalone book called A TRACE OF SMOKE (which later became the first in the series). This is probably backward, but I started with setting and the murder victim and discovered my protagonist from there. I knew that the book would be set in part in the gay cabaret world of the late 1920s/early 1930s Berlin and I knew the murder victim was a popular torch singer.
But why would someone kill him? Why couldn’t the police be brought in? And who would have the emotional connection to risk everything to hunt down his killer? The answer to that last question was Hannah Vogel, and she discovered the answers to the other questions herself.
When Tor Forge bought A TRACE OF SMOKE, they asked for a series. I immediately had to come up with other stories for Hannah to uncover (by immediately, I mean right there on the phone with my editor). I was grateful I’d made her a crime reporter and given her contacts to the criminal and underground world of pre-World War II Berlin. Those acquaintances and friends have come in very handy in subsequent books.
What has surprised me about Hannah? Her taste in men. As a friend of Hannah’s, I’m always voting for Boris. He’s dependable, stable, good with kids. But as an author, I’ve watched her fall for Lars Lang, who is dark, troubled, and constantly in his own danger. Still, she’s right about him. He’s a fascinating character and understands her better than Boris ever will.
A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS is set just before, during and immediately after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when the Nazis declared open warfare on the Jews. Hannah’s fragile world is fraught with hidden and open oppression. What effect does this have on her romance with Lars Lang?
I don’t think that Hannah and Lars would have had a romance under ‘normal’ circumstances. Lars is a dark and complicated man, and Hannah has struggled to keep her distance from him for the past few books. But circumstances keep pushing them together, and forcing her to rely on him. Lars, of course, has always loved Hannah, but he too is torn between letting her go to find a more stable man, and trying to stay near enough to protect her.
In A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS, Hannah becomes trapped in Berlin and is working on an escape strategy while helping search for Ruth, the missing toddler of her Jewish friend Paul, who disappeared during the deportation. Hannah risks staying in Berlin too long because she cannot turn her back on the little girl. What is it about Ruth that compels Hannah to expose herself and her family to heightened danger?
Hannah always has a soft spot for children, and Hannah has a soft spot for Paul. Years ago, she and Paul dated and almost married. After their relationship ended, they remained close friends.
When the novel opens, Hannah also makes a promise to Paul’s wife, who is on her deathbed, that she will find the little girl. Hannah can’t let that promise go, no matter the personal danger she faces.
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY noted that in A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS you “poignantly convey the plight of Nazi Germany’s Jews through the story of one child.” What inspired you to build such a dramatic and emotional story around a child?
The short answer is that children were there. They, too, were caught up in the Nazi machinery that would soon lead to their destruction. Ruth is an innocent two year old. She has no resources of her own. If Hannah does not find her and help her, Ruth will die, and Hannah knows it.
A GAME OF LIES, the third novel in the Hannah Vogel series, has recently been released in paperback. As it turns out, the cover model, Boo Paterson, contacted you via Twitter and you learned that she and Hannah have some interesting similarities. What are they, and how do they relate to Hannah?
Isn’t that a wonderful coincidence? Like Hannah, Boo worked as a journalist. Boo is also interested in the 1930s and has a collection of period clothing and furniture (in fact, she is wearing her own 1930s dress in the photograph used on the cover). Sure, Hannah bought those items new, and Boo in antique stores, but the affinity is there.
You are currently working on a collaborative project, BLOOD GOSPEL, with the incredible James Rollins. What has this collaboration taught you about writing that you didn’t already know?
I think it’s opened me up to different ways of telling a story. There’s the way I usually move through a story, the way he usually does, and then the hybrid process that we end up with when working together. It’s been great fun to look at my own assumptions and processes as a writer and compare them with someone else’s who is working on the exact same story and problems, and it’s reminded me there are many ways to approach any given story problem.
Award-winning author Rebecca Cantrell majored in German, Creative Writing, and History at the Freie Universitaet of Berlin and Carnegie Mellon University. She currently lives in Berlin with her husband and son.
To learn more about Rebecca, please visit her website.