Very few literary expats have taken to Berlin like Paul Scraton has – and even fewer, perhaps none, have written about the city with such intelligence and style. The UK-born writer is best known for his essays on local history and his 2019 novel Built on Sand, which combined first-hand observations and second-hand stories into a shifting mosaic of the city. He edits the magazine Elsewhere and is the author of two remarkable literary travelogues: Ghosts on the Shore takes on the thorny history of Germany’s Baltic Coast while Am Rand, sadly only available in German, walks 180kms around Berlin’s perimeter.
We caught up with Scraton to discuss his new book In the Pines (Influx Press), a fragmented novella about forests and memory that juxtaposes his texts with eerie collodion wet plate photographs by Eymelt Sehmer.
He will be launching the book in Berlin on November 20 – see here for details.
What led you to write a book about the forest?
It was a collaborative project. Initially, Eymelt showed me this old collodion wet plate photography technique that she was using. Up until that point she had only ever done it inside because you have to develop the glass plates immediately, but she was in the process of building a mobile darkroom that she could take into the countryside. So, we came up with the idea of telling stories about the forest, through images and text. I started sketching some ideas, and she began to photograph. My stories would inspire Eymelt to capture a particular motif in the forest, and her photos would also give me ideas and inspiration. We worked in parallel. I quickly decided my text would be a series of linked stories, from different perspectives, following one character through her life – it’s about a lifelong relationship to the forest, and how a place can mean different things to someone at different moments in their life.
You’ve written in a variety of genres and styles. What led you to choose this form – which is unified around one character but also quite fragmentary and impressionistic, almost like a series of exposures?
There was something about these snapshots in time that felt similar to what a photograph does. Also in the way that a photograph can stimulate memory, like Eymelt’s images stimulated and inspired my stories. When we look back at our own lives, and our own relationships with places, we see ourselves from different angles. Sometimes it’s like we’re right back in that moment, so we remember it in the first person, and other times we don’t necessarily even recognise the person we were back then. The book is fragmentary because our memory is fragmentary. You don’t remember things in completely linear, perfectly constructed stories. Some parts are vivid and some parts are blurry. And it’s the same with Eymelt’s photographs.
In one of the opening stories, a child runs away from home into the woods. She is drawn there by half-remembered fairy tales, but once she’s there, she starts paying very close attention to her surroundings, and then begins making imaginative connections. Is this how your book meets the forest – with a mixture of inherited stories, presence in the moment, and personal imagination?
We never approach these places as a blank slate, even as children. Where I grew up, in the north of England, our walks would always be on moorland or in mountains or along the coast. So the forest was always a kind of fictional space, for me, one filled in by fairytales and things like Winnie the Pooh. I write in Ghosts on the Shore that you never approach a place without knowledge – and that knowledge might be based on fact or it might be from stories. In Berlin, if you approach Alexanderplatz, then it has a certain resonance for you based on all the things that you know have happened there, both to you personally and in history. You also have imaginative resonances from art that’s been set there, like Alfred Döblin’s novel. All these things concord to shape your perception of a place, even before you go there. As a child, I saw the forest as a place of potential threat. It took years living in Germany, and spending time in the forest, to begin to see it as a place of potential sanctuary.
Germany certainly has a lot of old stories about the forest. Were you worried about falling into dangerous volkisch imagery?
This book isn’t necessarily set in Germany. I didn’t root it in a specific geography, because I wanted to use the freedom of fiction – and the book’s fragmentary shape – to write something more universal about the imagery and the power of the forest in general. But I was definitely thinking about Germany’s relationship with the forest, because that’s the topic of my next book, which will be out in German but doesn’t have an English-language publisher yet. It’s about Heinrich Heine, the Harz Mountains and the long history of Germanness being defined through the forests, often in exclusionary ways. You can trace a link from the Romanic celebration of the forest, like in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and the writings of Goethe, through the exclusionary nationalist idea of Germans as forest-people as opposed to Jews as desert-people, for instance, then down to the Nazis’ use of forest imagery in their rallies and films. For In the Pines, though, I was more interested in how one individual can have a relationship to the stories of place. Places shape your imagination – and that’s universal.
The German idea of the forest is of something that stands outside civilisation, a place both dangerous and exhilarating. In the Pines certainly seems to entertain that idea, but it never really goes for it. As one narrator says, even in the woods, everything they see has already been shaped by human activity…
Yes, I mean, that might be how we see the forest as children, but that perception changes the more you know. We have to remember that basically all of Germany’s forests have been shaped by humans. The vast majority are plantations. And the forest coverage today is actually higher today than it was 200 years ago, so ironically, when the Romantics were striding out into the woods to find the heart of Germanness there, or whatever, the forest coverage was at its all-time low. The forest we think of now is really the product of a massive 19th-century replanting campaign. So it’s just as much shaped by humans as the moorland, or the Lüneberger Heide. Our natural landscapes are just as created as our cities and towns. People don’t like to think about that, because they like these places to give them a sense of connection to something deeper. And an old tree that’s going to outlive us all really does give us the feeling that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. It is all part of our fascination with the forest, and it all plays into the stories of In the Pines.
In both your fiction and nonfiction, you’re interested in the past – constantly gathering stories about the past – but this never gives in to nostalgia. Is there a parallel with how we can’t just “go back” to the forest?
I think nostalgia on a personal level, as an individual, can be a comforting emotion. You know, that moment where a smell takes you back to a happy moment in your childhood, a moment you shared with people who are no longer there. But the danger is when we get into this nostalgia as a collective – and especially when it’s nostalgia for something that none of us have experienced, and that probably didn’t exist in the first place. You see this in the New Right movements across Europe: it’s a kind of toxic nostalgia for an imagined past, one that was never really there. It’s not rooted in memories: it’s rooted in a version of storytelling. The forest is neutral – but it can be a repository for what you decide to put in.
Is it difficult to be a writer of place at a time when the Right is trying to weaponise national belonging and rootedness against so-called cosmopolitan elites?
These are complicated issues. My feeling is that people want to have community and connection; they want to feel a rootedness in the place where they live. But all that doesn’t have to be based in blood and soil. You can have it anywhere. What’s most important is that the communities we build are non-exclusionary. If you achieve that, then people can feel equally rooted, no matter where their family came from. Ultimately, it’s all built around stories and storytelling. The rightwing populists find a story to suit their ends. One counter to that – one way we can fight it – is by telling better stories