Guest Post by Author Michelle Barker!

Hi everyone! Today on the blog, we have something exciting for you -- a guest post from author Michelle Barker, talking about the creation of her story, The House of One Thousand Eyes! So before we get into that, let's give you all some book info:

About the Book


Title: The House of One Thousand Eyes
Author: Michelle Barker
Publisher: Annick Press
354 Pages

Summary: Who can Lena trust to help her find out the truth? Life in East Germany in the early 1980s is not easy for most people, but for Lena, it’s particularly hard. After the death of her parents in a factory explosion and time spent in a psychiatric hospital recovering from the trauma, she is sent to live with her stern aunt, a devoted member of the ruling Communist Party. Visits with her beloved Uncle Erich, a best-selling author, are her only respite. But one night, her uncle disappears without a trace. Gone also are all his belongings, his books, and even his birth records. Lena is desperate to know what happened to him, but it’s as if he never existed. The worst thing, however, is that she cannot discuss her uncle or her attempts to find him with anyone, not even her best friends. There are government spies everywhere. But Lena is unafraid and refuses to give up her search, regardless of the consequences. This searing novel about defiance, courage, and determination takes readers into the chilling world of a society ruled by autocratic despots, where nothing is what it seems.

Guest Post

And now, it's time to get into the guest post! 

The Conception of The House of One Thousand Eyes
Guest Post by Michelle Barker

I’d like to talk to you a bit about how I came to write this novel.

There are two things that are important for me when I come up with an idea for a novel. The first is the concept of the navigational fix. For me, an idea must have more than one component for it to gain some traction in my imagination. Just like when you’re sailing, and you want to know where you are, you need to take measurements off more than one landmark and then see where they intersect. 

The second thing that’s important for me—and I believe for all writers—is the ‘what if’ question. What if questions have power to them? They can open up a world.

The House of One Thousand Eyes is set in the former East Germany. My interest in this country is a personal one. My mother is German, and she has been the inspiration behind all my most recent work. My picture book, A Year of Borrowed Men, was based on her experiences growing up in Germany during World War 2. She lived in East Germany until 1953 when she escaped at the age of 17. 

But, funnily enough, I didn’t expect to write this novel. I was working on something completely different, a novel set in post-war Germany, when I happened upon an excellent book in my research called Stasiland, by Anna Funder. After the Wall came down, she interviewed several people who’d lived through the East German regime. One was a group of musicians called Renft. The members of Renft had enjoyed popular success in East Germany, but their songs were considered dangerously subversive. When the time came for them to have their license renewed by the Ministry of Culture, the committee told them: “We are here to inform you today that you don’t exist anymore.”

Overnight, Renft’s music disappeared from every store in East Germany. It was no longer played on the radio. Recording company catalogues were reprinted so that the group wasn’t in it anymore. The State put out a rumor that Renft had split up.

It wasn’t that their music was being banned. It was literally erased from the country.

This fascinated me for two reasons. Number one, the incredible and frightening power of the State to actually be able to do this and do it in one fell swoop. And number two, the impact that it would have had on any East Germans who knew the truth. On the one hand, they would know that Renft hadn’t split up. On the other, they would have to repeat the false story as if they believed it—and not just to authorities. You never knew who was an informer. You had to be careful what you said to most people, even people you thought were your friends. 

How did you sustain such a black-is-white mentality? How did you survive in a regime like this?

As I thought about it more and more, it led me to my first what-if question. What if there was a writer in East Germany who crossed the line with the authorities? What if he was made to disappear, and his entire existence was erased?

I had my first landmark. But I didn’t know yet who this character was, and more importantly, I didn’t know whose life he would most impact by his disappearance. That was yet to come.

I had received a Canada Council grant to work on my post-war novel, and part of that grant involved traveling to Germany to do research. Because the novel involved the early days of the East German regime, I went to visit my relatives who’d lived through it. I also paid a visit to the Stasi headquarters in Berlin, the place that Berliners used to call The House of One Thousand Eyes. House One of the gigantic headquarters has been transformed into a museum, and parts of it have been left completely intact, including the offices of Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi.

As soon as I entered this place, I knew I had to write about it. The Stasi’s mandate was to know everything, about everyone. The extent to which they controlled, monitored, manipulated and ruined people’s lives in East Germany is almost hard to believe. They had a network of informants and collaborators that was so extensive, the ratio at one point was one set of eyes per sixty adults. They hid cameras and microphones in walls and briefcases, in lapels and plants—it was straight out of a James Bond movie. But it was real. And it was terrifying.

Of course, you could apply to leave East Germany and go to the west. Sure, you could. But here was what might happen if you did: suddenly, you’d be fired from your job, and then when you tried applying to other places, no one would hire you. False rumors might be spread that you have a problem with alcohol, or an addiction to pornography. Your son or daughter who was set to go to university wouldn’t get in. You would be followed, conspicuously, so that you felt it. You would come home one day and all the furniture in your apartment had been moved around—just so you knew: they’d been there, and they were watching you.

I was stunned by this. And I was hooked.

As I walked through Erich Mielke’s offices, something occurred to me. Someone would have had to clean these offices. Someone would have been potentially privy to the most secret information in the country. Of course, the papers would have been locked up, and the cleaners would have been under strict orders not to touch anything. But I found out that once you were in House One, or any of the other buildings in headquarters, the security was fairly lax. If you knew where the keys were, you could potentially get your hands on a lot of top-secret information.

So, I started thinking….and I found my second landmark.

What if one of the cleaners was a teenaged girl, hired by the Stasi because they assumed she was simple-minded? She’d spent a year in a mental hospital dealing with the trauma of the sudden death of her parents. 

And here was the intersection of the two: What if this girl’s uncle, the person she was closest to, was the writer who had suddenly disappeared without a trace? What if she was the most well-placed person in the world to find out what had happened to him?

That was how Lena was created. 

Lena is a seventeen-year-old girl who lives with her aunt in East Berlin in 1983—a time when the Cold War threatened at any moment to erupt into a real war. The thing she looks most forward to in her life is Sundays when she goes to visit her Uncle Erich who is a writer. 

But writing is dangerous in the Better Germany, Erich has warned her. You must learn the art of writing one thing and meaning something else. Because if you don’t, you might end up in the blank space on the map—which was where the prison called Hohensch√∂nhausen was located. And, by the way, this actually WAS a space left blank on Berlin maps. 

When Erich disappears, Lena at first assumes he has been arrested. But no one is saying that. They’re saying that he never existed in the first place. Lena has survived psychologically by erecting a wall in her mind much like the wall that surrounds her city. But if she wants to find out what happened to her uncle, she will have to confront the reality she’s been blocking out.

I have to say; this book has been a gift for me from beginning to end. I was at the point with my post-war novel where it needed to rest, and I needed a rest from it, when Annick Press approached me completely out of the blue and asked if I was interested in writing a YA book for them. Now, not everyone might not appreciate this, but writers—especially writers who have been doing this for a while—will understand what it means when after years and years of sending out query letters, a publisher comes to you.

By that point I had a pretty good idea of where I thought this East German novel should go, so I met with someone from Annick and told them about it. And here was another gift: the novel came out almost exactly the way I’d planned it. Again, many might not realize this, but writers—especially writers of fiction—know that a novel almost never comes out the way you’d planned it. At least mine don’t. There are false starts, entire drafts that end up in the garbage, there are tears and heartache and the temptation to throw your laptop out the window. That didn’t happen with this novel. I feel like writers maybe get one novel like that per lifetime that just falls from the sky. This was mine.

Finally, The House of One Thousand Eyes just received a starred review from Kirkus. That was a very nice gift indeed.

I did not set out to write a historical book that would necessarily speak to modern times, but unfortunately sexual harassment and tyranny are still with us, so the novel produces some disturbing echoes in our world.

~Michelle Barker

About the Author

Michelle Barker was born and raised in Vancouver. She attended Arts One at UBC, studied for a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and graduated with a BA from UBC in English literature. After a short foray into comp lit, she left the Master's program and worked as a research/editing assistant to Sherrill MacLaren. Sailed across the Pacific from Vancouver to Hawaii, had four children, lived for a summer in Montreal, a year in France, and then the Eastern Townships of Quebec for 10 years. After spending 7 years in the Okanagan, she's returned to Vancouver. She received my MFA in creative writing at UBC's optional-residency program in 2015.

We'd like thank Michelle Barker and the amazing team at Annick Press for allowing us to do this guest post! This book seems super interesting, and if it isn't on your TBR already, you definitely should consider adding it!

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