“If I have an idea or if I see an image, hear a sound which triggers something in my imagination, then I have to write it down.” — Amna K. Boheim
Amna K. Boheim worked in investment banking before turning to writing. She also writes a blog on life’s little idiosyncrasies, the curious and the funny as well as dabbling in a bit of flash fiction and poetry. The Silent Children is her debut novel; it was awarded the Independent Publisher Book Awards 2016 silver medal for best suspense/thriller novel.
Unlike most South Asian writers’ initial works, your debut novel contains no allusions to your Eastern roots. Was that a conscious decision?
My roots are very important to me, but in this instance — my first novel — I just had it in my head to write a mystery set in Vienna, a city which has a repressed air about it and one that lent itself to the story that was evolving in my head. I think there are so many brilliant South Asian authors who have written novels about their culture. Perhaps it’s a confidence issue, but I feel that at the moment (other than one particular story I’m still in two minds about) the ideas I have in my head are nothing original.
Was it daunting to write about a setting of which you presumably do not have intimate knowledge, or was it liberating as you had to go solely by your instincts and research?
I have been lucky enough to visit Vienna many times. For The Silent Children I specifically went there twice to walk around Ober St Veit where Max’s mother’s house is (which is part of Hietzing), as well as walking around the 1st District. Wandering around the city was important for me to get a sense of the streets, the architecture, and the everyday life.
It is apparent from your blog that you seem to have a fascination with ghosts and the supernatural; where does that stem from?
Good question! The answer is, I don’t really know other than the fact that from an early age I loved the idea of ghosts and the supernatural. My older sister was really into them, too, and had this mighty tome on British ghosts and myths that I was obsessed with. The fascination waned as I got older, but a couple of stories stayed with me: Susan Hill’s Woman in Black and Henry James’s novella, Turn of the Screw. Both are two of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read.
Generally, I do think there are situations where things have happened which can’t be explained away. These are situations which people have told me about. On one occasion, closer to home, on the day my father went into hospital a turquoise glass vase sitting on the windowsill in his bedroom suddenly shattered. We couldn’t find a rational explanation as to why that happened. If anyone can enlighten me with a scientific answer, then please share it with me.
As a substantial part of your story is based in Nazi-occupied Austria, did you have to do any particular research to get some historical context of the era?
Yes. I spent some time in the British Library reading about Jews in Austria before the Anschluss and then afterwards under Nazi occupation. Also, I wanted to get a sense of the damage done to Vienna during the war. For non-Jews, life continued after the Anschluss, but as the war went on, life became harder. It was fascinating to read about it all. I also read mittel[middle]-European works such as Simon Mauer’s The Glass Room where some of the events take place in Vienna, as well as The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth and Young Gerber by Friedrich Torberg, to get an idea of the culture of Austria and the tensions between the older and younger generations.
I have noticed there seems to be a rising trend amongst debut novelists to dabble in flash fiction before embarking on their first full-length novel. How do you think flash fiction aids new writers?
For me, flash fiction, poetry, are all ways to improve your writing. If I have an idea or if I see an image, hear a sound which triggers something in my imagination, then I have to write it down. Sometimes what comes out on the page is nothing but a collection of words, other times it is poetry or flash fiction. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to keep writing as regularly as possible. I aspire to write every day, but with three children it’s not always possible.
Zadie Smith talked about two breeds of writers: the macro planners who rigorously remodel and overanalyse the framework of their story, obsessed with note-taking and keeping journals, and micromanagers who do not premeditate their stories. Their writing is based entirely on intuition rather than meticulous planning. Which type do you identify with more?
I think I’m a bit of both. For The Silent Children, I didn’t really plan at all, and it was only when I got to my third draft that I thought about the story I wanted to write and the characters involved. The process was quite inefficient and only towards one of the final drafts did I think about the way the story was structured. I had a good editor (Averill Buchanan) to help me with that.
With the next book I’m writing, I have to say that my first draft was the equivalent of vomiting — rushing to write down a story that I had in my head without much thought to the characters and plot. I then took a break from it and returned to it, picking out the elements that worked and those which were entirely pointless and rubbish. It was at that point that I thought more carefully about the characters and the plot as I started to rewrite. It’s a very different novel from The Silent Children, with multiple points of view set in the present time and in the past. So it was important for me to think carefully about each character, their story, and how each chapter played out. It’s still very much a work in progress and I’ve a long way to go until it’s finished.
Even though your novel is part mystery and part ghost story, I couldn’t help noticing that you seem to have a penchant for descriptive prose. At times I was almost annoyed when your striking descriptions of London weather and the countryside were interrupted by the plotline. Do you dabble much in poetry as you certainly seem to have the talent for it?
Firstly, thank you for saying so. Secondly, sorry that it diverted your attention from the plot! I do like writing poetry, but I have to be in the right frame of mind and sometimes when I write things down, it really reads like a load of drivel. I do have to be careful with my prose sometimes.
What are you working on next?
I don’t want to say too much other than I’m working on a thriller that’s set in a small town in the north of England — a far cry from Vienna.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 23rd, 2016