Throughout September, we’re celebrating the women of queer Sci-Fi/Fantasy! You can find the master-list of posts and the schedule here!
Today we’re excited to welcome author Katherine Locke to the blog, to talk about her book, The Girl With the Red Balloon and the main character, Ellie, who time travels back in time to East Berlin and the Cold War.
So welcome, Katherine, and thank you so much for joining us today!
To start, can you talk a little about your inspiration for Ellie, and how the character came to be?
Sure! The book came to me when I was driving and listening to 99 Red Balloons on the radio. In my mind, I saw a girl floating over a Wall with a red balloon and I immediately followed my mind down that rabbit hole. Ellie jumped into my mind pretty easily from there. She’s always been named Eleanor Baum (she’s named after Eleanor Roosevelt) and from the moment I wrote her, she was a bit naïve at the beginning, with a good heart, and a tendency to curl up into a ball when things get hard.
But when she accidentally time-travels, she’s thrown into a world where, while she tries, she can’t just curl up into a ball. Ellie, like most heroines I write, is curious, and she wants to know the why behind the things that happen around her. And that drives her, and her decisions, in The Girl with the Red Balloon. She’s another facet of a strong female character: she’s not physically strong, she’s not particularly badass, she doesn’t punch anyone (although she knees Kai between the legs when they first meet.) She knows who she wants to be and she is always chasing that version of herself.
You’ve combined history and magic to create a very unique look into 1988 East Berlin, but what made you choose this time period to send Ellie back to?
I knew I wanted to send Ellie to East Berlin—I wanted there to be a Wall, a moral question at the center of the book, and I wanted it to for Ellie to grapple with history and Germany’s experience relative to her own collective memory and identity as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. I picked 1988 because I wanted the city to feel tense, on the verge of change, but not quite ready or there yet. I had originally started the book in January 1988, but I moved it to the spring so I could overlap with Bruce Springsteen’s concert in East Berlin in July 1988. I have zero regrets about that—that concert was a pivotal moment for the people of East Germany, and I love Bruce Springsteen and his music.
What was your favorite scene of Ellie’s to write? What about Kai and Benno?
My favorite Ellie scene in the entire book is actually the last chapter, so I can’t give too much away! But I also really love all the scenes with Ellie and Felix, a member of the Zerberus, a magical watchdog organization that oversees the Balloonmakers. Every time they interacted, I really enjoyed that Ellie, a consummate follower of rules, was grinding her teeth at the person who followed the rules, even when the rules were wrong or inhibiting justice.
Kai, the Romani teen who works for the Balloonmakers, just wants to protect his little sister, who is extremely talented but also has a loose grip on her magic, which put her onto the radar of the Zerberus, whom Kai doesn’t trust. I love every single scene between him and Sabina. He’ll do anything for her, including hiding behind the Iron Curtain and putting himself in harm’s way. I love my siblings and would do anything for them, so the affection that rolls off Kai in those scenes is genuine. It’s what I feel for my younger sister and brother.
And my favorite Benno scene is actually the first one, when he and his sister Ruth waiting to load onto trains that’ll take them to the ghetto, and he sings songs to her and plays games with her to keep her from knowing the truth of what’s happening around them. Benno’s story was pretty heartbreaking to write, and again, I really love his duty to his little sister.
The secondary characters in this novel really shine, especially Mitzi! But I wish we’d gotten to see more of her. Can you talk a little about her character development, and maybe share some scenes or characterization of Mitzi’s that were cut from the final book?
Sure! Mitzi has always been in the book from the very first draft, and she’s always had blue hair and a very sparkling personality. Her friendship with Ellie was something that was initially really difficult to develop and my agent and I did a lot of work fine-tuning that before submission. I dug way back into a summer 2013 draft to find a Mitzi scene that was cut from the book. This is from the very very first draft of The Girl with the Red Balloon, when there used to be a character named Domino in the book (I cut her for narrative reasons, though I still miss her.)
Domino says something very dry to Kai and he gives her a wry smile. He shrugs, leaves the kitchen, and comes back in a minute with a shirt on. He glances at me, and then at Domino. “Better?”
“It’s polite,” Domino takes the hint and switches into English. She says to me, “He is allergic to manners.”
“Manners are allergic to me.” Kai elbows Mitzi. “How’re you, my little bird?”
“Feeling chirpy,” Mitzi elbows him back. “Who’d you run into with your eye?”
“Your mother,” Kai answers coyly, batting his lashes at her.
“My mom would have broken your nose,” Mitzi replies. She reaches up, running a light finger across Kai’s bruising eye. “It’s pretty. Improves your looks.”
“You should try it then,” comments Domino lightly.
The Girl With the Red Balloon deals with some pretty dark themes, despite being a book about balloons, magic, and time travel! How did you balance the heavier moments—racism, discussions of the Holocaust, and more—with the lighter moments and the romance between Ellie and Kai?
I think that’s life for many marginalized people: a life balanced between facing racism, coping with trauma that is past and present, falling in love, making jokes, letting go, and holding fast. I tried to feel for the natural ebb and flow of life: Kai, who is brown-skinned and stands out in East Berlin, faces racism from a police officer. He stands up for himself, something that Mitzi, while marginalized, can’t understand because she is white and carries enormous privilege in East Berlin, despite her sexual orientation. There’s not a lot of lightness in Benno’s storyline, so I inserted a lot of Jewish stories—which, while frequently full of sadness and suffering, are always about hope and perseverance. That’s something Benno’s friend, the girl with the red balloon on the other side of the ghetto fence, can’t understand. And Ellie falls in love with Kai, who seeks protection in a country that doesn’t want to protect him, and forges a fierce friendship with Mitzi, whose grandparents likely contributed to crimes against Ellie’s family. People are complex, and history is full of light and dark. I tried to introduce that, but without sugarcoating anything. I hope it worked.
And last but not least, what amazing women in SFF have you read lately that you’d recommend? (Bonus points if the book/character is queer!)
Oh I have read some really great SFF this year, but I’d be totally remiss not to start with THAT INEVITABLE VICTORIAN THING by E.K. Johnston, which comes out October 3rd, 2017. It’s a sci fi/alt future book based on an alt history where the British Empire never fell. But it doesn’t shy away from talking about race and colonialization, while grappling with class, genetics, and queerness. I don’t want to give too much away, because spoilers, but it is Very Queer and I am SO excited for people to fall into this quirky, endearing, and vibrantly hopeful book. It should be at the top of everyone’s TBR list for October.
It’s not exactly what you asked but I loved MASK OF SHADOWS by Linsey Miller, which has a nonbinary/genderfluid narrator. Sal moves between pronouns and identities depending on how they dress and present themselves, and that identity is fiercely protected by the adults around them in the book, something that’s pretty rare. It’s a bloody, twisty-turny fantasy adventure and I am *dying* for the second book already.
I also loved IRON CAST by Destiny Soria this year, which like The Girl with the Red Balloon, is a historical fantasy. It has an *amazing* female friendship between two girls, Ada and Corinne, who both use blood magic of sorts to make people feel emotions at their will through music and illusions. It’s set against the backdrop of the 1920’s and includes an asylum-hospital place that creeped me out, cons, and betrayal. It’s a diverse novel—Ada’s Black and Portuguese, as are several secondary characters, and there’s a queer couple too—written by a woman of color, and it is absolutely fantastic. Wildly overlooked last year, and should be on everyone’s list now. Cannot recommend this one enough.
Thank you so much for joining us today! The Girl With The Red Balloon is out now, and it’s one you definitely won’t want to miss!
Thank you so much!
Ellie Baum feels the weight of history on her when she arrives on a school trip to Berlin, Germany. After all, she’s the first member of her family to return since her grandfather’s miraculous escape from a death camp in 1942. One moment she’s contemplating the Berlin Wall Memorial amidst the crowd, and the next, she’s yanked back through time, to 1988 East Berlin when the Wall is still standing.
Nobody knows how she got there, not even the members of the underground guild–the Runners and the Schopfers–who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall. Now as a stranger in an oppressive regime, Ellie must hide from the police with the help of Kai, a Runner struggling with his own uneasy relationship with the powerful Balloonmakers and his growing feelings for Ellie. Together they search for the truth behind Ellie’s mysterious travel, and when they uncover a plot to alter history with dark magic, she must risk everything–including her only way home–to stop the deadly plans.
You can purchase The Girl With the Red Balloon from:
Katherine Locke lives and writes in a very small town outside of Philadelphia, where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She writes about that which she cannot do: ballet, time travel, and magic. When she’s not writing, she’s probably tweeting. She not-so-secretly believes most stories are fairy tales in disguise. Her Young Adult debut, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, arrives Fall 2017 from Albert Whitman & Company!