Anne Lauppe-Dunbar is the author of “Dark Mermaids,” an award-winning novel about the East Germany doping scandal that lead to the mental and physical decline of many German athletes. Her main protagonist, Sophia, is a East German swimmer whose health has declined to such a degree doctors deny her treatment.
I was given the opportunity to interview Dr. Lauppe-Dunbar while she was visiting the United States on her book-release tour, and I asked her about her experiences as a writer.
Me: Do you ever get writers block? What’s your advice to those who struggle with it?
LD: Yes, I do. The best advice my Ph.D tutor gave me was “don’t be worried about just staring out the window, it’s actually part of the creative process.” So if your mind is blank and you feel overwhelmed, let it happen. Don’t fight it, because if you fight it you’re pushing against it. Just accept it and read for a bit. Or do a bit of research, or go and read a book about the subject. Or go for a walk. You know, swim, anything. Just don’t try and push it.
Me: What is your favorite genre to write?
LD: Thriller, I think. I like characters, I’m a character writer. I like the type of writing where you feel like you’re inside the character’s skin. We’re contradictory as a species so you’ve got to allow those characters to show that aspect of humanity. I like anything as long as it’s got strong characters in it. I love fantasy as well.
Me: Which comes first: character or story?
LD: Both have to be intertwined. I think if you start with a character and have a story in mind, you can then follow your character and see how he/she reacts to things. Like with my character, Sophia, I tried to make her do something she did not want to do and it was difficult to progress from there. You must let your character lead the way.
Me: What is the most difficult aspect of writing for you?
LD: Finding time. And then allowing myself the first draft without getting really finicky about it. I have to give myself permission to make a mess. I find that quite difficult because I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I think I went through about 30-40 drafts before I finished my first book.
Me: What advice do you have for people who want to become a writer?
LD: Be realistic. Be aware it’s a very long journey. I think getting published is really, really hard. And some people want the validation more than they want the work to be done. More than they want a challenge. At times, I was one of those people. You get to a breaking point, really. So I would say, you know, you have to look at it as if you’re going to be challenged more than you’ve ever been challenged before. And if you’re a writer, then you’re a writer. Take it bit by bit.
Me: It took you two years of submitting before you were published. Why did you stick by your story for so long?
LD: Because I thought the work was good enough. I never thought of myself as good enough, but the work itself— what I had created outside of myself— was. I had a sense that this work was ready. Sometimes you have to just defy any doubts. Even if you have worries about yourself and you think you’re getting pushed back. Sometimes you have to keep going.
Me: How do you know when your book is finished?
LD: You don’t. Not really. I think that’s normal. There comes a point when you just have to send it out. The things you have to ask yourself are ‘Do the sentences work?’ or ‘Are the ideas coming together?’ ‘If I give this to a stranger, are they going to get that idea?’ That’s the most important thing, I say. That’s when it’s ready.