(NOTE: This post has been updated at the bottom with a sampling of enthusiastic reviews of Greg Mitchell’s THE TUNNELS)
Award-winning author Greg Mitchell‘s past books include THE CAMPAIGN OF THE CENTURY, about Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial race in California, and JOY IN MUDVILLE; A LITTLE-LEAGUE MEMOIR.
In this interview, I catch up with Greg, whose new Berlin-based book THE TUNNELS will be published in October, 2016.
- Please explain what your upcoming book THE TUNNELS is about.
In the months after the brutal Berlin Wall was erected in August 1961, entrapping many in the East, perhaps permanently, numerous Berliners sought to flee to the West. Various risky methods were attempted, from escaping via sewers to using false passports, but soon the authorities put a stop to most of that. So digging under the Wall became one of the few options left.But rather than the usual scenario, where those “imprisoned” excavate in the direction of freedom, in this case the diggers were, in nearly every case, already living in the West and, amazingly, risked their lives to try to bring out friends, lovers, family members, and even strangers, from the East.This story has never been fully told in an English-language book, but THE TUNNELS also has a particular angle, for in 1962 the two leading U.S. television networks secretly funded two of the major tunnels. This drew extreme concern and urgent protests from the Kennedy White House and State Department, leading to international controversy and the cancellation of one of the planned TV specials, as well as the postponement of the second. When the second film finally aired, it would become a landmark in television history and one of the most honored programs in history.So this book is a kind of Cold War thriller, with all the elements of a novel but completely factual, ranging from a portrayal of incredible heroism underground in Berlin, to the attempts by a young Stasi informer to expose them, (leading to dozens of arrests), and the efforts by the U.S. government to suppress media coverage.2) Congratulations on having THE TUNNELS optioned for a Paul Greengrass film. Do you know if he intends to do a documentary, or a “based on the true story” project?
Greengrass is indeed “attached” to direct the film. If this happens — and you never know with Hollywood — it would be a major motion picture, not a documentary. One of the best directors and writers in the world, Tobias Lindholm, has just completed the screenplay. His movie A WAR was one of the five Oscar nominees this past year for best foreign film, and his previous film, A HIJACKING, oddly was compared to Greengrass’s CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Tobias was also co-writer of one of the greatest ever TV series, BORGEN.3) Did you travel to Berlin to research THE TUNNELS, and if so, what did you do while there?This book actually came about because my daughter, after getting her Ph.D. in London, moved to Berlin with her husband and young child, so I happily visited them there. They live in the old East Berlin about a mile from the Wall, north of Alexanderplatz. Visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial site, I was blown away by the stories of attempted escapes (and, really, everything else attached to the subject). A book proposal and book contract followed.
I made three trips to Berlin to interview more than a dozen of the key tunnelers and escapees. My daughter Jeni and her husband Stephane became key researchers. Stephane, who is half-German, played an absolutely pivotal role in interpreting for me during interviews, and translating portions of German language books — especially hundreds of pages of mind-boggling Stasi documents that we managed to obtain. Also an invaluable help with these and other documents was Emely von Oest, a German-born woman who now lives in Los Angeles.
As I’ve said, seeing my daughter and husband and six-year-old grandson, along with my favorite tunnelers, certainly are highlights. I have, of course, now visited most of the major sites and museums. I recently co-produced an acclaimed film about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, FOLLOWING THE NINTH, and wrote a book with the director, JOURNEYS WITH BEETHOVEN, so I usually try to catch a classical concert. And this latest trip, in June, I got to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert at the former Olympia Stadium–I have a long history with Bruce going back to 1972 and he got us four free tickets for the June event, so it was quite a night.
4) Did you see NBC’s documentary THE TUNNEL at the time it first aired?
I may have seen it (I would have been fourteen) but don’t recall. It was posted in its entirety online two or three years ago and, of course, I have watched it several times since–and now know several of the people featured in it! It is indeed a remarkable 78-minute film, understated, focusing on the day-to-day creation, and dangers, associated with that tunnel.
5) What are the most important things that you hope readers will take away from THE TUNNELS?
That’s hard to say, as the book does not “lecture,” it just explores this story and specific angle over a few months in 1962 (though with a lengthy epilogue covering 1963-2016). I suppose paramount in the “lessons” might be what it reveals about the incredible courage and quest for freedom that is part of the human DNA. But also the astounding dangers when great powers, armed with nuclear weapons, face off. The temptation by government officials to manipulate or suppress the media. The evils of secret police–and major government-built walls–anywhere. And the power of love for others that motivates some individuals.
NOTE: After publication, Greg Mitchell’s THE TUNNELS received many very enthusiastic reviews.
Kirkus Reviews, for example, said: “A gripping page-turner that thrills like fiction.”
And, writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Kulish closed with this haunting commentary on Greg Mitchell’s book:
“Days after finishing the book I could not escape one of Mitchell’s images — of a hat with a small hole in it landing softly on the Western side of the border while its owner’s dead body fell back into the East, waiting for the guards to hurry it out of sight. For those who see walls as the answer to policy problems, this book serves as a stark reminder that barriers can never cut people off entirely but only succeed in driving them underground.”