The Nazis thought that they could train dogs to speak, read and spell, and that this would afford them a secret tool for espionage to help win World War II. The Tier-Sprechschule ASRA was set up in the 1930s and continued to operate throughout the war years. Trainers tried to teach canines how to tap out special signals or letters of the alphabet with their paws, in order to communicate with SS officers and concentration camp guards. One particularly clever Airedale terrier named Rolf supposedly wrote poetry and discussed religion, while another mutt, when asked who Adolf Hitler was said to have barked: ‘Mein Fuhrer!’
I stumbled across this absurd titbit of information while writing my second novel, The Hollow Bones, based on the true story of Himmler’s German Tibet Expedition of 1938. The journey of five SS scientists, whose mission was to find the ‘true’ origins of the Aryan race, was led by Ernst Schäfer, a young ornithologist and crack hunter. Researching material for the book had me falling down deep rabbit holes every day. The ‘dog school’, for example, fascinated me so much that I spent weeks reading anything I could find about it. But ultimately, although I really wanted to include it in the novel, it didn’t serve the overall story, ending up on the cutting room floor. I lamented that all that time spent researching had been wasted.
Curiosity is what drives me as a writer; the pleasure of following an obsessive urge to learn about the structure of ice crystals, wander around the basement of a natural history museum in Philadelphia searching for panda skeletons, or translate an obscure German scientist’s field diaries, written in illegible, old-fashioned Sutterlin scrawl. I needed to do all this in order to understand my protagonist, Ernst Schäfer. I had to travel alongside him, exploring the explorer.
Writing the novel was an opening for me to research a broad palette of challenging topics, reading about taxidermy, hunting techniques and the protocols of Nazi bride schools. I watched old film footage of pigeons being released over the stadium at the opening of the Berlin Olympics, and of Tibetan monks performing religious rituals in the lost world of 1930s Lhasa. None of this was comfortable for me. My family were victims of the Nazis; most of the branches of my family tree are blackened by the murderous zeal of the likes of Hitler and Himmler and their cronies. My mother was twenty-one years old when she emerged from the brutality of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, with not one surviving member of her family left. Perhaps my heritage galvanised me to try and understand how a person’s moral compass can turn 180 degrees from where it started, as was the case with my novel’s protagonist. I needed to understand how small moral compromises led down a slippery slope, into the realm of evil.
By the end of the writing, I had piled up hundreds of clippings and filled notebooks with fervently scribbled jottings, but I only used about 20% of all the material I gathered in the novel. This is how I usually work. It used to worry me at first, but many years ago I had the fortune of hearing E.L. Doctorow speak about his own process: ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ That helped me accept that I need to write in order to find out exactly what it is that I am writing. The extensive research that I do can often seem like an excuse for procrastination, avoiding the hard slog of getting actual words down. My need to know how to fill a pipe with tobacco, or learn about the intricate anatomy of the wing bone of a Tibetan vulture, can take me away from the page for hours, or days. However, this is my way of working out what exactly it is that I am writing about, and to connect to my book deeply. Learning to trust this organic process has helped me to keep enjoying the delirious excitement of exploring fascinating curiosities, despite my doubt-filled struggle to turn all these disparate fragments and fun facts into a whole.
When I start thinking my research is procrastination, I also remind myself that research makes it possible for me to see familiar things from a different angle, to notice afresh things that have become invisible through the dull lens of familiarity.
It’s important to remember it’s all a balancing act though – research is a hungry wolf that can turn around and bite me, devouring the beauty and flow of the narrative with constipated chunks of ‘info dumping’. Deep research allows me to feel more confident in my material, helping build a world in which I hope the reader will become seamlessly enmeshed. Having more material to draw from is never wasted; it’s all grist to the mill for a writer. Perhaps doggy espionage agents, tapping out coded messages with their paws, might even turn up in my next book.
Leah Kaminsky is a physician and award-winning writer. Her debut novel The Waiting Room won the prestigious Voss Literary Prize and was shortlisted for the Helen Asher Award. Her second novel, The Hollow Bones, was released in 2019 and The Fish Council will be published in 2020. We’re all Going to Die has been described as ‘a joyful book about death’. She edited Writer MD and co-authored Cracking the Code. Her poetry collection, Stitching Things Together, was a finalist in the Anne Elder Award. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.