What inspired you to become a writer?
A girl, what else? When I was a boy about 15 years old, I wanted to become a drummer; but then the whole town desperately fell in love with that girl, all in vain, of course, and me being somewhere at the forgotten end of the whole mess. The only thing that helped me to survive, believe it or not, was writing poems.
Did you face much rejection initially? How did you deal with it.
Well, my parents would have liked me to become something decent with regular income. So we often had arguments – me thinking that the dice was cast already and that I just had to continue doing what I felt deeply had to be done for the rest of my life; them thinking that writing was something luxurious to a proper life and could always be done after retirement too. But I just couldn’t wait that long! The conflict only came to a happy end when I had my first bestseller, which was in 1997, and think about how old I was at that time!
Did you find a publisher or agent first? How did you find them?
In the mid-eighties, we were not used to agents in Germany, you had to find a publisher or stay in company with your stack of paper for the rest of your life. Having been raised in a family of chemists and physicians, I didn’t have the slightest connection to the literary „scene“, I had been staying with my stack for quite a long time. Then I turned thirty. A friend of mine who started translating from the English those years happened to know an editor whom she thought might like my stuff. I went to his office, heaved my stack of 560 pages on his desk and … had a long talk with him about Tristram Shandy! Not a single word about my own manuscript! And it worked – my first novel was published soon after, in 1987.
What inspired you to write Next World Novella?
A nightmare, that I noted down as soon as I awoke, in the middle of night. As after dawn the nightmare still was unpleasantly present to me, I started writing again, extending the dreamt scene to a kind of compact short novel, with the worst end possible: a catastrophe that effected a series of catastrophes. So after having read the last page you might regret not having stopped after the openig scene, the initial nightmare.
In a novel like this where you are presenting a character as an expert in a field, how much do you feel you yourself need to become an expert?
You are right, my main character is a decent Sinology scholar; but apart from having read a couple of Chinese books including the I Ging which is of some importance in Next World Novella, I don’t know too much about old Chinese literature. At least I know a little about being a scholar as I worked as a lecturer for some semesters at Munich University; and I definitely know what it’s like being short-sighted as Schepp, the Sinologist, is. But all the rest, I’m afraid, is research and … imagination.
How do you go about researching these elements?
As a writer you are on research every day, whereever you are and whatever you do; life as a writer is hardly more than a life-long research, isn’t it? To a writer as I picture him, writing is not his main activity; of course, at times he has to just remain at his desk, but most of the time … well, he leads a life at the other side of the desk too, that is he listens to people, gets involved, makes experiences and so on. Hopefully he ends as an expert in common daily life. And for the questions you definetely cannot answer yourself, you need friends who are experts themselves.
What were the challenges, and pleasures, of writing a tale within a tale?
The challenge was to write it in a different tone, different cadence than the rest, in order to make it plausible that it is a long forgotten text of the main character that he had been writing as a student: sentences stuffed with the naive energy of the youth. The pleasure was to feel while writing that I still had kept that sound inside, well hidden for years, and that it was easier to reproduce than I thought.
How does your writing as a poet influence your novel writing, and vice versa?
I am a poet by heart, I can’t stop writing as a poet – so even when writing in prose I still write my sentences with a certain rhythm, in order to make it as beautiful for the reader as I am able to. I can feel the flow while writing, and this poetic sound serves as the base, so to speak, for any plot I have to tell, no matter if it’s comedy or tragedy.
How does it feel to have your work translated into English?
Great, of course! And what is more, it’s wonderful to see Next World Novella translated by such a genius as Anthea Bell! Reading the English version of my own book, it sounds familiar and strange to me at the same time. Most of all it sounds extremely good, seems that Anthea got a poetic base of her translation as well.
What do you find the most challenging aspects of writing?
The moment when you stop collecting sentences, researching places or potential places of the plot, making the scheme, improving the scheme, discussing it all with your wife, your first reader, your editor and with yourself, over and over, starting again from scratch, coming up with new ideas, finishing another schedule and so on; and then, from one day to the other, decide to stop it and get serious. What an effort to start writing it all down! Especially as you always know it will never end up as beautiful on paper as it was an idea in your head.
What do you enjoy most about it?
The thrill of the very first vision of a new story, the days when you cannot stop thinking, talking, dreaming about it (and putting down notes, of course). All the rest of a writer’s business is nothing but work.
What inspires you?
Travelling the world, living in other countries for a while, talking to people, nearly everything. But I don’t search for inspiration; inspiration comes as a shock and transformes your life, at least for some years – and I do love the days, the weeks and the months without it, having time to get rid of all the inspiration I once had had already.
What advice would you offer an aspiring writer?
Don’t just write for yourself, find a true friend who loves what you are doing – and therefore is allowed to criticize you as hard as possible: That will be your first reader.