Geir Gulliksen on The Story of a Marriage

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Photo Credits: Baard Henriksen

Geir Gulliksen (Norway, 1963) is a publisher and a writer; he has published a wide range of books, novels, poetry, children´s books and plays. His novel The Story of a Marriage was originally published in 2015 and is the first English translation to be published of his work. The Story of a Marriage was nominated for the Norwegian Critic’s Prize for Literature in 2015 and the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2016. In this interview, Geir Gulliksen discusses a wide range of contemporary topics affecting people’s personal and domestic lives such as fear of loss, marriage, sex, and fatherhood. Providing an invaluable male perspective, Gulliksen takes the reader to the world of a middle-class marriage as we see it starting, changing, and finishing. The Story of a Marriage will be published by Penguin in May 2018.

Your book The Story of a Marriage echoes Scandinavian classics such as Strindberg’s collection of stories Getting Married (1884-86) and Bergman’s film Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Would you place your novel within the tradition of Scandinavian domestic fiction?

Yes, I would place my novel in this tradition even if I didn’t realize myself that I was waving to Bergman with the title. I feel at home within this tradition. But of course, the premises are changed – or, they should feel changed; the lives of men and women are different now from when Strindberg wrote. But not as different as we tend to think.

 You present a male perspective on marriage and domestic life. Are home and domesticity male issues now?

Yes, I think so. It has to be a part of men’s life much more than before. It goes very slowly, it’s becoming part of man’s life in a very slow way. But in the end, maybe it will be the main topic for men writers? I never identified myself as a man; I always had trouble seeing myself as a man. When I was 11 or 12, in 1975, the international women year took place, a kind of feminist event to make clear that the world had to change. That year I realized that I was in the wrong side. In historical terms, I was in the wrong side, the male side, as a Man I was with the people who had too much power and money and lacked empathy. I realized that I didn’t feel at home being seen as an adult man. For this reason I feel a bit embarrassed, so when I write I don’t look at myself as a male writer. However, at the same time, I knew when I wrote this novel that it had to depict part of the life of a feminist man talking about his life, or a man who wants to be a feminist. I don’t think he succeeds as a feminist man, though.

 How can you be in the wrong side? How can you feel guilty for being a man, something just given to you?

I find myself in situations where people look at me and expect me to speak in behalf of men, as if ‘man’ was more than a category, as if it said something important about who I am. But it doesn’t. I know I’m not alone in this feeling. I have serious problems with identifying myself with this kind of representation of masculinity.

I think you refer to stereotypes and expectations about being a man.

Yes, but stereotypes are all around us. Women and men have changed since the 70s. Now, they are both very content saying ‘I’m a man’, ‘I’m a woman’. Feminism has reversed, although now it is coming back again. In The Story of a Marriage, the male character is trying to tell the story from his wife’s perspective. As a writer, I identify a bit more with her than with him. But I knew all the time that the text would raise questions about gender. But it also has a lot to do with making fun of a man who is so obsessed. I wanted to write a story of a man who thinks that he is a good man as well as a feminist that gives room to his wife. But the exciting thing about him is that he doesn’t understand what he’s doing. He’s trying to control her, her fantasies and sexuality. I hope there’s an element of comedy in this: a story about someone who wants to do good but destroys everything.

The marriage in the book, especially him, has this particular concern about becoming a common and traditional marriage like Paul and Una, doing typical things that couples do. In fact, the story of this marriage seems to focus on finding an alternative definition for themselves. There’s this almost obsessive thing with being different, outside traditional representations of marriage. Does the story frustrate this attempt? Is it possible to be married and escape marriage?

I think he doesn’t understand it himself and that’s the reason he is destroying his marriage. He’s thinking he’s doing a better marriage and wants another kind of life, which could be a very good life, but he destroys everything. Of course, it’s not possible to be very different from other people and still live in a society, but what can you do? But in these terms, the novel also tries to examine love, not as a simple and easy feeling, but something that has to do with power – gaining and loosing power. His urge to destroy is also part of love. That’s what makes him dangerous, the fact that he’s not aware of his capacity to destroy. I think we all have that capacity, especially when we are in situations where we think of ourselves as good, fair and kind persons. A lot of us have been in relationships where afterwards we see how one of us was being diminished, or becoming dependent on the other. In this there’s some kind of destruction. If you’re lucky in a relationship, you alternate this powerful role all the time, but very often this is difficult, isn’t it?

 One of the ways they have to be different is by accepting the possibility of an open sexual life. When they’re in bed he fantasizes a lot with the idea of she being with another man. But in fact, this works until she finds another man. Then, the marriage ends. Does this again suggest that a marriage needs limits?

I think so, but this guy wouldn’t understand that. But I also wonder why someone has this kind of fantasies. Our fantasies tend to be about things that we are afraid of. He’s very afraid of loosing her and at a certain point it becomes true, he makes her go. Open relationships are being arranged in order to solve a problem, but it seems unavoidable that at least one of the persons involved ends up as a victim.

 Your novel represents two trendy things: one is women running, and the other one is stay-at-home dads. In the first case, running is a fashionable sport for many women and there is this new narrative about married women who fail in love with their personal trainers. And then there are this new stay-at-home dads who work from home or just take care of the children when the mother works outside. In the novel, she starts the affair not with a trainer but with her running partner, and he spends most of his days at home.

It’s very funny, and a bit surprising, if stay-at-home-dads have become trendy! It should be trendy, it’s necessary, not only for the child and the mother, but also for a man’s and a father’s development, being together with the child. But it’s true, I wanted to write about these two things. And it’s really interesting what running does, it’s a way to cope with life. You can use running in the same way as you use sex because they both make you feel better. But yes, clearly, women running and falling in love with the trainer seems quite logical as people are always afraid of what women do. That was part of the scenery. At the same time it was interesting and funny to write about domestic men because it feels new. For most of my 4 children I’ve stayed at home. But writing about it is very interesting, because if you write about a woman staying at home with a child you have all these shadows, old stories, ideas about how these lives are or could be. But when you write about a man staying at home with a child it feels like being an explorer in a forest where no one has been before. It hasn’t been written much about it, not in fiction.

Those activities permeate the novel; can they tell us something about men and women?

If you write about a man running and falling in love, the wife at home becomes a victim. But in the other way around, he becomes a bit ridiculous, he is not as manly as he should be. And at the same time I wanted the novel to be about strong emotions, good sex, happiness, middle class well-being. because it’s always burning beneath the floorboards, as you know. I guess we all know. All these things combined made it interesting because they are contradictory.

This follows stereotyped gender roles.

Yes, it’s difficult not to do that. I could have made him a victim but victims aren’t fun. He’s not a victim, he makes himself one, that makes him comical and maybe touching. He’s telling her all the time to continue running with this other man, he only tells her to stop when it’s too late, when she has fallen in love. Falling in love is a very interesting process because you can stop it, early, you can turn away from it, but at some point it’s too late, suddenly you can’t stop it anymore, even if you want to.

 What does your novel tell us about contemporary marriage?

Contemporary marriage is a place where things are negotiated and re-negotiated between individuals and gender (that goes for same-sex marriages as well). I think contemporary marriage is really interesting because there’s so much changing, it’s very interesting to write about it. The German playwright Heiner Müller said that the pleasure of writing is schadenfreude, because he saw the East German state falling apart and he was able to describe it. I thought that maybe I could see things falling apart in contemporary love and be able to write about it.

But in this novel this falling apart is all very sexual.

If you want to describe love, you will have to write about people executing love in action, so to speak. You need to describe people doing something, and the problem is that most of us sit with computers all the time. Even a big part of our love-life unfolds on computers. But you can describe people having sex, and it’s interesting to see how power is unfolding in sex. Sex is a performance, there’s never a clean embrace, even an embrace is power.

But embracing it’s also a protective and caring act.

It’s a caring act but one is protecting and the other is being protected. One of us is embracing, and the other is being embraced. One can find protection by protecting or been protected. We are never equal, that’s fascinating and possibly a bit frightening.

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Interview with Zora del Buono on Gotthard (2015)

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Picture by, and Copyrights of, Lisa Nalven

Zora del Buono is a Swiss author, born in Zurich in 1962. She graduated with a degree in architecture from ETH Zurich in 1990 and worked as an architect until 1996. That same year she co-founded mare – Zeitschrift der Meere (www.mare.de) — a magazine covering maritime topics that are both journalistic and historic. She published her first novel Canitz’ Verlangen in 2008. The magazine 12 Swiss Books listed her fourth novel Gotthard as one of the best twelve Swiss books of 2016. Gotthard tells the stories of different people brought together by the construction of the Gotthard tunnel. Workers, prostitutes, cooks, and even a train lover — all of them from different parts of the world — meet and establish interesting and unusual relationships. Each of the characters in Gotthard reveals his or her problems and most intimate thoughts on women, marriage, men, and professional relationships. All these reflections are defined by the characters’ own personal connection to the Gotthard tunnel. In this interview, Zora del Buono discusses issues of culture and identity, architectural experiences, and the unexpected turns our lives can take through architecture.

 

Zora, you are an architect and a writer. How did you shift from building to writing?

After I studied architecture in Zurich, I went to Berlin before the wall fell, which actually did fall after finishing my studies. I worked in a small, all-female office. My job revolved around design, and I spent a lot of time on construction sites. I liked the smell of concrete. I did that for five years, and then I took a postgraduate course on film design. After that, I started a magazine. My first story was on a home for retired sailors in Italy. That was the beginning of my writing: I found many topics in that place. I think it was my architectural work in a mostly male domain that inspired me, as well as that report. So I began to write. In the sailors’ home, I was able to observe hierarchies and different classes, which are important themes in not just my first, but in all of my books. Gotthard is a working-class novel, whereas many stories today are set in offices.

In Gotthard you articulate the narrative around an architectural space: the construction of a tunnel. Was that a conscious choice? Do you construct your novels in this way?

Writing and construction are similar: you start with a blank sheet of paper and in the end, you have a book; like a house that you built. The rhythm of the novel is very similar to the construction process itself: everything happens in a consecutive order.

When I gave a reading of my first book, no one had heard of me, only my friends were there. One of them was a worker. Everyone else was an intellectual, or highly educated. We sat around the table, and that blue-collar friend of mine started talking about working in the tunnel. He said: “When you put your hand on the rock, it’s too hot to keep it there, especially because scorching water emerges from it.” Everyone stopped talking and listened to him. We talked about the tunnel, and I remember thinking “This is great!” He knew about life inside that darkness, where it’s hot and humid. In fact, it’s unbearable. Then I thought: “I need to go ahead and tell his story. He can’t write a book, so I’m going to do it for him.” The Gotthard tunnel is the longest in the world. It’s the third tunnel to run below the mountain range. The first one—also a railway tunnel—was built over a hundred years ago. It was very important for Northern Europe because it was a means of connecting to Italy – to the sun, and to the sea. Almost two hundred people died during the construction. It was unimaginably hard work. Today, there is sophisticated technology, but it’s still hard work. It fascinates me because it’s entirely different from building a house or a bridge.

 The tunnel seems to function as a place where people from many different countries in Europe and professions meet. Is the tunnel something more than a simple tunnel?

Of course! It’s a place where different cultures clash. My intention was to show people from different countries working together. The metaphorical aspect of the tunnel has something to do with everyone’s dark side. The characters in Gotthard experience surprises because they don’t know everything about the project (the tunnel), and things happen unexpectedly. In the same way, we think we know ourselves well, but then we surprise ourselves. There are secrets, like the murder. This, however, doesn’t turn the novel into a thriller: it remains something different. And I wanted to tell the process of how things suddenly turn into something different: how in the end you find out the bad secret, and everything comes out as an eruption. The tunnel and the stone are fixed and hard for years but still something can break.

 All characters have a different relationship with the tunnel: some hate it and some love it. Does the tunnel have an emotional function as well?

Yes; during my research about the tunnel, I realized that the guys really loved their job. It’s hard manual labor, but when they’re done, they have something to admire. But these men also cry inside the tunnel because they spend hours there, and it‘s so dark and hot. These men really are a physical part of the rock. That means that they have a really strong body too. Everything happens inside the tunnel: it’s hard work, but they also feel protected. I once wrote an article about a journey from Southampton to New York on the Queen Elizabeth 2. There was a woman there who was part of the cleaning staff, and she felt like she was part of the ship because she felt safe inside of it. She didn’t go ashore to go shopping or do other things. I think the tunnels are a little bit like that: you can be in a relationship with them. That can be a good relationship or a bad one. That’s why I created the eight characters. Everyone has a different relationship with the tunnel.

 For Robert Filz, the tunnel is a sign of masculinity. And indeed the tunnel seems to represent a male world. But there are women in your novel too. What is the function of women in this atmosphere?

The first tunnel was built in 1875. People came to the mountains and there was nothing: everything had to be done. Men came to work, and women went there to clean and cook. That community turned into a little village. They even had prostitutes! Women and men need each other. For example, they have female nicknames for the machines, like Gabi I. Men construct their own female universe. Many of the men don’t want women in the tunnel. Except for Saint Barbara, their patron saint and good luck charm. They have statues of her down there. Everyone adores her, especially the Catholic men. And yet, they think it’s bad luck to share the tunnel with women, like on a ship. But men don’t just need women for sex, but also to feel protected. At the local bar, I met women who were nice and rough at the same time. They were harsh and like big mothers. And then, you have all these prostitutes from South America, lots of them. One of the guys married one of them. After so many years in the village, you have a lot of relationships. It’s a really complex social system that has nothing to do with the average society. I met one girl, a cleaning lady, who made herself ugly on purpose because she didn’t want any attention from the men she was cleaning for.

 The description of Fritz Bergundthal’s flat back in Berlin looks like the tunnel: it is dark with no windows. Is Fritz’s life meant to be a tunnel?

I wanted to portray an outsider coming in. Fritz is not involved in the construction of the tunnel. His hobby is taking pictures of trains. I wanted to show somebody who’s different: Fritz is stuck in a meticulous routine. Everything has to be on schedule. He‘s an accountant; his whole life is about numbers. For him, the freedom to go see the Gotthard tunnel is a big adventure. But he doesn’t expect to get involved in something bigger than that, in something criminal. A lot of people have a desire to get out of their regular lives. They are fascinated by impure lives, but they don’t allow themselves to act on it. All the characters in Gotthard experience change. I wanted to show that every life can be interrupted and changed completely. It’s a big change for Fritz. The workers in the tunnel are much more hands-on people by far, while he leads an abstract life that revolves around money and numbers. He loves trains, which bring you to see the world. Trains are great because they take you to faraway places, but they run on tracks. You know where you’re going; you’re safe. That’s the opposite of a ship, for example. Fritz would never go on a ship. Trains are all he can do. At the end of the novel, the question is: can I take the next step?

Gotthard is going to be performed in the stage next January. Are you involved in the production and adaption?

The composer and the actor wanted to get to know me, and so I had a number of conversations with them. But I’m not in charge of the play by any means. It’s a musical theatre. So far, the Glauser Quintet has only performed the plays of Swiss author Friedrich Glauser. Gotthard is the first one by a contemporary author. With their music and lyrics, the ensemble creates its very own atmosphere, which has a lot do with sounds and emotions. I agree that the construction of the tunnel, with its noise and darkness, makes for a very good show. Adding the connotations of a charged, sexualized atmosphere can create a dense and exciting piece, I’m sure. The first performance will be in Zurich in January. I will not have seen any of it by then, so I’ll just go and be surprised.

Interview with Hanne Ørstavik

hanne-orstavikThe Blue Room is Hanne Ørstavik’s first novel translated into English by Peirene Press in 2014. Ørstavik is a well-established Norwegian author with almost 15 novels published. Her work has been translated into 15 languages, and she received the Dobloug and Brague Prizes in 2002 and 2004 respectively. The Blue Room tells the story of a mother and daughter – Johanne – in her early twenties in an apartment in Oslo. Although the author did not wish to make any extensive comments and interpretations about her novel, The Blue Room invites the reader to reflect on family relationships, feelings of possession, control, sexual submission and religion.

Johanne is concerned about making her mother happy. This seems to lead Johanne into a depending relationship with her mother: she’s not totally free from her. What do you think of this attitude of Johanne?

Are we ever free from each other? Do we want to be? I think the crucial issue for Johanne is her inability to trust herself. She doesn’t have a sense of who she is, she doesn’t know what is real – the original title of the novel is “As true as I am real”: it is a triangle between identity/self, truth and reality. She has not divided herself from the mother, they are still mingled up inside her. Is what I think, the truth, or is what mother says? Those are her questions.

Does Johanne’s mother blackmail Johanne emotionally?

I think they are both unconscious of their relationship. Maybe, then, there is some kind of emotional immaturity in Johanne’s mother as she cannot really see the consequences of her feelings?

Can a mother be selfish?

I think that the interesting point is the deep and unconscious need which drives these actions. To see someone as selfish is to see them from far away. People do what they do to meet needs. So, in this novel, what are the needs of the mother?

So the mother is concerned about her own needs? And these needs would be to have her daughter with her?

Her needs are complex: she is unaware of them. They can be contradictory, like wanting to have her daughter at home and wanting her to go at the same time. She doesn’t know. And we don’t know when we read the novel. These questions are generated by the novel. I want to keep them open, not answer them. I want the reader to have these questions moving inside her when she reads.

Johanne defines her mother as her best friend. This is an expression that is out there nowadays, being your children’s best friend. But does this lead to an unhealthy relationship between parents and children? Shouldn’t parents be parents?

I think the relationship between parents and children is so deep and intertwined, and with multiple facets. We are always children ourselves, also as parents. We see this in dreams. And language is also blurry, in movement, it’s an action. I think that saying to a parent ‘you are my best friend’ can be one of many candid and impulsive ways of saying I love you, you are close to me.

But when Johanne says it in the novel it seems like a lie, or a futile hope, and it hurts to read, doesn’t it? – because as a reader we see that there is a distance between her words and what the novel tells us about her reality: her mother doesn’t help her by mirroring her back to herself so that she can see herself. And isn’t that what a real friend does?

It is interesting that you mention that Johanne does not mean her words when she tells her mother is her best friend. This is maybe because this ‘best friend’ kind of relationship with her mother is destructive for Johanne herself and she acts somehow defensively?

I can’t really comment more on this.

In which ways does the relationship of Johanne with her mother impacts on Johanne’s relationships with men?

There is not much space for Johanne to have relationships outside the mother-daughter dyad. She is caught inside it; her mother is in a way still always present, even when she is not there.

Maybe the mother handicaps Johanne’s development as woman: the incapacity to break out with her mother and build her own life?

Karin doesn’t want Johanne to leave for the US, like her mother. Are Karin and the mother other kind of blue rooms where Johanne is trapped in?

Good question. I think we are always trapped in each other. It can also be a good thing.

Johanne has very disturbing thoughts. She imagines sadomasochist scenes with imaginary people. What does this tell us about her? Is it fear, insecurity, or something else?

These were images that came when I was writing, and I knew they belonged in the novel. But I didn’t write them with a specific purpose or thought. They were pictures from Johanne’s domain, and they are open for the reader, as they are open for me. Well maybe Johanne is really trapped into some kind of abusive relationship, which originates in the mother.

How does this kind of imagination and Johanne’s strong religiosity live together?

That is one of the questions the novel raises. It’s up to the reader to decide.

 Johanne imagines sexual scenes in quite a tormenting way. What is it with sex?

I think this has to be seen in the context of the whole novel, also in the relationship with her mother. Sex is a mute language that says many things at the same time because it talks for the person through the body, and we often have conflicting, complex needs. It can depict both longing and shame simultaneously.

Johanne also fantasizes being sexually submissive with Ivar. She imagines him hitting her before sex. Why?

I want that to be open to the reader to define.

Maybe your novella explores the idea that after all women long for submission? Or is this submission a consequence of Johanne’s relationship with her mother?

That is one possible way to read the novel. But to me it is not a novel about a longing for submission.

Your novella describes a domestic space without a male figure. This is in line with other contemporary works, such as Véronique Olmi’s Au bord du mer (2001), where the mother decides to kill her two children because of the hardship they are going through. What do you think about the absence of the father at home?

The blue room is a very concentrated novel, it takes place in one morning, with backflashes to the last two weeks of Johannes life, when she met Ivar. The father in this novel is irrelevant. As I see it, The Blue Room is exploring the ambiguity of being locked in against one’s own will, and yet the lack of possibility to break out. This impossibility is at one level practical: she’s on the fourth floor, she can’t just jump out. But also here we see the ambiguity: she could have opened the window and called for help. She could have done something, but she doesn’t. A forthcoming image in the novel is Johanne feeling as if her back is about to break. She lacks force, strength. This is the other level of impossibility in the novel, this inner emptiness. There is no I to break out with.

But could you try to think more specifically about the absence of the father at home? Is this a contemporary issue? Is this unconsciously depicted as a bad thing after all? In the context of the novella, maybe a father figure would had helped Johanne to get some distance from the mother?

All these questions are good questions. I’m interested in questions. I have few answers. I know nothing about contemporary issues, nor do I have general thoughts about the father in the home. I write my novels. They are an open field where questions like these can be discussed. They are open. You make your own thoughts, your own questions, as you read.

Next Interview! Hanne Ørstavik

On September 22 Hanne Orstavik will be talking about her first novel published in English, The Blue Room by Peirene Press. Orstavik is one of the leading Norwegian writers at the moment. She won the Dobloug Prize in 2002 and the Brage Prize in 2004. Her books have been translated into 15 languages. The Blue Room explores sex, masochism, fantasies of female submission, religion, and a tormenting mother-daughter relationship. Don’t miss out!

Interview with Meike Ziervogel on Clara’s Daughter (2014)

 

MeikeZiervogel_portrait4_rbMeike Ziervogel (1967) grew up in Germany and came to Britain in 1986 to study Arabic language and literature. She is the founder and owner of the London based publishing house Peirene Press. In 2013 she started her career as fiction writer with the novel Magda, which was listed as one of the books of the year 2013 by the Observer and Irish Times. Magda explores the story of Magda Goebbels, wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and the psychological intricacies that might have led her to kill her own six children. Meike Ziervogel brings the reader of Magda back to the character’s childhood and relationship to the mother in order to decipher the female psyche. In Clara’s Daughter (2014), the author continues the exploration on the mother-daughter relationship, this time in contemporary London. This book focuses on Michele’s life, a successful career woman, wife, and mother of two, but who experiences a complex relationship with her aging mother. The unresolved psychological issues between Michele and her mother Clara undermines Michele’s very existence. In this context, the complexities of mother-daughter relationships are openly expressed, and the roles of mother and daughter are represented in their contradictions. At the same time, motherhood is not represented as an ideal; nor is the figure of mother presented as an example of virtue and self-devotion. Clara’s Daughter is, thus, placed within a wider European, literary context that polemicizes the topic of motherhood such as in German Verena Friederike Hasel’s Lasse (2015), French Véronique Olmi’s Bord de mer (2001), or Spanish Jenn Díaz’s Mare i Filla (2015). The following interview also looks at stereotyped female feelings such as pity, guilt, and sacrifice, as well as the construction of ‘daughter’ and ‘mother’ as western concepts. Besides these, contemporary experiences of home and the aging female body, as potentially erotic and sensual (in defiance of western media stereotypes), are also important topics of the novel that the author discusses here.

The novel’s title suggests that the text is mostly about a mother-daughter relationship but it deals with many other things that seem equally important (Michele’s marriage, or the representation of the female body in middle and late age, for example). Why the title Clara’s Daughter? Why did you choose to focus on the role of Michele as daughter and not as mother, or wife?

Before a woman is a wife or a mother, she is a daughter. And if she wants to become the wife or mother she imagines then she must alter the meaning of “being a daughter”. In literature there are many stories about how sons break away from their fathers in order to become men. Unfortunately, the necessity of daughters to break away from their mothers in order to become a woman has been rarely addressed in fiction. Often the relationship is idealized. A mother is supposed to want the best for her daughter, and the daughter is supposed to look after her mother. But the mother-daughter relationship is far more complex, far more fraught with negative feelings, such as envy, rage and guilt. In Clara’s Daughter I wanted to tell the story of an outwardly successful woman, Michele, who feels blocked by her mother. I wanted to explore that sense of being blocked and feeling stuck.

 Why does she feel stuck?

Michele’s mother Clara can no longer look after herself. Michele has found her a place in a good nursing home. But under pressure from her sister and Clara herself, who doesn’t want to move out of her own house, Michele agrees to convert her basement into a flat for Clara. She does it against her better instinct. She knows that she can’t live with her mother again, nor that her mother can live with her. Still she goes ahead with the move, convinced that she has decided for the best.

I found the representation of Clara’s experience of her own body later in the text very interesting. It is difficult to find representations of old female bodies, especially, from her own perspective. Your passage evokes a sensuality which usually is not associated to old women. Could you tell us a bit about this scene? Is the scene trying to tell something new about womanhood?

Clara is a woman whose life lacks fulfilment. She feels unable to express herself. She’s probably been depressed. In the scene you mention we are inside Clara’s head. We see her walking through the park, arriving at the lake, taking her clothes off, lying in the grass and finally swimming in the lake. It’s the first time she has ever dared to do that. She feels free. In reality of course something very different is happening to her body: There, she is still sitting on the park bench, lonely. And she is dying. I don’t know if I’m saying something new about womanhood with this scene. What I am saying, however, is that the reality we build in our imagination is the real for us as individuals. And the outside existence often doesn’t matter at all.

Should we, as society, try to make eroticism emerge beyond young beautiful women’s bodies? In other words, should we see the erotic as an important part of everybody’s subjectivity, and as something involving far more than the mere physical body in contrast to common representations of erotic scenes?

To answer this question let me talk for a moment about creativity. In my view, creative and sexual feelings are both erotic. When I’m in a creative flow with my writing, I sometimes feel sexual arousal (that doesn’t of course mean that I want sex there and then, but it is a very similar sensation to desire). Both, creativity and sexuality link to something that goes beyond ourselves. When Clara finally leaves her body behind, she experiences that sensation of going beyond herself, probably for the first time. And so for the first time she also experiences her physical being as erotic. In some ways it’s a contradiction: we need to be able to transcend ourselves, our bodies in the here and now, in order to experience sensuality. I don’t know if it’s true for all women but it certainly is true for me. I often think that I write to experience those moments when I go beyond myself, when I link into something bigger than myself, when I’m no longer in control and something else is dictating the story to me. And that same sensation occurs within Clara as she is sitting on the bench: For the first time ever she takes life as it comes. And suddenly we, the readers, are able to perceive her as a sensual being. But she is dying. Sadly she was never able to experience such transcendence previously. And, maybe, if she had been able to, she might have had a different relationship with her daughter Michele.

Why would she have had a different relationship with Michele?

From experience I can say that I connect with my children if I’m connected to myself. Clara is somebody who most of her life has been disconnected. Who didn’t even know where to look for herself. I don’t think she was ever able to see the world from her daughter’s standpoint. A telling example for this comes from Michele’s memory from when she was little. Her mother is sitting at the kitchen table crying and the little girl offers up her dearest possession – her dolly – to make her feel better. But the mother, wrapped up inside her own sorrow, ignores the gesture. She is unable to connect to the bigger picture around her, outside herself.

It seems to be a kind of holistic perception in your writing: you describe both creativity and eroticism as something that pushes us beyond ourselves, and that make us lose control; and you just mentioned Clara’s inability to connect to the bigger picture, to the whole, somehow. All that seems to be framed by a kind of Freudian-Jungian Weltanschauung, which contradicts a more common positivist approach to reality, especially in the Anglosaxon world. Would you say that the difficulties in having a more healthy experience of mother-daughter relationships are partly due to a view that labels us according to roles, separates our different selves according to those roles, and stops us from integrating all these roles in a singular self?

We stop ourselves from integrating those roles. In order for society and public life to function we need to operate in different, separate roles. But within our own psyche we have to learn to integrate those roles into a coherent self. This task is part of our life’s journey.

 Jim, Michele’s husband, is also a very interesting character. Through Jim, the book introduces the topics of fidelity, trust, marriage expectations, as well as male attraction to young women. There is certainly a male perspective on marriage. Could you comment on it?

At the beginning of the novel we observe Michele and Jim happy together. They go for a swim, are about to have sex. But then Michele remembers that she needs to take her mother to the doctor, and suddenly she is no longer able to make love to her husband. She is now pre-occupied with her mother. And when later on she tells Jim that she likes her mother to move in with them, Jim is opposed to the idea. You could say, he knows his wife better than she does herself. He fears that if Clara moves into their basement, Michele’s relationship to him will change. And he is right.

In my novels, images and scenes always work on two levels: on the literary and the symbolic. So if I talk about Clara moving into Michele’s basement, I’m not only talking about a concrete basement in a north London house. I’m also talking about Michele’ psyche and Michele’s body. If Clara is occupying Michele’s ‘basement’, Michele will struggle to have a satisfying sexual relationship with her husband.

In my view, the mother-daughter relationship plays a vital role in a woman’s sexuality, after all our first intimate relationship with another body is that with our mother’s body. A woman – like a man – needs to separate from the mother’s body in order to find her own sexuality. However, unlike with a son, for a daughter it is often difficult –in psychological terms – to fully comprehend where her mother’s body ends and her own body begins because of their sameness. It’s a very complex separation process which we haven’t examined enough in art and literature.

Returning to the novel, the moment Clara enters into Michele’s private and intimate life, Michele finds it difficult to have intercourse with her husband. The relationship between Michele and Jim does not get worse because he parties, but because Michele starts interpreting his nights out in a way that allows her to begin destroying their relationship in order to make more space for her mother. Of course this is all subconscious. Consciously she is convinced that Jim is at fault. But I don’t think their relationship falters because of Jim’s behaviour – after all it is left open to interpretation if he has an affair or not that night. The relationship disintegrates because Michele can’t cope with her mother moving back into her house.

You mentioned the house in relation to Michele’s psyche. Is the house also a psychic space?

On the surface the story has to work in a literal sense, and therefore, there are realist descriptions of the house. But because ultimately these characters are inside my head, I also think, that I am talking about somebody’s internal house. And my internal house too. Michele is the daughter aspect within myself, Clara is my mother aspect, and Jim my husband aspect.

Clara feels herself treated as a madwoman when she is pushed by her daughter to live in Michele’s cellar. I think there is an interesting re-appropriation of the nineteenth-century topic of the madwoman in the attic. Are old women undermined in our society? Is Clara some sort of modern scapegoat?

Who is ultimately the madwoman in this novel? I would say Michele. Because Michele if she had wanted to, could have made different choices. But she decides not to and instead jeopardises the life she has built with her husband. I am not blaming the mother for the failure of Michele’s marriage. Instead, I explore in this novel Michele’s inability to say to her mother ‘sorry you cannot move in’. Michele is a successful business woman and she wouldn’t have got there without the ability to say ‘no’. So why can’t she keep a clear head when it comes to her mother? Why is she willing to let her marriage fail? That to me appears quite mad – and sad.

But if Michele says ‘no’ to having her mother in the house, wouldn’t we accuse her of cruelty?

Women often face the issue that if we want to be kind to ourselves it can look from the outside as if we are cruel to others. Clara is unhappy in the basement, Michele is unhappy, and Jim leaves. When Michele decided – against her husband’s wish – that her mother should move into their house, their lives fell apart. Who knows what might have happened if Michele had insisted on taking her mother to the old people’s home which she had already found and which looked very nice? My feeling is that Clara would have been as unhappy or happy as in Michele’s basement. On the other hand, Michele might have been happier. But Michele would have needed the courage to say ‘it is important that I keep the house to myself for my life to function’. However, how would have such decision looked from the outside? Society – and probably the reader too – would have judged her as an unloving daughter.

For Clara, domestic space is very important. There is a sense of alienation when she needs to leave her house to move into Michele’s basement. What is the meaning of home for Clara? And for Michele?

For Michele domestic space is only one part of her identity, she has been able to define herself in many different ways. For Clara, on the other hand, the domestic space represents her entire identity. She has never been able to step outside her domestic space.

In the novel I therefore describe these two domestic spaces very differently from each other. Clara’s is depicted in very concrete, detailed images. I describe how she moves through her house, how she opens cupboards and sorts through drawers. Michele’s house is less tangible, I’m deliberately vaguer with my descriptions. The different techniques point to the different meanings of Clara’s and Michele’s domestic spaces.

 Then, Clara and Michele have different experiences and understandings of home. What is home for Michele?

Michele ends up in a home she does not like. She has moved out of the house that she used to share with Jim and moves into a small flat, with a wardrobe where she hangs Jim’s old clothes in the hope that he might come back one day. She keeps her mother’s ashes in an urn on the mantelpiece. Despite all the ways in which she managed to define herself, she ends up being surrounded by things rather than the actual people to whom those things belong. How did she end up in this situation? In my view it all boils down to her inability to address one fundamental question: how to be Clara’s daughter while safeguarding her own space.

Over the last 100 years women in the western world have gained many freedoms and rights that now allow us to shape our lives – and the lives of others – increasingly according to own ambitions. However, our psyche has been formed by millenia of patriarchy where we as daughters had to behave in certain ways – towards our families and society. Such behaviours and attitudes are difficult to alter. Outward freedoms are more easily gained than psychological freedoms. It might take generations. Michele ultimately failed to step out of her role of merely being her mother’s daughter. Like her own mother she was not able to set herself free.

Are you continuing exploring family ties in your last novel, The Photographer?

Yes. This novel is loosely based on my own family, who fled during the Second World War from former East Prussia to West Germany. It once again explores a flawed mother –daughter relationship. Agatha doesn’t like her son-in-law and when war breaks out she arranges for him to be sent to the front. The family is eventually reunited in a refugee camp near Hamburg where her daughter Trude will have to confront her mother in order to save her husband.

My first three novels have dark endings. The darkness comes from within the main characters. In The Photographer, on the other hand, the backdrop behind the characters environment is dark indeed: war, flight and refugee camps, while the characters themselves possess the potential for courage, compromise and love.

 

 

 

 

Interview with Magda Woitzuck on Über allem war Licht (2015)

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Magda Woitzuck (Wien, 1983-) studied Comparative Literature at the university of Vienna. She is author of three short stories published under the title Ellis (2012) and four published radio plays (2009-1015) for Austria broadcasting. She is currently working on a TV series as well as on her next novel. Über allem war Licht (2015), her first novel, is a voyage into the complexity of affectionate relationships where love, sexuality, and violence are entangled in such ways that break down the stereotypes of abused women and abusive men that are circulated, mostly, through the media’s discourse. Magda Woitzuck challenges society’s discourse on domestic violence in empowering women in unexpected ways that erase the guilty/victim dichotomy. Thus, Über allem war Licht constructs an alternative narrative, no less true for being less common. A way out of the common path is what the novel explores and suggests in such a delicate and actual topic.

Über allem war Licht might be made into a film by Austrian director Daniel Hoesl.        

Looking at your versatile career as fiction author (short stories, radio plays, etc.), what led you to the novel?

I always wanted to publish one. Actually this is the third novel I wrote but the first I published. I like short stories too. For me there is a difference if I write a short story, a movie concept, a radio play or a novel. What I really like about novels is the space: I can explore characters. Drama is always told on the outside, characters have to speak so the audience knows what is happening within them. This is different with a novel. In a novel I can create another world and be inside a character. And of course: if I want to I can write hundreds of pages which is not the case for short stories, radio plays, movie concepts or articles. Writing a novel in many ways is the work I enjoy most while working on the first or second draft. But I have to admit: I hate working on the last editing of a novel. If Radio play or novel or short story – each has its back drawbacks and benefits. I just like writing very much.

Your book is mostly being advertised as dealing with domestic violence but is domestic violence the main topic?

No, I don’t think so. The main topic is the evil we do to each other and how we use it to move further in our relationships. Love is also an important topic. Some critic wrote: the novel is one of the most impressive accounts on love of the year 2015. Domestic violence made it simple to represent this evil in an unhealthy relationship. However there are many different forms of violence: physical, psychological, emotional. I’ve always been interested in why people are violent to each other, especially in relationships, and why they stay with each other altough the relationship is bad. I also chose domestic violence because I wanted my female character, Rosa, to face a big challenge and to find a way out of it.

Some readers might find it difficult for a woman in Rosa’s situation to have an affair. What is the role of Rosa’s affair with Milo in your text? Is there anything you wished to explore beyond a common narrative on abused women?

There’s this thing with long-term relationships: I talked to some couples where one partner had an affair and the funny thing is that the relationship mostly improved when the affair started – because the partner cheating is trying to make up for the betrayal instinctively in one way or the other. That is why I chose this construction for Milo, Rosa and Hans. Milo treats Rosa very well, he is the first one to tell her that her relationship with Hans is bad for her. Milo wakes some sort of strength in Rosa. This strength also plays a role in Rosas and Hans’ relationship. While Hans has always dominated her, also in bed, the secret of the affair, the affair itself becomes an inner weapon for Rosa – it changes her inner status as a victim. In bed Hans is treating her with the old brutality, but Rosa now starts enjoying the brutality. Through Milo she found to lust. In bed with Hans her husband is treating her as always, but now Rosa has a secret and this secret gives her an escape place in head and also power over her awful husband which makes her enjoy his way of treating her in bed. When I was in the last editing process I thought I’ll be killed for this book. But one morning I woke up and remembered Alberto Vázquez-Figueroas novel Garoé, where over years the male character rapes a woman he has chained to a wall. He is the only person she sees over all this time. After all these years she suddenly has an orgasm while he is raping her and then everything changes: although chained to the wall she is the one in charge. He had no more weapon, no power over her. He couldn’t harm her any more. This made a strong impression on me: the change of her mindset, on her inside, turned everything around and she stopped being a victim.

Why you thought it would be problematic?

Because I wrote a story about a woman that finally kills her abusive husband but for the wrong reasons: not because he beats her but because he wants to leave her. Hans wants to leave her when he realizes he is not in charge over her any more, he senses something, that might become dangerous for him – and in fact it does become deadly. Anyhow: in my opinion, like in Garoé, we are not speaking of women who acutally have many options. Their way out of the abusive relationship may seem abhorrent, weird, like the Stockholm-Syndrom. So in terms of our societies moral it probably would be considered unhealthy. I would say: unhealthy, but effective.

Do we sympathize with women because they are victims? In other words, is victimization part of the feminine?

Well, I have had this kind of reaction: she’s the victim and when it comes to kill him she does it for the wrong reasons. Our moral gives us a very clear image about how things are supposed to be in a relationship, but we should not forget morality is a human construction. I have talked to a lot of women, there was one, a friend of mine, who had been with a very brutal man. She stayed with him to her death. I never understood why but I also couldn’t see the victim – I made her a victim because my moral told me she was a victim. I asked myself: what is her role in this relationship? Then again I know a man who had been in a relationship with a woman who almost forced him into committing suicide – for some time he actually saw no other way out of his marriage. We should talk about violence in relationships a lot more, a lot of women suffer from some sort of violence (physical, psychological, emotional) – and so do men. Also we live in a society where it is still hard for men to speak openly about weakness, about emotional distress. I think victimization had been part of the feminine for a long time, but I believe it is changing now. It definitely should.

Do you think there is a linkage to 19th century representations of women that exposed the contradictions of the domestic, for example, the madwoman in the attic? Does the abused woman represent the paradox of domesticity today?

In the last couple of years there had been movies and books about women who exploit their bodies, both willingly and unwillingly. Take Shades of Grey – so many years women and men all over the planet have been fighting for equality and now we have a bestseller about a woman subordinating herself to a man. Pure poison, in my opinion. Then again take Nymphomaniac by Lars von Trier or Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, both are trying to tell the story of a woman and her sexuality aside mainstream or morality. So maybe there is a new branch growing in the tree of different figures. Maybe the young woman of 19th whose only chance for some sort of self-determined life was to become a teacher has changed into the woman who breaks out of mainstream morality. And yes, maybe the madwoman in the attic is the abused, silent woman in a marriage.

Has domestic violence replaced the polemics surrounding female sexuality and the politics of domesticity in earlier times? In other words, are some men still scared of female sexuality?

Yes, lots of men are very scared of female sexuality. I asked men, are you afraid? They said yes, of course. Just as example, their penis needs to function in order to use it, so all of the men I talked to admitted they had been afraid of failing in bed at some point of their lives. We also live in a society where we raise boys telling them they need to success in live – everywhere. Yesterday I had a funny situation with my boyfriend: we were watching a couple by a swimming pool. She was very offensive, a clear, self-confident body language saying: come on, lets get in on. He on the contrary seemed stiff, as if he could not handle her longing. Suddenly my boyfriend said: see, this is how it goes – as a man you actually wish for an offensive woman who tells you what she wants, but once it happens you don’t really know how to act and you become intimidated.

Then, issues related to female sexuality seem to be the other face of the same coin. Is this other face social pressure on masculinity?

Yes, I’d say so. Failure in bed is the top layer, but under that there are many other issues. Times have changed. We raise our girls differently, tell them they can have what they want, be self-confident about themselves. But boys are mostly still raised in the same old scheme of manliness. They have to success in every aspect, they are not allowed weaknesses. It’s ok for women to cry, but we still find it weird when men cry. Men are taught to success in every aspect of their life, and that also implies to be in charge. Equal rights, for me, should not mean that women can have everything men can have, meaning by male dominated standards. Equality for me means: there is men and there is women, they are different but should be treated equal.

 Is this situation changing?

 I think it is, and it’s very good.

Would you place your text within this context of change?

Yes. Rosa’s attitude is changing, and also Milo’s. Both have to find a new form for their relationship, listen to themselves.

How is Milo’s attitude in relation to Rosa? Is there an inversion in the representation of gender roles?

He tries to be strong and be the man everybody expects of him but he fails, and he’s aware of it, and feels unsecure: he’s loosing ground. He can’t protect Rosa. When Rosa takes a step and protects herself, gets herself out of the situation he becomes a bystander. A feeling he tries to escape, literally, he goes to the seaside, drinks a lot. But there’s some kind of acceptance at the end of the novel, and a change of roles: Rosa is stronger in the end and comes for Milo. She’s the one to reach out to him and tells him this happened but it’s fine. And he’s able to take the hand she’s giving him. He accepts her help.

When Milo visits his childhood house, now in ruins, carrying a corpse with him, he feels his act despicable. Is the childhood house still a refuge, a Bachelardian house, and a place for redemption?

I wanted to write a short story about a man who buries a dog. The first thing I imagined was this man digging on his yard. This was the first scene I wrote. When writing I realized the situation was to grave, to full of broken dreams so I turned the dead dog into a dead man – and from there on everything evolved. The other thing is that Milo is from another country. My mother is from Poland, and, as people grow older they realize they belong to two cultures, they speak two languages. Something happens with their identity. It’s a life between two chairs and for most migrants it’s an emotionally challenging balancing act. So I brought Milo back to his childhood house. If you have a good childhood, this home will be a haven. For him it is a refuge, he doesn’t know where else to go. He’s also looking for redemption, and this is the moment when he realizes how alone he is: all he had is Rosa and she didn’t want to leave her husband for him.

Uncanny is an adjective that appears many times to describe different homes, and different experiences of homes as in Rosa’s case but also in Milo’s when he visits his childhood home. Are these contemporary experiences of the uncanny?

Actually, the uncanny in Rosa’s case takes the opposite form: for Rosa our „normal“ situation is the uncanny because she doesn’t know what a normal, or a commonly defined homely situation, is. Rosa is used to her role as abused woman, she had spent her childhood with a very abusive and dominant mother. She’s afraid of change because like always a big change first feels as if everything will fall apart. But when the change has come she has to go out into the „uncanny“ which is our „homey“ – a place where there is peace. If the novel was to continue after it actual ending I would give her another house.

And would this new house relate to how she understands relationships in the end?

The new house would be different: with a lot of light and space, which would allow Rosa more room for her inner space. More room for oneself to live in. In the novel, the affair between Rosa and Milo happens in a forest, the murder takes place in the house. Both forest and house are secretive and dark spaces but at the end Rose swims in the ocean. An open place where you can’t hide much apart from under the surface. Some critique wrote: Everything goes from the shadows to the light – something I have not been thinking about when writing it but in hindsight it makes sense.

Is there, then, this kind of mutual influence between architectural form and what it conveys in the inside?

I based the description of Rosa’s home in those typical Austrian buildings from the 70s. These houses are very dark inside: dark woods, dark windows, dark doors. You feel you are entering a coffin; everything is cold. I wondered how it would be for a child to grow up there. But I guess it would be normal for the kid, it would become everyday stuff. And that’s what happens to Rosa: she grew up with her mother in this kind of house. It’s normal for her. She never thought of any other house. So she never thought of any other form of relationship until she met Milo.

Do you mean, then, that Rosa normalised that childhood household (both the space and the people inhabiting it) for a lack of alternative? Would that help to understand Rosa’s love for her husband and the fact that she does not want to leave him out of love rather than fear?

She’s not leaving him because she is afraid of him but because she is afraid of the life without him – she never knew anything else but life with a dominant person. She grew up with a very dominant mother, ending up with a very dominant husband, so she never even thought about going away. Rosa’s mother never taught her to be independent, and neither did she try to release Rosa from her husband. And so yes – she does not leave because she normalized it.

Birds appear in many instances during the novel; particularly, birds in cages, and, already at the beginning of the narrative we have the image of shot up birds, and Rosa washing rests of blood. Do those images represent Rosa’s own life? Is home a birdcage?

I gave Hans this „hobby“ to show he is a man who can’t bear things that are not under his control – like birds eating the cherries of his tree. But yes, maybe. Rosa experiences her space but she’s not making it a home, she’s just accepting it: it has to be clean, full of food, and in order. From the outside her whole life might be considered a birdcage, yes.

Jeden Tag ein wenig blasser, von blau zu violett zu grün und schliesslich zu einem blassen Braun, wie die Druckstelle an einem Apfel’. Here you aestheticize physical violence. Can that be problematic?

I put it in the book very late, in the last editing. I wanted to have something that shows that life goes on, scars go away, things heal up on the surface, but you can’t see in the inside. A soul can heal just as the body can heal, but in the body you can watch the healing process. I don’t know if aestheticizing violence in this context is problematic because I wanted to show something specific, the healing.

Do you think women in Rosa’s situation might feel the novel helpful? Similarly, can literature help to understand the complexities in which abused women live?

After reading my book a female doctor who had worked in a psychiatric ward for a couple of months while studying wrote me an email. In this ward she was confronted with abused women who said it wasn’t as bad. The doctor couldn’t understand why they would not understand they were in a very bad situation. She thought, they were feeling guilty. But after reading my book she understood the complexity of emotions those women live through and got to understand them better in hindsight. For me personally literature has always been comforting – and I am convinced it widened my horizon and made me understand a lot of complex issues and emotions better. I also, like every reader, had moments where I realized reading made it possible for me to change perspectives.

 There’s then first a psychological predisposition to feel guilty?

A lot of women who grew up in abusive households tend to choose partners who are mistreating them. It is because they know how to handle these conflicts: you know how to survive, how to behave. Other things are uncanny. Growing up in an abusive household for instance will probably not prepare you for conflicts taken out with words or other „normal“ ways. Maybe you will not be able to bear love because you have never known it – and humans are afraid of the unknown, it’s uncanny for them. That’s why I gave Rosa that mother. A child for instance will mostly look for guilt in itself when something is wrong with the parent. If parents start using this guilt for their benefit they create a grown person who will always look for guilt in one place first: within themselves.

Any plans for the next novel?

Yes, plans are for it to be published in 2018. I have some rough outline, I’d like to set it in the Renaissance, ten years after the discovery of America. The Renaissance is one of the most interesting epochs. But it should not be a historical novel – more about personal relationships. A man falling in love with a corpse and for this does not want to sleep with his wife. I think humans have always been driven by the same needs, no matter if now or 500 years ago.

 

Interview with Annette Mingels on Was Alles War (2017)

Annette Mingels (1971 Köln) graduated in German Literature and Sociology in Frankfurt, Köln, Bern and Fribourg University. She is the author of several novels. In her latest novel Was alles war, Annette Mingels explores the concept of family through a contemporary German family. In this interview the author discusses the many forms of contemporary families and many issues important to our society such as family-work conciliation, adoption, motherhood and freedom or parental equality. Intertwined with some autobiographical aspects, Was alles war reflects on the experience of belonging both to adoptive and biological families.
 
Viola says to Susa that she is not the ‘Muttertyp’ (mother type), as she has always wanted to travel and be free. It seems that the novel refers to ‘Muttertyp’ as the opposite of freedom – being at home and sacrificing oneself to the family only. Am I right?
 
The term “Muttertyp” has a bit of an irony to it, it is mainly used in a slightly pejorative way in German. And that is how Viola uses it when she meets Susa, who is her biological child, but she gave her away after birth and only meets her when Susa is in her thirties. I think Viola is no “Muttertyp” because she regards herself as the center of everything in her life. And that is the main thing that you have to abandon when you become a mother: you are no longer the main cause of concern, now it is all about the child which depends on you. If you as a mother do not look after your child it will, in a sense, not survive. And of course that goes for the father too. If you become parents the child is the center of everything. And Viola was too busy with herself to care for somebody else. She is not able to focus on anyone else.
 
Viola and Susa have two different experiences of maternity. So is Susa the “Muttertyp”?
Maybe before becoming a mother you need to figure out how you and your partner will be able to deal with it. You need to sort it out: if you will be a mother and father, you need to deal with a new challenge. I think the novel is a lot about time. They need to work, be a partner, a mother, a father. It is about organizing time, and how much time to dedicate to each role in life. Susa is no “Muttertyp” either: she is a biologist too, and she wants to be there for her colleagues. With Henry, they are in trouble precisely because both of them need to deal with their careers.
 
In one of her letters to Susa, Viola points out all of Susa’s reproaches to her. What would you say of a daughter’s reproaches towards her mother? Should we judge our parents?
Everybody does at some point, I think. But first of all, the most important thing is that Susa is not judging her biological mother for giving her away. But when Susa becomes a mother herself, and she has the experience of being very close to her baby, she asks how it can be possible to give up your own baby. She just can’t imagine how Viola was able to do that. Susa does not really want to judge her mother but she wants to know about what happened, she wants to understand something that is completely alien to her. Viola does not like to be criticised; she likes to be admired by others. She does not like to be less than others; she is a narcissist. We do it all the time, we judge our parents, but at the same time if you become a mother or a father you see how difficult it is to do everything right. Personally, I always want to be a good mother but on some days I go to bed and think, what have I done? Why did I scream? Or why did I do this or that. And then I think that maybe in fifteen years my daughter will complain to me about this or that. In the end, parents are human beings and by and large they’re the same people as before they were parents. But I see that children judge their parents and that is also a part of life. Most parents ignore their children’s criticisms because it is very painful: you are always trying to give your very best, and then your kids say, it wasn’t good enough.
 
Susa, other than Viola, experiences feelings of guilt towards her baby when she forgets the baby’s medicine, for example. Is guilt a natural feeling for mothers, or is it culturally fostered? 
That is hard to say. It’s a cultural thing, it’s a gender thing, it’s also a very natural thing that probably most humans might experience in one way or the other. Guilt of course has to do with a sense of responsibility and that’s maybe what I’m trying to explore at this point in the book. Henry could have felt guilty as well but he does not; he does not feel bad about it. But Susa feels guilty about giving the child away to the nursery because she thinks she should spend more time with the baby. And she feels guilty about her work because it is not as good as it used to be: she is tired, she is not as concentrated and focused as she used to be. Besides, no one really cares about it at work. Nobody tries to help her, for example, telling her not to work in the evenings because she has a family now. She always feels guilty: if she stays with the baby she feels guilty for her career, and if she works on her career, she feels guilty about her motherhood.
 
In your text, ‘mother’ is an exclusive concept: it only belongs to one person. Following this, how would you define a ‘mother’? Does it clash with liberal approaches to family, as for example, homosexual adoption?
I think “mother” and “father” are exclusive terms, but not in the way that there cannot be two mothers. I am really very open about same sex parenting. But even if they are two mothers, there are two exclusive roles. What happens to Susa is that Viola steps into her life and she has never met her before, and she wants to be a kind of mother too now. However, what defines a ‘mother’ for Susa is connected to someone else and that is her real mother, her adoptive mother. If I think about what mother means to me, it is someone who is there for you, who cares for you every day and night, and you can rely on this person. Viola shows up after many years without having been in touch with Susa. She somehow wants to be part of her life now, saying that she is her biological mother, but that is not how it works. There are two mothers in lesbian parenting but both can have a parenting role.
 
A friend of Susa says, ‘Ich will doch noch so viel machen, Reisen, Karriere… Als ob ein Kind das Ende von allem wäre und nicht ein Anfang’ (104). Children as the end rather than the beginning. Could you comment on that?
I think it really depends on how you take it. Having a child is the end of some things: you won’t go out every night anymore, your career might change. When I decided to have children I loved my work, and I stopped doing many things, but many other new opportunities evolved. You change your life but it is of course not the end of everything. It is a new life.
 
In the novel there are many examples of family-work conciliation, and how difficult it is: Susa is now the mother of a baby and wants to keep her career, but Henry wants to keep his also, and for that he needs Susa to be at home when he is busy or away. This is a very contemporary issue. Do you think that finding this balance is vital for our ability to create a new concept of motherhood?
Henry does not want to sacrifice her career but he does not want to sacrifice his either. Men use to say this a lot: I love that you have your career but I won’t cut back on mine. Henry can get a job as a professor, and it is understandable that he wants to achieve this, but there are two careers at stake. Viola comes from a very traditional background: she witnessed her own mother in a very traditional role, she grew up in a very traditional way of living, and she saw a “Muttertyp” she does not want to be. Today this Muttertyp maybe doesn’t exist anymore in the same way, but many women still stop working when they have a baby. Men in general do still much less home work than women, even when both of them have careers. Many women seem to slip into some sort of role model of the 1950ies when they marry.
 
But there is no new motherhood without a new fatherhood. At the end it is the whole concept of the nuclear family that is being restructured.
I think it is easier if you have at least two people who care about the kids, not just one person. To be a single mother or a single father is very hard. But then, it does not matter if it is two mothers, a mother and a father, or the grandparents. I think fathers have changed, and they are more interested in staying with the children. In Germany there is the possibility to stay at home for a year if you are a father, but not enough men take the opportunity.
 
In your novel the big topic is family. It is a grand exploration of family ties, of what it really means to be a family. How then would you define family? And, what is it for Susa?
To me family is first of all the decision to become a family; this is why I am so open to alternative forms of family. Family is a bond that the members of the family can rely on. Family is something that has to do with love, even if the forms of love are many and they constantly evolve. But there cannot be a family without love. There is also the feeling that you can always come back to your family, maybe later in life, when you’ve set out for some great adventure and failed. And that is what I want to show my children, even if they are angry with me. There will be times when children do not want to be with us, but they need to know we love them, and that they can come back.
 
Somebody told me recently that in my books the term ‘moment’ is ubiquitous, and that is true. I think that indeed time is a very important concept in this novel, too. Susa tries to remember her father and only remembers this or that particular moment, but the rest, where has it gone? Family life is a flow, and it also implies loss. Your parents are older than you are, so they will leave you at some point and that is sad. If you have a child, the first thing you experience is a huge joy as well as a huge fear because you are so scared that something might happen to him that you are willing to sacrifice your life if necessary. So to have a family is losing and winning in a very essential way. For Susa family is the first experience of love and security, something she can rely on. It is full of difficulties as well but she tries to give her own children the same kind of family she had. Or that she thought she had. To her it does not matter if it is her own child or Henry’s children.
 
The novel also explores the concept of love: what is love for Susa? Did she expect finding love in a widower with two children?
Susa says that she fell in love with Henry but also with the children. And that is very important for the relationship because she never met Henry just as a man but also as a father, and she falls in love with Henry as a father. For her and Henry it is always been about four people, never just the two of them alone. They do not experience this typical romance that people look for when they’re younger and without children. But she was willing to become a mother when she met Henry. She was ready to become a mother even if she never thought about it before.
 
Do you have a new novel in mind already?
I’m afraid I don’t. Or not that I’m aware of. Before I became a mother I wrote much more and I started one novel after the other, but now I think I need to wait. It is the first novel I have written with some autobiographical aspects. I am much closer to that book right now, and also more sensitive.