1. When did you first visit New York and what were your first impressions of this city, especially in comparison with your hometown, Vienna? What characteristics of New York do you find most appealing, especially as a writer?
My first time in New York was in March 2019 when I participated in the Festival Neue Literatur. I spent one week in the city and I really can’t find proper words to describe the atmosphere. I was thrilled. And overwhelmed with emotion. New York is sooooo fascinating from the very first second. There are all these skyscrapers, so you have to look up all the time. There are all these people and everyone is busy and heading towards something. There is this special (heart) beat you can feel in every move, in every place. For me New York is intangible. But I as a writer of course have to make things visible, audible, tangible through words. Also, a foreign place always has a strong influence on a person; the interplay of geography alters the identity of a character. It definitely makes a difference if you live and grow up in Vienna (in Europe) or New York (in the United States). Compared to New York, Vienna is a one-horse town. So I am sure that New York will change me as a person as well as a writer. It will change my way of absorbing and assimilating things, it will change my way of thinking and writing.
2. Before beginning your career as an author, you studied Advertising Management and Communication & Economics in Vienna – subjects that one might not immediately imagine as the educational background of an author who writes novels, plays, and short stories. How and when did you decide to become a professional author? Do you incorporate any knowledge or skills that you picked up during your studies into your writing?
It’s true that I started my career as a writer quite late in my thirties. But I already knew at the age of 14 that writing is and would be my destiny. I just felt it inside. And I realized soon that in my case the world was defined by words. It was just
natural for me to write about my feelings, sorrows, aims and thoughts. Writing helped me to understand the world. I am words. And there are hundreds of untold stories inside me that will come to fruition one day. Though I grew up in a small village and in a family where becoming a writer – as a profession – was not an option. That’s why I studied something ordinary before I finally decided to quit my job in advertising. At that time I had three finished scripts in my pocket and sent them to different publishing houses. There is a point in life – and this might have to do with age and experience – when you have nothing to lose, when you don’t want to waste the rest of your life with half-hearted things.
3. What authors and/or works of literature have had the most influence on your career, writing, and style?
I love reading. I already devoured books when I was a child. Authors like Mira Lobe, Christine Nöstlinger were the stars of my childhood. Later on I read a lot of Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, also Russian Literature from Dostojewski to Tolstoi. I am a fan of Daniil Charms and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz who are known for their surreal style. I try to read contemporary literature from colleagues like Josef Winkler, Laura Freudenthaler, Teresa Präauer as well. I think at Austrian schools and universities the literary focus lies on European literature, but of course I also read American classics from authors like Paul Auster, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson.
In fact I really read a lot. The only genres I don’t like are detective/mystery stories and science fiction. And during my own writing process I have to stop reading completely, because the thoughts and the style of another author would definitely influence my own writing. At the moment I have Die New York Trilogie (City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room) by Paul Auster on my bedside table.
4. In the works that you’ve published so far, is there an overarching theme that you want to explore or a particular question you want to answer that ties them all together? What is your creative process like and how do you come up with ideas for each novel, play, story, and essay?
In general I carry the themes that move me inside – sometimes it even takes years until they come to fruition. My work often deals with „the essentials of life“ – such as love, evanescence, transformation, courage, grief or the search for meaning. The main source of my ideas is my own experience, my own emotion and understanding of the world. Also external sources and influences – a poem I read, a conversation I hear, a person I meet – intentionally play a certain role. For example in Kafka With Wings my inspiration was based upon a number of personal losses, but also influenced by a poem called One Art by Elizabeth Bishop that I discovered at that time. I try to find a way to process these kinds of influences in my art.
I am also fond of mixing different genres. In my mind sometimes a fairy tale perfectly matches with facts and figures, with real things going on in the contemporary world. For example Kafka With Wings is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. It is a wild and vivid journey through an invented world of imagination but at the same time it mirrors the real historical and recent situation of the foreign and mostly unknown country of Kyrgyzstan. I am hell-bent on giving birth to a story. I am fearless and uncompromising. For example, I recently finished a theatre play about Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace, and the latest right-wing populistic tendencies within Austria and Europe. It’s a political play and I had to spend several months in Braunau to do research. Now this might sound a little bit weird, but I bought myself a gorilla costume and every time I worked on the play I jumped into it. This had nothing to do with Mardi Gras, I used the costume as uniform, like a doctor his scrubs. It helped me to keep distance from the crazy Nazi stuff. Also there was plenty of space in it to lock up the right-wing populistic thoughts and tendencies. The costume enabled me to reflect on them in a safe and concentrated way. Also, gorillas – like apes in general – are very intelligent animals. I guess that the aura of the gorilla costume helped me to find a humane solution to the present and ever-increasing Nazi problem.
5. In your opinion and experience, what is the hardest part of the writing process? How do you overcome it?
I think being an author has a lot to do with discipline. The writing process is not a romantic one, you have to stay tuned, keep on thinking and writing day by day. I have fixed working hours, preferably in the morning from 6am to noon. Sometimes I have to throw away every single page but still the process of writing helps me to stay in motion. At some point a story gets stuck or complicated – especially when it is very complex and convoluted. Then you have to step back, do some analytic work regarding the plot, the characters, and the message in between the lines. Also research is hard work. For example it took me three years to write Kafka With Wings. After the second year I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel any more. I thought I ´d never finish this story. But I did. Step by step and day by day. So maybe the secret is to keep on going.
6. Your most recent novel, Kafka mit Flügeln (Kafka With Wings), follows an Austrian woman who embarks on a search for her long-lost, half-Kyrgyz friend from her childhood, who disappeared in his own search for his identity and origins. What was the inspiration behind this story? Why did you specifically choose Kyrgyzstan as the cultural background for the missing friend?
The idea of the story came to me some years ago in 2015. I felt I had to write about changes, losing things, loss in general. At that time I also discovered a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, called One Art, which had great influence on me. It’s about losing things, places and names and even bigger and more important things like relationships, countries or the own past, the own identity. It’s not that I hadn’t experienced any loss so far, for example my mother died in 2015, but I was luckily never involved in a war or had to flee from my country. So I was looking for a place in the world, where I – like my characters – felt completely lost: lost in translation, lost in space, even lost in evolution. And Kyrgyzstan was the perfect place.
I really knew nothing about this country, it was just a place on the map, not real for me. I didn’t speak a word of Kyrgyz or Russian. I didn’t know anybody there. It was really a big adventure for me to go there and somehow I was forced to get to know myself in a new way, to discover myself from a new perspective. And all because I wanted to share commonalities with my characters. I think that’s the way I generally work: I always have to be very close to my protagonists. I have to feel what they feel. I have to merge with them.
Also Kyrgyzstan is a very exciting and inspiring plot location. When I arrived there, I was hit by intense culture shock. But then I quickly dove into the Kyrgyz culture and the way of Kyrgyz living. For example I spent several weeks together with nomads high up in the mountains (at 4000 meters above sea level). Or I travelled through all different regions of the country (from West to East and North to South). Also I had to dive into the world of butterfly research for my book and therefore I joined a group of European lepidopterologists who were looking for rare butterfly species throughout the country. I learnt how to catch them, how to kill them technically and humanely, how to preserve them for observation and study. All these peculiarities finally became part of the story. You learn a lot about Soviet history and a foreign culture.
7. Without going into much detail about the story, can you explain why you chose the title Kafka with Wings?
The central theme of my book Kafka With Wings is metamorphosis. Butterflies play a central role as symbol for transformation and change. The insect goes through different stages of life until it has reached its final stage of existence. Now in my story I use this process of development in a metaphorical way: also people, things and even countries run through different stages of existence during their lifetime. They change, they become something different, and they sometimes are forced by external and internal circumstances to search for a new identity.
Kafka with Wings also references Franz Kafka, the Czech author, in the title. In fact my book is not a book about Kafka himself, he won’t appear in person in the plot, but still he has a certain influence on my writing. He and his thoughts are synonymous with change, transformation and strange things going on. Let’s consider his novel Die Verwandlung/The Metamorphosis, where his protagonist Gregor Samsa suddenly finds himself transformed into an insect. In German language we even use the word „kafkaesk“ to describe a situation or condition which is really strange and bizarre but also brilliant. So I think this is why I reference Kafka in my title.
8. If we may ask, what is your current/next project and what do you hope to achieve during your time as the Max Kade writer-in-residence at Deutsches Haus at NYU?
In fact I wanted to start a new project by the beginning of the year. It has to do with “homeland”, with “spiritual home”, with “home away from home”. At first I thought that the story has to take place in Aurach am Hongar, which is my birthplace and a very small village in Upper-Austria. I wanted to reflect on the special structures and relationships within a one-horse town and also write about hidden conflicts, problems and lies within a family. But then I was invited to New York and I am not sure now, if I can start this “homeland”-story here. In a way New York is the very reverse to Aurach am Hongar. But on the other hand: Is there a better place to think about your origin, your country, your identity, than somewhere far away from home? Another idea for my residency is of course to focus on New York, to walk through all the different boroughs of the city, to absorb all kind of people, conversations, impressions like a sponge, to let the city circulate in my veins, my brain, my body. This could end up as a poem, a thriller, a love story – who knows…