1. You published your debut novel Blasmusikpop when you were only 23 years old and it made you instantly famous, in Austria and beyond. How did you experience that time? Did the success of your first published novel come as a surprise to you?
I think one would be absolutely insane not to be surprised about one’s first novel becoming a bestseller. Actually, I expected the opposite. I was so freaked out about finding a publisher willing to publish my book that I didn’t care too much about what happened next. I was just happy that my words would be printed and planned to make ends meet by teaching Latin and German. As soon as the book came out, I had to forget all my teaching-aspiration (to the benefit of Austrian kids) because I found myself in the eye of a hurricane. I had to do book-signings, book-presentations, TV-, print- or radio-interviews nearly every day for more than a year. There was so much to do that I didn’t have the time to think about it. And for that I’m very grateful! If I had realized what was happening around me I would have gone nuts.
2. When did you know you want to be an author? What inspires you to write?
I never really cared about being an author. I have always wanted to tell stories. I remember this one moment in my childhood that seems to have changed everything. I must have been 6 or 7 years old, my brother 2 or 3 – it was late in the evening and he ran through our apartment, slipped and crushed his chin on the edge of a stair. He hurt himself very badly, his chin was cut open and bled like hell. My brother screamed, I screamed, our mother screamed. Since we were living in the countryside and it would have taken too long for the ambulance to get to us, she put us on the backseat of her tiny car, made me hold a towel against my brother’s wound to stop the bleeding and rushed to the hospital. My brother was crying very badly so I started to tell him a story. As I continued he became calmer and eventually stopped. Before he went in to get stitches he said to me: “When I am done, I want to hear the end of the story!“
That was the moment when I realized how powerful and how important stories are. When we travel, when we’re sick, when we’re sitting in the waiting room of a hospital, there is nothing better than a good story to keep us company or to cheer us up when we feel lonely. And that’s also my inspiration: to know that there are people out there, who need a good story.
3. Could you tell us a little bit about your creative process and your work routine? When and where do you prefer to write?
Unfortunately, I can only write in the mornings. Actually it HAS to be the first thing I do before having a shower (and after making coffee), or otherwise it doesn’t really work. If I’m under a lot of pressure because of a deadline, I sometimes can work in afternoons or evenings, but the morning’s output is always better. Usually, I switch off the Internet on my computer, my tablet and my phone for 4 to 5 hours and try to sit down as concentrated as possible. Sometimes that works, sometimes I start crying. But even crying is important – I realized it’s not about how much you get done in a day but how much you sacrifice for your writing.
Where I prefer to write is a tricky question. If I had the choice, I’d choose a different place every day. I love changes, I’d love to experience different libraries, coffee places, bars while writing there. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. I badly need routine. I can write everywhere – but only when I’m returning. New places always distract my attention. So I have to do what I actually dislike: return to the same places. Like in the movie “Groundhog Day.”
4. Makarionissi spans many centuries and connects many places around the world. One destination your protagonists travel to is the U.S. What made you choose Chicago as the city of interest in the U.S., and what fascinates you about Greece?
Greece is the cradle of culture and democracy. Today Greece is not much more than rock, beach, villages and a lot of blue sea, but the whole world is still talking about it. How could that not be fascinating? And because of Greece Chicago became my city of interest in the US. In 2014, I had the chance to discuss my book at the University of Chicago. Afterwards three very nice students of the German Department took me out to Greektown for lunch. I was really impressed how vivid its Greek culture and tradition was. Some months later while writing Makarionissi I realized, my heroine had to leave Greece and go somewhere abroad to earn money. She was a single young woman, poor, very smart, brave but poorly educated. Suddenly I remembered the Walgreens drugstore in Chicago’s Greektown – all of its signs were in English and Greek. So I thought it would work very well for the story, if my heroine’s family had a 3rd degree cousin who had moved to Chicago 30 years ago and could now help my heroine move to Chicago, find work and earn money there.
Another Greek writer, I appreciate a lot, Aristotle, writes in his Poetics that when creating a story, you should always be concerned to make the story likely. And when writing about a Greek family, it makes sense to include the United States and especially Chicago.
5. The two Greek settings depicted in Makarionissi, actually do not really exist, compared to other real places you feature, like Hildesheim, Chicago, or St. Pölten. Could you explain why you chose to do that and not refer to Greek cities or islands that really exist?
Actually, both settings depicted exist, but in reality they have different names. I decided not to reveal the name of Varitsi’s model-village because it is very small. Its inhabitants were extremely friendly, shared all their stories with me, also their hurtful stories, and I wanted to secure their privacy. The (fictional) island Makarionissi, after which my book is also named, is based on a real island, but while writing the story I had to alter its size, its economy and other “facts“ to make my story more “likely.” Unfortunately, today’s readers use Google. Especially German readers. And Germans LOVE correcting you. No matter if you crossed a stop sign with your bicycle or if you didn’t stick to reality in a novel – Germans will love to correct you. So I wanted to spare them the work of googling my island and writing me letters about which details of my novel are “wrong.” It’s fiction. And that provides me with the rare freedom of switching between reality and imagination. A freedom we novelists should always defend.
6. One of the chapters in Makarionissi is titled “Die Schönheit und Erotik der deutschen Sprache.” Would you mind sharing what you love about the German language and do you have any tips for our students for mastering the language?
First of all, the German language is fascinating because of its variety. I grew up in the Austrian countryside and spoke the Austrian version of German, as well as the local dialect, which differs a lot from the German language. And that is something I love: “German” is a language full of variations. Every native speaker will sound different or be able to speak a very different dialect or various variations of this dialect, especially if they are coming from Austria or Switzerland. But that shouldn’t scare students – when people realize German is not your native tongue they will always try very hard to speak slower and clearer and without using their dialect. But those dialects are very fun and full of curious words. For example, there is no better way for swearing and cursing than using the Viennese dialect.
The title „Die Schönheit und Erotik der deutschen Sprache“ is a little ironic. As every other language there are beautiful things about German but also very bad things. The worst thing is that it’s impossible to write about sexuality in German. I never wrote about it in one of my books and I guess I never will. German is not an erotic language and writing about making love in German ALWAYS sounds like there was an embarrassed biology teacher talking. But if I want to talk about it I always use Viennese. It is the only language in the world providing about 50 different words for the female sexual organ and probably 100 of words for reproduction. I think it’s not a coincidence that psychoanalysis was founded in Vienna.
Besides that, German is a very fun language. There are a lot of rules and those rules have a lot of exceptions – what may seem strange at the beginning but makes a lot of sense as soon as you get into it. What I really love is the unique ability of German to create new words by combining existing words. The cutlery drawer of the dish washer would be called Geschirrspülerbesteckschublade. It’s a very playful and especially witty language. Its beauty lies in long sentences, that make you expect something at their beginning but surprise you with something very different in the end.
7. Finally, may we ask: Are you currently working on a new book? And if so, would you mind sharing some details? Maybe one of your future projects will even feature New York City’s unique vibrancy?
Right now I’m working on my third novel which is supposed to be released in the beginning of 2019. Unfortunately, it seems to be the most voluminous book I’ve written yet and therefore it’s a lot of work. But please forgive me: I’m very, very superstitious and I fear that it’s bad luck if I talk about something I’m writing in that very moment. I’ve done that several times and it always went terribly wrong – the Olympian gods punish those who cannot keep secrets and don’t have patience. There is a time to write and a time to talk. Because of my superstition, I also can’t say what the future brings, but it could easily happen that this unique city will play a part in a future project. It seems that it takes me some years to make something I experienced fruitful for my writing. But in my “smaller projects” New York already plays an important role. In my weekly column in the Austrian newspaper Kurier, I write about my life here, and in my quarterly column, about drinking wine, I wrote about how New Yorkers drink wine. Nearly every day I keep a lot of notes on New York in my note book, we’ll see what happens to them.
All together this city inspires me because of its people. People here don’t care about what others think of them. They follow their dreams, they are creative in how to make ends meet, they are very brave, open minded, witty and unique. Yesterday, I met a guy dressed up as a unicorn. He told me that he actually works in finance but on the weekends he usually dresses up as fancy animals to bring joy to the people around him. And for people like him I adore New York.