With three bestselling novels under his belt, Benedict Wells is an outstanding representative of Germany’s new crop of young writers, with a knack for capturing the spirit of his generation. Anne Boden talks to the author about his writing and Berlin’s place in it.
When you were nineteen you came to Berlin to try your luck as a writer and went on to write your first three novels there. How was your writing shaped by the Berlin experience?
Coming to the city at such a young age and leaving everything behind gave me a real sense of freedom. I made a conscious decision not to study, but to write. The first two years in Berlin were particularly important. I lived in a grotty flat with a shower in the kitchen, did various part-time jobs during the day, and wrote at night. It was a bit lonely, but it felt great to be doing something I love: telling stories.
For Jesper Lier, the anti-hero of your novel ‘Crank’, Berlin is unforgiving and full of sham. Was that also your impression of the city?
No, not really. Berlin certainly has its dark side, which I wanted to show in ‘Crank’, but personally I really like Berlin. The city has a special atmosphere that’s very inspiring. Nobody has any money, yet everybody seems to be doing something creative. That’s infectious!
Why did you decide to leave Berlin after so many years?
After six years I simply wanted a change, the chance to learn a new language and experience another culture. And if there’s one thing I can’t bear about Berlin, it’s those bitterly cold, depressing winters. In Barcelona it’s nearly always sunny and warm, and you’ve got the beach and the sea to boot. So I just upped and moved here. You may never make much money as a writer, but at least you can choose where to be impoverished!
In ‘Almost Ingenious’, a novel in which the hero Francis Dean takes a huge gamble on his future, the choice of Las Vegas as a setting seems particularly fitting. How important is the connection between character and place for you as a writer?
In the first two books the setting was so important that I didn’t have to think twice about it. The action just had to unfold in those places. But the decision in favour of Las Vegas was a conscious one. Gambling is a metaphor for chance, which plays such an important role in the book. Francis’ future hangs in the balance – his life can go one way or the other, just like in a game of Russian roulette.
The lives of many characters in your novels have been marred by the death or absence of a parent. What draws you to figures who have been cut off from their origins in this way?
I think that the knocks people suffer in life play an important part in their development. In my own childhood things didn’t always run smoothly. From experience I know what it means when a parent is absent, how that changes you. And suffering also prompts empathy. It’s hard to relate to a figure who has everything under control. This is even true of comic figures – Spiderman and Batman are far more interesting than the squeaky clean Superman.
Your writing seems to be influenced by Anglo-American literature. Are there English-language writers you particularly admire?
When I was fifteen I read John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire and was so bowled over that I decided there and then to become a writer. But I also love the books of Ishiguro, Hornby, Salinger, Hemingway, Goebel, Fitzgerald and Twain.
You’re currently working on a new novel. What’s that about?
It’s about three siblings who have a sheltered and happy childhood before they lose their parents in an accident. The novel explores how this tragedy changes them, how they deal with it and are still influenced by it as adults with children of their own. So once again, it’s about the tragic turns that life can take and their fall-out. But above all, it’s a love story. Over the next two or three years I’m going to give this book all I’ve got.
Benedict’s previous novels:
Becks letzter Sommer
(‘Beck’s Last Summer’, 2008)
Robert Beck is a music teacher in his late thirties whose initial enthusiasm for the job has dried up, along with his songwriting aspirations. Things change when he discovers that his introverted Lithuanian pupil, Rauli Kantas, is a phenomenal electric-guitar player. Beck now makes it his life’s mission to steer the boy towards international success, fulfilling his own musical ambitions through Rauli. His protegé is a catalyst for change in Beck’s emotional life, too. He begins to take more of an interest in his only friend Charlie, a foul-mouthed German-African with a serious bout of hypochondria. When Charlie inveigles Beck to drive him from Munich to Istanbul to visit his dying mother, the two set off with Rauli in tow. But as they progress through south-east Europe it becomes clear that for all three this journey is one of self-discovery that will determine the course of their future lives.
The crank of Wells’ second novel is Jesper Lier, a would-be writer in Berlin. In moments of clarity the appropriateness of his surname is not lost on Lier. In a city full of sham, he depends on lies and pretence to shore up his own identity. He lies to his mother that he has a girlfriend, and pretends that he’s a student when he first meets the attractive Miri. And for a time, he successfully convinces himself and others that he’s writing a novel – even if his magnum opus is an utterly disjointed saga stretching over 1,200 pages with no end or publisher in sight. The truth confronts Lier in the form of two uninvited friends who disrupt his life over the course of a week in Berlin. Lier is forced to part with his illusions and revisit his past before making peace with himself and finally moving on.
(‘Almost Ingenious’, 2011)
Life hasn’t dealt Francis Dean an easy hand. The seventeen-year-old lives with a mother prone to nervous breakdowns in a New Jersey trailer park, and views his future with a mixture of dread and resignation. But Francis is also troubled by his past, in particular by questions about the father he has never met. When these questions appear to be answered in a letter written by his mother before an attempted suicide, life suddenly holds more promise for Francis. This letter reveals that he is the result of a hair-brained genetic experiment in which selected women were inseminated with the sperm of highly intelligent men. Wells’ engaging novel charts Francis’ journey to Los Angeles in search of his ‘genius’ father. Yet the father Francis eventually manages to track down is far from what he has imagined. In a gripping finale, Francis takes a gamble on his future to resolve the question of who he is beyond his genetic legacy.