Sarah Hemens interviews Austrian author Tanja Paar about publishing her book, The Trembling World, during a pandemic, about the current and historical events that inspired it, and about why English language readers will enjoy the book.
Sarah Hemens: Hello Tanja! We’re really happy to have the opportunity to catch up with you and to hear about your book The Trembling World. Thank you for taking time out to talk to us. Where are you at the moment and what are you up to?
Tanja Paar: I’m in Vienna where we’re slowly getting back to normal. I’m very happy to be starting my reading tour at last – it was cancelled in the autumn because of Covid. I love interacting with the public in person and I’ve missed it a lot. I’m hoping to travel to Italy in July. My mother lives near Trieste – part of my book is set there, as well as in Istanbul, Konya, Mosul and of course Vienna.
The Trembling World takes us into the world of an unmarried Austrian couple and their three children living in Anatolia in the late 1890s as the first railways are built. It traces their relationships with their adopted Turkish homeland and the impact of turbulent world events on their lives. What sparked your interest in writing about this era? What prompted you to explore this period in history from this fresh perspective?
I started writing my book in 2015 when many refugees were arriving in Austria from Syria, Iraq and other countries of the former Ottoman Empire. They were called “Wirtschaftsflüchtlinge” [economic migrants] and as I was reflecting on this expression the idea occurred to me that it would be interesting to change the perspective: what if an Austrian economic migrant had gone there? Where is the famous Ottoman Empire – which is today Turkey and beyond – and what were the political implications of its collapse? It was Germany’s – and Great Britain’s – greed for oil that led to their interest in the region. My protagonists Maria and Wilhelm are fictitious but the historical setting is real. But more than that I wanted to give contemporary political issues some historical clothing.
Your novel opens with a striking scene where Maria has shot her dog out in the snow, revealing both Maria’s strength of character and the harsh conditions she is contending with. The book explores Maria’s life and the fate of her family together with the turbulence caused by world events. Can you tell us a little more about Maria’s life and the fate of her family?
I really enjoyed playing with and undermining the stereotypes.Tanja Paar
Maria is a fictitious character but she stands for all women who are struggling to live a better, more independent life. In her case it’s about being unmarried and pregnant. In catholic Austria this brought shame on a woman and Maria’s child would probably have been taken away from her. But she takes big risks and searches for Wilhelm, following him to an uncertain future in Anatolia. She is lucky and finds a better life – which is only interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. The family is forced to leave their new homeland – by an irony of fate Maria’s sons are born Ottoman – and she does what so many women have done the world over: she arranges for them to be given new identities, one German, one French. We follow the family back to Vienna and then back to Istanbul in the 1920s, when it was a fancy town unter the moderniser Atatürk. I really enjoyed playing with and undermining the stereotypes. In my book, Turkey is a developed country where the avantgarde is in full swing, people dance the tango there and Erich, one of the two sons, sees an early Dadaist performance. It was good to remind people of the modern country Turkey once was.
Can you talk us through the process of researching and writing the novel?
I started my research by reading a lot about the famous Bagdadbahn, a railway connecting Berlin and Baghdad. Building work on it started during the fin de siècle period and finished in 1940. It was the greatest engineering project of its day and kind of a romantic idea – Europe reaching all the way to the Persian Gulf – but of course it was also a colonial project. And the Bagdadbahn was also built to enable military infrastructure to be transported quickly and efficiently. On the other hand: wouldn’t it be great to be able to jump on a train in Berlin and travel all the way to Baghdad, even today, in a peaceful world?
Has your journalism training and background influenced your fiction?
Of course. I worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, starting at a small daily newspaper, then working as an editor for the weekly papers Falter and Profil. Later I was the travel editor of the most widely read liberal daily in Austria, Der Standard. Since 2011 I have worked with new online formats and completed a Masters in International Media Innovation Management. I’ve always loved doing lots of different things. Lifelong learning is more than just an expression for me. So in 2014 I started writing my first novel, Die Unversehrten [The Unscathed], which will hopefully soon become a film. It’s the story of a love triangle set in modern-day Berlin, Bologna and Vienna. Though it was a success I wanted to do something totally different with The Trembling World so I chose a historical setting. But it’s important to me that it deals with current topics like homeland, escape and identity.
Your book came out with Haymon Verlag in German in Autumn 2020. How have you found promoting the book in the virtual world? How is the pandemic shaping your work? How have you found the lockdowns?
As I work with digital formats a lot, I found it relatively easy to adapt to the new situation. I did some online readings, and a “sewing machine reading” and a “bathtub reading” to promote my books.
I was able to present my book at the Frankfurter Buchmesse before lockdown and to have its Vienna launch at the Central Library. Then everything was cancelled. I love discussing my books with my public, and giving readings at schools and public places, because I think literature should not be elitist. So I really missed doing readings in real life and being in contact with my readers.
I am writing my third novel at the moment – and I’ve been awarded the Wiener Dramatikstipendium 2021 bursary. So I’m also working on my first play. It’s exciting! I once did an internship at Schauspielhaus Graz and I still love theatre. So it’s like going back to my roots.
What do you think English language readers will like about your book?
It’s a novel but it’s built from lots of quite short chapters and mini-scenes that work on their own. It’s exciting and a real page turner, so I see it as being in the tradition of English literature and not slow and sedate, as German novels often are. English language readers should enjoy the Ottoman Empire setting, where Brits had interests, too, in what are now Iraq and Palestine. Last but not least, because of Getrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence, who appear in my novel and meet my protagonists Maria and William in person!
Which authors writing in English do you admire?
I love the work of Zadie Smith, and especially A. L. Kennedy. I think she’s my favourite. I adore her laconic short stories – they’re not for the faint of heart. I’m very interested in short stories, which are not so common in the German market. So of course I love the great Alice Munro too, for instance her collection Runaway. You can learn so much from her! Not forgetting Raymond Chandler; he always has me holding my breath.
Tanja Paar was born in Graz, studied German, history, and philosophy and worked in theatre, for a number of publications, and as a journalist. Today she lives as a freelance writer in Vienna. Whether on the fringes of continents, at times of great political upheaval or in the only seemingly minor dramas of everyday life: the characters in Tanja Paar’s novels are confronted with inner and outer boundaries – and with the question of how to overcome them.
The Trembling World was selected by our jury as not only an excellent book, but one which is suitable for an English-language readership. An English-language publisher who buys the rights to the English translation will get a translation funding subsidy from the Austrian Federal Ministry for Arts, Culture, the Civil Service and Sport.
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