‘A truly epic book in a family setting.’ That’s how translator Jamie Bulloch sums up Daniela Krien’s latest novel, The Fire, which he has just translated into English for MacLehose Press. Despite being a relatively slim volume at 182 pages, the book covers a tremendous amount of ground without wasting a word as it examines how societal and political changes play out at the level of human relationships. The book begins with long-married couple Rahel and Peter’s holiday plans being thrown awry at the last minute, as a fire at the holiday accommodation they have booked necessitates a last-minute plan B and a change of destination.
New Books in German met up with Daniela, Jamie and publisher Katharina Bielenberg in Daniela’s home city of Leipzig. Our interview took place in a café by the city’s Thomaskirche. The late-Gothic hall church is famed for its association with Bach, who worked there as musical director until his death in 1750.
Sarah: Daniela, your previous book Love in Five Acts was translated into 25 different languages. Your first novel, Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything was translated into 17. Do you get to hear much about the response that the books have around the globe?
Daniela: A lot of what I find out about how the novels are received is by word of mouth. Friends in Italy have talked to me about how the books fare there. I get to hear quite a bit about how they do in the UK. Love in Five Acts is about to appear in Arabic. I have just received the proof copy, which it’s interesting to see as of course the text is from right to left.
Sarah: Are you aware of how the books might resonate with people in different countries when you write? Do you have a reader in mind?
Daniela: No, when I am writing I don’t think at all about who the text might speak to – if it will speak to anyone. I just write. Then when it’s finished, I start to think about what I might do with it. It would be extremely inhibiting if whilst writing I was also thinking about what future readers might make of it. That would introduce an element of self-censorship where you think ‘maybe I can’t say that like that’ because it might be unfavourably received by this person or that person.
Jamie: It’s also good not to think about the translation at this stage and how that might work! That would add another layer of complication!
Sarah: Jamie, do you have a reader in mind when you write?
Jamie: Most definitely not. I focus on the text and writing as best I can.
Sarah: Daniela, is it difficult to start writing a new novel after a successful previous book? Love in Five Acts spent many weeks on the bestseller list here in Germany. Does the pressure to follow up on success make starting a new book hard?
Daniela: Yes! If I’m honest there’s a huge pressure. That’s the way it is. After a big success like Love in Five Acts, expectations are there not only from the publishing house but from the reader too. Authors are always measured against their big success. The following works can be great, but if they don’t get the sales figures… I have to put these things out of my mind, otherwise it could be a real block to writing.
Jamie: In the English-speaking publishing world, we often speak of the ‘tricky second novel’ – after a successful debut, the second book is always difficult.
Daniela: Here too! My strategy was to make my second book a short story collection, so as to avoid the comparison. The expectation couldn’t be the same, as short stories don’t get the volume of sales in any case.
Sarah: You talk about having an idea for The Fire in the summertime by a lake. Can you tell us more about the process of writing? Do themes, characters and plot come all at once – or do some emerge first?
I wanted to deal with the idea that some older men feel alienated from contemporary society.Daniela Krien
Daniela: It varies. With The Fire, I’d had the idea for a while. I knew the societal issue I wanted to write about but was mulling over how best to approach it. I wanted to deal with the idea that some older men feel alienated from contemporary society.
That interested me because it kept occurring to me that society – with its feminism, activism, questions of gender and so on – has become alien to these men. They no longer feel connected to it. They don’t understand it and so they withdraw from it. I kept coming back to this sentence ‘society has become alien to me’. I wanted to do something with this but did not know what yet.
Then my partner and I went on holiday to a house by a lake. We had actually intended to go to Northern Germany, but our accommodation burned down just before departure and so instead we ended up at a friend’s house on Lake Starnberg in Bavaria. That – the idea of a sudden change of holiday plans – gave me the impetus to start the novel. The knot unravelled and it was possible for me to start writing.
I wanted to write from the perspective of a man, but I soon realised I need to write from the woman’s perspective, because that’s what I know best. That’s how the couple in the book came about: Rahel and Peter.
I knew that Peter was an important character and his story needed to be told, because it was originally his issues that I was thinking about. When Rahel emerged as a partner for him and I took on her perspective it went in a bit of a different direction. It was more important for me to talk about their relationship as a couple and to get into this societal topic through their relationship and their relationship with their children.
I didn’t want to write a political book, but a book about a relationship and about how developments in society can have an effect on a relationship.Daniela Krien
The big societal topic runs alongside the relationship story. It’s always there, but not in the foreground. I didn’t want to write a political book, but a book about a relationship and about how developments in society can have an effect on a relationship.
I wanted to talk about the feeling of alienation of a liberal man. Peter is not a reactionary. He is a deeply liberal man who wants everyone to be able to live as they want. He doesn’t want to know too much about others, or divulge a lot about himself. And so he finds himself out of step with the times. Activism is loud, the times are loud. He comes up against the boundaries of that.
Sarah: The women in your previous novel Love in Five Acts had the aftermath of German reunification in the background of their lives. The effects of the fall of the Wall are present here too in the characters’ stories – Selma criticising her parents for not owning a home and referring to her partner’s parents as ‘victims of reunification’. You wanted to talk about inner life but also hint at the political and societal changes that can shape people.
Daniela: When I start to write I always resolve to take a pressing societal issue and write about it. And at the end I find I have written about a relationship! Though these things are connected, of course.
After the reunification and everything that happened in the years after the fall of the wall…the gap between east and west is still there. It’s connected to property ownership. For example, average inheritance in the West is 350,000 Euro, whereas here it’s more like 25,000. That’s just one area where there’s still a huge difference and it will take a long time to sort out.
When I start to write I always resolve to take a pressing societal issue and write about it. And at the end I find I have written about a relationship! Though these things are connected, of course.Daniela Krien
Sarah: Daniela, Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything premiered at the Berlinale this year and is now showing at cinemas. How was the experience of working on the screenplay?
Daniela: Yes, I was at the premiere. I wrote the screenplay together with the (Killing Eve) director Emily Atef. We really did write it together – she did half of the scenes and I did the other half. This ended up working out really well. As a screenwriter and director she was able to bring to life how scenes might be filmed; you can’t write a feeling – you need to show it. I was able to ensure authenticity in the dialogue and evocation of village life. It was a great experience, but a one-off!
Jamie: The film has had a positive review in the UK already with The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw giving at four out of five stars.
Sarah: Jamie, this is the third of Daniela’s books that you have translated. Can you tell us a little about translating more than one book by the same author and building up a relationship with their work? What does it change about the experience?
There are no words wasted in Daniela’s writing.Jamie Bulloch
Jamie: It means that you get used to a certain style. There are no words wasted in Daniela’s writing. There’s definitely a stylistic similarity between all three books, even though the individual books themselves are very different. You feel very comfortable when you know a particular writing style. I had the same experience with Oliver Bottini over the course of the six books I translated for him. I wrote to him just before working on the sixth and told him it is like putting on an old pair of slippers.
When you have a new author, often the first few pages can take forever to translate. You ask yourself how you might deal with this issue or that. It takes a while, then it starts to go more quickly as you get into the text.
With The Fire I still had the style in my head from Love in Five Acts. And it was really lovely. I really enjoyed that.
Katharina: There’s a sparseness to your writing, Daniela, which I have heard you describe so beautifully. You write and then you take things out until you reach the borderline where you have everything that you need, but nothing extra. And that’s how it reads. One of my favourite lines in the book is where Rahel lays out her yoga mat and then it rolls up again because she hasn’t had time to do yoga. It tells a whole story about her – good intentions, but then life gets in the way.
Jamie: A scene from Love in Five Acts comes to mind, quite a shocking scene where a couple go to the park and dig a hole to bury the woman’s placenta after the birth of their child. As they are leaving, the woman looks back and sees a dog digging it up. And then, nothing more, they just walk away. You don’t need to write ten pages about it afterwards and how they feel about it – you let the reader do a lot of the filling in, the colouring in.
Daniela: Yes, because I know the reader is capable of thinking about it themselves.
Jamie: And it gives more of an effect, as the reader you do a bit of work, but then you feel it much more.
Sarah: You show the reader something, rather than tell them.
I really enjoy the way Daniela allows these big themes to play out on a small scale – that’s to say at the scale of the family. It’s brilliantly done and I believe the novel will have such resonance in the UK, with relationships and how people find their way back to one another.Jamie Bulloch
Sarah: The title of the book works on a number of levels. What did the title mean to you Jamie? What did you like most about the book?
Jamie: When I got the book I didn’t have a clue what it would be about from the title. The fire is the excuse for the way that the book works. Although Daniela says she is more comfortable writing from the female perspective, I think Peter is so beautifully drawn. I know a lot of men like Peter. When he is cutting the cucumber with slices of equal thickness – you see so much about his character in the way he prepares food. These novels are all about relationships and I absolutely love the observations throughout the book that say so much about them. The relationship between Rahel and Peter but also between the parents and their children and grandchildren.
I really enjoy the way Daniela allows these big themes to play out on a small scale – that’s to say at the scale of the family. It’s brilliantly done and I believe the novel will have such resonance in the UK, with relationships and how people find their way back to one another. There are so many different things that will appeal to readers – it’s really a very exciting book to be publishing in the UK.
Sarah: How was the translation process? Did you read the whole book through first or do you prefer to translate as you go?
Jamie: I always read the whole book first and then I get going. I do a first draft translation. I do this quite quickly so as to write more fluently in English. Then I do a very slow read of the English version and correct it as a piece of English. In this way it reads as a book written in English, rather than a translation. If I come across a sentence that jars, I refer back to the original German and see what I can do.
Then comes the editing. For the books by MacLehose that is done by Katharina. The book gets a really thorough edit and issues or challenges with the text get discussed – often at length.
Katharina: yes, I recall an instance where the word ‘Tja’ was written on a mug. We really pondered that one. What would the best equivalent for that expression be when it appears out of any context? As a German speaking editor, I can also go back to original to help resolve queries if need be.
Jamie: As a translator you want a really good edit. I welcome different eyes on the text. It’s such a collaborative process: the author’s work, the edit that version has, then the translator’s engagement with the text before further edits and proofreading. It’s real team work and the translation is improved by it.
Katharina: The Fire’s proof-reader said she could happily have gone on to read another 800 pages!
You need to be really careful when language appears simple, because it’s not. It contains more than you think and so when you translate you don’t want to end up with too simplistic an English.Jamie Bulloch
Sarah: Daniela is known for a succinct writing style. The language gets straight to the heart of the characters’ inner lives. Every word counts. Is this a challenge when it comes to translation?
Jamie: You need to be really careful when language appears simple, because it’s not. It contains more than you think and so when you translate you don’t want to end up with too simplistic an English. The writing needs to be spare rather than childlike. The way German grammar works means sentence structure can be more varied, where the equivalent in English can lead to lots of identically structured sentences, so this often needs to be changed to make a paragraph more elegant and coherent.
The book will suit those who are simply after a really good read, but also those who are curious to discover a little more about contemporary German society, especially the gulf that still exists between east and west in the country.Jamie Bulloch
Sarah: Jamie, there are a lot of universal themes in the book, but combined with a strong sense of place from the setting and from historical details too. What do you think will appeal to English language readers about the book?
Jamie: There’s the exploration of relationships that we touched on already which is so strong and I am sure will be popular. The book will suit those who are simply after a really good read, but also those who are curious to discover a little more about contemporary German society, especially the gulf that still exists between east and west in the country. That context is such a strong feature of Daniela’s work – not hammered home but always present.
Sarah: Thanks to the three of you for such an interesting discussion!
To read more about the book on the publisher’s website and buy a copy click here.
To read Jamie’s article on what gives a book international appeal, which also discusses Daniela’s previous novel Love in Five Acts, click here.