‘Writing is a way of taking revenge on reality’ – An interview with Lukas Maisel

Lukas Maisel’s second book, the novella Tanner’s Earth, tells the story of Swiss farmer Tanner. Tanner lives a straightforward and satisfying life of timeless simplicity on a small farm at the foothills of the Alps, until one day he wakes up to find a hole has appeared in his land. A second hole soon appears, also without explanation. The reader accompanies Tanner as he tries to fathom what has happened.

NBG spoke to Lukas Maisel about this atmospheric and mesmerising novella, mastering a craft, and what it is that is magical about fiction.

 Sarah Hemens: What was behind you writing Tanner’s Earth? Were these ideas in the book things that you had been thinking about for a while?

Lukas Maisel: I started out from a newspaper report, my novella is based on an actual case. The news report spent most of its time trying to explain away the holes. What I wanted to know, on the other hand, is how it felt for this farmer who had discovered these two huge holes in his land. Well, I’m not a journalist; it’s not my thing to ask people questions and stick to the facts – I want to use my imagination. I came up with this story because I didn’t know of a better way to help me with my question.

Are there certain things you hope the reader will take away with them and think about?

At best readers won’t mull over ideas, but will empathise with what Tanner goes through.

Could you tell us a little about Tanner, the protagonist?

Ernst Tanner is a Swiss farmer who has confidence in his own abilities. He knows what to do about hail and cow ailments. Then he encounters the unexplainable, the unknown unknown, the Black Swan event. Are the holes a punishment or an omen? Tanner cannot believe they are happenstance. We humans see signs in everything with which we try to interpret reality. Tanner is no exception to this.

You did an apprenticeship as a printer before studying at the Literature Institute in Biel. What did you learn in the apprenticeship that is useful to you now – or that influences you now? Have you always written? And did you always want to be a writer?

In primary school, our teacher gave out certificates she’d made herself, if you brought in a short story. That’s how I began to write outside of school. But I soon stopped, and in class the essay topics were usually incomprehensibly boring. You weren’t supposed to use your imagination, but to describe where you’d been on holiday. What I loved about being a printer was probably the closeness to the word. I had an instructor who took his work very seriously, he subjected himself to higher standards than his boss asked of him. That impressed me. I found this love of the craft striking.

You spent a few months in Indonesia for the research for your highly acclaimed debut book The Dreamed Islands. As far as I know, your mother grew up on your grandparents’ farm, so your research was probably closer to home this time.

Research in a foreign place is probably easier than in familiar surroundings. You become blind to the distinctive features of the familiar. As an author, you try to see the well-known with an alien gaze, to reach a state of jamais-vu, because you want to bring it closer to a reader who has not had the same experiences.

You appeared at the Solothurn Literature Festival this year – do you enjoy public readings and discussions? Are you sometimes surprised how people interpret or re-act to your work?

I can’t say that I enjoy readings. As a printer I sometimes had to crawl under the machine, where old grease and dust had formed a horrible goo, in order to remove a sheet that had blocked the cylinder. That wasn’t great, but it was part of it.

Tanner’s Earth will be published in Italian and Dutch. Congratulations on that! What do you think might appeal to readers in English about the book?

What will speak to Italian or Dutch readers in particular, that I don’t know. I wanted to write a story that would be understood by all. Read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, you might not understand all the technical terms for fishing but you still cry at the end with the boy who sees the hands of the fisherman, mangled in battle. That is the magic of fiction: rendering unfamiliar experiences possible. Whoever reads my book will hopefully know what it is like to be a farmer in whose land holes have grown.

Your publisher thinks your prose is reminiscent of Keller and Kafka. Who or what influences your writing? Which writers do you admire?

Reality as it is does not interest me. Writing is a way of taking revenge on reality. That’s why I like writers who don’t stick closely to reality, rather they take it as a starting point: Calvino, Bolaño, Kafka, Garcia Marquez.

Are you writing anything at the moment that you can tell us about!?

I don’t want to give too much away. Just this much: it’s about a panther that perhaps does not exist.

Thanks Lukas!

Lukas Maisel photo copyright © Christina Brun

Tanner’s Earth was chosen by the NBG jury and as such qualifies for a translation grant from Pro Helvetia, covering up to 100% of the translation costs. More information on funding is here. You can read our recommendation of the book here.

Lukas Maisel was born in Zurich in 1987. He completed a printing apprenticeship before studying at the Literature Institute in Biel. His debut novel, Buch der geträumten Inseln, received several awards, including the Swiss Schiller Foundation’s Terra Nova Prize. In 2021 he was nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize.