Earlier in the lockdown, NBG spoke to Tina Hartas, founder of a website which features thousands of great books set around the world, all with a firm sense of the place the author has set them in.
#literarywanderlust with www.tripfiction.com
Sarah Hemens: Hello Tina, thanks so much for your time today to talk about your website. What are you up to today?
Tina Hartas: I’d like to say that during lockdown every day has been different. But it hasn’t, sadly. So the day starts off with a short run and then I come back to sorting out insulin for our elderly cat at a very specific time. Then the day is my own! We have a lot of admin on the website that needs tackling most days and I juggle that with walks and local grocery shopping – we live in a great village where most things are on the doorstep, there are some great paths around the countryside. Of course, much of my time is spent reading and I have really discovered the delights of audiobooks! Today involves a zoom call, some reading and a lengthy walk whilst the weather holds, and possibly some household chores (although I can easily put them off until tomorrow!).
Can you tell us a little about what the TripFiction website is for?
It’s the resource for anyone who wants to travel by book. We collate and curate books that are strong on location and the database is searchable by locale – we now feature 2,250 locations around the world. There is something about exploring a place through the eyes of an author that is so unique and that so often adds an extra layer to understanding a place. Just think of how Donna Leon conjures up Venice – just by reading one of her books you are right on the canali, campi and calli of the city. Similarly, Andrea Camilleri nails Sicily (did you know that when travel was at its height, The Sunday Times stated that 2 planes per day would arrive in Sicily, carrying passengers determined to follow in the footsteps of his character Inspector Montalbano – now that IS dedication to literary tourism! )
What gave you the idea for TripFiction?
Throughout my life I have loved to travel and, looking back, I have always unconsciously searched for books to take with me that are set in my chosen destination. We were planning a trip to Vienna and at that point (10 years ago) I could only find one book set in Vienna, The Fig Eater by Jody Shields. That was a brilliant read to conjure up life at the turn of the 20th Century, and so much was set near where we were staying, around the Volksgarten. The seed was sown and so we decided to set up our website so that anyone can find books that are strong on setting (mainly novels but we also include genres like memoir and travelogues that will transport a reader). On an everyday basis, we have expanded a lot with regular daily blogposts featuring reviews and author chats and all things books- and travel-related.
Armchair travel has become pretty much the only form of travel for much of the last twelve months. Have you noticed more people coming to the site, day-dreaming or planning future escapades?
Definitely. We see a lot of people satisfying their longing to go back to places that have meant a great deal to them; places that are now, with widespread travel bans in place, largely inaccessible. We see readers just testing the water to see where they might like to go once restrictions ease. You can get a real flavour through literature and it’s a way of keeping the fire stoked whilst we are all stuck in our homes. I know that I’ve read a couple of novels that have really transported me away and that’s refreshing in these strange times.
In April last year, I had a trip planned to Berlin (where my daughter lives) but that of course got cancelled. So I did the next best thing and chose a novel set in the city, a murder mystery as it happened – Sisters of Berlin by Juliet Conlin. And fancy that, it opens in Friedrichshain, which is where we stay when we are in the city. It temporarily eased my ’Fernweh’.
Novels allow us to visit people and places that guidebooks can’t reach. Do you get feedback from tourists and holidaymakers after their trips about how the books they read gave them a grasp of the places they were visiting?
We do have a lot of dialogue on social media about what has worked for readers and which books people recommend for literary tourism. We actively ask people to engage and tell us. In many ways we rely on the book and travel communities to flag new titles for us – we keep an eye out ourselves for upcoming new books that are strong on location but we don’t have the resources to cover everything.
A book you talk about recently on your YouTube channel (as well as on the site) is an NBG favourite too, Der Spiegel number 1 bestseller Love in Five Acts. What sort of a sense of Leipzig did you get as you read? Is it a city you have visited?
I went to Leipzig on business just after the Wall fell, when I worked for a company that specialised in Christmas decorations for shopping centres. As a city it was very much in a state of flux, which of course is part of the narrative in the book. Much has changed since then. The city portrayed in the novel certainly felt very German.
You mention the familiarity of the five women in Love in Five Acts with life in the former East Germany. Several of our jury choices this time round are also set in East Germany – Björn Stephan’s The World is Only Blue from Space; Matthias Jügler’s The Forsaken; Katharina Höftmann Ciobotaru’s Alef; Alexander Osang’s Almost Light. Have you noticed an increase in literature set the former East recently?
It is always a pleasure to see what kind of work is coming out of Germany and I guess, having passed the 30th anniversary of unification, there is a hunger for works that straddle both sides of the erstwhile border. I am always curious to see people’s diverse experiences translated into stories because I think we can learn so much. I only ever saw the East through the eyes of a Westerner and could never understand how things were during, say, the Cold War, without the help of an author. I have very vivid memories of life on both sides of the Berlin Wall, and whilst I was studying at Göttingen University in the early 1980s, which was very near the border, there was often chatter about how safe it was there. Many locals were in fear of being invaded, even at that late stage.
You studied German at university – did the literature always appeal to you? Any favourite authors? Any particular books or authors from Austria, Germany or Switzerland that really stand out for you in terms of sense of place?
I went to Bristol University and it was an incredibly traditional syllabus. I remember studying irony in Der Zauberberg by Thomas Mann, which sadly killed off the pleasure of the book. I also opted for a module in Middle High German which meant I never got to study much Goethe and Schiller (there was a timetable clash) – but that wasn’t a problem because we tackled a lot of their work at A Level.
My reading has changed a lot since then. One of my favourite titles from last year was Romy Hausmann’s Dear Child and I am currently reading Passenger 23 by Sebastian Fitzek; both, as it happens, are translated by Jamie Bulloch. It is a while since I read a gruesome mystery and Fitzek has certainly let his imagination run riot! Daughters by Lucy Fricke (Tr Sinéad Crowe) was a wonderful book for literary travel (the V and Q book covers are always really eye catching). And I enjoy the writing of Martin Suter and Robert Seethaler. These are all off the top of my head and there are plenty more I could mention!
Do you read much in translation from German – or indeed other languages? What do you like about translated literature? What can we gain from reading works in translation?
I used to read quite a lot of books in the original German, but it was always a slower process. I did it to keep up with my German, as I very much feel it’s a case of use it or lose it. Given the number of books we commit to read and review now for TripFiction, I have to be pragmatic and generally read them in English.
A lot has changed in the world of translation and I’m glad the practice of mentioning the translator is becoming more widespread. After all, it’s through the eyes of translators that so many books become accessible to a wider readership.
What are your future ambitions for TripFiction?
We are growing apace and it is hard to balance the admin side with the reading and everything else involved in managing the site. We are going to have to migrate to a new server at some point this year, just for us, because we’re growing so big. So we have to explore ways of financing that.
We have some great plans across the year. Our poetry competition is just about to close for entries. In the Autumn we’re running the TripFiction ‘Sense of Place’ Creative Writing Competition – for the second year in a row.
Many thanks for your time today. Finally, where is your next reading destination?
I’m listening to an audiobook of The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex, which takes the reader to Cornwall and to the fictional Maiden Lighthouse; it’s a really excellent debut. Thereafter I will be picking up On Hampstead Heath by Marika Cobbold (no prizes for guessing which part of London it’s set in!).
Thanks Tina for your time!
You can join TripFiction by signing up. Once you are a member you can add and reviews books to the database. There is also monthly newsletter.
New Books in German promotes German-language literature for translation into English in the UK, USA and beyond. We feature recommendations of the best new fiction and non-fiction titles from Austria, Germany and Switzerland. We publish articles and information on books, authors and those who translate or work with them.
About New Books in German
Find out more about our work to promote German language literature for translation into English
Discover more about the guaranteed support for translation into English
Delve into articles and interviews about books, publishers, translators, authors and the German language literary field.