Author Marie Gamillscheg, ‘one of the most exiting young voices of German-speaking literature’ according to Spiegel Online magazine, has won a number of awards for her work. Her second novel, An Uprising of Sea Creatures, was longlisted for the German Book Prize. It was also selected by the New Books in German jury, meaning translation funding is guaranteed for an English language edition of the book.
The book’s protagonist is marine biologist Luise, known for her work on the American comb jelly or sea walnut. Life for Luise revolves around work and she has little contact with her family until she takes a job helping to set up a research centre at the zoo in her home city. Reflections on the environment and the impact humanity is having on the natural world are interwoven with Luise’s reacquaintance with her family, friends and home city.
Her publisher sums the book up thus: ‘Marie Gamillscheg writes compellingly and vividly about the process of freeing ourselves from our childhood, our body, and the rules that we believe to be our own – but which others have determined for us. At the same time, this novel is an attempt to describe the inherent impossibility of father-daughter relationships.’
In March this year the Austrian Cultural Forum London invited Marie to talk about the book to a local audience. Marie and translator Ann Stokes read excerpts from the book in German and English. Dr Andrea Capovilla of the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre skilfully led a wide-ranging discussion of the book. Questions from the floor showed an engaged audience for whom the text had resonated. I was struck by the energy and precision with which Marie was able to convey how she had dealt with the themes in the book and so I was delighted to have the chance for a further conversation when I visited Leipzig ealier this year. Marie lives in Leipzig after an eight-year stint in Berlin.
We met up in a café one rainy weekday morning over passion fruit juice and Milchkaffee. It was a busy time for Marie who was off to Berlin straight after our meeting for the opening of her partner’s art exhibition, but once we settled outside under a veranda, I was again struck by an author with sharp observational skills who sparkles when discussing her work.
Sarah: Marie, you have tackled a number of themes in the novel. Where do you start with writing something that deals with several different big themes and interrelated ideas?
Marie: Yes, it’s complex! Ultimately, there are many different motifs, themes, and linguistic devices which solidify and come together. Then there’s a magic moment where you feel that all paths lead to this text – that’s when I know I have a novel slumbering. It was like this with An Uprising of Sea Creatures. I was interested in father-daughter relationships, specifically father-daughter relationships where the daughter is becoming a woman. That tension. There’s a relationship between a father and daughter, but also between a man and a woman.
That’s where it started and as I sketched out scenes with Luisa and her father, I realised that it was not simply a story I could tell from A to B to C. It wasn’t a story I could tell with a normal plot. It was also not a story I could tell just by focusing on the relationship itself, I had to incorporate the environment in which the relationship plays out.
I began to reflect a lot on paternal relationships, not just with fathers – but the many paternal relationships that all of us humans, but especially women, have; paternal figures that give us rules, norms and structures.
I also thought a lot about the paternal relationship we have with nature. There was a point where I realised that I couldn’t write about interpersonal relationships without considering the relationship between humans and nature. Not in a metaphorical way, but because I believe that nowadays the two are mutually dependent. They influence and shape each other.
I began to reflect a lot on paternal relationships, not just with fathers – but the many paternal relationships that all of us humans, but especially women, have; paternal figures that give us rules, norms and structures.Marie Gamillscheg
I thought a lot about what it means to be invasive in a relationship or in another person’s life, like here with the father and daughter. I considered this in terms of people and nature and it raises the question of who is invasive in whose life? We often claim animals are invasive in our lives, but it’s actually us humans who are introducing the animals into foreign habitats: it’s actually us who are invasive. I found it interesting to observe what it says about us humans, how we talk about these animals and how we talk about our relationship with them.
With this small animal, the sea walnut, this ‘invasive’ comb jelly, comes a very big question. It’s a question that comes at the beginning of every novel, namely what power does the narrator have? Who gets to tell the story? What difference does it make? Who is invasive in whose story? That’s how it all came together.
I noticed that the idea of water helped the form of the novel along. As I mentioned, it’s not a novel that goes from A to B to C. It’s more a sea of dreams, of memory, of various parallel presents that are not hierarchically structured, where none is more important than the other, but which swim together.
I was really interested in the job you gave Luise and the academic world she operates in, a world which can sometimes be seen as a paternalistic and male dominated one.
Yes, and it also introduces the idea of subjectivity in a story. I was aware that I was talking about the father-daughter relationship from the daughter’s perspective and so I found it interesting to think about subjectivity and objectivity. Science is a place that claims to be objective and to tell the true story. But research is subjectively driven and determined by funding and grants, by current research trends and interests. It was interesting to get into this context and look at how people behave there. Is there still a genuine interest in Luise’s area of research, or is it all overshadowed by the world she has to move in?
It was no longer just about Luise and her father, but about a lot of paternal figures and worlds; science being one of those worlds. Luise is a young woman working in marine biology – very much a male science. What interested me is the question of whether she can operate in that world without losing herself.
I remember the bit in the book where Luise is looking at her students and thinking about how they haven’t yet been ‘exposed to the realities of short terms contracts or to furtive glances from male colleagues and that they assume a truth in science independent of funder agendas’. When you are writing are you picturing a reader?
I always take a lot of time with my books and so the whole world of book fairs and readings disappears behind me. I just concentrate on the text. I immerse myself in it and do all that I can with it. There can be a nervousness once a book is out there: can anyone do anything with this writing that has been spinning round in my head for four years? That doesn’t mean that the reader isn’t important to me. It’s just important that there’s only me and the text for a very long time.
Are you still working as a journalist?
Now and then, yes.
I wonder what influence your journalism has on your writing?
As far as the writing is concerned, journalism and literary writing are two completely different jobs that have nothing at all to do with each other. That’s not just about the style, but approach. Journalistic writing is thesis-driven. I have a question, and I want to answer it. In my literary writing, I have a question at the beginning, too. But I actually want to have more questions at the end. I think literature shouldn’t be thesis-driven; that destroys it.
Where the two influence each other for me is when it comes to research, both of my novels have been very research driven. With the first novel I immersed myself in the world of mining and then with An Uprising of Sea Creatures in the world of marine biology. This research-based approach has become a cornerstone of my writing.
I’d like to talk a bit about when you came to London to talk about An Uprising of Sea Creatures.
…what you really want as an author is for the text to keep on working. As soon as the text is published it also belongs to the readers and should continue to work, it should continue to provoke thought, it should continue to evolve in the world.Marie Gamillscheg
It was such a great experience to come to London and discuss the book. I have had readings abroad before, but they’ve always been with a mainly German-speaking audience. This was the first time I have ever presented a book to an audience in another language. I do speak English, but German is the language I work in and so the language was a challenge, but a worthwhile one. It was great to see the reactions from people who speak a different language and come from a different culture.
The points that resonated with people were totally different. This was really exciting to see as what you really want as an author is for the text to keep on working. As soon as the text is published it also belongs to the readers and should continue to work, it should continue to provoke thought, it should continue to evolve in the world. It’s great to see that happen – and to see it evolve differently in another language.
And that’s how I felt about the text in the translation. It was beautiful, but also quite mysterious, to listen to it because it has become a very unique text. English is a language that works in a completely different way. There is a rhythm, a melody. It was a very beautiful experience.
Did you have much liaison with the translator Ann Stokes?
No, because the translation needed to be done really quickly. However, I work as a translator myself and so I actually think it’s quite good for a translator to be given the space to make the text her own. If the whole novel were to be translated it would be different, of course. I have a great respect for translation work. Just because I can speak a language, it doesn’t mean that I can translate it, or that I have the feeling that you need for the function of words and sentences and melody, which is what it’s about.
I have a great respect for translation work. Just because I can speak a language, it doesn’t mean that I can translate it, or that I have the feeling that you need for the function of words and sentences and melody, which is what it’s about.Marie Gamillscheg
The most exciting thing of all is to see which themes come out in the text, what gets stressed. When I think back to London, it was the scientific context that was very much emphasised. I noticed with the reception in Germany, where the majority were interested in the end of the Anthropocene and the relationship between people and nature. In London there were more reactions on the role of a young woman in the scientific world.
So I had a typical London reaction in asking you about the scientific field earlier! What kind of impact did being longlisted for the German Book prize have on things?
It was a very important nomination for me personally. I’ve been living in Germany for eight years now and I have a German publisher, and a German agency. But I was very much perceived as an Austrian author. When my novels were published there were many readings in Austria and very few in Germany. And a fraction of the newspaper coverage. The nomination has meant that I am also now perceived as a German author.
Bookseller friends in Germany have said to me ‘ah yes, Austrian literature – a little bit complicated and political and writerly’ and so it gets stuck in a corner. For me, the nomination definitely opened up more space.
Thanks, Marie, for an engaging chat. We wish you all the best with what’s next.
Click here to read our recommendation of An Uprising of Sea Creatures