Doris Knecht’s new book, The Message, explores how abusive anonymous messages affect a woman’s life. But it’s about much more than that. Lucy Jones interviews Doris Knecht to find out more.
Lucy Jones: Your character Ruth has similarities with Marian in your book Wald (The Forest): she is strong, wants to live alone, likes to work, has been through a lot. What attracts you to such female characters?
Doris Knecht: I was very interested in this type of character: a woman who doesn’t really need anyone else, who can take care of herself, is a bit gruff, a bit defiant, maybe also a bit hostile towards her environment because that environment constantly wants to see her coupled with a man or in a fixed setting intended for women. It’s a celebrated narrative in books written by male authors – men manage on their own, get by on their own, don’t need anyone, they’re sort of heroes. And with women, in the end, it’s always about: ‘Is she going to get the man, a protector, a provider, a carer?’ I want to create female characters who can take care of themselves, who like their peace and quiet, but who are threatened from outside, by people who want to take these roles away from them.
And Ruth is constantly being driven away from places familiar to her, or at least men constantly try to drive her away. But she stands her ground. As a reader, I constantly felt nervous that at some point she would get her comeuppance.
I had horror scenes going through my head when I was writing: the woman alone in the house, being threatened – will something happen to her in there? Will she go outside to protect herself? Or will she stay inside?
I also find it interesting that the person who sends her the abusive messages doesn’t get punished. Why is that?
There are several aspects to this. On one hand, she knows for sure that she will not get help if she seeks it. She is the weaker one and knows that existing structures don’t help women who feel threatened by verbal violence. On the other hand, she wants to be seen for her work, for what she has achieved, and the way she lives. She doesn’t want to have the word ‘victim’ attached to her name. She would probably have to invest an insane amount of time and energy fighting a phantom and wants to use that energy for something else. She makes the pragmatic decision to take care of herself and let the perpetrator go unpunished to a certain extent because she knows that otherwise, she’ll hurt herself. Another reason is that I like to write realistic books. I briefly thought of turning the story into a revenge campaign at the end, so that evil would lose and good would win. But that would be very unrealistic to me. In my books, I try to show something about the world.
I also wondered whether you ever felt that, by writing this book, you were making yourself a target for trolls, simply because you were speaking about this subject. Whether you were afraid, as Ruth puts it so nicely, that ‘the trolls would be awakened.’
I mean, I’ve been a journalist for almost 30 years, and I’ve experienced a lot in this respect. Also trolls don’t read literature, so you’re safer if you write about such topics. I wrote a daily newspaper column for a long time, a very outspoken one, with an anonymous readers’ forum. And I’ve gone through everything you can imagine. My skin isn’t that thick. It’s painful, it’s threatening, it’s hurtful and I don’t want to go through it any more.
I advocate greater protection, for female writers in particular, in this area because women are much more exposed to such abuse than men. From editorial offices on the one hand, and from society on the other.
Do you notice a difference between different platforms? Twitter, Facebook, Instagram?
Yes. I can handle Facebook quite well, because I have an official page where I announce important events, and now and then I publish links on topics that interest me. But I also stay out of certain discussions because I don’t want debates on my page and I don’t have the time or energy to get involved in discussions with haters. There was a study by Spiegel magazine in Germany, which asked female politicians if they were exposed to anonymous hatred, how often they got anonymous messages or experienced verbal violence. And more than two-thirds of the women asked said they had. One of the follow-up questions was whether they had stopped speaking out on certain issues because of this. And many said that they avoid certain topics because they can’t stand the trolling that comes with it.
And it actually shows up the whole system, which is about intimidation and muzzling people. It’s about getting women to shut up. So, we can no longer say it’s none of our business. There has to be more protection for victims, more help for victims, and funds to support them. I think that many women are still afraid to go public or to seek help. And so much more should be done to ensure that men do not become perpetrators.
Your book has many more aspects to it, such as grief, friendship, bringing up children and so on. It’s also about the pressure on women to partner up. So, it’s a book about being able as a woman to be on your own. In particular, couples are nervous around widows or single women. They seem to wonder: ‘What should we do with her?’
‘Who can we hook her up with?’
Yes, ‘She can’t be happy at all on her own.’ Because if she’s happy, then it calls the status quo into question. That brings me to one of my favourite passages from the book when Ruth gets together with a man, having been single for a few years after her husband’s death:
It was pleasant to be considered normal, although I had long since found a completely different normality for myself. But there was no social consensus for my normality, and there was for this life. For the others, my normality was a construct they had to get used to. And they didn’t want to.
And I wanted to make palpable the effect on a woman who – though she doesn’t take it seriously at first – is suddenly pulled into a threatening situation from the outside, and exposed to abuse.
Thank you very much for this interview. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Doris Knecht, who was born in Vorarlberg, is a columnist and writer. Her first novel, Gruber geht (2011), was nominated for the German Book Prize and filmed for cinema. Her latest publications include Besser (2013), Wald (2015), Alles über Beziehungen (2017) and Weg (2019). She is a recipient of the Ravensburg Foundation’s literary prize and the Book Prize of the Vienna Economy. Doris Knecht lives with her family and friends in Vienna and the Waldviertel (Forest Quarter) district of Austria. doris-knecht.com, on Instagram and Facebook.
© Anne Meurer
Lucy Jones translates literary fiction, art catalogues, plays and journalism from the German. She studied German Language and Literature at UEA with W.G. Sebald and worked as a freelance photographer before becoming a translator. She has lived in Berlin since 1998, where she runs Transfiction and the Fiction Canteen reading series. Her latest translations include Anke Stelling’s Higher Ground (Scribe 2021), Blueprint by Theresia Enzensberger (Dialogue Books), I Have No Regrets: Diaries 1955-1963 by Brigitte Reimann and The Hour Between Dog and Wolf by Silke Scheuermann (Seagull Books). She has published her own writing in SAND, Visual Verse, Pigeon Papers NY and 3AM Magazine. In 2020, she was longlisted for the Craft Journal’s Short Fiction Prize.