Interview with Yael Inokai

Sheridan Marshall spoke to author Yael Inokai about her latest novels and writing journey so far.

Two novels by Yael Inokai are recommended on the New Books in German website: Mahlstrom (‘Maelstrom’, Rotpunktverlag, 2018) and A Simple Procedure (‘Ein Simpler Eingriff’, Hanser, 2022). A Simple Procedure will be published in English by Peirene Press in 2024, in a translation by Marielle Sutherland.

Sheridan Marshall: Thank you so much for doing this interview with us today, Yael. Can you tell me about how you came to be a writer, and whether you have always thought of yourself as an author?

Yael Inokai: I haven’t always thought of myself as an author, but I have always loved writing and telling stories. The difficult thing was to figure out how you make a profession out of it. When I finished school, the university courses for creative writing had only just started in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. I applied but I wasn’t successful, so I had to look for other ways. I just kept on writing and I was very lucky to publish my first book with a Swiss publishing house, Rotpunktverlag, who were looking for Swiss authors. I submitted a few pages and they wanted to publish the whole book, which was very exciting.

And you were so young when that happened.

I was twenty-two!

So, you were born in Switzerland, you studied in Vienna, and now you live in Germany. Does your experience of all three German-speaking countries inform how you see yourself as a German-language writer? 

I only studied in Vienna for a year, before moving to Berlin to study at the German Film and Television Academy. Even though I really liked my year in Vienna, I didn’t really grow any roots there. I have lived in Berlin for the past eleven years, so I really feel like a citizen of Berlin. But I also feel very Swiss sometimes, I must admit, especially when it comes to the pace of everyday life which is just much slower in Switzerland. I read a lot of contemporary fiction and I really like Swiss writing – there’s a certain creative freedom to it that I really enjoy.

I have been enjoying reading some of the Swiss writers published by Voland & Quist recently, including Anaïs Meier and Ralph Tharayil. There are a lot of interesting young voices in Swiss literature at the moment, Ivna Zič, Tabea Steiner, Sarah Elena Müller, just to name a few. 

There are a lot of interesting young voices in Swiss literature at the moment, Ivna Zič, Tabea Steiner, Sarah Elena Müller, just to name a few. 

Yael Inokai

Can you tell us about your three novels? How did you choose the themes – or did the themes choose you?!

I feel like with the first two books I was addressing questions and themes that I had been carrying around with me for a long time. My writing was a way of channelling these preoccupations. With the third book something opened up – I became interested in the history of mental institutions, of how women and minority groups were treated in mental institutions. I read a lot of incredibly inspiring queer literature and it helped me shape my own voice as a queer writer. 

My writing is always a merging of the things that I carry around with me, but with the first two books it felt like I had to write them, whereas with the third book there was more passion and craft involved. When you write, it takes time for you to get to a point where you are satisfied with what you are writing, and with the first two books this felt like endless work. With the third book I was starting from a different point, and it was wonderful to see what I had achieved so far through all my experience.

Could you tell us some more about your most recent novel, A Simple Procedure, and how you came to write such a haunting novel?

My book is about a young nurse, Meret, who works in a hospital. She works very closely with a doctor who specialises in a procedure during which people – especially women – are freed from their psychological demons. He claims to be able to find the right spot in their brain and make it go to sleep. At some point Meret meets a new patient called Marianne. Marianne comes from a rich family. She has a temper and can become very violent and is supposed to have the procedure at the clinic. Something about this woman makes Meret feel uncertain about her work and everything she believes in.

We are then introduced to the third protagonist whose name is Sarah. She is Meret’s roommate in the boarding house where the nurses live. They fall in love and start a relationship. The dynamics with these two different women really start to shake Meret and impact upon her beliefs.

In our review of your novel on the New Books in German website we compare your writing to that of Juli Zeh and Kazuo Ishiguro. Do those comparisons make sense to you? Who are the literary figures that have inspired you?

I was surprised about Juli Zeh, because although I can see that we have similar themes, I think her style and approach are very different. For Kazuo Ishiguro I wondered if you were thinking of Never Let Me Go?! I was actually more inspired by The Remains of the Day. I think it is a spectacular exploration of duty and this almost painful sense of wanting to serve, so that was more of an inspiration to me. Patricia Highsmith helped my shape my writing me as well as Violette Leduc. I love Toni Morrison, and I am a big fan of Marilynne Robinson, particularly her novel Housekeeping. It’s very slow, every look, every touch, every sound the wind makes is important. I love it. 

That sense of a very gradual, perfectly paced revelation is something that I think your novels share with the work of these other writers. A Simple Procedure is soon to be translated into English by Marielle Sutherland. What does it mean to you to have your book appear in English?

I am very enthusiastic. I read a lot of English literature. I love the simplicity of the language. In Germany you have this very strong distinction between ‘ernsthafte Literatur’ and ‘Unterhaltungsliteratur’ (serious literature and popular literature), but this seems not so present in English-language writing, it’s more of a continuum. I have the sense that there is so much to discover in English-language literature, including so many great queer books. Of course, there is queer literature in German as well, but just not to the same extent. It is very special to have my book translated into English. I dream about a joint event in the UK with Deborah Levy, whose work I really admire. 

I am very enthusiastic. I read a lot of English literature. I love the simplicity of the language.

Yael Inokai

I think that would make for a fantastic event – we must make that happen! What is your next literary project?

I’m going more in the direction of Vicki Baum – she wrote a book called Menschen im Hotel in the ‘20s. It was about a hotel in Berlin, following the different people there for a few days. It is very funny and unexpected and one of the few examples where an Unterhaltungsroman was perceived as a serious novel. This is the direction I am going in – my new book is set in a department store. I try to let my funny side come out. I have written three very serious books and I want to write something joyful and entertaining. I find it a great challenge in writing, to be entertaining. It is also hugely undervalued, I think.  

What a wonderful idea – so many interesting things must happen in department stores. There certainly are not enough novels set in department stores!

I know! But why not? We live in capitalism, I don’t get it!

I know you have also published a short story recently, ‘Die Vertreterin’, in a collection of short stories responding to abortion, (Glückwunsch: 15 Erzählungen über Abtreibung, Hanser, 2023). I wonder if you could tell us some more about that?

My editor has published this book of fifteen short stories about abortion. In Germany there is an unusual legal situation where it is not legal to have an abortion, but there are ways of doing it without getting prosecuted. Until a few months ago there was even a law that prohibited doctors from naming abortion as a service they offer. And until a few years ago the morning-after pill was only available on a prescription basis. The whole culture around abortion in Germany is extremely difficult.

Initially I had no idea what to write about to contribute to this short story collection. I first wrote about a woman who drives other women to have abortions – but the story was missing something and I couldn’t really say what. When I spoke to my editor, she said she had all the other stories, and that they were all quite sad, and could I write something from a utopian perspective. I thought this was a really good idea, so I created this woman called Romy, who provides people who have to have abortions with a little device that enables them to have the abortion safely at home. The story follows her through her day as she visits different women, giving them the device, explaining to them how it works, or picking it up once their abortions are complete. She is a distributor for the company who provides these devices free of charge. Whenever she is in her car she talks to her ex-girlfriend and they bicker with one another.

It sounds like an amazing story, and in a way like a continuation of A Simple Procedure.

Yes, it sort of is. I was thinking that when you have a dystopia, the next thing you have to do is think about utopias. It doesn’t always have to go to shit. What if it works out that in ten years’ time, if you are pregnant but you don’t want to be, you can just take care of the abortion safely at home? You don’t have to be ashamed, you can be surrounded by people who love you, if that’s what you want, or you can have someone there who comforts you, or at least there’s a helpline you can always call.

It’s a great collection of short stories: There are many different views on abortion and quite some voices to discover.  

Can you give us your recommendations for authors writing in German at the moment who you think are producing the most dynamic, exciting work, who we should be looking to translate into English?

When it comes to fiction, I would recommend Kaśka Bryla, Ivna Zič, Dinçer Güçyeter, Simone Goldschmidt Lechner, Katharina Mevissen, just to name a few. Their books are so special, exciting and smart, I would love to see them translated. 

Thank you so much for this interview, Yael. Hope to see you on a book tour in the UK for A Simple Procedure very soon!

Sheridan Marshall is Editorial Consultant for New Books in German.

Sheridan has worked on our editorial team for twelve years, and also does freelance editorial and translation work.