As I mentioned in this post over here (What Salman Rushdie Said), I went to a literary festival in Cheltenham in October and got to see some phenomenal authors talking about how they do what they do.
I took a book-full of notes and thought I’d share some of them. Sorry I do realise this blog has been very ‘bookish’ of late and I promise to return to the glory days of tits and ass and copious smut, any day now.
Bernhard Schlink has written eight novels. He’s a professor of law and has been a judge. So, busy guy. His most famous book is ‘The Reader’, which was translated into English and made into a movie in 2008.
He steps onto the stage, to a packed audience of over 200 people. He is tall and slim and speaks with a heavy accent in that considered way that people not speaking in their first language have.
His latest novel is called The Weekend. It’s about a terrorist released from prison after 24 years behind bars. The terrorist, Jorg, is invited to go away with his sister and a selection of other characters for a weekend. And so the story unfolds over that weekend.
The story is very much based on tales of terrorism and terrorists from the seventies and much of his research is based on the stories of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Their actions, their arrests, their prison sentences and for a few, their more modern day releases.
Schlink says that one of the seeds of the idea came from something his mother said to him back in the 70’s, when terrorism was topical and an issue (as it is now).
HIS MOM: I’ve figured out what to do if you become a terrorist. BERNHARD SCHLINK: What’s that? HIS MOM: You can stay for one night, but then you must go.
Questioned by the BBC interviewer on stage about his thoughts on terrorism, Schlink says: ‘Terrorists have this idea of a pure world. They have an unwillingness to accept the messiness of our world, how slowly things happen, if they happen at all. This unwillingness to accept, this is something all terrorists have in common.’
Interviewer: Do terrorists have remorse? BERNHARD SCHLINK: (His responses here are based on his research on the members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang) Many of these terrorists wake up one day and realise that they’ve lived twenty to thirty years in vain. It must be hard to realise that it was just nothing. Six years being terrorists and then twenty years in jail. So they try to find meaning. They make excuses. We just wanted to do something good. We didn’t realise what the outcome was. The bigger picture. And then the way they are treated in prison, the terrible repeated beatings, the hunger strikes, the bad conditions, this gives the terrorists more anger. And so all of this doesn’t create remorse. They don’t want to apologise for what they’ve done.
In response to a question asked about his opinion on Irish Terrorists, Schlink comments; ‘The secret of peace is exhaustion.’
A member of the audience asks him his opinion on the difference between Northern Ireland’s Terrorists and the terrorists in Germany back then. Schlink believes the German terrorists didn’t really stand for anything, and that’s what set them aside.
He also says: ‘Looking back is looking at a fuller truth.’
Another comment Schlink makes is: ‘Memory is painful.’
The interviewer asks him, in response to this comment: ‘Is that a German thing?’ ‘Perhaps. I’m sure there are happy nations. You won the war, then you won the next war.’ The British audience loves this. There’s a big laugh.
Then we get to the questions from the audience segment. Ninety percent of the questions are related to his book The Reader.
And true to festival form, the one chop question comes early:
CHOP IN AUDIENCE: What do you think the book is about, other than the holocaust?’ Bernhard Schlink looks at him and furrows his brow in confusion. CHOP IN AUDIENCE: If I can make some suggestions… (Then ‘Chop in Audience’ lists about five different possibilities of what other overly analytical themes the book could be about. The audience groans.) CHOP IN AUDIENCE: (When he’s finally finished his list) Do you agree? BERNHARD SCHLINK: Whatever problems or topics the readers find in my books, well… fine… (he waits and thinks). But no. The book is about the Holocaust. I’m sorry to disappoint you. Everyone laughs. I hope Chop feels embarrassed.
Schlink is now asked a question about the movie. How he feels about it? Whether it does the book justice?
He says: ‘As an author you must not expect to find the images in your mind to be on the screen. But I do think he (the director) found very good images.’
Then we get another chop question. CHOP IN AUDIENCE NUMBER TWO: Did you consider swapping an older woman and a younger boy, for a younger woman and an older boy? BERNHARD SCHLINK: I didn’t consider that. CHOP IN AUDIENCE NUMBER TWO: Why not? BERNHARD SCHLINK: It’s hard to explain why I didn’t consider what I didn’t consider.
Someone else asks if he writes using a plot or simply with stream of consciousness. (This question is asked of just about every author I see, and I’m amazed at how many different answers I hear to the same question.)
B.S: I always write with plot. When John Boyne wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, he wrote it in a frenzy in two and a half days, with no plot. I don’t do that. Then he says: ‘I am not interested in my own process of writing. It was the opposite when I was a lawyer.’
He says one of the overriding themes in all his books seems to be the conflict between loyalty and justice.
‘Our world wants justice. We don’t accept fate anymore.’ He uses a bad harvest as an example. ‘A hundred years ago if yo
u had a bad harvest, it was fate. Today we demand subsidies. We do not accept fate.’
Someone asks him a question about how he feels about the translation of the book into English. He says he has some issues with it, but they are mostly unavoidable.
For example, the title of The Reader. In German it’s called ‘Der Vorleser’, which means a reader, but also means, ‘someone who reads aloud’. And there is no single word for that in English. So already the title is a compromise for him.
He also says that in the English translated version she calls him ‘kid’ all the time. In German, the word he used was ‘jongseun’. (Sp? Sorry, my German is crap to non-existent.) He says there’s a tenderness in the word ‘jongseun’ but there is no decent english translation, which is how they ended up with the word ‘kid’. Which he personally finds quite violent and not endearing enough.
He’s a fascinating man, and my hour with him ends too soon. I spot him the following day, as I sit on the pavement outside a venue, drinking a take-away tea between sessions. He gets into a car two feet away from me. I grin like a mad woman and wave at him. He smiles politely at me and is then whisked away by his publicist. I feel lucky.