An Interview with Karen Köhler, Author of Vuurpijlen Vangen
Karen Köhler’s book of short stories Vuurpijlen Vangen, a huge literary success in Germany, was recently published in its Dutch translation. In our Boring Book Recommendation we already urged you to give it a try: Köhler’s short stories are little universes that manage to completely draw you in. Her characters face the worst that life can throw at them with strength, independence and humor.
Bored to Death book club dream team Elsbeth and Maritza got the chance to sit down with Köhler in Amsterdam. Hair still wet from the shower, she arrived fresh and eager to talk about her writing process, her love for telling stories, and her strong female characters. That is, after having a good laugh about the antique recorder (with tape!) this Bored to Death interview team put on the table.
How would you like to introduce yourself to your new Dutch readers?
I’m a human being, I do have compassion, my name is Karen and I love to tell stories.
You’re an actress, illustrator, performance artist, and now a writer. Quite a long CV.
Someone put up that fucking Wikipedia article (laughs). It’s really weird to read on Wikipedia who you are. I don’t want to label myself or work on that image. So it’s true that I studied acting and that I was on stage for twelve years. After two years of acting in a theatre company I felt like I worked in an office, and I didn’t expect that. My dream of what this profession was kind of shrunk and I hadn’t had time to follow my creativity during that period. I had to take my time and start something. Then I somehow slipped into being a freelancer, and from there I started to write. I started to write in 2008, and it came together when I also started to illustrate. I guess I was looking for ways to express what is in me, other than acting. When I became unemployed I had some air to breathe. That’s when I started to write again, little miniatures, a theatre play for children, and I also expressed myself through illustrations. The cover of the books are my own illustrations. Now I’ve been living from my writing for three years. I’m a main writer for the Weimar Theatre for youngsters, and now I have published my first book, which obviously went pretty well in Germany.
What is the difference between writing short stories and telling stories in the other ways you have used so far?
There is certainly a difference. There are some things you can’t express through words, and you need a picture or you use bodies like in the theatre. In that respect, the reader is an interesting audience, because it’s a one on one connection, you address the reader directly. On a theatre stage it’s a group, and you’re addressing the audience in general. You can’t come so close and become so intimate as with the reader. And I think one should never forget that experiencing or looking at art is a very subjective process, and it can transform within one person, it can change from day to day. For example, I started to read the book Anna Karenina so many times, during my first few attempts I gave it up. And then ten years ago I had a run with it, I had time to read and I didn’t put it away.
Was it hard to give up some control in the translation to Dutch, as it is a language you do not read or speak?
You can’t know whether the translation is going to be good, you have to trust the translator. Gerrit Bussink, who translated Vuurpijlen Vangen, just won the prestigious Straelener Übersetzerpreis, for his translation work of Uwe Timm. He called me often, and was like: when can we speak, I have some questions. Can we speak today or tomorrow, because I need to work! We would talk for hours and we would go through it page by page. So he was really looking out for the context. I felt like he really wanted to come close to the original, especially when it came to very specific German rhymes or songs which are difficult to translate. I always motivated him to be free in his translations: rather make it up yourself than stick to the original word by word. This way he would be closest to my original intent.
In the last story the language especially caught our attention. The protagonist has a very original use of language, like how she refers to her family members as ‘the minemines’ [de mijnmijnen].
I found an article in the Smithsonian magazine about a family in Siberia that had been found in the late 1970s and had been separated from civilization for forty years. They researched that family and one of the things that they found out is that they doubled their syllables, and I took that and put it into the story. It’s the children who came up with the doubling. The stories in the book are put in order so that the book starts in a very urban scenery and it goes more and more into the wild, until the very last story that’s set in Siberia.
It seems that nature, the wild, the forest and animals are an important theme to you, and the stories are clearly connected to each other.
When we put the stories together to form a manuscript, we wanted to find how they all connected. In the first version of the manuscript there were five stories that were not told in a first person singular present tense and my agent and I took them out. After we gave the manuscript to Hanser [the German publisher] we took two more stories out; one was too short and the other was told from a male perspective. We thought, let’s make it a female centric book.
Then I started to work on the order of the stories. I put in references, which were present already in some of the stories, but I wanted to clearly link them together. So you have the woman in ‘Starcode Red’ who’s watching CNN on TV, and the news is talking about the Siberian family from the last story, stuff like that. The stories all reference one another. I like to try out new things and see what happens once you start writing a story, like what does it mean when you jump into a new universe for example.
How did the short stories turn into an actual book, were you approached by the publisher?
No I wasn’t approached, I didn’t write to be published actually. I started because the stories came to me and I needed to write them down. The stories develop inside of me a long time before I write them. So for example, right now we’re sitting here, and there are three stories working inside my head. It’s everything you inhale, and then ideas cluster together. Next I think of a form, how to put it down. I think I do the most work when I can’t sleep at night, in those moments I can think very clearly. I don’t know why or how this happens, but it’s a process. When I start to write, I mostly know where I want the story to start and where it has to end, but I don’t know exactly how to get there yet.
At some point I’d written like 17 stories and I didn’t know what to do with them, so I made a manuscript. My boyfriend is a publisher from an independent publishing house in Germany, called Mairisch. They do very nice work and I love how they care about their writers. So I asked my boyfriend: ‘can I send you my manuscript?’ And he was like, ‘no’. So I said: ‘okay, I understand.’ And then he said something really nice: ‘look, I like your stories, you know that – and he is my first reader – but I don’t want people to think that if I publish you, I only did that because I am your boyfriend. Your stories speak for themselves and I want people to see the quality of that.’ So I had to think about how to move forward. I was older when I started writing – now I’m 41 – and I haven’t been in those classes and courses and I could never have been spotted before, so I knew if I would send in my work to a publisher they would not read it. Then a woman saw me during a reading and she told me she was a writer too and that her agency liked my stories. It happened to be one of the two best agencies in Germany. Once I had an agent, I worked more on my stories and wrote several new ones in order to get them published. In October 2013 we offered the manuscript to seven publishers, and Hanser was very quick to want to publish it. From then on everything went very fast. It is still very strange to me that there is a book with my stories in it and that I am now being interviewed about it.
Will it also be translated in other languages?
Yes, it will come out in France and it will also be translated in Albanian, where it will be in stores this autumn. I’m invited to visit the German embassy in Tirana and stay there for a month. I think that it might be a nice thing for women in Albania to have this book about strong women in their language.
We really enjoyed all these strong female characters in your book. Was that something that happened in the process, or was it a deliberate decision to have all female main characters?
For me it was clear if I would write in the first person singular present tense, and that I would mainly write from a female perspective. And when I started to really work on the whole manuscript it felt like it had to be this way. Females who would overcome things, who could let go, who would not be a victim and would rise again from their ashes like a phoenix. I think that the idea of giving birth to yourself again and again, is something really female. Men who have had trauma or experience with some kind of loss, they are suffering more linear. Moving in circles is very female I think. There has been a whole generation of women my age and also a bit younger who have grown up with the idea that strong people on this planet are men, and I didn’t like it. In literature as well, women are always dependent on something; whether it’s love or something else. I didn’t want to have women that are addicted to love anymore.
I really like the character from the story ‘Cowboy en Indiaan’. It took me a long time to write and I became really close to the character. Sometimes I wished I could be like her! That’s the nice thing about writing, you can reinvent yourself over and over again. I feel like women who are younger nowadays have more self-esteem and are stronger, because they have more female role models than I had when I was young.
I is still rare to find a book full of interesting, strong female characters who live on their own terms.
I have the feeling that men are really used to behave freely in this world. They can go everywhere without thinking, ‘am I dressed properly’ or whatever. For them it’s very common to behave the way they want. For us it’s different: ‘I can’t travel to India alone, I need to think about what I wear, I need to know where I’m going’. You have to think about these things first. This is reflected in literature. Men don’t have to doubt if they have something to say, or whether they are funny. That’s also lacking in female literature, I’m so happy when I read a good book by a woman that is also funny. Maybe I will write my next book under a male name, just to see what happens. It would be interesting.
Who are your favorite female writers?
I just read a really good book, I don’t know if it’s already been translated in Dutch, but I know it will be, the author’s name is Nino Haratischwili. She’s originally from Georgia but now lives in Germany and writes in German as well. Her latest book, Das achte Leben (Für Brilka), is really good. It tells the story of every woman in her family and it’s really unique. I haven’t read a book this well constructed in a long time, and it’s all female and these characters are so strong and all overcome something. We have been chosen for a Literary Museum project in Germany, and we have been put in the same team, which I really love because I adore her, she’s great.
I also like Mirandy July, who’s also a filmmaker. She plays with the weaknesses of being female and I like her characters because they all embrace their ink patch: like, they fuck up all the time, but they can’t help it. That’s what I like about her writing as well as her movies.
I also want to read something written by Zadie Smith, I once read an interview with her and it was so good that I felt the urge to do that. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is also on my to-be-read-list. In general I want to read more female writers.
Are you working on something new to be published?
I wrote another short story that’s already been on the radio and I have also been writing a few theatre plays after Vuurpijlen Vangen was published. Because the book has been such a success, it’s not as easy to work on the next one. I just don’t want to feel the pressure. I have to take all these new labels off of me, calm down and then tell what needs to be told. Right now I don’t know if it’s going to be a novel or maybe a book for children or young adults and I don’t want to put a label on it. So I just try to be free with whatever comes next. Luckily my publisher just lets me be and isn’t pushing me whatsoever.
After Köhler has answered our last question, we turn off our antique tape recorder. Before it is time to go our separate ways again, we chat a little bit more about, well, cats mostly. Köhler is also super kind to donate her Dutch edition of Vuurpijlen Vangen so Maritza can have a signed copy as well, since her own edition was on her ereader. Last but not least we take some epic selfies before we give Karen Köhler a goodbye hug and, finally, part ways.
Interview written by Elsbeth van der Ploeg and Maritza Dubravac. Special thanks to Uitgeverij Podium and photographer Julia Klug.