An Interview with Matthias Politycki

Originally published in Words Without Borders


Matthias Politycki, born in 1955, has published over twenty novels and poetry collections. He is ranked among the most successful literary authors writing in German. His books have sold over 200,000 copies and have been translated into several languages, including French and Italian. Next World Novella (Jenseitsnovelle), translated from German by Anthea Bell will be published by Peirene Press in February 2011.

Hinrich takes his existence at face value. His wife, on the other hand, has always been more interested in the after-life. Or so it seemed. When she dies of a stroke, Hinrich goes through her papers, only to discover a totally different perspective on their marriage. Thus commences a dazzling intellectual game of shifting realities.

Lucy Popescu: When did you first become a writer and why?

Matthias Politycki: It was at about the age of fifteen, sixteen, when we—me and my football-friends—all fell in love with the same girl. All in vain, of course. Some of us couldn’t help but start writing, even daring to read their stuff to the rest of the group: first contact with lyrics and wine, great evenings out in the woods! Seems that I just forgot to stop writing when the next girl appeared on the horizon.

LP: What inspired you to write Next World Novella?

MP: Believe it or not, I dreamt the beginning of the story, woke up in the middle of the night, terrified, but was inspired in the very same second; I knew I only could get rid of that nightmare by writing it all down, bringing it to the most horrible end. Maybe that’s what I always do, trying to overcome my fears or longings by putting them into a story, making the story as fast and light as possible—in order to overcome the initial shock. In the case of Next World Novella I wanted to overcome the dream and the thoughts it evoked: about how it would be, one day, to find your spouse at home, dead, and how things could get even worse should you realise that he or she had died with some very absurd ideas about you, and that you cannot disprove them . . .  Writing, in this case, was the only way to reach out for a first smile after the catastrophe I had experienced in my imagination.

LP: Does the fact that you are bilingual affect your writing?

MP: Bilingual? I’m not even monolingual; the German language to me is a world of its own, an enormous fund of possibilities concerning style level, play with words, coined expressions from baroque poetry to contemporary slang—plus the opportunity to coin them yourself every now and then. To be honest, while writing I often feel that I lack the right word, the right sound, the most precise or elegant phrase for what I want to tell the reader. Maybe that’s what makes a “real” writer amongst authors?

LP: Do you become involved in the translation process of your work?

MP: If the translator likes to be accompanied by the author, I will gladly take the opportunity to discuss anything he/she wants. It often turns out that translating word by word misses the deeper meaning of what I want to say; discussing bits and pieces with a translator is fun and in the end gives me new ideas about my own book. But I don’t feel the need to discuss Next World Novella with my English translator Anthea Bell. I am just proud that someone as renowned as her liked the book from the very start and will give it an English feel!

LP: How do you turn your research into a novel? Do you use record cards? Diagrams? Character dossiers?

MP: Aren’t writers researching every day and for a whole lifetime? I basically use a simple notebook when I am out in the streets, I wouldn’t dare to go out without it even for a pub crawl in my home town! Being a writer means listening to what others say, quite often it’s much better than what you had noted at home beforehand. The rest of my research involves a lot of documents, photographs, even songs and things I’ve brought home from my travels abroad. Ah, and the main thing, of course, is a file with the construction plan of the book, as detailed as possible, corrected, revised and completed over years—you shouldn’t start building a house before you know where to put the final tile, should you?

LP: You told me that you like to write from personal experience rather than use an unfamiliar perspective in your fiction. Why is this? And how autobiographical are the stories you tell?

MP: Well, all my stories are autobiographically inspired, but when they come to be published, after numerous revisions, they do not feel autobiographical any longer, not at all. I don’t like writing, I feel happy when NOT having the urgent need to write; but every now and then I am forced to, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to overcome a certain experience, a certain shock that turned my life upside down all of a sudden, even though, let’s say, I only happened to see something as a chance spectator. It may be horrifying, absurd or grotesque—afterwards I just have to settle down and write about it in order to find my way back to my normal spirits. Without that primary impulse I would never start a novel or a poem or any other piece of literature; without it I could only produce texts, but not “write.”

LP: Who have been some of your biggest literary influences?

MP: Oh, the list is quite long. It starts with Kafka (in high school) and, at present, ends with Nabokov and Hemingway. One of my all-time heroes still is Lawrence Sterne. I always wanted to write in that witty way AND deep in the same moment as he did. And, yes, of course I was raised with fairy tales and poems from the German Romantics, and I still feel deeply, even at this age, a Romantic at heart.

LP: Your work has been described as “haunting” and “lyrical.” How does your work as a poet influence your novels?

MP: Well, in my younger days I would have liked to have become a drummer in a Rock band; I didn’t. But I still have a strong longing for rhythm—not only in my poems but also in anything I write. It’s quite simple: if the melody of a text doesn’t sound right to me I keep changing words, even the content sometimes, until I am satisfied. To be honest I am never totally satisfied. But for me, sound and style is the visiting card of a writer, and a writer has a moral duty to work on this.

LP: Does your journalistic experience add anything to your fiction?

MP: Though I have written quite a lot of essays and articles for newspapers, I don’t think of myself as a journalist. What REALLY adds a lot to my books, I hope, is the fact that my PhD studies focused on Nietzsche, meaning that I have a philosophical slant to my writing. So story-telling, apart from sharing an exciting plot with the reader, hopefully, can always be the means to something else, at best a conversation about things you wouldn’t talk about.

LP: What do you have planned next?

MP: I spent some months in London last year (and am heading for some more next spring), and I really fell in love with the city and its pubs. But not with its ales; to overcome the shock of a continental beer drinker I have started some profound research on Real Ale, and at the end it has turned into a humorous book, “London for Heroes. The Ale Trail—an ale tale,” which will be published in German next spring. Yes, it’s about ale, but about English pub culture as well and, maybe, even a little about the English identity—all from a Kraut’s perspective, of course.

LP: Who are some of the most exciting voices writing in German today?

MP: I have heard quite often that the British still think German literature is deep, without plot, and boring. Well, let me remind you of the world football championships of 2006 and 2010: Was it the same German “Panzers” playing football as you used to watch on TV decades before? And now, just imagine the same thing has happened in German culture—you wouldn’t believe it, would you? You’d be surprised at how “un-German” German literature can be today, how light and how witty, humorous, exciting . . . and yet still deep and profound.