Questions from Gary Oswald
Historical discussion and fiction is a large and healthy community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.
First of all, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to us Tanja. For those of our audience not familiar with your work, you're a very popular writer of Historical fiction (among other genres) in your native German language. What's the appeal to you about Historical fiction?
It's a mixture of parallels and contrasts to the present. Depending on the era and the people in question, with more or less amount of speculation - i.e. we know far more about the nineteenth century than, say, the eighth AD - but in every case, there's is a unique society to explore which nonetheless still shares elements with our own.
Who would you say are your biggest influences as writers?
Not in the sense of me wanting to write like them, but in terms of having some of my ideas and language shaped by them: Lion Feuchtwanger and Christa Wolf, probably.
Your first novel was published in 1990. What's your opinion on how the rise of the internet in the thirty years since has affected the publishing market and are you optimistic about its future?
On the one hand: there's certainly a lot of damage to the publishing industry that came with the rise of the internet, and I'm not just talking about pirated downloads and a huge number of people getting used to the idea that they can get books for free. There's also the way prices for books that are still sold get lower and lower; in Germany, we have the "Buchpreisbindung" - "net book agreement" or "book price fixing" are I think the English terms - for which I'm grateful every day of my life, but I don't know how long it'll last.
On the other hand: discussing books - both newly published and old ones - with people all over the world in real time is something that's only possible via the internet. Online book clubs, blogs, debate forums - all this is a union of older and newer media that's beneficial for both. I found out about books I might otherwise not have heard of for years via the internet. So there's this side, too, and my inner optimist hopes it will prevail.
Our writers are mostly amateurs with full time jobs as well as writing stuff for small press publishing, what would be your advice for writers in that position in terms of turning it into a career?
As I myself have been fortunate enough to be published and live by it before I finished university, meaning I didn't have to do two jobs at once, I cannot give good advice on that count. I hasten to add this might not always be true for me, because the pandemic has cut me off a part of my income. A friend of mine in the same position who has a family to support is now working as a teacher, and as for me, I was glad for the very few readings last year that didn't get cancelled and I was able to do, plus for every speaking engagement.
A lot of your work is about dark moments in German History that have maybe been somewhat forgotten. You've written about the post Napoleonic War repression of German nationalism, the Red Army Faction and the medieval Witch Hunts.
If you'll allow me some nitpicking, the novel which deals with the witch hunts is set in the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages. (I don't want any medievalists coming after me after reading this interview - I KNOW it wasn't a medieval phenomenon! I don't claim otherwise!)
From the outside the most known areas of German History are the 30 Years War and the World Wars and you seem to avoid those time periods.
Actually, my novel "Unter dem Zwillingsstern" starts in 1918 and ends in 1945, which means it does include not only the fallout of WWI and the Third Reich but also WWII, and I've written short stories set in both the 30 Years War and near the end of WWI.
Was there a deliberate choice to try and focus on areas that get less attention in fiction?
I unabashedly love discovering eras and people that aren't yet widely covered, like Mandukhai, see below, or about an obscure figure like Andromeda the freedwoman who used to be owned by one of Augustus' granddaughters, and who only shows up in a paragraph in Pliny's Natural History. However, sometimes I get fascinated by a well known figure such as Eleanor of Acquitaine, and I certainly don't allow popularity to hold me back.
How much Historical research do you normally do in terms of reading diaries, letters etc. before trying to capture a Historical figure such as Jacob Grimm or Walther von der Vogelwide? Novelists obviously have far more leeway than historians in terms of judging motives but how important is it to you that the character you write is recognizable as the historical character?
I usually spend far more time researching than actually writing. On average, I need two years for a book, and that's one and a half years of research and half a year of writing, rewriting, proofreading etc. If there are primary sources like diaries and letters, I try to find them, which obviously isn't always possible. I.e. Jacob Grimm and his brother Wilhelm have left us volumes of accessible correspondence, whereas there is only one non-literary reference to Walther von der Vogelweide written during his life time in existence. Memoirs, newspaper articles (if newspapers already existed), books on the eating and clothing habits of the era, all of these are important for me in order to get a feeling for the world my fictional versions of the characters live in.
In the end, though, what I'm writing is fiction, not a documentary where every bit of speculation as to be footnoted. It's also my personal, highly subjective impression, no matter how much research I've done. Meaning: I once had a chat with another German writer of historical fiction who was upset because in my Walther von der Vogelweide novel, one of the minor villains was a character dear to her and who was her hero in one of her own novels. We both had our reasons for the different opinion we'd formed of this person, and she certainly felt that my version wasn't hers. But she could see how I had come to see the man the way I did. And that perhaps answers your question - I don't need everyone to agree with the fictionalized versions of historical people I offer, but I do hope they'll see these versions as plausible characters in themselves and based on factoids, not made up on thin air.
Do you find writing original non historical characters easier or harder without having to try and capture a real person?
It depends. Writing about 20th century real people - as I did in "Unter dem Zwillingsstern" - let alone about real people who existed within my own life time - which happened in "Schlaf der Vernunft" (that's the one dealing with the Red Army Faction) - is far harder than writing about real people who lived in centuries past, because I'm very aware there are still children, grandchildren and in rare cases the people themselves are still around, so in these cases, I find it easier to make completely fictional people the main characters, and give the characters based on real people only cameos or supporting roles. On the other hand, creating a main character without any historical basis in a historical setting, which I've also done, means both more liberty (the character does only what needs to happen for the story, I don't have to explain anything I don't mean to happen) and more work (I have to develop this character from a basic idea to a three dimensional person with complete life, whether or not I intend to narrate the entire life or just a brief excerpt).
Some of the historical figures you've chosen to focus books on such as Mandukhai of Mongolia or James Hemmings are relatively obscure though fascinating figures. Is there anyone else whose story you've stumbled on and thought that this person deserves a novel about them but nobody has written it yet?
Yes, and one of them I've just written an 800 plus pages novel about. However, as I'm still in the process of negotiating with publishers about this novel, I can't tell you the subject.
Here's another, though: Elisabet Ney (1833 - 1907), one of the earliest female sculptors who were able to support themselves by their craft. She studied in Munich and Berlin, had her first big successes in Germany, then emigrated to Texas of all the places, where she became so successful that there's even a museum devoted to her, the first one devoted to a female artist.
In terms of Mandukhai, as a woman do you find yourself in particular drawn to trying to tell the stories of historical women who contemporary chroniclers maybe focused on less?
Yes, though in her case, there were two additional incentives. Firstly, I found her story in a book covering over 300 years of Mongolian history, and while there were a lot of interesting women described there, most of them had tragic lives and ended in defeat. I'm not one to shy from a dark ending, but I have to admit I found it immensely appealing that Mandukhai ended her days as far as we know happily, not deposed or betrayed. Secondly, not only did she herself manage to gain power in such a patriarchal society as the Mongols, but simultaneously, in China, in an even more patriarchal society, there was also a woman in charge, the Emperor's Consort, Lady Wan. Having two main characters who rose against the odds and were mostly political opponents but also shared some qualities was a fantastic constellation to write about.
Historical fiction often takes a certain amount of liberty with Historical events but the audience expects for the bare bones of real history to still happen. I know you've shown an interest in counterfactual thought experiments before, would you ever consider writing a full Alternate History Novel where things change dramatically from real history or do you not think your audience would accept that?
I think it would, but I would have to make it very clear from the get go that this is an Alternate History, not an alternative interpretation; in my experience, what readers really don't like is feeling betrayed. Obviously, this is easy when you
write a scenario where the turn to an alternate path has already caused such a big change on the outset that everyone knows this never happened, like Christianity remaining a minor cult and Mithras worship instead becoming the major religion of the late Roman Empire, or Aztecs conquering Europe. Whereas if you just take the life of someone whose existence isn't known by all and sunder and let it go this way instead of that way, a first time reader might not know any better, believe this is what really happened and resent the author later upon finding out that no, it didn't. For example, before the musical Hamilton, my guess is you'd be hard pressed to find many people in Germany who knew anything about Alexander Hamilton at all, and the number of readers who could name more 19th century US presidents other than Abraham Lincoln would also be severely limited. So if I'd written a novel in which Hamilton doesn't die in a duel but two decades later becomes President after all in his old age, and I wouldn't have added all the disclaimers right at the start, I bet a great many potential German readers would have believed exactly this happened.
Still, were I to write an entire counterfactual novel, I would probably go for something on the personal scale rather than for major world building such as "Christian Europe never happens". Two favourite novellas of mine both let encounters happen which never did - in Christa Wolf's "Kein Ort. Nirgends", early 19th century writers Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderode meet, and in Peter Henisch's "Vom Wunsche, Indianer zu werden", Franz Kafka meets Karl May - and by exploring how such a meeting could have gone, are able to explore the characters in a way only this counterfactional construction allows.
In 2017, your book 'the Puppeteers' was adapted into a two part TV Film by Rainer Kauffman. What were your feelings about seeing your work on the small screen? Are you happy with how it turned out?
I was able to visit the shooting one day, and that visit was a great experience, especially the conversations with both crew and actors, and to see how involved and dedicated they were. And the cinematography of the finished two parter was gorgeous. As for the content, well, let me put it this way: it was inspired by my novel. Some of the changes came because of the change of medium, and I was prepared for them; for example, a character who in my novel only shows up in one chapter but does tremendous harm to the hero and thus is in his thoughts often in the two parter is promoted to main antagonist and thus much more around on screen. Other changes were harder for me to take, such as a central relationship in the novel being the exact opposite of the relationship as presented in the tv two parter. But in the end, I consider the tv two parter to be its own version and story, to be judged on its own merits.
Sadly, none of your books have been translated into English as of yet, what are the technical issues in doing that and do you have any ambitions towards that happening in the future?
I would love for it to happen, and both my publishers and I have been trying for years, but so far without success. As for the reasons: firstly, while in Germany we love reading translations from different languages, and at any given time in the year if you look at our bestselling fiction lists you can bet there are some Scandinavians, some translation from English and at least one Italian among them, the US market by and large is shying away from translations. Not least because less and less people in both American and British publishing houses speak another language, and so if they consider buying the licence rights of a foreign language novel, they have to rely on short summaries in English. Secondly, and I was told this point blank: "The only thing Americans are interested in about German history are Nazis." I don't believe this is true based on the Americans I know - and for that matter, I haven't just written about German history - , but that's what you hear in the industry. But I haven't given up yet, and I will keep trying.
More generally, what are your current and future projects our readers should look out for?
In addition to the 800 plus novel about the mystery subject , there are two possible film versions for two very different novels of mine talked about currently. I don't want to jinx anything, and also, I remember that the time between the rights to "The Puppeteers" being sold to the time it was actually filmed was over a decade. But it would be great if either project works out, and if both, I'll be on Cloud 9.