An Interview with Judith Hermann “Lots of Riddles” – The Fascination of Short Stories

Since her debut volume “Summerhouse, later” (“Sommerhaus, später”, 1998), Judith Hermann has been acclaimed as a master of the short story. In the meantime she has published two more collections of stories: “Nothing But Ghosts” (“Nichts als Gespenster”, 2003) and “Alice” (2009). In an interview she reveals how her short stories originate.

Judith Hermann; © Cordula Giese Judith Hermann | © Cordula Giese Mrs. Hermann, what is the fascination of short story writing for you?

Most of all perhaps the incomplete, the vague – the open end. In short story writing the story mainly begins after the story. The story is over and at the same time begins in the head of the reader; the reader has to finish the story himself.
There’s nothing of the know-it-all about the short story. It asserts little and usually has no moral. It leaves things in the air. I like that as a reader and also as a writer, perhaps because deciding things is so difficult for me, perhaps because in writing a short story I don’t have to decide on a particular ending.

But somehow every story has to come to an end …

Of course, every short story has an ending, but this ending often raises more questions than it answers. Short story writing seeks to fix a moment. Life is full of such tiny moments that we want to salvage and that apparently harbor a mystery, their own great significance. Lots of riddles. Short stories are enigmatic; perhaps they also challenge us a bit. A reader once told me that at the end of every story she stands there in the rain – not a pleasant feeling, but for me an apt and beautiful image.

Have you always liked to read short stories?

Yes. I like the moment after the story, looking up from the book back into reality, the question of what the characters will do now, what will become of them. When I’ve finished reading a story, I can begin to locate the characters in my reality, to see whether I really know them, whether I know something about them. This happens without the book, in my head, freehand so to say. A novel accompanies the reader, it doesn’t let him go so soon. That’s also beautiful, but perhaps reading and thinking about a short story is freer.

Did you deliberately choose to write short stories.

Katja Lange-Müller once said that not the author decides about the length of a text, but rather the text does. And that’s true! In the best case the text takes on a life of its own and all by itself leads the writer to its ending. The ending then often comes unexpectedly and usually sooner than you thought it would.

When I began writing, I didn’t think about whether I wanted to write short stories or a novel. I wanted to tell a certain story and had no idea how long I would need to do so. My first story became a short story, and all the others afterwards. I’d have nothing against it if a text I was writing decided to turn out longer. But it doesn’t, and I think what I have to tell is so small that it would get lost in a novel.

How do your stories originate?

Each story has an autobiographical core, sometimes an image, a moment, sometimes a sentence that I hear. And I have the feeling that this sentence has a subtext, a double bottom, a second, important meaning. I note the sentence, and sometimes it grows into a story.

I find a character that could say the sentence, then another character to whom it could be said. And then there is a kind of backwards movement, the threads of the story unravel. I find the table where these two characters are sitting, the room where the table stands, the street outside the window, the reason that they’re there together, the reason for their parting. I need names; the names of the characters are like keys to the text. I need a title and a first sentence. And when I have all this, I attempt to set off. It’s like a small expedition for which I have to be fitted out. Sometimes then I get through – into the story, through it and back safely.

How do the short stories come together in one volume?

Yes – although I write short stories, they still belong together, as if, together, they then had to attempt to be a longer text. With all three of my books, after a certain number of stories I thought: This is now a book; these stories are enough and there won’t be another one for now. The stories are also all written one after the other; they belong to a time in my life.

Which stories are your favorites?

From Sommerhaus, später , probably “Sonja”. Perhaps because it’s so romantic. From Nichts als Gespenster “Kaltblau” (Cold Blue); I have the feeling that it’s a good short story. From Alice „Richard“, because it’s so inconspicuous, because nothing more happens and yet, in this story, the stories take a turn, the book starts to become lighter. And in and for itself perhaps “Micha”, because it was after “Micha” that I decided to write the book Alice in the first place.