An interview with Ralf Rothmann When in writing the sparks fly

Ralf Rothmann’s literary work has received numerous awards, most recently the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize in February 2013. In an interview he tells how his texts originate in an inner necessity and sometimes even surprise him himself.

Ralf Rothmann; © Heike Steinweg / Suhrkamp Verlag Ralf Rothmann | © Heike Steinweg / Suhrkamp Verlag Mr Rothmann, what does writing mean for you?

First of all, working with language. That sounds more sober than it is in practice, because in the confrontation between what I envisage and what the language wants the most marvellous sparks can fly. And then too writing is always a struggle against one’s own stupidity.

What does reading mean for you?

Pure happiness – when I’m reading real literature, that is, not again one opinion among countless others, when the text makes me compassionate or inspires my admiration and possibly helps me on my way. The last may be a bit frowned upon, but literature is also always life counselling, regardless of the content, alone through the quality of the writing.

How did you start writing?

Through reading, especially after reading Hermann Hesse’s books in my youth. That clear morning light in his sentences, that smiling seriousness and the refreshing un-Germanness of his work – written in a German that couldn’t be more elegant and supple! I then at some point felt the impulse: this is something I too want to do – in my own way.

If you compare your way from mason to writer with that of young people today who study “creative writing”...

I know no one who’s studied that. It may help, but I think the experiences that are relevant for writing aren’t got in the seminar room, not even when it comes to skills. The craftsmanship never exits in isolation from the author’s inner necessity, from his passion and his mystery, and if someone teaches you how a good short story is constructed, this knowledge can actually harm your own proper form of expression. And then you have again to shovel yourself out from under the rules. Stand on the highway and hitchhike across Mexico – that’s probably a better school for writing.

Your publications include mainly novels and short stories, but also poems and a play. Do you feel an affinity to any particular form?

No, because every subject brings with it its own form. You write simply what’s on, what’s knocking at the door or what you’re dying to do, and trust the language for the rest, its musical spirit. All its parts – sound, rhythm, colour, sense, nonsense and grammatical structure – have the natural aim of producing a whole. And whether that’s then poetry or prose – who cares?

Your reviewers’ characterizations of you range from “Christologist” and “social romantic” to “master spy of alien inner lives”. They praise your narrative virtuosity, your precision, your love of mankind. You are, they say, a writer who “aims at the moment and hits the universal”. Do you recognize yourself in these descriptions?

Not really, nor do I wish to. I simply do my work, help my experiences to find their expression and things to find their perspective, and I’m myself always surprised again and again at what comes out in the end. That’s often the beautiful, the marvellous thing about writing: in the course of the work you’re given something that goes far beyond what you imagined.

How would you describe the attitude out of which you write?

Quite simply: to give joy, to get joy.

Animals appear repeatedly in your texts. What role do they play for you?

No idea, they’re simply there, as they are in the street or in the forest. What’s so unusual about that? Recently I read a story by Carson McCullers: in it, a man stands at the window and sees a dog walking by backwards. Backwards! And no one finds this worth mentioning. But when I have a dog walk forwards through an image, everyone asks me what it’s supposed to mean ...

Your latest collection of short stories is entitled Shakespeares Hühner (i.e., Shakespeare’s Chickens). You put this expression in the mouth of one of your characters when she’s reflecting on Shakespeare: “Compared with the cares and needs of his dark figures, we’re really only chickens, aren’t we?” Do you think literary characters are more interesting than people?

Well, I probably wouldn’t be a writer then ... Literary figures are only the watermark of our desires, fears and opportunities, and help us retighten our own contours. The young girl who speaks the quoted sentence is just finding her way in life, and she hasn’t chosen the worst thing to read to this end. If I want to know what’s going on, what the world of human beings is like, I don’t watch the news or read a political magazine. I listen to Mozart or read Shakespeare.

Would you tell us what you’re working on now?

If it works out, it could become a novel about my father. I wanted to write one twelve years ago, but then it become, in accordance with her dominant nature, a novel about my mother. So, let’s do it again!