Lutz Seiler A literary late-starter

A modest winner type: Lutz Seiler, winner of the 2014 German Book Prize.
A modest winner type: Lutz Seiler, winner of the 2014 German Book Prize. | Photo (detail): © Claus Setzer

He used to work as a bricklayer and carpenter before he discovered, and became fascinated by, the world of literature. Lutz Seiler was awarded the 2014 German Book Prize for his debut novel “Kruso”.

Lutz Seiler is a reticent man to whom everything boisterous is foreign. Yet he is also a winner type, a literary winner type. When he received the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 2007, the insiders on that scene were not particularly surprised. Things were the same in 2014, when Lutz Seiler immediately became the undisputed favourite for the German Book Prize soon after the shortlist was publicised. And he triumphed again. Although triumph is not the right word for him. When his name was announced, the cameras could not get a picture of his face, lost as it was in the embrace of his wife. Later, on the panel, he had to suppress a few tears, and the fact that he was somewhat choked with emotion was authentic.

Lutz Seiler is not a shy person, however. He is a willing interview partner, he is eloquent, his statements thoughtful, and he looks his interview partner and the camera straight in the eye. He even puts up resistance if necessary. Hearing Kruso – the debut novel for which he was awarded the 2014 German Book Prize – being repeatedly called a “Wenderoman”, a novel about the German turnaround, Seiler retorted quite forcefully: It was not a “Wenderomen”, but a novel about a friendship between two men.

Literature played no role at all

Lutz Seiler was born in Gera, Thuringia, in 1963. He grew up in a household where literature played no role at all. Having done an apprenticeship as a miner, he first worked as a bricklayer and carpenter. Even as a young adult he was anything but bibliophile. “I only started reading when I was 21 years old, while serving in the army. I started writing at the same time. To this very day I’m still not sure why. Literature didn’t really interest me,” Lutz Seiler writes in an essay. While in the National People’s Army of the GDR he came upon some books, including a volume of poems by Peter Huchel. It was here that his initiation experience took place. He then started studying German, in Halle and Berlin. His first attempts were at poetry, and he was successful with it from the beginning. His first volumes of poetry were published: for example, berühtgeführt (touchedled) in 1996, Pech und Blende (Fire and brimstone) in 2000 and Vierzig Kilometer Nacht (40 Kilometres of Night) in 2003. Suhrkamp took Lutz Seiler on as an author and the culture sections of the media showered praise on him. Various juries then awarded him the corresponding prizes: the Kranichsteiner Literature Prize, the Anna Seghers Prize, the Bremen Literature Prize.

“I withdraw into the writing cave”

By that time, Lutz Seiler had long since adapted his lifestyle to the profession of writer. He has lived in Peter Huchel’s house in Wilhelmshorst near Berlin since 1996. Huchel’s widow had entrusted him with the keys to the almost enchanted looking building with its lush garden. All this seems very consistent, including the reclusive life he leads there. Lutz Seiler needs seclusion; his writing is expressive of the greatest concentration. This also applies to his second residence in Stockholm, home of his current wife. “Even when I’m in Stockholm I behave as if I were in a village, I don’t go out much, I withdraw into the writing cave,” he said in an interview shortly before the presentation of the German Book Prize. Experience requires a lot of time until it engenders a poem or a piece of literary prose – and Lutz has a lot of experiences to work on. His story Turksib, with which he won in Klagenfurt in 2007, is based on a train trip to Kazakhstan in 2001. It is a puzzling story in a tone that is typical of him, with descriptions of sounds, fragrances and images that all become little stories, as if in slow motion and somehow timeless.

The story of a friendship

Everything takes time, and an author’s writing process is no exception. It took a long time for Lutz Seiler to decide to write a novel at all. It was in summer 2010. The intention was to exploit the theme of Turksib for a novel, but nothing seemed to want to happen. Then his wife suggested using the time that he had spent as a casual labourer on Hiddensee in summer 1989 as the starting point for a story. This idea led him to the German Book Prize. “I had never really intended to write a book about it,” Lutz Seiler confesses. “It’s often like that. At first you don’t regard what you have experienced yourself as particularly exotic or interesting.” It’s also not the case that in Kruso he simply wrote down his personal experiences. “You have the material provided by your own experience, but then you march right into something invented. Literature requires something totally different. But you need the staring point, so that you can march on in there, into the realm of the fantastic.” Kruso tells the story of the friendship between Ed and the Utopian Kruso, who becomes a kind of guru for intellectuals driven out of the GDR and shares his ideas about freedom with them. Lutz Seiler once described himself as a “Spätling”, a late-comer. His arrival on the German literary landscape has been at just the right time.