Interview with Gerhard Henschel A novel as a Time Machine

Gerhard Henschel’s autobiographical novels work up his entire childhood and youth in 1960s to 1980s Germany.
Gerhard Henschel’s autobiographical novels work up his entire childhood and youth in 1960s to 1980s Germany. | Foto: © picture-alliance / dpa

Whether in the Kettcar toy cars or the Ahoj fizzy sweets, anyone born in 1960s Germany can relive many stages of their past life with Martin Schlosser, the protagonist in Gerhard Henschel’s chronicle novels.

Gerhard Henschel began working on his first autobiographical novel, Kindheitsroman (i.e. Childhood Novel), in 1996. When he created Martin Schlosser to embody his childhood in 1960s Germany, he never planned to work up his entire life in novel form. And yet he has found himself unable to stop. The seventh volume of his chronicle, Arbeiterroman (i.e. Worker’s Novel), was published in 2017. Henschel’s alter ego is now in his late twenties, has dropped out of university, and German reunification is on the horizon.

Henschel’s Schlosser novels take the reader on a journey through time. For Germans of his generation, it is an excursion into past with a lot of relatable experiences regardless of whether they, like Schlosser, grew up in Meppen in Emsland or somewhere further afield like Stuttgart. Henschel has already gone through three decades of German history from a subjective perspective in astonishing, daily detail. Such a precise reconstruction of an entire life – even if it is one’s own – is above all one thing: a lot of work.

Mr Henschel, what inspired you to have Martin Schlosser tell the story of your life in a novel?

In 1996, I reread Walter Kempowski’s novel Tadellöser & Wolff. I would really have liked to follow it up with a childhood novel written by someone from my own generation, but there were none. So I thought why not give it a try myself. Fortunately, I was blissfully unaware of how much work it would involve. The plan to add sequels to Kindheitroman was born much later.

Martin Schlosser’s personal life takes place against the real historical backdrop. Published in 2017, “Arbeiterroman” depicts a turbulent world in which German reunification is imminent, Nelson Mandela is released from prison after 27 years, and Pinochet is replaced as head of state in Chile. How much research was involved in reconstructing all this?

It takes a while to gather all the raw materials. Fortunately, I have a comprehensive archive I can rely on consisting of old letters, photo albums, notebooks, receipts, library tickets, and package inserts from medications. I also have a store of relatives and friends who are willing to work with me. Many of my characters give me information and sometimes improve the dialogues they are involved in. And when it comes to research on political, social or sporting events, movies, newspaper quotes, rail timetables, weather data, advertising slogans or lottery odds, the Internet is an inexhaustible gold mine.

So digitization and the Internet make your work easier?

The Internet has made research much easier, and it is also helpful to be able to search thousands of pages of a novel in seconds to see the last time you used the word “Rummelplatz” (i.e. fairground) or the Low-German phrase “Hol di fuchtig” (roughly “keep your chin up”), or how often Martin Schlosser has eaten milk noodles or lasagne.
 
Your novels read almost like diaries, rich in detailed description. Schlosser writes everything down, even the most insignificant dialogue on a smoke break during the late shift. You wrote “Arbeiterroman” almost twenty years after the events it describes took place. How did you manage to retain all that detail? You must have an incredible memory.

I used to keep sporadic diaries, but I always wrote a lot of letters and was able to get my hands on most of them. For Jever, my grandmother’s calendars and a telephone book from the time with all the doctors, opticians, pharmacies, butcher’s shops and supermarkets provided details. I also used correspondence from my parents’ estate and various editions of the Oldenburg city magazine Diabolo, for which I wrote at the time. It would have been much harder without these reminders, but fortunately I have a pretty solid memory myself as well.
 
One tends to think anyone who has ever crossed your path will show up in the novels at some point. I’m sure some have objected to being described in such precise detail – has there been some pushback?

Quite the opposite in fact. I have even rekindled some old friendships. Every now and then, someone will approach me after a reading and ask: “Do you remember me?” I’ve met lots of characters from my novels: someone who played on my C-youth team at the SV Meppen football club, a former colleague from the bar team at the Na Nu disco in Jever, or a woman named Gabi who was in my elementary school class in Vallendar on the Rhine. Andrea from the novels, whith whom I was involved for five years, had complete veto power over every sentence, but she signed off on everything. In the novel I am currently working on, Martin Schlosser falls in love with student Kathrin Passig, who wanted to keep her own name. She is now advising me how best to reconstruct our shared experiences.
 
How do you generally proceed when working on a novel? And when you write, do you listen to music that takes you back to the old days?

I don’t take a random approach. First I research, then I draft a clean copy. But questions arise while I’m writing, like what time did the final match in the 1990 World Cup kick off? Which episode of TV show Diese Drombuschs was Martin Schlosser’s grandmother watching when? I am happy when I successfully describe two days in one day of work, because it gives me hope that I might eventually catch up to myself in the present. At the moment, Thomas Tallis, Palestrina and Leonard Cohen’s last album, is the musical background against which I write. The song String Reprise/Treaty has been with me for months. I am pretty much living in it.
 
You have been referred to as the chronicler of the Federal Republic of Germany. Is Martin Schlosser a typical German?

I sincerely hope not. The typical German I am familiar with enjoys the music of pop singer Wolfgang Petry and TV goofball Oliver Pocher more than Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis.
 
How long does it take you to complete a Schlosser novel? Each volume is more than 500 pages long after all. Do you have time for other projects alongside the next, new novel?

A new novel comes out every 18 months or so. The next one, Dorfroman (i.e. Village Novel), is due in autumn 2018. This coming spring, photographer Gerhard Kromschröder and I will release a Temmen edition of the diary of a walking tour we took following in the footsteps of Wilhelm Busch this past May called Laubengänge (Walkways). We started in his birthplace Wiedensahl, visited the famous mill in Ebergötzen, and ended at his grave in Mechtshausen near Seesen. Together with my colleague Wenzel Storch, I have been working on a photo novel based on motifs from Catholic altar boys’ magazines. I work as a translator on the side to keep the home fires burning, and I like to take part in world events by submitting the occasional article to newspapers and magazines. We have to make time for such things.
 
You regularly give interviews. What question would you most like to be asked? And what would you answer?

I think you may be overestimating my willingness to give interviews. I don’t really do it on a regular basis. Recently, a radio station asked me to comment on the outcome of the state elections in Lower Saxony, and I had to pass, because I am not Günter Grass. I prefer not to have or express an opinion on most issues. But one question that I would really like to be asked is: “Would you accept me as your patron and allow me to relieve you of all your financial worries, so that you can devote the rest of your life to working on your cycle of novels in peace and quiet?” I would probably reply: “Be my guest”.
 

Gerhard Henschel

Author Gerhard Henschel was born in 1962, and has published novels, stories, non-fiction and satire. He also works as a German translator. In Germany, he is best known for his Schlosser novel series, seven volumes so far and counting. Born in the 1960s, first-person narrator Martin Schlosser takes the reader through his life and contemporary history in detail. Henschel has received several awards for his work, including the Georg K. Glaser Prize in 2015 and the Ben Witter Prize in 2017.