The Art of Writing Interview with Felicitas Hoppe

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Image courtesy of Felicitas Hoppe

On her first trip to South Africa, German writer Felicitas Hoppe held a public conversation with highly renowned local author Ivan Vladislavic at the Goethe-Institut’s New South African Voices literary series. Journalist Mary Corrigall spoke to Hoppe.

Felicitas Hoppe’s first trip to South Africa may have been brief but in this short time she ignited interest in her curious brand and approach to literature. Hoppe visited schools and universities, fielding questions about her work and life, and appeared on a number of panels at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. The most highly anticipated event was a public conversation she had with Ivan Vladislavic that formed part of the Goethe-Institut’s ongoing New South African Voices programme. Titled The Art of Writing, the dialogue between these celebrated authors was centred not only on their craft but on the common threads that unite their bodies of work or the disparities, revealing the ways in which South African and German literature overlap and diverge from each other and how writers are ultimately shaped by geography, place.
While Vladislavic suggested that his writing was primarily stimulated by his desire to reconcile his identity or the loss thereof in the fast-changing and turbulent city of Johannesburg, Hoppe explained that her often fantastical works provided an escape from her “happy upbringing” in Hamelin, a seemingly unchanging city that offered little drama from which her writing could feed off. She has never written about Hamelin, the city famous for the mythological Pied Piper, or any city she has inhabited, even Berlin where she has been based for decades.
Hoppe thrives on invention and play, though her very varied and unusual body of work is also characterised by a reliance on fact. The most recent and most talked about example of this is 'Hoppe' (2012), a fictional autobiography in which she reinvents her life story, remodelling or rewriting it into one inspired by her childhood daydreams. Hoppe is somewhat of a literary anarchist. She plays with forms, linguistic conventions, genres, time periods and the rules of storytelling itself. Instead of raising the ire of the German literary establishment, she has been showered with many accolades including the most prestigious literary prize in German literature, the Georg Büchner Prize in 2012. 
Mary Corrigall: You have famously said that your fictional autobiography 'Hoppe' is more truthful than one that would have been factually based. Could you explain this statement?
Felicitas Hoppe: It sounds confusing but the explanation is simple. It comes with the anatomy (of storytelling). If you want to see something clearly you have to step away. It is like travelling. When you travel away from home you understand your home better, you know what it means. In 'Hoppe' I imagined growing up in another country. I always felt I could hide my proper ego in these new sceneries, but I found that the further away from my own reality I went the more I saw myself and it was a shock. I could set my stories in the jungle or South Africa but there will always be me (present in them).
MC: Why is it so important for us to draw lines between fact and fiction; what does authenticity mean in the realm of fiction, given we are only willing to buy into a work of fiction if it seems plausible, real?
FH: The concept of authenticity is a complicated one. Memory is unreliable. Even if I wrote about my real life, recalling stories from childhood, they would not be the truth. It is by making up stories that you get closer to the truth.  Even as you get older you don’t know what life is; you keep making it up every day. There is a difference between a lie and fiction; fiction provides the means to come closer to the truth through storytelling or invention. Lying is a different thing; it is giving the wrong information on purpose and this is not literature.
MC: For all the ways in which you reinvent your life in 'Hoppe', you remain a writer. This gave you a chance to ‘review’ your own body of work and engage with it critically, which you said was very informative. However, was it also motivated by a childhood fantasy to become a writer?
FH: I never imagined myself becoming a writer, but have been writing since my early childhood. So, to imagine a life without writing seems impossible. But it is nothing special or a special talent. Only growing older I realised it is something that other people don’t do. There are so many other things I would have liked to do, but literature, writing has allowed me to come up with different versions of my life. Most authors pretend they write about other people and other lives, but deep down it is always about ourselves.
MC: In 'Hoppe' you took this to the extreme. Was this not psychologically traumatic, given you had to confront yourself?
FH: It took courage. This is why I wanted to stop writing it several times. It was an act of confrontation; this is why I never went for therapy. I would have been afraid of confrontation. There are moments like this with every book, where I want to stop writing, but it is a clear hint that I am coming close to something that is the truth.
MC: You seem to enjoy creating and delving into uncomfortable characters, and weighing in on the contradictions inherent to them. I am thinking here of your novel Johanna (‘Joan’, 2006), based on the life of Joan of Arc.

FH: Authors tend to straighten out characters because they want to make them interesting in a literary sense. Writers often create contradictions in their characters but only to the extent that they are compatible for literature. Life is often much more surprising than literature. What I loved about Joan of Arc is that she is so radical, a phenomenon of her times and the history of mankind. She was sort of a terrorist and I wanted to work with this idea. While reading The Protocol, the transcript of her trial, I was impressed and moved by how she  defended herself against the majority; all men, all academics. She is arrogant, terrible and shocking but she is not selfish. We can’t understand her anymore. This provokes us. She believes in a different world and what is here doesn’t count that much. We have to look for redemption here and now and she doesn’t care and that gives her freedom. She is pretty cool.