Interview with Tasja Dorkofikis, PEN Atlas editor
You have chosen America as the location of your novel. The sense of landscape and place is very powerful and very different from Switzerland. Why America for a Genevois? And why the small town of Aurora?
I love the area of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. I’ve been going there every summer for 25 years. I know the area like home. I particularly spent lots time in the town of Stonington, Maine. I also like the town of Bar Harbor – in my book, I modelled the town of Somerset on the layout of Bar Harbor.
My cousins, who live in Washington DC, have a house in Stonington. So I didn’t really choose to go to that town, it just came naturally because of my childhood. How many times I’ve crossed New England, specifically Massachusetts and New Hampshire, to get to Stonington! So I put those places in my book in order to share them with my readers in Europe. To show them which regions and settings live within me.
Your book is written from the perspective of an American writer. Is American literature important to you? Who do you admire there?
I admire John Steinbeck since Of Mice and Men is the first book that bowled me over. I am also a fan of Philip Roth. He is probably the greatest contemporary writer. Reading his work, you retrace the story of America over the last 50 years.
Are you anxious about how the US audience will receive your novel?
I hope that my American readers will feel at home, and will grant me the privilege of being accepted as an author who writes about America, without being American myself.
Your novel is a true and seamless mixture of genres: crime, roman noir, psychological drama. What did you set out to write?
I set out to write a story about a small town. What happens to Nola is obviously terrible, but it’s a ‘banal’ crime. How many children disappear in the world every day? I didn’t want to tell a story about a crime but a story about banality, in its most sordid aspects. Although there is indeed an investigation in the book, I don’t think of it as crime fiction. If you take out the investigation, there is still a story.
Nothing is the way it seems in your novel, and you are a master plotter. The reader is forever surprised and newly convinced by clever twists and turns of the plot. Did you know all along who committed the crime, or did you surprise yourself?
I did not have a plan before I started writing the book. The pleasure for me was simply to invent the story as I went along, and to see how the events unfolded.
Your characters remain morally ambivalent which is fascinating for readers and also makes them want to continue reading until the end of the 700 or more pages. Would you be able to tell us why you chose this approach to your characters?
I wanted to write a story that people would read like they watch their favourite TV series: voraciously, always wanting to know what happens next. I was passionate about my characters, and I hope that shows in the book. The writer has to be the first one to be passionate about the story, otherwise how else can he expect readers to be passionate about it?
Your novel discusses the concept of celebrity, fame and infamy. And it satirises the publishing industry to a certain extent. Do you see modern celebrities as victims or winners?
It’s not so much that the book talks about the concept of celebrity as about the perception of celebrity by people of my generation. It’s as if achieving celebrity status is a sign of social success, when in fact, achieving celebrity status is social endangerment. I think that’s the main question of my book. He who becomes a celebrity loses a part of himself. Whether he likes it or not, he becomes obligated to share a bit of himself with those who know him and recognise him.
Your novel has won many literary prizes and has enjoyed great international success. Why do you write? Has this success changed how you see your role?
For me, the best part of this experience is when I receive messages from my readers, especially young readers, who tell me they weren’t big readers, but that my book has got them started and now they want to read more books. I think it’s very important to encourage young people to read.
Are there any other young Swiss writers you would like to recommend to British readers and publishers? Or French writers?
My favourite French writers are Romain Gary and Marguerite Duras. Gary’s work and his stories touch me more than anyone else’s. Marguerite Duras because I like her style. You get the impression that there’s not one word too many, that her sentences are perfect constructions, as if each word were a brick and if you took one out the whole work would fall apart.
About the editor
Tasja Dorkofikis is editor of PEN Atlas and a freelance editor and publicist. She has previously worked as a publicity director at Random House and Associate Publisher and Commissioning Editor for Portobello Books. Tasja divides her time between London and a small village in Vaud in Switzerland.