Interview with Tasja Dorkofikis, PEN Atlas editor.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire.
All Days Are Night describes a woman, who is a television host, recuperating after a car crash which killed her husband and left her face disfigured beyond recognition. Seeing yourself and being seen by others, the body and identity are major subjects of this novel. Why did you choose the subject of image and self-image? Do you think that women often end up existing through the image others have of them?
I think we all do. Our self-image is crucially influenced by how others react to us, perceive us and reflect us back to ourselves. We’re social animals, after all. But I’ve noticed at readings from the book that women think more about the subject, are more interested in it. Men present themselves in a more naïve way, in fact they usually even fall for their presentations of themselves. I can’t really say why I chose the subject for my book. I think all writers have their subjects that pursue them for their whole lives. I had a project on the same subject ten years ago, but a very different story. That novel never came about, sadly, but the subject refused to go away.
You describe the difficulties of relationships at the early-to-middle stage of one’s life in your other books, notably in the novel Seven Years. Why are you interested in couples during this vulnerable period? Do you think that Gillian and Matthias’s relationship would have lasted and survived to old age?
I’d have to write a new book to know that. But I wouldn’t rate their chances too highly. In other words: I’d want them to split up with decency because the relationship clearly isn’t working. In my writing, I’m interested in crises because it’s easier to recognise people in crises. But I think there are crises at every age. My first books were more about young people looking for relationships. Now that I’ve reached middle age I’m writing books about middle-aged people. And when I get old I might write about the problems of aging and death. Or I might just stick to gardening.
Hubert, the second main character in this novel, is a painter, whose most successful series of paintings showed naked women performing the most mundane tasks of everyday life. The relationship between the artist and his subject is essential here. Would you compare it to the relationship the writer has with his/her characters?
For the book, I had my portrait done by a painter friend, to find out what it feels like to be a model. And I also once tried writing with a model, but that didn’t really work. There are some parallels between my writing and painting and I have as many friends who are painters as writer-friends. But there are also big differences. My image of my characters isn’t primarily visual. I slip inside their minds and try to feel the way they do. The painter’s position, by contrast, seems to me to be a purely external one.
Your books mostly deal with everyday life and small everyday events. Why are you interested in describing the ordinary rather than the dramatic side of life?
I’m going to go back to painting again now. No painter who takes himself seriously would ever think of painting Miss Universe. What they do is paint the people around them: their wives, their children, their landlady. Even landscape painters don’t paint the world’s most amazing landscapes but often those they find outside their front door. It’s not primarily a question of content; it’s more about how the picture is painted. If you choose extreme subjects there’s a risk that they take on too much weight. And when it comes to people, I think they’re easier to recognise in everyday life. We’re all similar in extreme situations. But we’re most ourselves in everyday life, in the little things. In the moments when nobody’s looking.
When writing ‘Sweet Dreams’, one of the stories in We Are Flying, you told your editor: ‘I’m writing a story about a woman who buys a corkscrew.’ How do you choose which moment to focus on in your stories, and which detail of everyday life is important to you and your characters?
I go through life with my eyes open and suddenly a situation leaps out at me and I know I want to make a story out of it. The corkscrew wasn’t what I was interested in for the story, of course. I saw a young couple on a bus and I was touched by how they acted together. They came across a little like an old couple, very serious, as if they were playing at being grown up. It made me think of the time when I was their age and setting up a home for the first time and buying things and thought I’d found the woman I’d be with for the rest of my life.
Three of your books are short story collections and you are known as the master of this genre. Why are you attracted to the short story form? Is this form popular in Swiss literature?
No, unfortunately the short story is no longer very popular in German-language literature. I’ve often compared them to chamber music, which I also like very much. You only have a few voices but you do hear every note. And because they’re short, you can achieve a level of perfection that’s almost impossible in novels. I’ve written a few short stories that are like pictures, in which plot plays barely any role and the atmosphere takes centre stage. And you can try things out in short stories that would become tiring very quickly in a novel. For example, I wrote a story in the second person and one with very fast changes of perspective, sometimes in the same sentence. I’ve been meaning for a long time to go more towards ‘prose poetry’ and write even shorter pieces.
Who are your literary influences?
Actually, every book a writer reads is a literary influence. Sometimes books you don’t like influence you more because you realise from them what you don’t want to do. And because bad books are easier to see through than good ones. The first writers who had a positive influence on me were Henrik Ibsen and Edgar Allan Poe, who I read at a very early age. Later came Ernest Hemingway, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, also Albert Camus, Cesare Pavese and Anton Chekhov. I like Robert Walser, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Heinrich von Kleist a great deal, and in poetry Joseph von Eichendorff. And many, many more.
You have published nine books in Switzerland in German and they were all translated into English by Michael Hoffman. How do you work with him and with your other translators?
Michael asks very few questions. I think he simply understands my books and has found an English voice for them. I like him a lot and when we meet we talk about all sorts of things – just not much about the translations. Other translators ask me more questions. I think it’s a question of temperament. I’ve now started making a list for the translators to go with every book, for example the origin of the quotes or any mistakes that have been corrected since the first edition.
Are there any other young Swiss writers you would like to recommend to readers and publishers abroad?
It’s kind of you to call me a ‘young Swiss writer’ – I’m 52 now. I’m afraid I have to admit I read less than I’d like to. And it doesn’t matter to me where a writer comes from, so I don’t tend to prefer Swiss authors. Tim Krohn is a good friend of mine but I don’t think he’s been translated into English. Markus Werner is a wonderful writer but not quite young any more; he turned 70 last year. He’s translated by Michael Hoffman too. And Klaus Merz, whose 70th birthday is this year, is another great writer.
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.