Interview with Tasja Dorkofikis, PEN Atlas editor.

Your books are steeped in history and historical events. In The Visitation, the main protagonist is a house, and you deal with the way its inhabitants are influenced by historical events. The main character in The End of Days cannot escape history either. Why is history so important to you and your fiction?

It was not my original idea to write about history when I started to write – but while working on my first stories, which were based on my family history, it became more and more clear to me that no private world exists beyond the so-called ‘big history’. There are so many stories in my family about fleeing, leaving things behind, separation of family members during the war – so there has always been a strong sense of the importance of politics in my family, a sense of what’s behind the small things in a single person’s life. You can see every family as a kind of kaleidoscope of mankind and, especially if you happen to be a writer, it’s like a treasure that nourishes you: gathered around the coffee table you will find all the different perspectives you need to understand things a bit more deeply. And of course all the changes I myself experienced after the fall of the wall were also very important for me to feel – not only to know, but to feel – what it means to be all of a sudden cut off from your origins.

How much research goes into your books? And how do you select which events you will use in your books?

It’s fascinating for me to find out how the life I’m writing about really felt. Not only when or where something took place, but what jokes were told, the smell of a building, the sound of someone’s laughter and so on. If I find a 70-year-old mosquito between the pages of a document, it’s also part of the research. I love to sit in archives, I love to talk to people, I love to read books, fiction and non-fiction – in order to find something I hadn’t been looking for. Research is an adventure and a gift – I consider it my privilege to have a profession that allows me to take the time to find those treasures and to pass them to the reader. Sometimes you might find things that are different from what you expected, but it’s always worth facing them and making something out of them rather than inventing something that fits your ideas better. In the end the choice of which factual material you put in the text depends on the heart of your thoughts. The research must work with the original concept to create the story you want to tell – and the story of course will be affected by the research.

The End of Days follows a family history in Eastern Europe before the First World War through the life of one woman. You are inventive with time and fate and your main character experiences many possible lives and outcomes. At the beginning the mother finds out ‘a day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days’. You imagine that your main character is saved and does not die as an eight-month-old baby and she grows up to experience various horrors of European 20th
-century history. Despite cheating fate, your character avoids death only for a short while.  Do you wonder whether in this case the early death would have been a preferable fate? And how do you choose this moment of possible change in a character’s life?

It’s not all about tragedy – it’s also about giving a new life to the main character in every chapter of the book and about the importance of different influences in different phases of her life, about decisions she makes herself and about how she manages to get through the hard times when decisions are made for her. It is especially during these hard times that you have to face the question of how to retain your integrity and your senses. Often it’s sorrow that enriches our lives. I think in everybody’s life you can find those big changes, paths chosen as well as avoided or missed – passages for which the death in my book is only a synonym. Sometimes it depends on the place where you live, sometimes it has to do with the relationships you have, your family, your love, your professional development, your engagement in politics. But even in one single day you’re not just one: I’m doing my work, I’m a mother, a woman, a friend, a customer, a passenger on a train… There are so many layers in every single moment.

Mapping out these possible lives and biographies must have been very complicated. How did you choose this structure? Did you decide at the very beginning that you would give your character five possible options?

When I started to think about writing the book I wrote some 10 or 12 beginnings. But then I decided to try the version with the five possible deaths and lives and I of course had to be clear about the basic settings – things like time, place and circumstances. At that point I also had to think about the reasons for every death: like illness, love, politics, accident or just old age. But everything else happening within the chapters I explored only while writing. And the more the book grew the more complex it became – so it was like going back again to add some detail in one of the former lives, so that the connection between them became closer. I like the idea that one could read the book more as a circular than as a straight narrative.

There are many hidden events and secrets in your book.  A violently anti-Semitic attack is never openly admitted in the family. The main character’s son in one of the versions of her life ‘carries around with him a vast dark land: all the stories his mother never told him or that she hid from him; perhaps he even carries with him those stories his mother never knew or heard of’. Do you think that being open about the past helps the healing process?

Keeping secrets might be a way to balance something for a short while, but one always has to be aware that it’s also a way to use power. Keeping a secret makes an object out of someone who should and might be a partner.

The End of Days has no conventional plot and no obvious hero or heroine. Your main character remains nameless throughout most of the book. Why do you often choose to write about nameless characters?

To me there seems to be a certain element of fashion in choosing a character’s name in a work of fiction – I don’t like that.  A name itself doesn’t say very much: it’s a bit like a mask. In many cases it tells much more about the taste of the writer than about the character who is given the name. What I liked about the namelessness of my main character in the book is that she instead gets titles like: daughter, lover, wife, comrade, mother, grandmother and so on. That shows much better than a name that a human being is growing, or in motion, or in change, and this interests me much more than a name.

Do you see yourself as a German writer or even as an East German writer? Does the past division into West and East Germany still mean something in German literature?

Since no one can change his or her past I’ll always stay someone who grew up and has been formed by a foreign country – even when my passport is and has always been a German one. For the next generations it’ll be different. As a writer I see myself as one among many others sitting at their desks somewhere in the world – not just in Europe.

What are your literary influences?

There are of course many German speaking authors among my favourites like Büchner, Kafka, Stifter, E.T.A. Hoffmann – but also a whole bunch of translated authors like Majakowski, Gabriel García Márquez, Edgar Lee Masters, Proust or the ancient Ovid.

Your books have been translated into many languages. Susan Bernofsky is your English translator. How do you work with her and with other translators?

Susan Bernofsky is the translator of all of my books into English – so we have known each other for many, many years now: travelling together, giving workshops and readings, visiting each other every year at least once and, of course, sending many emails back and forth. I have always had the feeling of a deep understanding between us not only in terms of the content of a story but also concerning the rhythm of the language, the sound of the words, the ‘speed’ or ‘slow motion’ in a sentence or passage, the hidden humour, the kind of vocabulary both of us love – and, last but not least, the thinking.

Described as ‘one of the finest, most exciting authors alive’ by Michel Faber, Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967. She has worked on opera and musical productions and her fiction has been translated worldwide. She is the author of The Old Child & The Book of Words, The Visitation and The End of Days, for which she and translator Susan Bernofsky received the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

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.

Jenny Erpenbeck announced as the winner of the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize via Booktrust.

Read more about The End of Days and buy it through our book partner Foyles on the World Bookshelf.