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Interview with Marcus Speh

MAY 2012

This month, we spoke with flash fiction writer Marcus Speh, who lives in Berlin but is familiar with New Zealand from his stay here in 2001. Marcus moves back and forth between English and German regularly in his writing. This month he shares with Flash Frontier his thoughts on being bilingual, the importance of place, the discipline of writing and also his take on kiwi jam and flashdance.

On writing in two languages

FF: You are a bilingual writer, moving back and forth between German and English on an everyday basis. Tell us, in which language do most of your stories occur to you? And how do your stories differ, depending on which language you start in? 

MS: Most of my stories do occur to me in English but earlier this year I began a slow climb back home (somehow, I imagine German residing in a castle) to eventually end an “inner emigration”. It’s slow because my German is a use-language, not a literary tool. It’s rather dull-edged, but I hope that’ll change… talk to me again in two years or so.

Take my 240-word flash Contraption. I wrote this piece first as a 130-word flash in German. It began with a diary entry in which I wondered about the soundscape of a madhouse. This is how I began:

“Ich stelle mir vor: das Bibbern der neu Eingelieferten, wenn sie zum ersten Mal die Geräusche des Irrenhauses wahrnehmen, Geräusche, die ihre ganze Welt bedeuten, …”

Literally translated: “I imagine the jittering of the new arrivals, when they first perceive the sounds of the madhouse, sounds, which constitute their entire world…” The sentence goes on: the entire original story was one sentence of 130 words (not simply suppressing a period). This isn’t as unusual in German as it is in other languages, most notably in English where long, convoluted, nested sentences will seem Jamesian at best or contrived at worst to modern readers.

Speh’s alter-ego Finnegan Flawnt in his cottage 2009

However, I wanted to create an English text, so I began to translate it  – close to the original at first. I never finished this first attempt. After about half the words I lost all spirit for the German original (though not for the idea) and began to wholly rewrite it instead, holding onto the original idea but casting it in a different form  – including a change of POV from first to second person  – now this is not me imagining to be an inmate of an asylum, but me asking you to imagine yourself as an inmate who experiences two different worlds of sound. I also added the specific scene of being picked up by your relatives for a weekend outside the asylum. In the end, I liked this so much that I changed the German original by adding this scene in the second part of the piece (when I’m talking about experiences of deaf inmates) and extending the German text. I can’t even say any more which version I like better because rather than being different drafts they’re different stories on the same idea…the English version now begins thus:

“When you first enter a madhouse as an inmate, your learn to fear the sounds: dreams rumble and rattle across the corridors…”

FF: Do you translate your stories often? Do you find the German ones translate better into English or the other way round? And when you write a story, do you imagine it already in the other language, even before it’s on the page?

MS: I don’t translate often for publication, but I often translate as part of my process. Generally, an English original will translate better into German, at least it’s easier for me to judge the quality of the translation. All the stories I ever translated into German can be found on my krautflash site.

The advantages of the bilingual process whereby a text is translated or (more often) rewritten by me in the other language, are: deepening of the experience (of writing); slowing down the workflow (the more important the shorter the piece); sharpening (of individual expressions); changing voice (including POV). I really remember those pieces that I’ve translated in either direction (otherwise I tend to forgot anything that I’ve written – is that normal?).

The last question is a good one: indeed I often imagine parts of a story (a scene, a key sentence) in the other language. I create almost all my first flash drafts (up to 500 words, say) in my head anyway rather than on the page.

On place and perspective

Blowing my nose in 1976

FF: We’ve recently read a story by you that takes place in Texas. How important is place in short fiction, and is it a key component in your own writing? Do you tend to write about the place you find yourself in at one particular moment, or does your imagination wander?

MS: I used to think place didn’t matter at all, which surprises me now. When I read what I wrote in New Zealand, say, I can see now how deeply it relates to my having lived there. Same with that Texas piece: at the time I wrote little and was listening and watching more, and when I began to express myself, it was natural to feed on the environment. When I’m not connected to place but write about an idea, it shows: place helps me to anchor the ideas. No scenes without place. This is true even for Kafka, though like him I prefer to imbue a sense of place that’s not immediately localisable. My imagination definitely wanders all the time, not just with respect to place in a story, but to other elements as well: I’m a lateral thinker and writer and it takes strength to keep the reins and carve out tracks deep enough so that others can follow my crabbed path later.

Reading in Berlin

FF: Alongside place and the specificity of many of your stories, you also frequently write with a more universal eye. Some of your stories linger in mood or character quite beyond the borders of place. What determines the way you go about mapping a story, from character to language to sensory exploration to voice?

MS: What you call a “universal eye” really is my existential anchor, and at least to my mind, it is more important than place or any other individual ingredient of a story. My recently published flash Ginger is an example: there’s a specific place, a prison of his own making, where the narrator, a writer, dwells while both the swallows overhead and the visiting woman represent different worlds. But the key to the story is the writer’s resolve to “write himself out of his cage”, an existential challenge. In this piece, the character himself lingers.

I hardly ever map out short flash pieces: my flash tends to aggregate rather mysteriously around words, sentences or scenes. I don’t need to graft language onto a character or idea skeleton. It’s pretty much all there already. Or not, as the case may be – then it is easily discarded. In an average month, I write 30,000 words or more, submit 100-300 words and post 1000-3000 words via blogs, comments or so (more like non-fiction, though there’s a grey zone where I like to stray, as in my Spring Things To Do list).

On dreaming and discipline

Dreaming, apparently (2009)

FF: You lived in New Zealand ten years ago. Do tell us, what about this place captured your imagination then? And does it continue to fascinate you, even from a distance?  

MS: I’d always wanted to visit NZ even before we finally moved there in 2001, only two months after 9/11 (which made air travel across the US, especially with a 9-month-old kid, into a heroic affair). The immediate reason was that the University of Auckland had offered me a guest position and through that an opportunity to leave the corporate world. I used our year of living beautifully in New Zealand to renew my resolve to write and put a lot of words down towards a novel, which however never quite came together, but it was an important step to take nonetheless.

I’ve written about the relationship with NZ in my blog post for the “Frank­furt Book­fair 2012 – an Aotearoa Affair” Project.

FF: What kind of writing habits do you exercise yourself? Are you a disciplined writer or do you write when the craze hits? And what kinds of writing habits do you recommend to new writers – especially writers new to flash fiction? 

International Literature Festival Berlin 2010

MS: I’m a very disciplined person with a crazy anarchist inside – this must be true for most creatives who also get some work done, right? Due to the multiple demands of my time (writing happens next to family life, teaching, research and management at the school), I have to make the most of every hour of the day. I rise very early to write  –  by 9 am I’m usually done with my 1000 words; outside of term, when time allows or when the muse demands it, I will put in another 1000 words. In the course of the day I may check in with the writing world for networking reasons, but I don’t look at my own writing until late at night before bed. However, I can and will translate and write non-fiction pieces (including short reviews, comments on other people’s work or blog posts) at any time in the day. But I write these with a more mechanical, less musical mindset. Now, that makes me sound like a Prussian officer…I mentioned there was an anarchist to me, too: but alas, he’s a private pleasure.

When I still wrote a lot of flash, I especially loved the fact that flash can come at any time and that the first draft at least can be completed very quickly. In this way, one can cover a lot of ground in terms of genre, plot, ideas, scene, character, and so on without having to worry too much. Obviously, you can (and should) still spend any amount of time on shaping and honing the first draft. But because you’re looking at 100 to 1000 words, you can go through ten drafts in a week or so rather than in a year. This is a great advantage especially for beginners, technically speaking.

From Musil to Tolstoy to the internet

From a collage by Speh’s wife Carlye Birkenrahe

FF: Tell us about short short fiction in Germany. Is there a flash scene, and where does it take the stage? 

MS: I honestly don’t know but I don’t think so. There are early German language masters of the flash genre, most notably Robert Musil (of The Man Without Properties, one of the greatest literary novels) and Robert Walser, who’ve written amazing flash stories  – Walser’s opus almost exclusively is based on flash  – but I’m not aware of anyone who does this (famously) today. This is most likely my own oversight since I’m only beginning to engage with contemporary German literature. Short stories seem to be very en vogue here, at least I see a lot of short story collections in the book stores, not just as debuts. Unlike the US and the UK there seems to be a true market for short stories. I presume this means there could also be a market for flash. And Germans are always starved for translations of foreign authors.

FF: Do you have a story you feel is a typical story about New Zealand? How about Germany? 

MS: Oddly enough, I’ve never written any fiction about New Zealand apart from a short piece that was published in Blue Print Review and later by the Aotearoa Affair Blog Fest 2012. Germany, being German and German as a language all come up in many of my pieces. My favorite flash story on the topic is Cahiers Du Cinema, published in Blue Fifth Review, which also received a Pushcart nomination.

FF: What are you reading at present?

MS: I’m reading Tolstoy’s Resurrection (in German), which is fantastic and stirring, and I’m reading (or rather, listening to, in English) Middlemarch by George Eliot. The latter is perhaps the most perfect novel I’ve ever read. Also, I’m reading non-fiction: How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? is a book made up of the answers of many people on the question posed by John Brockmann of EDGE.

FF: What are you writing at present?

MS: Not too much (apart from my daily writing routine) – I don’t have enough attention during teaching term to focus on any one project. However, over the next few months I’m looking forward to complete my mosaic novel Gizella for Folded Press (to be published in 2014, with illustrations!); also I’m editing my short story collection Thank You For Your Sperm to be published by MadHat Press this year, and I’m working on a few short stories in parallel hoping that one of them will want to grow up under my tutelage.

And finally, a round of Flash-Fragen

FF: Beach or mountain?

MS: Mountain (at the moment).

FF: Cricket or rugby?

MS: You could just as well have asked me in Chinese. The answer is: really? Did I mention before that I’m German? (Sorry to you Kiwis – but I AM still hurting for the loss of the America’s Cup, I really am.)

FF: Feijoa wine or kiwi jam?

MS: Kiwi jam is one of the few tickets to an All Black heaven.

FF: Campion or Jackson?

MS: Both. I’m dying to see The Hobbit, but when I stood on the beach where The Piano was filmed, I felt fulfilled.

FF: Flashdance or flashmob?

MS: Flashdance because of the retro chic.

Thank you, Marcus Speh, for the interview this month. 

For the May splinters issue, please go here


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