Feature Interviews

Because people are the pulse of literary Berlin

EJ Van Lanen - May 5, 2014

EJ Van Lanen is the founder and publisher of Frisch & Co., an e-books only publisher of literature in translation. In 2006, he co-founded Open Letter Books. He has acquired and edited translations by Michael Henry Heim, Marian Schwartz, and Charlotte Mandell and books by Juan Jose Saer, Jan Kjaerstad, and Dubravka Ugresic, among many others.

Q: Through your time at Open Letter Books and Frisch & Co, have you seen trends develop in world literature and in English translation?

The most notable trend, it seems to me, is on the publishing side of things. There are more publishers in the field than there were even three years ago: Restless Books, New Vessel Press, Deep Vellum, and Ox & Pigeon have all started publishing recently (or will), and that's to name only a few. Open Road has joined the fray, enabling publishers from Italy, France and Germany to reach English-reading audiences with translations of their books. And Amazon launched their AmazonCrossing imprint not too long ago; they're the second leading publisher of translated fiction in the U.S. At the same time, more established publishers like Pushkin Press, Archipelago Books, and Open Letter are starting to find wider audiences. It seems that every year there is more enthusiasm for translated fiction, and more publishers trying to find ways to increase access to the world's fiction. All of this is great news for readers.

Q: Who do you see as the primary players in the e-books landscape? Are there e-books platforms or apps you can recommend?

The most important players in e-books, at the moment, are the e-book retailers, meaning Amazon, iBookstore, etc. Well, this has always been so - publishers don't exist without booksellers. But there are a few important differences with e-book retailing. First, the selection of e-books in any one of these e-books retailers dwarves what could have been made available in any single bookstore or even in any chain. This is fantastic if you're a reader. But as a publisher, it means your books have many, many more books to compete with, and since the space is limitless and virtual, there's a chance that no reader will ever stumble across your books there. And the e-book retailers control which books will and will not be made visible to their customers.

The second is the fact that the stores aren't interoperable. A book in a Barnes & Noble is the same book in Woodland Pattern, but this isn't true for an e-book on Amazon and an e-book in the iBookstore. And the retailers have an active interest in making sure their stores and devices remain independent from each other. There are many other differences of course, but the fact that retailers are setting the terms in which the competition for readers takes place gives them a lot of power.

As for recommendations, the best e-reading platform, Readmill, will soon be a thing of the past, which I'm still trying to get over. I was their biggest fan. But I've been shopping around for a replacement, and though I like Marvin quite a bit, it's unavailable for Android. That's a real pity. It's possible that independent reading apps may not be sustainable; finding .epub files is a chore in the first instance, and asking readers to then upload those files to an app... The walled gardens of the iPad, Kobo, and Kindle (which all have their plusses and minuses) are probably the way to go, as much as it pains me to say.

Q: Which Frisch & Co translation should readers immediately add to their reading lists?

I'd hate to privilege one over any of the others - they're all great reads! So, I'd recommend starting with our most recent book, Family Heirlooms by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares. It's a novella about the way a young woman makes her way in upper-class Brazil. Imagine a super-compact, non-melodramatic soap opera, told with dark humor and the subtlest irony. With just a few characters. Zulmira tells you everything there is to know about a certain time in Brazilian history. It's funny, sad, and tragic all at once. She's fantastic, and I think she's going to be one of Frisch & Co.'s big discoveries - we're publishing a novel of hers in 2015 as well.

Paul Sullivan - February 24, 2014

Paul Sullivan is a Berlin-based writer and travel photographer and the Founder/Editor of Slow Travel Berlin. His words and images have appeared in The Guardian, BBC, Sunday Times Travel, Telegraph, Nat Geo UK and more, and he has written several books on music and travel, including the HG2 Berlin and the Rough Guide to Berlin. You can check out his photography galleries here, and check out Slow Travel Berlin's guide 100 Favourite Places here. To learn more about the book, be sure to attend Slow Travel Berlin's event at the Apple Store in Berlin on Wednesday, February 26.

Q: You mention on your website that your team hand-picked the sights listed in 100 Favourite Places, photographed the places themselves, and also designed the look and feel of the book. Can you give an insider's view into this process?

My whole strategy from the outset with STB has been to be as inclusive, transparent and fair as possible. It's ridiculously hard, if not impossible, to make money from online content these days, and I have always been deeply aware, and deeply grateful, that the site has been able to run on free contributions - especially given our commitment to longer and deeper content. Although our aim never was, and still isn't, to really become a business, I made a pledge early on to open up any commercial projects to all the main (regular) contributors and to work them on a profit-share basis. The book, along with the tours, was our first experiment with a 'monetised' project.

Around half the team opted into it, mostly as writers and photographers, though I specifically approached Giulia Pines and Marian Ryan to edit the book as I felt they would do a great job (which they did). Emilia, as our official in-house designer, was keen to take care of the design and layout. In terms of chosen venues, we editors made our own lists, and we also encouraged everyone involved to suggest places - then we went through and picked out what we thought were the strongest ones. The main criteria was that a chosen place really had to be or have something 'special', whether in terms of architecture, atmosphere, history or location, etc.

I've worked on over a dozen books through the years, and Giulia and Marian have worked on book projects too, but I can personally say this was by far the most satisfying, even if it was also one of the hardest! There's just something incredible about seeing a project like this through from start to finish. As well as doing our own photography, writing, editing and design, we chose our own paper stock, worked out the best binding method and sourced our own printer - the best we could find, basically. We spent as much money as possible on creating a beautiful final product and the feedback, which has been 100% positive, feels very much worth it, even if it has meant we make less money overall. Happily, we have pretty much sold out of our initial print run within three months, and even with our 5% profit commitment to a local charity, we each stand to make some kind of profit.

Q: What was the most surprising fact you learned about Berlin while creating the guide?

I guess it's more a feeling than a fact, but just being constantly reminded about how special Berlin is, and how it will never ever run out of interesting stories - nor surprises.

Q: What is your advice for aspiring travel writers? Which cities do you think need thoughtful travel coverage right now?

The world today feels intensely overcrowded by words and visuals flowing in from every channel imaginable. In one sense, this is wonderful - that we can see so much of the world without leaving our screens - but on the other hand I think it invites a kind of apathy and reductionism that kills the magic of real, physical travel. I know I sound hypocritical saying this as a professional 'travel writer'. It's true that I pen lifestyle-esque travel pieces for the Sunday Times, Guardian, etc. and write guidebooks for Rough Guide, Time Out and National Geographic. But I see that as a 'job', whereas I regard travel itself as a deeply important philosophical activity. I am about to take my six-year-old on our first major father-son travel pilgrimage - a train ride through Europe, with no real idea of where we will end up or what will happen. All I've done is book an overnight train to Paris for us, and we will take it from there, probably heading down towards Morocco, but I have complete faith that we will both learn a lot about the world - and about ourselves - in the process.

So I'd tell aspiring travel writers to get off the beaten track - and certainly off the PR bandwagon, even if means paying your own way. Find the stories that you want to tell and, if you can, your own way to tell them. There are a zillion travel writers out there nowadays, but only a handful are really good story-tellers and/serious adventurers. If a place or tale makes you feel personally excited there's every chance - if you write it well - that it will excite and enthuse others too.

In terms of which cities need more thoughtful coverage: there are probably none that don't thanks to the dominance of PR-led marketing strategies. Berlin suffers from this as much as anywhere, but it also luckily has a lot of great local bloggers digging much deeper than any hotel sales team or city branding departments. The information you will find about most cities relates directly to their commercial elements rather than the people who live in them or how or what you might experience. Still, the success of niche sites like ours and, for example, the photo website Humans of New York - and its dozens of imitators - suggests that a hunger for personal stories and a desire for a broader understanding of cities is hopefully on the rise.

Photo Credit: Jessica Jungbauer, Best Wishes from Berlin

Cesare Alemanni - February 3, 2014

Cesare Alemanni is a writer and editor born and raised in Milan, Italy. He works as a managing editor for Studio, an Italian magazine distributed internationally since January 2014, and he co-founded Berlin Quarterly in 2013. His writing has appeared in several other magazines.

Q: For readers who haven't yet read the first issue of Berlin Quarterly, what is one important thing to know about Belgrade, Serbia?

First of all, I want them to know that the city still "exists" even if - after the tragedies of the '90s - Belgrade pretty much disappeared from international news coverage. I also want to remind readers that the Balkans are a big, vibrant, and crucial part of European history and identity, and not only the "set" for the most tragic events in post-WWII Europe. Besides the issues that keep undermining the city, there are a lot of good, interesting things going on and a lot of people who work very hard to make those things possible. The title of the story "Belgrade: City of Sinners and Saints" already tells you a lot about its content: Belgrade is a city of deep contradictions. The city has inherited many vices from both its recent and remote past, but many are trying to move on and to build a brighter future for themselves and for the future generations, despite that it's not always an easy task.

Q: What will be the editorial direction of the magazine in 2014?

Our hope is to bring an English-reading audience compelling reportage, interviews and short stories with a primary focus on Europe - be it Serbia or Norway, France or Hungary - along with good pictures and illustrations. Another wish is to help young authors from non-English speaking countries develop a little bit of an international audience. We also like to think that Berlin Quarterly is a literary magazine that features journalism and in-depth analysis on very contemporary cultural topics, as with the section in our first issue that we dedicated to the transition from print to digital publishing: a "sort of" panel in which we interviewed highly qualified professionals in the field, who tackled the issue from the viewpoints of their respective jobs.

Q: How does Berlin Quarterly fit into your own Berlin story?

I was born and raised in Milan but my very first time here, as a teenager back at the end of the '90s, I immediately fell in love with Berlin and payed a visit almost every year since then. Maybe it used to feel like the opposite of my hometown (or, at least, opposed to some of my least favorite the aspects of Milan). Then at the beginning of 2012 I came here for ten days in order to collect interviews for a long article I was writing for Studio, an Italian bi-monthly cultural magazine for which I'm still working as a managing editor, about how fast the city was changing. Around that time I met, almost by chance, James Guerin - who is now the publisher of Berlin Quarterly - and we found out that we shared the same passion for magazines, literature, longform journalism, etc. We started a conversation about the idea of starting a brand new magazine that later became the one we are talking about right now.

Juliet Conlin - January 13, 2014

Juliet Conlin was born in London and now lives in Berlin. In between, she has worked -- among other things -- as a barmaid, a bank clerk, a secretary, a lecturer and a research scientist. She then completed a PhD in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Durham and conducted research in decision-making at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. More recently, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and now works as a writer and translator. Juliet writes novels, short stories and screenplays in both English and German. She is married and has four children between the ages of three and nineteen. 'The Fractured Man' is her first novel.

Q: How did your background in psychology contribute to the writing of The Fractured Man?

Graphology was really the idea for the book. I was doing a masters degree in psychological research methods, and I took a course on the history of research methods. I was reading about projective techniques that were very popular at the beginning of the 20th century, projective techniques being about projecting your psyche onto something external. In graphology, it was assumed that somehow your psyche was projected onto your handwriting. I came across the case study of a man named Rafael Schermann who supposedly was able to predict the future from people's handwriting. He toured Europe on stage, and then eventually he helped solve a crime in New York City because he read a kidnappers' note -- you could write a whole TV series on it. I thought the concept was interesting psychology, and I liked thinking of the graphology in reverse: what if you could change people's personalities by changing their handwriting? So this idea of absorbing personalities turned into my book.

Q: You mention on your website that you start the creative process by writing in both English and German, and then seeing which language fits the story. How do you decide?

I don't always do this, but sometimes I start writing one language because, perhaps, the idea for the story has come from a conversation with German friends. I'll keep writing in German, but might feel like I'm walking through bubblegum and not getting anywhere. So I think to myself that I'll try writing the story in English to see if it flows better. When I'm stuck now, I think more consciously about the language of the story. It's an editing process because you're forced to edit when you translate. I suppose what I ultimately decide is just based on what sounds good to me. The Fractured Man was English all the way through -- though it has bits of German in it.

Q: What's your piece of advice for young writers who want to write a novel but don't know where to start?

Read the handbooks for writers with all the addresses of the publishing houses. Send out your writing, and get your manuscripts read by as many people as you can for varied feedback. One editor might hate a character, but five other readers might like it. The process is really trying to weed through feedback and write your book as best you can. I got rejected once from an editor who made a very good point: he said that hundred of thousands of books are published every year in the UK, and that everybody thinks they have a book in them (which, he joked, is where most of them should stay); then he said that most of the submissions he gets are so unbelievably bad, that if you know you're any good, you really shouldn't give up. Just keep sending your manuscript out because the odds are that somebody will read it and like it.

Personally, I had quite a varied background before starting to write. I was a secretary for five years; then I went to university and studied psychology and worked as a scientist for several years. All this time I wanted to write. But it took me until my early 30s to actually grow up and tackle a book. It was frightening because it's like wanting to run a marathon, and training and training, and then running the real things and realizing you can't cross the finish line. I was so happy when I first typed the end.I thought that was the first victory. Then it took a while; I sent it away, went through many rewrites, and then found an agent and published the book.

So you really just have to be brave. My one regret is having wasted time in my 20s because I wasn't brave enough to try to write. You have to give it a shot early on, and either liberate yourself from the idea if it doesn't work out, or run with it if it does.

Hilda Hoy - December 16, 2013

Hilda Hoy's blog "...then we take Berlin" is a special find in the increasingly crowded Berlin blogosphere. The blog strikes the substance-voice-design trifecta, and Hilda takes readers on a fun ride as she strives to elevate the city's mundane (see "A wee tour of Berlin's historic public toilets"). If you're looking for street cred, Hilda spent four years as Managing Editor of sugarhigh. In her interview below, Hilda talks more about her background, her blog, and her take on Berlin's best-kept literary secret.

Q: How does "then we take Berlin" fit into your own Berlin story?

I started the blog after I'd been living in Berlin for five and a half years, at the time when I'd decided to leave my job as managing editor of sugarhigh, a daily email newsletter about events, culture, and all sorts of interesting things in the city. I wanted to ensure I'd keep having a voice to write about the many amazing things I discovered in the city, because Berlin has inspired my curiosity from the very first day I arrived and I didn't want that to fade away. Whether or not my blog ever reaches as many people as sugarhigh did, I am just happy to have a project that drives me to keep exploring and discovering, and I'm having a great time with it.

Berlin is such an explorers' city, and offers so many rewards if you can keep an open mind and an observant eye and strike off the beaten path. The expat- and travel publication-driven narrative about Berlin can be rather shallow at times, or, at the very least, repetitive. I like delving into places that these publications never touch, from Spandau to Wilmersdorf to Koepenick to Reinickendorf. Maybe the blog is like an ongoing love letter to Berlin. When I moved here, first came infatuation. Years later, the honeymoon period has long worn off; I see Berlin's faults so clearly and she drives me crazy at times but I can't even begin to think about leaving. The blog ensures I'll never take Berlin for granted.

Q: What is Berlin's best-kept literary secret?

It doesn't really qualify as a secret, but I like the Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek at Hallesches Tor. It was built in the 1950s with American taxpayer money, a "gift" from the American people to the West Berliners. Their collection of English-language books is not huge, but it can be nice to at least have somewhere to go to have that library-browsing experience. And every now and again I'll check out a bunch of random foreign film DVDs from their collection and see what I end up with.

Also good for non-German speakers is the Dialogue Books Literary Lounge series at Soho House. (You don't have to be a Soho House member to take part.) I've attended some great readings that way. I also have a nostalgic soft spot for the Shakespeare & Sons English-language book shop because I used to live near one of their original locations in Prague. Their store in Prenzlauer Berg hosts occasional events and has a nice bagel cafe.

Q: What's the one post all readers should read from your blog, and why?

Just one?! Well, I don't have a single favourite, but in retrospect, my earlier posts read like works in progress because I hadn't yet landed on my blogging voice. When I first started, my writing was still heavily informed by my work at sugarhigh, where the writing had no personalized voice whatsoever. It took a bit of time until I struck the tone that now feels right, personal without being too navel-gazing or narcissistic. (I hope.)

But if new readers had to start somewhere, I'd say that I get a real kick out of elevating the mundane, everyday stuff that is the real fabric of Berlin life, and that they should get a taste of those first. I've written about a long bus ride on the BVG, for example, or a sketchy public toilet in Neukoelln, or the questionable cafeteria food at Rathaus Kreuzberg. A more classic and less kooky post that got a lot of positive feedback was my post about Stolpersteine Holocaust memorial stones being installed in my neighbourhood.