Five smokes and a new novel: Klaus Modick’s Writing Life

When my second novel A GRAVE IN GAZA was being translated into German, I received an email from my translator. He had a number of penetrating questions about certain phrases I'd used in the book. He also happened to be the only translator who asked me a question about any of my books (and my work is translated in 22 languages so far.) Perhaps it’s not for nothing that Germany is the country where that particular book seems to have had the greatest resonance. It’s also not for nothing that the translator was one of Germany’s most significant literary voices in his own right. I later met Klaus Modick last year in Hamburg, not far from his North German home in Oldenburg. Within 15 minutes, he had smoked five cigarettes and between us we’d come up with the plot for another of my Palestinian detective novels--with a Berlin angle. It's fair to say, we clicked. In return for his plot brainstorming, Klaus asked only that I name a good character “Klaus” and that, as it’ll be a murder mystery, he shouldn’t die too violently. This year in Leipzig Klaus and I chatted over dinner about the German literary landscape. I found it astonishing to hear how rare it is for a German writer to be translated into English. So I’m delighted to give you the insights of this fabulous, sensitive writer, who’s currently summering in that least Germanic of American cities, Los Angeles.

How long did it take you to get published?

My first books were academic literary criticism and thus do not really count. My first novella “Moos” (1984) was rejected by a couple of publishers, but after some months of straying and drifting over editors’ desks it was eventually accepted and became a so called critics’ success, i.e. praises but sales to cry for.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

I don’t think the circulating How-to-write-books-books are helpful. There’s no advice to talent or inspiration. But I did enjoy Stephen King’s “On Writing”, because it is very honest and unpretentious. And I also enjoyed Thomas Mann’s “Novel of a Novel” about the making of his novel “Doktor Faustus”. You can learn from it that ingenuity cannot be learned.

What’s a typical writing day?

Get up at about 8 o’clock, jog through the park, have breakfast, sit on desk, wait for inspiration which is like a cat (doesn’t come when called but only if it wants to), start editing and re-writing yesterday’s shift and use that as a springboard for today’s. Sometimes it works. Have lunch. Have a nap. Afternoons are for research, for reading and correspondances, also for daydreaming about all the great works I haven’t started yet and perhaps never will.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

It’s a novel about a German-jewish historian who escapes from the Nazis in 1935, emigrates to the USA, struggles through the miseries of exile, makes finally a career at a New England college - but eventually falls victim to the McCarthy witchhunt in the early 50’s. It’s a book about America, seen through the eyes and experiences of a German there. It’s called “Die Schatten der Ideen” (The Shadows of Ideas). If at all and why it’s great should be decided by the reader - the least I can say about it it’s pretty voluminous.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
Very little to nothing
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
Pretty much all
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?
I’m trying hard ...

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” It’s the first sentence of William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride”. It is still my favorite book in all the world and I’m quite jealous about not having written it myself.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

If one picks “the best” one wrongs at least one hundred others. One candidate among the hundreds could be the golden dollar nailed to the mast of the “Pequod” in Melville’s “Moby Dick”.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

Depends on the subject. For “Schatten der Ideen” it took me about a whole year to get my facts together in order to get the fiction. But I have also written books which needed nearly no research.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

I ask myself who I could be if I would not be the one I am.

Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?

Not specifically. But I do think that everybody who writes misses something in life (same for readers). R. L. Stevenson once said that writing means to an adult what playing means to the child. That means that not only pain and suffering compel us to write but also pleasures and fun, not only the lack of something but also affluence. (W. Somerset Maugham thought so, too.)

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

Give it to a reader who will recommend it to another reader who will recommend it to the next and ever so on. Worldwide.

What’s your experience with being translated?

It’s flattering. And it’s interesting, because one realizes that the book one wrote is more than this one and very book. It has siblings now.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

I live entirely from writing, or to be more precise from the royalties. That includes not only my own books, but also translations and writing for the media. But my own books are the core of it all.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

Being introduced to the audience as someone else.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

Writing the truth.

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Comment by Matt Rees on August 10, 2009 at 4:47pm
Klaus is far too peaceful to be Gonzo.
Comment by Benjamin Sobieck on August 10, 2009 at 1:58pm
At first glance, I thought that was Hunter Thompson!

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