I couldn’t resist asking for a post-event interview, when I spotted Meike Ziervogel perusing the short story shelf (what else?) in the Edinburgh Book Festival Bookshop. Happily she agreed.
LS: You chose to write Magda in English – can you explain your reasons for that? Was it simply a marketing consideration?
MZ: The creative process doesn’t work according to marketing rules. In the first draft, some scenes were written in German but they took the form of a stream of consciousness. Transferring them into English helped me to gain the necessary artistic distance and tackle a very sensitive subject. I’ve lived in Britain all my adult life so English comes naturally. I love it’s straight-forward syntax. English forces me to write in a more focussed way. It’s a language which allows you to be simple but rich in vocabulary and voice.
LS: At the Edinburgh Book Festival you said you considered Magda to be a novella (although it is marketed as a novel) and your passion for the art of brevity and the novella is well-documented. However, did you find writing a novella restricted you in any way?
MZ: Not at all. I consider the novella closer to poetry than prose as there is a definite art in saying something short and precise. The novella form also forces the author to ask is every sentence really necessary? Has it already been said? If not explicitly, then implicitly? A good novella should allow the reader to add their own experience and make up their own mind. (Editor’s note: The 1st draft of Magda was 160,000 words. Just imagine the heap of words that landed on the cutting floor as Meike edited her own work!) Yet within the finalised 30,000 words that Magda became, I found space for 3 narratives and 3 generations. This, in turn, allowed a complex expression of the relationships and the infusion of the necessary emotional charge.
LS: Is there a market for Magda in Germany?
MZ: By writing ‘Magda’ I allowed myself to look at my own German history critically but with understanding. I wanted to access the mind of an intelligent woman who became a Nazi in order to comprehend my own cultural background. But I am aware that I could only write this story in English. Magda Goebbels is a challenging subject for Germans and it would take a courageous publisher to tread on this particular minefield. In ‘Magda’, Magda Goebbels is portrayed as a human. For Germans she is a monster. Moreover, I portray maternal love as a destructive power. Since the 19th century, however, the figure of the mother in Germany has been an untouchable icon.
LS: If you did find a German publisher, would you translate Magda yourself?
MZ: No way! I’ve done my job. Now a translator must do theirs! And I firmly believe that is to take the original text as a springboard and create a new text by translating not just the words, but the rhythm, spirit and voice into the target language. The two texts should sound very different.
LS: Do you like the Salt treatment of your book?
MZ: I’m hugely grateful to Salt. For their courage in publishing Magda and also for the cover. Magda Goebbels is typically regarded as a 1930’s glamorous diva and the image of her on the front jacket is so at odds with that. The blurriness fits the text which never really gets hold of her.
LS: Are you enjoying the literary circus that these days is de rigeur for an author? How does it compare to the circus you experience as a publisher?
That circus as you call it can be both mentally and emotionally exhausting, particularly when as an author you’re suddenly exposed to lots of other opinions about your work. However, because I have experienced it as a publisher, the fear factor has been removed and I can honestly say that I’m enjoying being a published author. I’ve also discovered another creative process – that of readers engaging with your work. That’s been an eye-opener. I know that I work with my subconscious a lot but I need the readers’ responses to really comprehend my own creative processes – and my work.
LS: One EIBF novelist said that the best piece of advice he was given was to have the 1st draft of his second novel ready before the first was published. That way he would avoid the infamous struggle with second novel syndrome. Are you similarly well-prepared and if so, can you tell us anything about your next work?
‘Magda’ is my first published work, but I have three more completed manuscripts in the drawer. I have written for a long time. Moreover, I have just edited a 200,000 word draft of my next book into a 30,000 word manuscript that I can now begin to share with first readers. It’s working title is Clara’s Daughter. More fraught mother-daughter relationships I’m afraid, although this time in a contemporary setting with the main character an ambitious woman struggling with her destructive mechanisms.
LS: You wrote 200k words! How do you find the time to do that as well as juggling your other roles: wife, mother, publisher, literary salonist, blogger, author, Grecian nymph ego-soother ….. when do you get time for Meike?
MZ: I need to work on a creative project in order to feel alive. I’d become a very grumpy person if I didn’t sit down and write every day. And so, I write 1000 words between 5-7 am every morning. Thereafter, I’m ready to fulfil my other roles.
LS: Well, thank you for fulfilling the role of interviewee today. And here’s wishing you every success in your role as Not The Booker Prize shortlistee.
MZ: Thank you, Lizzy, for coming to my event in Edinburgh and for this interview.
Magda was not eligible for the 2013 Booker Prize but, if published 12 months later, would have been for the 2014 Booker Prize. I’m not entirely convinced by the new rules but that little factoid gives me pause for thought.