The writer Benedict Wells rarely gives interviews – but wouldn’t it be a shame to let a great conversation about Europe, populism and independent booksellers go unpublished? That was what Wells thought too.
By Stefan Hauck
You’ve held Swiss citizenship alongside your German passport for a while now – do you speak Swiss German?
(Turns to Diogenes Managing Director Ruth Geiger and says in Swiss German: ‘We often speak Swiss German together, don’t we?’)
My mother’s from Luzern and I’ve only ever spoken Swiss German with her since I was a child. I have to admit though that I’ve developed a pretty odd dialect over the years. A lot of Swiss people frown when they first hear me speaking and wonder what strange canton I must be from.
Swiss has very different word structures to German – has that inspired you for your novels?
No, not really – although I did think of the phrase ‘es tötelet’ a few times. It’s impossible to translate adequately; it means something like ‘there’s death on the air’. The word was very much on my mind and in a way it’s reflected in the very first sentence of The End of Loneliness: ‘I’ve known death a long time, but now death knows me too.’
You seem to like being an observer and writing in other places than your home. How was it with your current book The End of Loneliness?
It was ultimately a small tour of Europe – the book came about in Berlin, Montpellier, Barcelona and Zurich. But that was mainly because I spent seven years writing it, in the end. And because I lived in Spain for a long time and deliberately went to France for a few months for the story.
What does your recent winning of the European Union Prize for Literature mean for you in that context?
I couldn’t believe it, to begin with. It’s a very important award for me personally, also because I’m a fan of the European idea – especially in times of Brexit and various independence movements. I’m shocked, to be honest, how strongly populism and nationalism are raising their heads again and that a clearly right-wing partly like the AfD is becoming so popular. And another thing that troubles me is that an achievement like the European community is being called into question so recklessly. You only have to ask yourself what we had before and whether we really want that back.
The award is also linked to the literary translation programme at Creative Europe...
The prize has supported a lot of European translations or made them possible in the first place; that’s a great gift. Unlike literature, every other art form is universally accessible from the very beginning. A painting, a song, a sculpture, a subtitled film – everyone can understand them, all over the world. Books have limits, though, and they need translation. Over twenty licences have now been sold for The End of Loneliness. It’s crazy! So the novel will soon be out in French, English, Spanish, and in Hebrew, Russian, Chinese and various other languages. I’m really looking forward to my foreign friends being able to read my work.
350 booksellers voted for The End of Loneliness as their favourite book of the year for Independent Bookshop Week. What does that mean to you?
A whole lot – because booksellers are professionals, so to speak, and some of the most passionate and informed readers there are. And it wasn’t a small judging panel but so many people – it was really an incredible honour. I’ve got the other four novels from the shortlist on my shelves, by the way, and I’ve read two of them so far. I was really impressed by J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country – I even gave Ruth a copy recently. And I can recommend Silvie Schenk’s Schnell, Dein Leben to anyone, it’s a wonderful book.
When I talk to booksellers I can always tell they like you. Why is that?
I don’t know but I’m glad to hear it, of course, especially because I really like bookshops myself. It’s a special relationship for me, at any rate, one that’s grown over the years, and I have to say straight out: The End of Loneliness would never have sold so well without booksellers’ support. I rarely give interviews, I don’t go on TV shows; what I want to do is put the novels in the forefront. So that’s why it was all the more unexpected and great for me, of course, that The End of Loneliness found so many readers without all the media hype. It was especially the booksellers who made that happen, and I’m deeply grateful.
There are still no e-books of your novels. Why not?
I made that decision ten years ago. At the time I feared e-books would take over the market and I didn’t want to play a part in that myself. I love print books, books you can pick up and flick through, give as gifts with an inscription or scribble all over. Sometimes you take a book along on a trip or connect it with a very personal memory and a story. But an e-book is only ever a data file. Okay, that’s a bit heavy on the pathos, but on top of that e-books are theoretically the natural enemies of bookshops. Because people tend not to buy them there, only on the net. So in the future too, at least my hardcovers will only ever be available as print versions, to continue making that statement for the bookstores. It’s a little bit stubborn and anachronistic and maybe also expensive and stupid, but that’s up to me.
When you look back at the over 250 readings you’ve held so far, is the atmosphere in a small bookshop different to a big store?
To be honest I’m not quite sure, because I always try to set up a kind of ‘living-room situation’ for my readings. I don’t want to build up a distance to the listeners or hold lectures. I’ve often thought about how to do that best; for example, on my reading tour for the book Spinner I always got someone from the audience to read a passage aloud. With my current novel, on the other hand, I usually read three fairly long passages and have Q&As with the audience in between. We often get into an interesting dialogue, and it makes every reading automatically different. Another thing I love is appearing with a musician friend, who covers songs that fit the story in between the readings, and performs his own material. We’re definitely going to expand on the combination of reading and music for the next novel.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I make great new discoveries on every reading tour, but my favourite is my childhood bookshop, of course, Lehmkuhl in Munich. But it’s always wonderful to come back to bookshops after a long time as well, places where I’ve read often. Run by people like Solway Herschel in Berlin, Helmut Zechner in Klagenfurt or Hans Grünthaler in Schwabmünchen. Recently, I was at Reuffel in Koblenz, where I read from my debut novel Becks letzter Sommer – nine years ago! Moments like that always feel a bit like coming home.