speaks to Lily Michaelides
As published in In Focus, Vol. 12, No 1, March 2015
While surfing the internet in 2012 in search of German writers to invite to Cyprus within the framework of the events of Ideogramma, I chanced upon Julia Franck. I sent her an invitation and she agreed to participate. In parallel, I read her award-winning novel Die Mittagsfrau (2007) (The Blind Side of the Heart), which has been translated into Greek. Very powerful in emotional tension, its plot kept me riveted until the last page. Unfortunately in 2012, due to certain obligations with her children, she was unable to come to Cyprus. Even so, I have had the opportunity and the pleasure to meet Julia in person when she came to Cyprus last November (from the 20th to 23th) by invitation of the Goethe Institute, within the framework of the celebrations of twenty five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
During her time in Nicosia, the film Westen was screened based on her quasi-autobiographical novel Lagerfeuer. The film takes place largely within the closed-in walls of West Berlin’s Marienfelde Refugee Center, where integration into any normal existence is held hostage by a series of tests and interviews that may or may not result in the necessary stamps of approval. Some pass through easily, while others remain in limbo for months or even years.
There was also a presentation of her novel Die Mittagsfrau, which examines the ambivalence of human beheviour. It has been on the German best seller list since it won the prestigious 2007 Deutscher Buchpreis and translated into 34 languages.
Reading her novels, I felt that the main characters, as she describes them, represent a large group of people such as her grandparents and parents, who lived through both world wars and the interim period in very intense, difficult and hard conditions and shifts. All their experiences and behaviours have been conveyed to Julia’s generation. Certainly, many people can recount stories from their own lives that share many of the emotions, quests and disappointments of the characters in Julia Franck’s books.
Julia Franck and I met at the time when the twilight was beginning to erase the roofs and terraces of the buildings of old Nicosia. We got to know each other talking about our childhoods and retracting memories, which Julia must have spoken of and analyzed in many interviews before the present one.
– Lily Michaelides, for In Focus Magazine
Q: I’m certain that at interviews most of the questions are about the life of your family since obviously, from reading your books, one recognises people very close to you, like your grandmother, your father, your mother… At the beginning, as you have said, you had wanted to keep your personal life at a distance, “to protect it,” but later you felt that it was important, both for you and for your readers, that you talk about it…
A: Journalists can guess and imagine that this or that detail or fiction in my work might be derived from the true story of my family, since some of my ancestors were well-known public figures in the arts and sciences. In biographies of artists of Jewish heritage you come across a line of widowed, separated, divorced and unmarried women – very emancipated, making their own lives, having their own responsibilities, professions, social standing and money. It wasn’t feminist ideology but history, chance, bad luck and luck who afforded them such strength and loneliness – that is to say the need to survive. Because of Wikipedia (where one can look up Ingeborg Hunzinger, Hans-Heinrich Franck, Philipp Franck – some of my ancestors) journalists may get the impression that my family was shaped by historical and political influences of all sorts. This does not make a novel. When Van Gogh painted himself, Picasso his wife, or Lucian Freud his mother, you cannot say that those were objective representations of the real persons. Literature as an art is different; every writer who isn’t serving a certain genre, such as the thriller simply to entertain his audience, circles around inner subjects, around his/her own experiences and sensibilities. I always say that fiction is the most subjective and individual work a person can give: one’s fantasy is a very strong, if not the strongest, part of one’s identity.
Q: The ghosts of Germany’s past are still alive in your novels. Do you feel that by writing about that time period it also serves, in a sense, as a way out and as a catharsis of your own past?
A: I would not view it simply as catharsis, which is a very boring and pop-psychological aim in my view. Everybody can do his/her catharsis with an analyst or friend. In creating a novel or a poem you work something out, and not only for yourself. And this is not only an emotional working-out, but also an intellectual claim. It is about your interests, your ways of understanding, about those things that you hold inside and your soul is made of – sometimes literature simply means giving things a name or an image – not letting it rest in peace. In creating characters, a story and, above all, a language and a dramatic span, you evoke emotions, questions and empathy – you build suspense and sometimes even provoke moral judgements in your readers. So it is a way to share and communicate, in a metaphorical way, with certain aspects of your world.
Q: How difficult is it to write about and describe feelings and situations in a novel?
A: As long as you resist describing horrifying things by saying “it is horrifying” or painful feelings by saying “it hurts her deeply”… You simply describe what is happening – you make readers think or empathize, but you do not tell them what to think about exactly. Like in my novel Die Mittagsfrau – readers loved discussing their thoughts about a woman such as Helene: How they understood her childhood, her youth, her coming of age and becoming an intelligent woman without any chance for an academic education, her romantic ideology and experience of love, her losses, repressions and disillusions. How a reader understands or condemns her depends on his/her own social and cultural environment. How could a mother abandon her child? She must have been a cruel, cold and hard woman! She didn’t fulfill any expectation of motherhood. Is motherhood biological, socially or culturally determined – and what reasons may lead to loss? Would anybody condemn a father who leaves his child? And why are our cultural reflexes on that issue so different?
Q: Sometimes books that are transferred to the big screen do not represent the depth of the feelings that the writer communicates with his writing. Did the film Westen, based on your novel Lagerfeuer, follow it truthfully? Are you satisfied with the result?
A: When a producer bought the rights to make a film out of my novel, I decided not to become involved too deeply. The first year I was writing scripts but then I realized what a dependent writing process scriptwriting is, so I gave up and left it to others. I didn’t have the patience to wait for weeks until people gave their feedback on the latest version of the script. I wanted to write my next novel. It took the producer ten years, yet I kept a certain amount of interest in the process: What would it be like in the end? I challenged the filmmakers to feel absolutely free, since I know there is no chance of finding those exact images, atmosphere and meaning that a writer or a single reader would have by writing or reading the novel. Film is very explicit and has only 90 or 100 minutes. A novel takes you two or three days to read, perhaps longer. All the pictures that you receive, you create inside – and those you have created inside affect the words that you write. Film is different. I liked the movie Westen – even though it is very different to my novel.
Q: Do you believe that writers, through their books, develop and give to the world new perspectives?
A: Of course, this is what every artist gives to the world with their creations. Although they do not create the future, they use their intellectual abilities and sensibilities to see things differently, to invent characters and relationships that otherwise would not exist or be known by others (i.e. readers). People can look at the paintings of Francis Bacon, listen to Beethoven’s compositions, and read poetry and have very individual views, responses and interpretations of what they see, hear or read.
Q: When you were eight, your mother’s request to leave East Berlin was given after many applications. You spend the first nine months in a refugee camp in West Berlin, and sometimes you were given permission to visit friends and your grandmother in the East. You have described this as “a transit life in the middle of the Cold War.” How do you comment on this?
A: There is no further comment. It was cold, as Cold War meant no traditional acts of war and weapons, but almost no contact, a deep mistrust if not ignorance of one another. In the camp where we were placed for an unpredictable span of time, we realized that any future and sense of identity were suspended; we had lost everyone, everything and every place we had touched and seen before, not knowing what sort of life would commence and when. We had no intimacy. Our compass was spinning around and around. Where were we heading to? Why did we leave? We had lost our well defined identities. In the West we were “from the East,” and when visiting the East across a very strict border, now friends suspected us to be “from the West” – we didn’t belong to one side any more. Never…
Q: When the Berlin Wall fell you were 18 years old. Were you present? How did you experience that day?
A: When the wall fell I was 19; I was preparing my Abitur. I had left my mother’s house when I was 13 and lived in different places with friends, in various communities. Finally, when I was 18, I found a little apartment for myself. There were no parents to help me; I had no income or any form of studentship. I had to work a lot. I did cleaning jobs; I worked as a model for sculptors and painters; I took care of children; I did office work. If I had any free time, I saw my friends. On Nov 9 I had worked until late and got home to start preparing for a chemisty exam. One of my friends, who was my lover at this time, worked as camera operator for Spiegel TV, an big German news magazine. He called me late at night and told me what was going on. They were taking the very first pictures when the wall fell. People were dancing and laughing. Border security was simply overwhelmed by the peaceful power of all those people arriving in the middle of the night. Over the next few days and weeks I joined my friends at the wall whenever I could; I went to school during the day and prepared for my exams; in the afternoons I worked. In the beginning, and maybe even for the first few years, I had some doubts because I knew how many prejudices existed, how many projections each side had about the other – how many expectations, how much envy, how much idealization. I knew people would have to learn a lot, and sometimes very painful things – but after a few years it got better and better. Of course, today I’m happy because this unified place and city contains identities like mine. Today there is no need for an identity that is either Eastern or Western. Today I am simply myself. Where were you born? people ask.. Berlin. Sometimes they don’t even ask whether it was in the West or the East.
Q: And some more personal questions. What you are most afraid of in your life?
A: There were many things in life that I was fearful of, and even worse things have happened. For years I was even afraid of flying, but today it is very hard to tell it was ever so. I don’t like lies. I think I’m afraid of people lying to me. If they have bad news or uncomfortable things to say, I like them to say them to me.
Q: If you had the choice, what would you change in your life?
A: There is no master plan for changes. Of course, I would have preferred that my parents would have been married and that I would have been a beloved child. I would have preferred that my father hadn’t died of brain cancer when I was 17 and he was 49. I would have preferred that my mother would not have had to struggle in life and that my boyfriend at the age of 19 would not have died in a car accident three years later. And some more which are too private to talk about in public.
In 1978 Julia Franck and her family moved to West Berlin and later to Schleswing-Holstein. She studied German Literature and American Studies at the Free University of Berlin and spent some time in the United States, Mexico and Guatemala. She has worked as an editor for Sender Freies Berlin and contributed to various newspapers and magazines. She lives with her children in Berlin. Franck is the granddaughter of sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger.
Franck has received several awards, most notably the German Book Prize in 2007, and the 3sat Award at the esteemed Ingerborg Bachmann Competition in 2000. In 2010 The Blind Side of the Heart was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize as well as the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Prize.