Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Expat Author Interview with Jürgen Fauth

Author Jürgen Fauth
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Jürgen Fauth spent decades in the American South--my old stomping grounds--and has taken some great stories back to Germany. He's also published a great story recently--the action thriller Kino

IMBO: Welcome to I Must Be Off! Jürgen. I see you studied in the US. What was it like? In the South? Did you study at all in Germany before coming to the States?

Fauth: I was majoring in American Studies at Mainz University before I came to the US. In fact, they sent me. They had a one year exchange program, and that's how I ended up at a small Baptist college outside of Jackson, Mississippi. It was a peculiar place -- I was the only European on campus -- and I had a fantastic time. I discovered a great many things there, among them creative writing classes. There was no such thing in Germany at the time, and even now, there are only two programs here. I took an undergrad writing class, loved it, and won their prize for fiction that year. So, after my year was up, I applied to the graduate program at USM and moved to Hattiesburg. It was a much bigger school, and I didn't get any special points for being from abroad there. My teachers were amazing though, and Hattiesburg is close to New Orleans. It has that going for it.

IMBO: I went to a Baptist college in Nashville, Tennessee where I also discovered a great many things. Those were the days. Did you have to go to chapel? Was it culture shock being thrust into the Bible belt? 

Fauth: I didn't have to go to chapel, but the place blew my mind on a daily basis anyway. Mississippi Burning had only come out a few years before. I shot guns, went to a rodeo, broke curfews. I was over 21 so I made a lot of friends fast because I could buy booze. We'd go to the drive-through daiquiri place in Vicksburg or sneak off to New Orleans. Everybody's father seemed to be a car salesman, a minister, or a former car salesman who'd been called upon by the Lord to become a minister. At the end of my year there, the president of the college, who'd just celebrated his 25th year in office, was apprehended in San Francisco by the FBI, trying to bite down on a cyanide capsule. He'd been on the run for "white slavery." You can't make that stuff up. 

IMBO: Well, I come from Tennessee, so you can't shock me. Goodness, how long does it take to bite down on a cyanide capsule? I'd say his heart wasn't in it. Too bad. Moving on from pervy white slavery college president . . . do you write in German as well? Kino is a novel that I imagine would be applauded by the German reading public.

Fauth: I've never seriously written fiction in German, no. But I agree that Kino ought to appeal to a German audience, so I've begun translating it, and I'm discovering that it's a lot of fun to translate yourself because you always know if it's right. You never have to worry if you're paraphrasing too much and you're always exactly sure what the author meant.... So you get the pure pleasure of translation, which is the feeling of having written without having to come up with something to say -- you're just making sentences. I like it very much, and I'm hoping to find a publisher for Kino in Germany soon.

IMBO: I have a good feeling about that. My very limited experience with German publishers makes me think they're more open than publishers in the US. Kino is a mystery thriller with lots of twists. I particularly liked the theme of truth, bending the truth, and not knowing who's telling the truth--themes I touch on in my review of the book for Books at Fictionaut. Jürgen, tell me a little about Kino. Is it based on a real person? A filmmaker from the time when the Weimar Republic was being devoured by the Nazis?

Fauth: It's not based on any particular person, no. It's more of a composite, with my own spin on it. The idea was to tell a kind of artist's biography, the familiar biopic arc of rise and fall, but then carry it further and see what happens when his work gets rediscovered a generation or two later. So it was a matter of fitting Kino's story into the known history and relating it to well-known historical figures. On the one hand you have trajectories like Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich, and Fritz Lang, people who left the country at some point, went to Hollywood, and became successful there, to varying degrees. Then you have the people who stayed and allowed themselves to become tools of the Nazis, such as Leni Riefenstahl and Veidt Harlan. As an expat, I was very much interested in the point when you realize that you have to leave your country, and I wanted Kino's decision to be ambiguous. Does he stay out of loyalty to his family or out of fear and opportunism? When he finally leaves -- much later than most emigrants -- America is not kind to him, and he struggles to restart his career. The question "What would I have done?" is something all Germans ask themselves, and Kino's story was a way for me to explore that moment from an artist's point of view.




IMBO: Yes, I felt that perspective often from the main character, Mina. And these aspects of family loyalty and responsibility seemed central to the novel, something I point out in my review on Fictionaut. I'm also struck by the various layers you've built into Kino: historical novel, action-packed mystery, family drama, multiple-voiced narrative, a bit of science fiction. Or would you call the mind-control storyline science fiction? 

Fauth: Perhaps I'd call it "speculative fiction," but then again, all fiction is, isn't it? I'm very interested in that border between art and reality, and how they influence each other. The book takes this to an extreme, makes it almost supernatural, but I do suspect that the line that separates the two is more permeable than we generally assume. And that's just one of the things at play -- you're right, I was trying for something dense, a multi-layered story with a fast-moving surface that also covers a lot of ground conceptually. That was the idea, anyway.

IMBO: Before we finish here, Jürgen, I always ask the interviewee what "Home" means and whether being an expat for so long has affected your sense of home. Do you still live in the US? Which parts of you feel American, and which German? 

Fauth: After nearly 20 years in the US, I recently returned to Germany for a time. It's odd being back. I'm now a citizen of both countries, which should help making me feel at home in both, but it also means that in a way, I'm a foreigner everywhere. At home, we speak English, we consume mostly U.S. media. The weirdest part about it may be that I'm six hours ahead of my Twitter friends now -- after I catch up in the morning, I have to wait till noonish before the East Coast slowly starts waking up. I'm sure you know all about that.

IMBO: I do. By the time my friends are home from work, I'm horizontal and snoring too loud to hear the phone. Thank you, Jürgen! Great to talk to you. 

Fauth: Same here. Thanks for having me, Chris.

I must be off,

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Jürgen Fauth is the author of the novel Kino  (Atticus Books). You can read the opening chapter "Celluloid" on Fictionaut, a literary community co-founded by Fauth together with Carson Baker in 2008. Fictionaut has been covered by MashablePoets & Writers, and the L.A. Times. Fauth has written about the site at the Huffington Post. Fauth now lives in Wiesbaden, Germany with his wife, novelist Marcy Dermansky. 

Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type