INTERVIEW: Keeping the Faith with Jürgen FauthPosted: March 9, 2012
Scheduled to release in mid April, Kino , the debut novel by Jürgen Fauth, is deeply moving work. Published by Atticus Books, Kino the story deals with a silent film director in Nazi Germany named Kino and, through a set of circumstances, his granddaughter’s quest to discover an enigmatic man whom she hardly knew. So begins an intricately woven tale of history meets fiction, art meets politics, self-identity meets family. Fauth juggles these sharp ideas with nuance that showcase his maturity as a writer. In it, we are treated to Fauth’s wild imagination, where almost nothing is off limits, as the journals of the title character capture the chaotic time period, and some of its major players, including Joseph Goebbels, with an inventiveness that is both daring and well executed.
Fauth, who was born in Germany, and co-founded the literary start up community Fictionaut, fills this story with a deep knowledge of film history that adds to the layering of his complex characters. Part historical fiction, part page-turning thriller, Kino is a well-told tale written by somehow who exudes confidence on every page. Readers are in good hands with Fauth as he masters his realm, creating a world that is wholly his own yet accurate of a past era. His examination of both arts role in a society and the portraits of 1920s Germany are worth the read alone.
With hints of the supernatural as the novel’s plot begins to unfold, Fauth tries to tiptoe across a high wire act that can prove to be too challenging for some. Although not a fan of the overtly genre elements in the book, I did appreciate the author’s willingness to delve into these areas as it steered the narrative away from becoming too stale and self-reflective in its detailed look at the power of art. By mixing it up, Fauth created a text that, I suspect, can appeal to a broad audience.
The two differing aspects of the book, the thrilling aspects of some of the more action-filled scenes combined with the wonderfully reflective, but not overindulgent meditative, look at how time, art, politics, and setting can help form a person play well off one another and show just how multitalented Fauth really is. It struck the right emotional chords at the right times and featured wonderfully narcissistic characters that kept me entertained from start to finish. Fauth also displayed a wide array of tools in terms of his writing style.
In talking with Fauth, I was able to get a better sense of the book’s nuances, the thought progression behind it, and his writing process.
Patrick Trotti: Kino is your first novel. You’ve written numerous short stories and I’m wondering how was the experience of writing a longer, full-length piece in comparison to your other pieces?
Jürgen Fauth: It’s an interesting trade-off: I find starting new stories difficult, but I love finishing them. Short stories give you a fairly even balance between the two. For a while before I started Kino, I was experimenting with flash fiction, which I consider the crack cocaine of forms: it gives you the kick of having finished another piece very quickly, you get to slap on a title and send it out into the world, maybe get it published—but the high never lasts long. I understand why it’s popular, especially on the web, but overall, I was much happier sinking into the long embrace of a novel. You have to defer the satisfaction of a finished thing for years, but every day when you sit down to write, you know exactly what you have to do next.
PT: What stood out immediately in Kino were the influences in your book, most notably your German heritage and history as a film critic and photographer. Can explain how these influenced your piece, and was it a conscious thing or more of an organic process?
JF: I conceived of Kino during a visit to Berlin and the film museum there. I’d always been tempted by the world of the Weimar Berlin, and being there, it suddenly clicked. It’s such a rich and fascinating history—so much art, so much horror. I launched into the book right away, using a combination of what I knew about the time and about my own experiences as a German living in America, my ideas about history, film, and family. At the same time, I started some fairly extensive research into the period, which only got more fascinating the more I read and watched. Lots of biographies, lots of silent films. Some of it is way stranger than anything you could invent. I keep a tumblr with some of the material that inspired the book at tulpendiebe.tumblr.com.
PT: Along the same lines as the last question, did you find that writing a book about art, and the struggle of an artist to pursue his/her vision etc… was freeing or constricting in any specific ways as far as you being an artist yourself?
JF: It was freeing. I worked as a film critic for over ten years, so this was a great opportunity to work some of my ideas about movies and writing into a narrative, rather than speaking about them in an abstract way. There’s a bit of a treatise about art built into Kino, and you might notice that the book itself displays some of my main character’s views on inspiration, collaboration, the idea of “perfection,” and so on. I wouldn’t take the analogy too far, but at the heart of it, you have the story of a stubborn, idealistic immigrant artist told by another stubborn, idealistic immigrant. I had great fun with it.
PT: Could you describe your writing process, specifically when it came to Kino? Did you have any rituals, was it a daily grind, or produced more in spurts?
JF: The trip to Berlin I mentioned earlier happened over New Year’s, and I’d made a resolution to write every day, so I started the novel on January 1 and worked on it for two years straight—I think the first rough draft was done on Christmas Day. Some days I wrote several pages, others I only managed a sentence, but there wasn’t a day in those two years where I didn’t touch it. Then I took a break, edited in spurts, found an agent, had a baby, got extensive notes from the agent, and edited whenever I could. I remember one especially intense week where I stayed alone in a friend’s cabin in the Pennsylvania countryside. He’d just bought it, and there was no power and no heat, strange alarms going off in the middle of the night. I binged on Kino, danced to keep warm, and rewrote the ending completely.
PT: If you could describe your writing style, how would you? Similarly, who are/were your main writing influences?
JF: There are many, many writers I admire, but that doesn’t mean I sound anything like them. I’m a big fan of Hemingway, of Thomas Mann, of Thomas Pynchon, but that probably doesn’t tell you much. I studied with Mary Robison and Frederick Barthelme, who certainly shaped what I do, and my wife Marcy Dermansky and I spend so much time editing each other’s work that some of it must’ve rubbed off. But really, at this point, I try to sound like myself (or rather, my narrators). I generally tend to distrust writing that sounds too willfully “literary.” Many of my conscious influences these days come from the movies, especially in terms of pacing, plotting, and the setting of scenes. For Kino, I borrowed a great many elements from the movies.
PT: You co-founded the popular site Fictionaut. How has that experience of community, of being exposed to more works and people in the field affected you as a writer?
JF: It’s curious because I’m on it every day, but I haven’t been a particularly active user of the site. In part that’s perhaps because I feel a little awkward about being one of the founders. Remember Tom, who was everybody’s friend on MySpace? It’s a little bit like that. But also, I really didn’t have that much to post. In the beginning, I put up a few stories and some of the flash pieces I mentioned, but otherwise, for the entire time there’s been Fictionaut, I’ve been working on the novel. I did post an excerpt once and got a great, supportive response, and editing the Fictionaut blog has given me a steady dose of insight into the processes and problems of other writers.
But then again, Kino is concerned with questions of cooperation in art, corporate control, monopolies on distribution, and alternate ways of sharing and collaborating. In other words, the ideas behind Fictionaut also snuck into the book, and thematically, they’re closely linked in my mind—which shouldn’t be surprising, since I worked on both of them simultaneously for long stretches of time. I’m thinking of pushing this a little further and launching a kind of interactive project that links the two, but it’s a little early to be talking about it…
PT: Is there a second book on the horizon?
JF: I sure hope so—but when you’re married to another writer and raising a kid, it’s a lot to juggle. I have a few ideas I’m knocking around, but right now, I’m trying to give Marcy the time she needs to finish the follow-up to Bad Marie.
PT: Do you have any words of wisdom for young, aspiring authors?
JF: I recently met a friend from my workshop days in Southern Mississippi, and we talked about how every writing class usually begins with the teacher warning the class: “It’s terribly hard to make a living as a writer, and if you can do anything else, you should do that instead.” A decade later, we were both nodding, like, yeah, they were on to something. Then my friend looked up at me and said: “But they didn’t press their point.”
So, at the risk of being a total downer, let me press the point: it’s brutal making a living as a writer, and as difficult as it is to get published, that’s just the beginning. I’ve met successful, critically acclaimed authors with several novels with major houses, and they’re still struggling. This goes doubly if you happen to be married to another writer and you’re thinking about having a family. So let me repeat that advice: if there’s anything else you think you can do, do that instead.
But in the woeful case that you somehow feel that there’s nothing else you’re fit to do, that writing is what you have to do, then you have to go for it, and go for it hard. Becoming an artist is not an excuse to be lazy, although some idleness is required. You’ve got to read wide and far, and you’ve got to write all the time. I was once told that you have to write 1,000 bad pages before you’ll turn out anything worthwhile. I thought it was preposterous at the time, now I suspect it’s true. So keep working—no excuses. Also, if there’s any way to avoid it, do not marry another writer.