KINO was wonderful. It’s the kind of book you wish your book club would choose to read, – one that will be a catalyst to move the discussion in dozens of different directions. Unfortunately I’m between book clubs. So, instead, I decided to go directly to the source. And Jürgen Fauth was kind enough to oblige.
Thank you, Jürgen, for answering my questions. I read in your author bio that you were born in Germany. While writing KINO did you consider yourself a German expatriate living in New York? How did that perspective (if at all) influence KINO? And are there plans to have it translated and released in Germany?
I grew up in Germany and came to the U.S. in my twenties. Most of the book was written while I was living in New York on a Green Card, and the idea of immigration (or rather, emigration) was one of the things that interested me about Kino’s story: when and how do you decide to leave your country? How do you know things have gotten so bad that you have to get out? There were huge waves of people leaving Germany right after Hitler took power, but many more stayed, and I always wondered what that must have felt like at the time.
Now, I don’t want to equate the two at all, but like many others, I was very unhappy with the direction the U.S. was taking while George W. Bush was president. I marched against the Iraq war early on, but it was odd because I wasn’t a citizen, so I felt as if my opinion didn’t really matter. Around 2004, 2005, I remember thinking, “if this gets any worse, I’m going to leave the country.” You may remember, a lot of people were saying that kind of thing at the time, but I had a German passport and could have gone with relative ease. But I didn’t — and now I’m a citizen. In my book, the question whether or not Kino should leave Germany and why he decides to stay turns out to be central for our understanding of the character, but there isn’t a single simple answer.
And, yes, I’d love to translate the book and publish it in Germany.
There is so much going on in KINO – so many ideas in play. I’ve been dying to know – did you start with the ideas and the story developed around them? or did you have the basic plot structure and the ideas evolved out of it?
It was a back and forth process — at first I just wrote, but as the story got more involved, I had to stop myself and attempt drafting something like an outline. I came up with a general shape for the story and a few central elements, without really knowing how it would end — it was more like a general roadmap, and it kept on changing as I filled it in. Whenever I got confused, I went back to the beginning and told the story to myself in chronological order. It was a messy process that took several years, and I was lucky enough to have some terrific early readers who helped me making sure that the way the story unfolded made sense. I wasn’t sure how it would all come together until I was done.
Rather than playing Florence Nightingale to her sick husband your heroine, Mina, chooses to go off and have an adventure. It’s horrifying, but at the same time exhilarating. I mean, if she hadn’t made that choice then there wouldn’t have been much of a story, would there? Mina is independent, confident, self-destructive, selfish… she breaks all kinds of stereotypes on what it means to be feminine. Was that your intention? Or were you mainly developing the theme that selfishness is necessary to great art? Is Mina meant to be an example of that?
I wouldn’t say that Mina’s character grew out of any theme, and I’m not sure that I consciously made her “strong.” She certainly has her share of flaws — but if a male character acted the way she does, nobody would bat an eye. You’re right, though, we’re not used to seeing a woman leave her sick husband behind and make the kind of choices she makes. I wasn’t trying to make a point though — I just thought it fit the character, who, after all, becomes infatuated with her even more selfish and self-destructive grandfather. It’s interesting that you bring it up, because some of the big publishers who turned the book down said they didn’t think Mina was “sympathetic” and “relatable” enough. Again, I don’t think anyone ever asks those questions of a male protagonist.
I love history. KINO had me reaching for my copy of Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. During your research you immersed yourself in books and films on 1920’s-30’s Berlin – what would you recommend?
There’s a good history of the Weimar years called Before the Deluge, by Otto Friedrich, that I kept coming back to. Leni Riefenstahl’s autobiography is fascinating and entirely untrustworthy — you’ll want to follow it up with a biography, like the one by Steven Bach. My favorite art book on the period is Voluptuous Panic by Mel Gordon. The Ufa Story and Patrick McGilligan’s Lang biography were essential, but they’re not necessarily fun reading. For fiction, I’d recommend Christopher Isherwood’s books and Klaus Mann’s Mephisto. As far as movies go, there are too many to list. The recent Metropolis restoration is spectacular, especially if you can see it with live music. Die Nibelungen was also restored but hasn’t come to the U.S. yet. I’d see Murnau’s films — Nosferatu, Sunrise — and of course Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box. And something with or by Riefenstahl — her Olympia movies are gorgeous, and you should see one of her mountain films, like The White Hell of Pitz Palu. I’m keeping a tumblr where I post a lot of this material, even whole movies, so if you need more inspiration head to tulpendiebe.tumblr.com.
I discussed in my review the idea of the effect of WWII, the Nazis and the Holocaust on ordinary German people. The ones who remained in Germany, joined the party and, like Kino, tried to get on with their lives. Every artist creates – or is continually creating – their own, personal narratives (mythologies even). Families do the same thing. There are multiple versions of Kino’s “narrative” – some more and some less flattering. Was this something you were consciously exploring? Was it territory where you felt a need to tread lightly or the exact opposite? Because I would think that in Germany – even all these years later – narratives are being (or have been) developed within families? As I read KINO I kept asking myself: are all the stories about Kino meant to true, or are they all meant to be false, or is it somewhere in between?
Growing up German, with grandparents who lived through those years, it’s a question that’s always been on my mind. You’d like to think that ordinary Germans – such as your own family – didn’t have much of a choice, couldn’t really have done anything to stop Hitler. They weren’t Nazis, but they weren’t heroes, either, and in my family, the stories were always about just getting by, keeping your head down and doing what you could. My grandfather always told us how he had disobeyed an order to shell a cloister at the end of the war. But you don’t know what kinds of things they aren’t telling you, and it’s impossible to know what you would have done in their stead. It’s something that’s always haunted me. And I’ve seen the same kind of thing in some of the biographies I’ve read — Fritz Lang’s story about when and why he left Germany, for instance, does not hold up to close scrutiny. It’s a nice myth, but it doesn’t seem to be true.
In the light of all that, it was important to me that Kino’s story should stay ambiguous as well, that readers would have room to make up their own minds.
Thank you, Jürgen, for being so generous with your time and answers. Before we end, would you mind talking a little about the literary community you co-founded, Fictionaut , and how it works?
I’ve been involved with literary magazines for a long time, as reader, editor, and as writer submitting work, and I’ve always wondered how the Internet might reshape the litmag. When social media started appearing, I thought, “Aha! Here’s a new way to run a magazine!” Fictionaut started as an experiment to see if you could crowdsource the editing and selection process by allowing anybody to post their work and then letting favorites and comments decide what is presented on the front page. And lo and behold, it works — writers are using Fictionaut to publish work and get feedback, and our recommendation engine ensures that readers can easily find interesting writing when they come to the site. Since we launched, Fictionaut has attracted a great community of talented writers, and there are thousands and thousands of wonderful stories and poems on the site now.
Still want more KINO? Of course you do! Follow the link to a special invitation from the novel’s heroine, Mina Koblitz.