It was a warm evening. The venue’s interview room was full. People were even standing in the corridor to listen in. We had all come to the interview of Austrian author Robert Seethaler. He was going to be interviewed in German, by Dutch journalist Jeroen van Kan.
The main topic would be Robert Seethaler’s book “Ein ganzes Leben” or “A whole life”. It was recently elected the book of the year, by German booksellers. It has been on bestseller lists ever since its publication in 2014. A Dutch translation had become available.As with previous novels by Robert Seethaler, more translations of “Ein ganzes Leben” are expected.
I had secured my usual place: next to a window. My seat enabled me to leave my glass of mint tea on the window sill. In this venue, it’s also crucial to have a seat near an open window when it’s warm. Even when it means street noise occasionally interferes with interviews.
Autographed posters of previous guests line the walls. Previous guests include Stephen Fry, Madeleine Albright, Hilary Mantel, Marie Darrieussecq, Martha Nussbaum and a great many others. T.C. Boyle will revisit later this year.
The man next to me, started wiping his head with a kerchief the moment he sat down. Fortunately, the audience didn’t have to wait long. Author and interviewer arrived and sat down facing the public. Someone introduced the author. Mr van Kan started the interview by giving a synopsis of the novel.
He concluded his introduction of the novel with the remark that Robert Seethaler had written several others. “Has he indeed?!” was the author’s reaction. Which could have been the start of an entertaining, delightful, funny, relaxed yet interesting interview.
Instead, the audience was treated to a lesson in how not to interview another person. It left quite a view people horrified, upset, disappointed, even deeply ashamed of what they had witnessed. During the interview, several people sitting near me started shaking their heads at each question. And it was certainly not Robert Seethaler’s fault.
Mr van Kan managed to ride roughshod over his guest. It was an appalling and disrespect performance. Mr Seethaler was repeatedly not left time to think about how best and honest to answer questions. He regularly was not left time to finish an answer. Even while he repeatedly asked mr van Kan for time to do so, or tried to explain to mr van Kan why he wanted time to think about answering. This left me and many others in the public not only appalled, but thoroughly disgusted.
Moreover, mr van Kan repeated himself. Questions which had been answered were repeated again. Questions mr Seethaler honestly said he preferred not to answer, were asked anyway. Towards the end of the hour, mr Seethaler quite rightly told mr van Kan, he was not a “moderator”.
Where Mr van Kan’s behaviour made people cringe, mr Seethaler’s answers had the opposite effect. He came across as sincere, decent, honest and modest, despite his recent successes. He tried to answer all questions as best he could – provided he was given a chance.
A few of the subjects mr Seeethaler got a chance to elaborate upon despite mr van Kan’s interview techniques, included writing. Quite a few readers dislike reading books which manipulate them. In answer to one of the questions, mr Seethaler stated he likes to write stories and tries not to manipulate his readers in feeling certain emotions. Something a few German reviewers have claimed.
Mr Seethaler tried to explain where and how he gets his inspiration. How he experiences his creative process. His stories definitely are not ready to be written down in a flash. The ideas come as snippets or rather images, many of which are forgotten. A few remain and of these, some make it into stories and novels.
During the whole process, feelings and emotions play an important role. What is also important to mr Seethaler is to find the right words, the right sentences. All this, certainly gave the impression that for mr Seethaler, writing is a taxing, elaborate craft which takes a lot of time.
This time, all the images, feelings and then crafting of a story, created a short and deceptively simple story. The main character of “Ein ganzes Leben” is Andreas, who ends up in a remote mountain village. He will spend nearly all of his life there and it is not a very happy and fortunate life.
Mr Seethaler went into the importance of a few images or symbols. The book is about life, so death plays an important role. One of the images which represents death is the cold woman, “die kalte Frau”. But this image is also linked to the woman Andreas loves.
Mist or “Nebel” also plays an important role. It makes things appear and disappear, it creates and destroys. It blurs and plays tricks. It is one of the aspects of nature in this small book, where the mountains also play a crucial role.
Fortunately enough, when mr van Kan started to repeat himself too obviously, mr Seethaler asked the audience if he should read a few pages from his book. “Yes, please!” was the unanimous, eager reply. So mr Seethaler read the first few pages of the 160 which make up the German version of “Ein ganzes Leben”.
This certainly whetted the appetite for more. It was deeply regrettable that the interview with mr Seethaler left not enough room to hear him read more, answer questions the way he preferred to, to go into what mattered to him as author, how he crafts his works, and a great many other things he was willing to share with his audience.
Mr Seethaler writes film scripts as well as books. “Ein ganzes Leben” is his fifth novel. Like his previous novels, it is available in other languages. The English translation will be on sale from July 2015 onwards.
“Ein ganzes Leben”, Robert Seethaler, pp 160, Hanser Berlin, München, 2014.
“A whole life”, Robert Seethaler, pp 160, PanMacmillan, available from July 2015 onwards.