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Tales of happiness and misery: a conversation with Erwin Koch.


Erwin Koch, the author of seven books, is a Swiss journalist. He is the two-time recipient of the Egon Erwin Kisch Prize for German-language journalism (1988 and 1996); his carefully constructed, dystopian first novel, Sara tanzt (Sara dances) was awarded the Mara Cassens Prize for the best first novel of 2003. Notable among his works are the riveting novel Der Flambeur (The flimflam flambeur), based on the difficult life of a Swiss-German entrepreneur, and the finely wrought journalistic collection Vor der Tagesschau, an einem spaten Sonntagnachmittag (Late Sunday afternoon, just before the news). His most recent publication is a collaborative work about a Swiss monastery with the photographer Giorgio von Arb. Koch's work is often set against a backdrop of current social or political issues, but it typically eschews politics and ideology to focus on human reactions to disillusionment, absurdity, and failure.

John K. Cox: Greetings, Erwin! As we conduct this interview (by e-mail), you are in Albania, and you have just recently been to Chile and Russia. Is this your first trip to Albania? What takes you to the Balkans at this point in your long career? Can you share some impressions of that little-known European country?

Erwin Koch: I first went to Albania three years ago, though it was only to the capital, Tirana. There I visited with the five Uighurs, Chinese citizens, who earlier had been imprisoned at Guantanamo for several years and then, because they were innocent of everything, had been deported to a country that volunteered--and not out of altruism--to take them: Albania. Aside from all the political aspects, the psychological side of it interested me, as always. To say it differently: the vagaries of fate. These five men, politically persecuted in their homeland, had left their country to find a better life, and then, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, they got into very hot water in Afghanistan.

This time, at the beginning of October 2010, I was in the city of Shkoder, in the northern part of the country. The subject I was investigating there was the blood feud, a phenomenon that has increased in impact and frequency since the collapse of communism. The Committee of National Reconciliation, an Albanian NGO, asserts that in the past twenty years, 10,000 people have been killed in vendettas and that there are currently almost 1,500 families living in isolation, barely ever leaving their homes out of fear of being shot down by a "blood-taker." Once again, it was the emotional angle above all that interested me here: How does a person deal with a situation in which there is someone lurking outside his door who wants to kill him? How does one manage not to go insane? So the protagonist of my story, "But It Was Beautiful," is a seventeen-year-old whose great uncle killed someone twenty-seven years ago. And now he is counting on being mowed down, too, sometime, in an act of blood vengeance. Meanwhile, the psychological stress is so tremendous that the young man is weighing whether or not he should give himself up to the avengers so they could pick him off, so the rest of the family can finally be at peace again.

JC: How would you describe yourself as a writer? Is the relationship between fact and fiction in your texts a central part of your self-description?

EK: The question of what kind of writer I am is unimportant to me. Granted, this perhaps has something to do with the fact that I live far away from the places where people concerned with such things work. I live in a little village in central Switzerland, surrounded by everyday things, by trees and dogs, and I don't hear much about the sorts of things that are important to others. Despite the three novels I've written, and despite my radio dramas, I would identify myself as a reporter. As someone who travels someplace, takes a look at something, and comes home and transfers what he has seen to a story that is as true and as beautiful as possible. And, as trite as it sounds, I am able to be the authority defining what is maximally true and beautiful.

The relationship between the factual and the fictional only matters, and has only mattered, in my novels and in the radio dramas. Two of the three novels are based on reportage that I had written earlier; that is to say, they're based on real-life events. Eventually, then, a genuine feeling of delight gripped me when I realized, during the act of writing the novels, that I had the freedom to diverge without penalty from so-called reality, from the facts, the straitjacket of the real. It was a feeling of liberation, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I was free and was only committed to the characters and the world I had invented while writing.

JC: Do you think that the designation "creative nonfiction" fits most of your works? How do you draw the line between factual reporting and dramatization (interpolation?) in your pieces?

EK: I like this term "creative nonfiction," although this is the first time I've encountered it. Perhaps it is the best fit for my approach and my view of things. I need to confess, though, that I hardly ever think about the genre in which I am working. I take no interest in the question of what I am--an author? a journalist? a travel writer? a travel reporter? Maybe I should add at this point that by training I am actually a lawyer. But I have never worked as one, and after my studies I glided, more or less seamlessly, into journalism--without the attendant training.

I'm bad at theory. And so much of what I do comes from my gut. Maybe I can come up with a brief formula for it: I head off somewhere, arrive, marvel, collect impressions, write them down, gather details and more impressions, collect and collect and note them down-even if these details are thoroughly beside the point, for example the license-plate numbers of certain cars that (might!) play a role in the text. Names of streets, smells, sounds, the pattern in a carpet that (might!) play a role in my text. With my notebook crammed full, I make the trip home and put my plunder in order: I create a subject index so that I don't get lost as I write my way through the acquired materials.

What happens next is probably the most important step. I try to get some distance from my impressions. Acting as if I were not the person who had been on the receiving end of the impressions, I try to figure out which effects and details would best serve the writing of a good story. I shift into the role of a neutral observer. This is what I call the "art of reduction." It lets my writing tap into the full volume of the large amount of material I have collected and condense the best 10 or 20 percent of it into a story.

I consider the impetus behind the writing of a given piece of reporting to be literary, just as my demands of the piece are literary. By this I mean I attempt to find the appropriate form for every set of circumstances I describe. Certainly, I don't succeed at this in every case. But I have never let myself be guided by the truths of schools of journalism, for instance that no sentence should be longer than twenty words. Or that the reader must be told by the tenth line what is new and important about what he or she is now reading. I will admit that form is of no less interest to me than content. And I don't mean to sound immodest here, but the forms of which I avail myself are literary ones; I want readers to see certain connections themselves. I allow myself to set up puzzles that the reader, if so inclined, can crack for him- or herself. I take the liberty of working with secrets that readers, if so inclined, can discover for themselves. I wouldn't want to practice any kind of dumbed-down journalism that deprives the reader of sharing in all potential thinking, experiencing, and suffering. In this way I treat readers as grown-ups.

In brief: I rework a host of facts, a progression of them--and facts are sacred--into a story that makes use of literary methods. Methods all the way up to interior monologues.

JC: How do you decide on your topics for reporting? Do you generate ideas yourself or in collaboration with other travelers, writers, or editors?

EK: I guess I would say that I am more interested in failures than successes. I concern myself with the absurdity of human existence--"life plans" that suddenly miscarry.... These are the kinds of stories that intrigue me. I read a lot of newspapers, and now and then I come across real-life situations that, I believe, contain openings to another world behind them. Sometimes it is my friends who alert me to such stories, and at other times it's my editors.

JC: What would you say is your ethos of writing or, more narrowly, of reporting?

EK: To get as close to the truth as possible.

JC: I remember fondly the day I discovered your novel Der Flambeur completely by accident in a Berlin bookstore [see WLT's website for more information on Koch's novels]. That would have been in the early summer of 2009. I was hooked and immediately read everything of yours that I could get my hands on; this does not happen all too often, but it surely is exhilarating. Have you made similar serendipitous discoveries and follow-ups?

EK: Unfortunately, I have not! But a number of times I have enjoyed a book so much that I set about reading all the works of the author in question. But for the most part I was disappointed by the time the second or third book came along. Except in the case of Juan Rulfo, although to my knowledge he only wrote two books.

JC: Can you tell us a bit of what you did at the major papers you worked for in the past, the Tages-Anzeiger, FAZ, and Die Zeit?

EK: I became someone who writes for a living without intending to do so. In the beginning, in 1981, there was the request from an editor at Zurich's Tages-Anzeiger-Magazin: Would I be willing to write something about government-supported arts programs in the canton of Jura?

What a boring topic that was! This editor had me on his radar because as a law student I had written my thesis on official film subsidies in Switzerland. I was young and curious and had a devil-may-care attitude. So off I go into Jura. I talked with various people, and what I ended up coming back with was like a research paper for a university class. It had chapters and numbering, like 1a, 1b, 1c, etc. Atrocious! But they gave me a second chance, and my second attempt got published. As things went on I started proposing topics myself. Many were in a folkloric vein. Some were turned down, and some were accepted. From 1984 to 1990 I was an editor with this magazine. Since then I have worked freelance, except in the period between 1999 and 2002, when I wrote exclusively for the Hamburg news magazine Der Spiegel.

As a journalist, I have only ever written reportage. That is to say, no mere "news reports," no commentaries, no reviews or critiques. In the event that I do have something to say, then I can probably do the best job of it by putting it into a story.

At some point I sent my texts to various German newspapers and magazines. People liked them. And things went forward from there.

JC: What topics might interest you on your next trip to the United States?

EK: Any story with a false bottom. Any tale of happiness and misery. Three weeks ago I read about a man in Kentucky who shot six people dead because his wife had not cooked his breakfast eggs in the usual way. This is not yet a good story. If there is a whole galaxy of human tragedy behind it, then it could become a good story ... if one could re-create, step by step, how it might come to pass that an improperly cooked egg could trigger a catastrophe that has long since been present.

JC: One of the major awards you have won (twice) for your work is the Egon Erwin Kisch Prize. For what works? What was it like to win it a second time?

EK: The first time was in 1989. I received this award for reporting on conditions in west Belfast in Northern Ireland. At the time the civil war was still going on between Catholics and Protestants, Republicans and Loyalists. The second time, in 1996, I was awarded the prize for a piece about the life and death of Joseph Paul Jernigan. He was a murderer who was executed in Huntsville, Texas, in 1993. Before his death he bequeathed his body to science. The barely dead Jernigan was put in the deep freeze (-70[degrees]c) and then cut into four pieces; next, a metalworking machine went to work on each of his portions, abrading them millimeter by millimeter, 1,897 times, with photographing and measuring along the way. Jernigan would ultimately be uploaded to the Internet as a digital anatomy atlas.


These prizes--the first one more than the second--brought me considerable joy. I conceived of them as confirmation of what had gone before and encouragement for what was to come. And they also benefited me in the sense that certain editorial boards now approached me about working with them. It is certainly not the case that others are interested in the things that I care about. It is also not the case that everything I do is of major interest to me. Sometimes I just have to earn my daily bread and work on subjects that I would not have come up with on my own. The advantage of such an assignment is that I feel less pressured to produce something good, above all because it wasn't my bright idea but rather the brainchild of my employer.

JC: I suppose it seems like a luxury for journalists, and for students, and for academics on tenure track, but there is great wisdom, I think, in the quip by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Don't write because you want to say something. Write because you have something to say." Has there ever been a time when, after researching a person or a story, you felt you had nothing to say? I am not speaking of writer's block so much as a story that just does not gel or seem compelling in any way. Do the unwritten or sidelined parts of such a project continue to stew in your mind, and perhaps appear later in some other form?

EK: I don't have to write. (I know that this fails to promote the myth that distinguishes so many writers.) Writing is something that, evidently, I am capable of. I earn my living with it. And, a lot of times, it's fun. The fact that I am not compelled to write makes many things easier for me. It facilitates disengagement. I am good at throwing things away. If I can't or couldn't make use of something, it causes me no grief. It does not weigh on me. What I allow myself is a small archive of anecdotes, things that happened to me or about which I read and that seem like they might someday be of use. Maybe when I am writing a fourth novel.

JC: Tell us about your schooling and university education. Where did you grow up? Why did you study law at university?

EK: I grew up with my four siblings in central Switzerland, in a little village out in the country. Two thousand inhabitants, two bakers, two butchers, one pastor. My father was a teacher, my mother a homemaker. At age twelve I moved, more or less voluntarily, to a boarding school in a monastery run by Benedictines. I spent seven years there, time that in retrospect strikes me as boring. At that point I did not know what I wanted to study. I considered veterinary medicine but then decided on law. I no longer know what pushed me in that direction. After halfheartedly completing my degree, I applied for various jobs. I did so without much passion and without conviction and right at that time I received that first request to write an article for a newspaper, a reportage. I enjoyed doing it, and still do.

Today I live back there, in the village where I grew up, with my wife. We live in the same house in which I grew up. I appreciate the seclusion of the village and like escaping from the commotion of the city.

Editorial note: To read "But It Was Beautiful," translated by John K. Cox, visit the WLT website (

Editorial note: To read "Dear Torturer," an excerpt from Vor der Tagesschau, an einem spaten Sonntagnachmittag translated by John K. Cox, visit the Words Without Borders website (

John K. Cox is professor and department head in history at North Dakota State University in Fargo. He received his undergraduate degree from Guilford College and earned his doctorate at Indiana University. The History of Serbia (2002), Slovenia: Evolving Loyalties (2005), and translations of novels by Danilo Kis and Ivan Cankar are among his chief publications.
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Title Annotation:Q&A: WLT INTERVIEWS
Author:Cox, John K.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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