Brought to Book: Birgit Vanderbeke on her literary life
‘I read the most important books when I was young. That’s probably because reading plays a bigger role when you are growing up. It has never regained the same importance for me since then’
Birgit Vanderbeke: longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize 2014. Photograph: Julian Vanderbeke
Birgit Vanderbeke is an award-winning German author who now lives in France. The Mussel Feast, the English translation of her debut novel by Jamie Bulloch, was published by Peirene Press last year and has been longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize 2014.
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
Children’s Day in Bullerbü by Astrid Lindgren. “My name is Lisa and I’m seven years old,” is the first sentence of the book, and the first sentence that I could read – I was just 5 years old.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Pippi Longstocking , also by Astrid Lindgren. At the time, this was considered a dangerous book that might corrupt children so it was banned in many families.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
There are many of those. Here are just two of my current favourites: The Time Of Our Singing by Richard Powers and Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman. An all-time favourite of mine is Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston.
What is your favourite quotation?
There are also many of those. Some examples: “Watch out for the fellow who talks about putting things in order! Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control.” (Denis Diderot); “I am I because my little dog knows me.” (Gertrude Stein)
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Lisbeth Salander, by Stieg Larsson.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
I fear that as soon as I get to know an Irish author, (through a German or French translation – I live far from the Anglophone or even Gaelic world) they’re no longer under-rated but rather are in line for a Nobel prize.
Which do you prefer: ebooks or the traditional print version?
I nowadays read a lot on screen and online. Which of course means that I cherish books made of proper paper even more. However, I rarely pick one up.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
Evening Edged in Gold (German Special Edition) by Arno Schmidt
Where and how do you write?
Typing on a computer sitting at my desk, with a view out of the window.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
Since I’ve been able to think, my thoughts have dealt with fiction. There’s no particular book that has changed my mind. But the life-long preoccupation with story-telling has of course changed me and the way I tell stories.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
Before the internet, I never researched anything for my novels; since the internet, I always research extensively. With my penultimate book, for example, I suddenly turned into an expert in agro-industrial geo-strategy. I only include tiny chunks of what I discover in the narrative. But I still want to know.
What book influenced you the most?
Julio Cortázar’s stories.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
Candide by Voltaire, because I assume that every young person who is keen to read will by the age of 18 have read Harry Potter and the Stieg Larsson triology.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
I read the most important books when I was young. That’s probably because reading plays a bigger role when you are growing up. It has never regained the same importance for me since then.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
A basic grasp of the alphabet is certainly helpful. Further advice for an aspiring author is no different to that which I would offer anyone else tackling a task: do so with geniality, with curiosity, be self-confident and above all fearless.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
Patience, empathy and a dogged resistance to indifference.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
On several occasions already, I’ve had the pleasure of a dream dinner party with the Swiss author Peter Bichsel and would find it wonderful to be able to do so again.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
Humour is such an integral part of literature (even the darkest and most painful); I can hardly remember reading a book that didn’t include any funny scenes.
What is your favourite word?
The German word “liebäugeln”, to flirt or literally to love-eye, because it succinctly presents the German language’s ability to simply combine dissimilar words or types of words as if they were compatible and to set nouns in motion by turning them into charming verbs.
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
Kurt Tucholsky. He spent a lot of time in Berlin in the 1920s, and right now, Berlin could do with another visit from him.