Greg Baxter’s traumatic novel: ‘It caused real health problems’
When writing his latest book, Munich Airport, Baxter put everything he had into it. The journey into a horrible death, scattered family and a search for meaning took its toll
Greg Baxter. Photograph: Alan Betson Greg Baxter in Dublin: ‘Writing affords me the opportunity to be alone. I want to be reading books and writing books, and the internet, Twitter, all that stuff just distracts me.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
At the end of this interview with Greg Baxter, he recalls the last time we met, to discuss his debut novel The Apartment.
“When I sat across from you I probably seemed more confident and articulate. After I finished Munich Airport, I was completely strung out. I used up absolutely everything writing it and it hit me very hard when I finished it. I haven’t slept, I developed insomnia. It caused real health problems,” he says laughing. “I don’t know what to say about this book.”
Baxter is far from inarticulate, and given the claustrophobic setting of his new novel, it isn’t difficult to see how it might have hemmed him in, psychologically and imaginatively.
In Munich Airport, an American man living in London receives a phone call to say that his sister, who lives in Berlin, has died. Their elderly father decides to bring her body home to America and he and his son travel to Germany with a US consular diplomat. In their efforts to return home with her coffin, they are holed up in an airport. Usually, this is a kinetic, bustling space, but here, father and son are fog-bound and stationary.
A broken ankle
Baxter broke an ankle while visiting writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh in Bucharest, and this partly provided a narrative starting point. “I spent two very long days at Munich Airport six months before I began this book. The first time I was in a wheelchair, the second time I was on crutches.
“I became conscious of the fact that there are a lot of airport cliches. We all have a shared understanding of what airports mean in modern life – they’re emblematic of our disconnection – but it was important to me that I didn’t say those things in the book.
“My approach to writing is not to say anything that doesn’t need to be said. A writer tries to create meaning out of situations we all share, without lurching towards banality. And this is not Munich Airport – it’s a made-up place. Every airport is blue and grey, so it encapsulates every place.”
Baxter’s book is not confined to airport stasis; it is about death, family and grief. When father and son arrive, they finally discover the cause of Miriam’s death: starvation. It horrifies them, and they struggle to discover the trajectory of her life and how she got to that point.
“If I believed that we were dealing with an illness, none of the book would have made sense to me. The whole thing revolves around the idea of whether her starvation is an illness or not.
“In A Hunger Artist by Kafka, or [Coetzee’s] The Life and Times of Michael K, those characters are doing something really important by starving themselves. It’s not anorexia, and this was what I was fascinated by.
“This story is about a man trying to understand why his sister had died this way. It was the one internal motivator in the book that I kept returning to when the book flagged.”
Those left behind
There is a death at the centre of the book, but the mortality of those left behind is also examined. The son, a marketing executive, flails through life. His father, a widower historian, is ageing and is much slower than the last time he and his son met.
“It hadn’t occurred to me, when I wrote the book, that this was a book about family. You never write the book you are intending to write. When I write, I don’t come out of it having solved my own problems. My dad had surgery and it didn’t go as expected. To me, he went in a young man and came out older, and there is a sense of shock. The father in the book isn’t my father, but autobiography still fuels a lot of how I put ideas down on paper.”
Trauma, its causes and consequences, were also a hallmark of The Apartment. A nameless ex-Marine who spent time in Iraq struggles to deal with what is possibly post-traumatic stress disorder. His anonymity is a comfort; as he wanders an unnamed European city, his sense of dislocation increases.
In Munich Airport, Baxter reveals that early in their collective lives, the father lived remotely from the rest of the family. Separation has a sense of normality, and the characters question how their family unit became so unmoored that they didn’t realise one of them was close to death.
Baxter was born in Texas, and he lived in Dublin until a few years ago when he moved to Berlin, where he lives with his Irish wife and two children.
He relates to the geographical scattering of families and says technology helps.
“My parents are in the US, and technology brings them together with their grandkids. We have to connect somehow, even if there’s a sense that it’s not good enough. There isn’t an alternative, but it’s not tragic. This technological revamp is in many ways the story of our times but it’s not one I know very well. I write longhand in a notebook. Writing affords me the opportunity to be alone. I want to be reading books and writing books, and the internet, Twitter, all that stuff just distracts me.”
The family in Munich Airport have all engaged in individual acts of flight. Baxter’s own peripatetic path to Berlin was instrumental in turning him into a writer. He grew up in Texas, and, after his parents separated, he lived in a trailer park, which left a huge impression on him.
“We weren’t poor, but my mother was proud, and we ended up in trailers in the boonies with crazy people living around us. You’re living with people who are in extreme poverty; people were shooting dogs. My father was born in Vienna and I thought about that faraway place of culture and civilisation. It was a sense of escape, maybe?
“If this background is emerging in any way in my work, it’s probably about the smallness of life in places like that. There’s the idea that life is supposed to be bigger, and where do you go when you want that? You go to London, or Berlin. There are lots of great southern writers who spent their whole lives in the woods and wrote great stories, but I’m drawn to cities.”
Dublin was one city Baxter was drawn to. While living here in the last decade, he wrote a memoir, A Preparation for Death, about struggling with excess and failing as a writer. He also established Some Blind Alleys, an online journal, and taught creative writing.
“The biggest thing was getting out of a situation where I wasn’t satisfied with anything I was doing. I was stuck in this imaginative geography of American-ness, southern-ness, Texan-ness, and it didn’t feel like me. Suddenly being free of that, my landscape changed from the woods and the rural to cities. As soon as I got to cities, I was much more at home.”
This novel clearly took its toll, but Baxter knows that this is a consequence of being a writer. “I become my narrator when I write, so I’m just waiting around for a new voice, for a new person to become.”
Munich Airport is published by Penguin