If you’ve read my About page, you know I’ve been working for a while now on translating “Alone, on the Wind,” a science fantasy story by German cross-genre author Karla Schmidt about the meeting between two very different peoples, the Deathbirds of the Dancing Stones and the desert tribes of the Yellow World. Karla agreed to let me interview her so you can learn a little about the person and ideas behind “Alone” and her other work. Here’s a little background information about Karla, to get us started:
Karla Schmidt’s work in German has been nominated for the German Science Fiction, Kurd Laßwitz, and German Phantastik Prizes (“Alone, on the Wind” was nominated for all three). In 2009, her short story “Weg mit Stella Maris” (“Away with Stella Maris”) won the German Science Fiction Prize for Best German-language Short Story. Her favorite genres are science fiction, literary fantasy, and thrillers.
She lives with her husband and two daughters in Berlin. In addition to editing for publishing houses and self-published authors, she develops material for Schule des Schreibens (School of Writing) and teaches in its novel-writing workshop.
Now that you have some context for Karla and her work, let’s get the conversation started!
Hello, Karla! In your recent German-language interview for Deutsche Science Fiction, you talked about reading and loving science fiction when you were young and even working it into your studies at school. But I don’t think you talked about when you started writing. So, here we go: How did you get started writing?
Karla Schmidt: I did get started quite late though I wanted to write since I was a teenager. There were basically two novels that made me want to write myself: Schwanenchronik, kind of a ‘romantic surrealism’ novel by Paul Willems. And Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock.
I tried to start writing several times since then but always felt, no, it’s not good enough, it’s embarrassing! I was 30 years old before Torschlusspanik [Editor’s note: Gate-closing panic – I think the literal translation speaks for itself!] hit me massively. I knew, if I didn’t start now, I’ll never do it, and thinking of my life ending and never having written – no, impossible! And then it exploded for a while. I wrote my very first story I actually liked, and it won the German Science Fiction Prize right away. Then followed the first novel, Die Seelenfotografin (The Soul Photographer).
I know I have a lot of friends and acquaintances, both authors and translators, who worry about starting ‘too late,’ so I definitely understand that feeling of pressure to get started. Winning the German Science Fiction Prize right away must have been amazing, though!
Karla Schmidt: Yes, it was! After that I was sure I wouldn’t stop writing again.
Okay, here’s another question that we’ve talked about some in email but I’ve never asked you point-blank: What authors (and other artists) have inspired you?
Karla Schmidt: Though I’ve read much science fiction, it was other writers that inspired me more. Sylvia Plath, J.R.R. Tolkien, Franz Kafka, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ende, Susan Cooper, the Strugatzki Brothers, the Bronte Sisters, Vonda N. McIntyre, Carlos Castaneda, Neil Gaiman … among others. But maybe I’ve been much more inspired by movies and music anyway. Charlie Chaplin, Hayao Miyazaki, David Bowie, and Michael Jackson might have been the most inspiring for me. They all have some things in common: they were or are extremely curious and fearless as artists and persons; they share a romantic worldview (okay, maybe not Bowie); they represent some sense of alienation and strangeness; they never lost hope of a better world; were tricksters, brilliant, funny, and genuinely kind; and they believe in magic. At least Bowie, Jackson, and Chaplin were kind of ‘Renaissance men’ who didn’t practice just one art form, but many. I like that so much and wish I had more than one talent! They painted, played instruments, danced, composed, wrote, acted, sang. And maybe, what adds to my fascination: Bowie, MJ, and Chaplin were androgynous, and I think that’s very sexy. 😉
It is very sexy! I totally agree ;P
There’s actually some working with androgyny in “Alone, on the Wind,” which was part of what drew me to it. And I see that sense of hope for a better world in your work, too, including in “Alone.” It’s not a hope that requires shutting your eyes, either, but an aware, active hope—hope that requires opening your eyes.
Karla Schmidt: Wow, that sums it up completely! MJ often said he wanted to give some ‘escapism’ to people, and that’s easily misunderstood as an invitation to just close your eyes and be unpolitical or not wanting to face reality. But it’s really more about escaping into worlds you really would want to live in, nurturing hope. Before you can have any kind of a ‘better world’ you have to imagine what it could look like. That’s why I like science fiction so much. It extrapolates this world into possible future worlds we can decide to work on.
Speaking of “Alone,” what prompted you to write it?
Karla Schmidt: I really don’t know. The publisher asked me if I wanted to add a story to an anthology called Space Rocks [Editor’s note: Rocks play a big role in “Alone.” Floating rocks, to be more precise!], and I said no, because I had no time at all and no idea. Then I woke up one night and knew the whole story from beginning to end. It was just there.
It’s not always like that. Sometimes it’s hard work to carve a story out of the rocks. But this time it just came from another dimension. 😉
Karla, a lot of your short fiction has appeared in science fiction magazines and anthologies. But you’ve also written novels in other genres—I know your first novel you mentioned above, The Soul Photographer, is set in the past, and you have two thrillers to your name, too. What drives you to keep experimenting with new types of writing?
Karla Schmidt: I’m bored very quickly, need new challenges, something I can explore. Maybe it has something to do with what drives me to write generally, too. There is a question in my mind that never leaves me completely: how do language and ‘reality’ interact with each other? What IS reality? How do words, thoughts, and expectations affect it? If I believe there are other worlds behind our world, than that is ‘my’ reality. Is that less real than what we call the physical world? The more I write, the more I realize that I always in a way deal with the power of stories, dramatizations, thoughts, words.
That echoes back to the artists we’ve been talking about, and the reasons you admire them—that sense of exploration, that virtuosity. I know the deaths of David Bowie and Michael Jackson had a big impact on you. You’ve edited and written for an anthology of stories inspired by Bowie’s work, and are at work on a hard-to-categorize book on Michael Jackson. Can you tell us a little more about why those particular artists captured your attention?
Karla Schmidt: I explained some of it above. But I don’t quite understand it myself. Bowie had a good life most of the time, he was really happy for a good part of his life. So it’s easier for me to accept his death. Not so with Michael Jackson. I believe he died because the world treated him as it did. There is so much injustice, witch hunting, misunderstanding, and misinformation around his person and his persona, it still gets me really angry sometimes. And it’s not that I’ve been a big fan. I noticed Jackson from the 80s on (how could you not, if you were living on this planet), but I deeply fell in love with so many aspects of his personality and his work only five years ago. Maybe I was just ripe for him. 😉 It wasn’t even easy for me to admit that I liked him, because you just don’t like Michael Jackson if you are some kind of educated liberal person here. You never like things that are too successful or popular, you’re always trying to be an ‘insider’ of whatever kind of scene. You like Amanda Palmer or Rainer von Vielen (who I like, too), not a capitalistic ‘megastar’ who hit ground with a lot of scandals. Many see him just as a weird singing and dancing puppet, a money machine, and not as an artist.
So, it might sound strange, but I really needed some courage to say: MJ was a gift and treasure that nobody really has unpacked yet. He incorporated many dichotomies in his person: black/white, child/man, male/female, genius/naïve … His work is full of fun, pathos, hope, rage, wisdom, sadness, and it has changed so many people’s lives for the better. I know of one person who came to Germany as a refugee some 20 years ago. He said he survived because he had Michael Jackson, who gave him strength and hope. And there are so many stories like that. It’s fascinating and I want to know how one single person could have changed so many games (race, gender, music, visual arts, the feeling that one person could make a difference in the world instead of feeling powerless and useless) … You see, I could talk about MJ for days.
Maybe one last thing: You mentioned that ‘hard to categorize’ book about him. I wrote many pages, but I decided not to publish it as a book. It will be a good series of blog articles. And that book will be a road-novel. A few days ago I just woke up with an idea for that and can’t wait to write that piece.
Oh, hooray, new novels! I didn’t know about the road-novel. I did know about another current project of yours, though. You’re working on a cross-media project for younger readers right now. Tell us a little about that.
Karla Schmidt: The project is called Wörterstraße (Words Lane), and it will start with a youth book I wrote for my daughters (nearly 12 and 13 years old). It’s a classical fantasy story about a 15-year-old girl who finds a way to enter a world that exists within our own world. She has to solve some problems, to understand some secrets, and to find her power and courage to grow as a person. So far nothing new. But there is a ‘meta aspect’ that shows the reader how to use the power of storytelling to live your life as a protagonist and not as an extra in relation to all the ‘big’ things that determine history. It’s about how to live through writing, if you will.
Along with the book, there will be a website with playful experiments that show how storytelling works. Some play with the structure of stories, other with words, crucial questions, character, etc. It’s all about how you live and feel about telling yourself your own story in a certain way. It asks what happens if you develop new stories of your life.
I hope the website will be used by teachers for their creative writing classes and by people who just want to try and play.
Second-to-last question! As a translator, I have to ask: Has any of your work been translated before? Are there any pieces you’d most like to see translated?
Karla Schmidt: My first science fiction story, Weg mit Stella Maris (Away with Stella Maris, or A Way with Stella Maris) has been translated for the British magazine Albedo One, and another story, Dämmerzone (Twilight Zone), was translated and published in a Polish magazine.
What I’d most like to see translated would be Lügenvögel (Liebirds), which may be rather hard to translate, because there are some conceptual experiments included. For example I work with a ‘final causality’ – the causes for the effects come from the future, not from the past.
Then Die Seelenfotografin (The Soul Photographer). That one was my first novel, and it will be republished next year by Rowohlt, which is a major publisher in Germany (part of the Holtzbrinck Group). It’s about a young, disabled but genius girl at the end of the 19th century, a photographer who falls hopelessly in love with her, and an unscrupulous doctor who experiments with the girl’s life (the doctor is modeled after Bowie, btw. 😉 )
Plus, I have to admit, I’d love to see Wörterstraße translated. Maybe because it’s fresh and new and alive. But also because I think this is something that many could like, whereas much of my other stuff is somehow hermetic.
I hope they all get translated! (You know how I feel about Lügenvögel, of course! It’s my favorite piece of yours I’ve read yet.)
Okay, one last question! What haven’t I asked that you wish I had?
Karla Schmidt: I wish you had asked how we will mindfully invest our first million from all the readers in the English-reading market. 😉
Hm, we’ll have to put some thought into that. 😉
Thank you for taking the time to speak (or type!) with me, Karla! Here’s to hoping we see more of your work in English.
Karla Schmidt: Thank you! Plus I really hope you will be translating some of my stuff again. 🙂