DIE GERMANISTIN: Riveting Forays into German-Language Literature by Sheridan Marshall: November 2023. Interview with Christine Koschmieder (at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2023)

Sheridan Marshall: Christine, can you start by telling us about how all the diverse elements of your career – as an author, literary agent, and translator – fit together?

Christine Koschmieder: First of all, they don’t! And this is why I am in the process of quitting agenting. I started out studying theatre studies, and saw myself as belonging to this cultural landscape. Then I started to focus on post-Yugoslav nations, because I was so fed up of central European analysts – usually white men – explaining the Balkans. I wanted to hear from people from the original Yugoslav countries talking about their situation – this is where my focus comes from.

When my husband became ill and was diagnosed with cancer, my idea was: if we can’t travel, then words can travel, texts can travel, literature can travel. That is the very short version of how I established my literary agency, ‘Partner + Propaganda,’ for the post-Yugoslav countries!

But then, as a widow, and a mother of three, and a freelancer, and when your agency’s name is largely unknown, you can’t make a living from that. So, I realised that it was worth having an eye on contemporary German literature, and started to focus on that, and that is what I have been doing for the last twenty years. I was still focused on literary literature, so you can imagine that I never got filthy rich! In fact, this work did not even cover my bills some of the time. 

SM: You live in Leipzig. Do you have any connection with the creative writing programme there?

CK: Not at all! I actually had a lot of contempt for them at that time. They were all so well-trained: technically well-trained in writing and trained in the literary market. At first, I had no desire to represent German authors trained in Creative Writing. As a theatre person and growing up as a child of parents who drank, I know how treacherous being articulate can be: making stories sound right without even having a story to tell to start with. At least that´s what I first thought. Sometimes I think I needed to spend enough years representing other writers as an agent to dare to trust in my own writing. I submitted my first novel under a fake name because I was afraid that publishers who were used to negotiating with me might be afraid that by rejecting my novel, they might jeopardize further deals with me as an agent. I now realise this was ridiculous!

SM: Your first novel was published to great acclaim and was shortlisted for the ASPEKTE Debut Prize.

CK: Yes, but unfortunately acclaim does not sell books, and so it did not sell well. I have come to realise that it just does not suffice anymore to have someone like Marcel Reich-Ranicki (the great German critic) to hold up a copy of a book for the world to buy it. These days the power to make or break a book seems to have drifted towards bookstores, book bloggers and the social media community.

Although none of the authors represented by me had a problem with me also being an author, when it came to the third book, Dry (Kanon Verlag, 2022), I realised that even if my writers did not have a problem with it, I myself had a role conflict. Whenever I went to a book fair or a literary festival, or met press and media representatives, I felt inclined and obliged to talk about the writers I was representing. It would have felt like a betrayal to talk about my own writing, but then as a writer you need to do that.

So, this is how I came to consider quitting agenting. Some authors stayed with me nonetheless – they said they didn’t need me to have a shop window as an agency, they just needed my agenting – some left.

SM: So how were things different when you published your second novel, Trümmerfrauen?

CK: A lot was different. First of all, I changed publishers. My editor at Aufbau had left – and they didn’t particularly like Trümmerfrauen anyway – plus, I had fallen in love with Edition Nautilus long before I became a writer or an agent. When I was sixteen, all the leftist, educational literature I craved would come from Edition Nautilus. I admired the founders Hannah and Lutz as representatives of a left-wing, subversive movement I could only dream of being part of. I had never sold any of my books to Edition Nautilus as an agent, but then my agent sold my book to them and I was in heaven! Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, just as my book was published. I was far from the only one affected, and just as so many others my book failed to gain the attention we would have wished for it. 

This coincided with a personal crisis of mine: it was during the pandemic, my kids were almost all grown-up, two of them had moved out, I started to analyse my relationships and my drinking. That’s when I decided to enter rehab. In rehab, all those realisations kind of unknotted and it became clear that I wanted to be a writer, and I didn’t want to be dependent on selling, without any measure of how hard I needed to work. As a baker, I would know I needed to sell X number of loaves of bread per day in order to earn a living. As an agent, you can´t calculate the number of manuscripts to be submitted, the probability of an offer, and the likely advance rates. I identified the pattern and decided I didn’t want to live within it anymore. I wanted to tell my own story, about grief, about Germany, about people not being able to deal with grief, about private drinking, which is way-more common that people like to admit. And all that started in rehab.

I offered this to Nautilus, of course, but my Facebook posts about my stay in rehab had caught other publishers’ attention, so I was approached by several of them. Nautilus were not sure they could offer me the kind of attention and protection I might need with this confessional book, so they let me go. To borrow a well-known term, it was a kind of ‘conscious uncoupling’!

SM: Your third book, Dry, which was published in 2022, is a complete departure from your previous novelistic writing, charting new auto-fictional territory. In the book you come clean about your functional drinking and its debilitating effect on all areas of your life. It must have been incredibly emotional to write such a confessional text.

CK: It was actually liberating. People have spoken to me about the courage it must have taken to write the book, but actually it didn’t feel like that. Being a drinker where no one had visibly suffered from the effects of my drinking, I felt like a fake. Everyone thought I was so highly functioning: a writer, a single mother of three, always well-dressed, and so on. It didn’t feel courageous to open up about the drinking, it rather was some kind of relief to stop the façade. 

SM: How was it for your children to read this account of their lives?

CK: This is something we have discussed a lot. First of all, my children are grown-up: they are twenty-seven, twenty-two and eighteen. I gave them the opportunity to read it first. We agreed that I would try to leave them out as much as possible, although of course I would have to mention their childhoods and upbringing. My two younger children did come to see me in rehab, and there we discussed how they would not accept the fact that I was an alcoholic. My oldest son said that it was my life, and my right to write that, but writing it of course caused emotions to come up, and I will say that things are difficult now for the two of us. But I accept and agree with his decision to distance himself.

SM: Your latest book, Schambereich (Kanon, 2023), must have entailed some even more difficult conversations with your children. If Dry was brave, this is even braver – you are really putting yourself out there, with all your sexual vulnerabilities out in the public domain. It is one thing writing a book like this, it is another thing publishing it. How has it been during the last week since the book was published?

CK: I am glad you are asking this question now, just after the book was published. I had thought, ok, the book is written now, it’s out, and just as with Dry, it can’t do that much to me anymore. But I realised that the book raises a lot of questions that I thought I had really considered but are still ongoing. It was a kind of political mission. Within the last ten to twenty years I have learned so much about sexual orientation, about gender, about non-binary identity, about the constructed nature of everything that used to seem so clear for the majority of people (obviously there have always been people for whom it was always apparent that things were not this clearcut). I have tried to learn, and it all makes sense to me, but at the same time I feel like I have been slow on the uptake. Then there is this young generation of 25–30-year-old feminists who are very radical – so much so that I sometimes feel like I just have to be quiet rather than say anything that would prove my ineptness or lack of understanding of current debates.

I don’t want to belong to the generation that gets blamed. I want to be part of a constructive process, but I also want to take the time to process. Doing so I realised that growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the generation that raised me was born shortly after World War II or even during the war, meaning that they were raised – German parents – by people with National Socialist attitudes towards racial theory and sexuality. We were raised by people who themselves were raised by Johanna Haarer’s book, Die deutsche Mutter und ihr erstes Kind (1934) – the Nazis’ favoured book on motherhood and childrearing. 

My body image and my image of sexuality is coined by this heritage, and now I live in a world with more options than I could ever imagine. The gap is just so large, and I wanted to research that, and to map the territory between the body image that corresponds with how I was brought up and what we have now.

SM: It feels like you’re doing something new with this book.

CK: Well, I have read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which of course is a novel, and then we have Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will be Good Again, which is clearly non-fiction. I’ve also read Annie Ernaux, Sheila Heti and Deborah Levy. As for the US market: I think there is so much more variety in terms of genre-bending or genre-defying writing. Genre in German writing seems much more fixed.

SM: I know you would like to reach an English-speaking readership with your work. Why is that? What would it mean for you to achieve that?

CK: First of all, it’s a very personal reason. I was an exchange student to Des Moines, Iowa, in 1989-1990, where I met the mother I never had myself, Shirley. I would love for her to be able to read my writing. Then there is my friend Michaela, a writer and editor, also a US resident. 

And of course, I know that there is a much larger English-language readership than the population who read in German. Plus, as I have already said, I do love female/feminist US writing, its greater porosity of genre, and I would like to engage with the people over there writing about the same issues.

Sheridan Marshall

Christine Koschmieder’s image (c) Grit Hartung

Christine Koschmieder was born in Heidelberg in 1972, and has lived in Leipzig since 1993. She is the founder of the Literary Agency Partner & Propaganda, and a translator of Paula Bomer and Lubi Barre. She has written three novels: Schweinesystem (2014), Trümmerfrauen (2020), DRY (2022; ‘An overwhelming novel about addiction and yearning and the intense fear of intense closeness.’ Mithu Sanyal). Her narrative non-fiction book, Schambereich, has just been released by Kanon Verlag.

Sheridan Marshall works as a translator from German into English, and as Editorial Consultant for New Books in German. She was Deputy Editor of The Austrian Riveter.

Read previous posts in Die Germanistin series:

DIE GERMANISTIN: Riveting Forays into German-Language Literature by Sheridan Marshall: Frankfurt Book Fair 2023

Category: Die Germanistin: Riveting Forays into German-Language LiteratureBlogs


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