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The Permanent Exile of W.G. Sebald (Part 2)

Vertigo is pleased to be able to share the following interview with W.G. Sebald conducted by Jens Mühling in 2000. Originally published in Pretext 7 (Spring/Summer 2003), it is reprinted here with permission of the author. This is Part 2 of 3. After his own introductory statement at the beginning of the interview, Mühling published only Sebald’s responses to various topics. Part 1 of the interview may be found here.

The Permanent Exile of W.G. Sebald (continued)
© Jens Mühling

On the craft of fiction

SEBALD: All these practical aspects of what it means to be a writer can be explained, but they cannot be conveyed in a systematic way. You cannot start the first week by explaining what working equipment is needed, how to sit down, what to read and what not to read. These issues can only be conveyed in an anecdotal way. What you also cannot do, of course, is to explain how to write a novel. The novel is much too heterogeneous a genre, all kinds of things can be a novel. There is no standard model which to take as a basis for saying: that is how a dialogue has to be structured, that is how a description has to work, this is what a characterisation looks like. But there are certain basic difficulties with fiction writing, such as, for example, the tendency towards generalisation, which occurs especially among people who come from an academic literary background. Whole registers of the vocabulary you acquire as a literature student are entirely useless because they are too general, because in a prose text everything has to be concrete. That is something which is not at all clear to most people.

I remember a student from my last class, who wrote something about band stands in her text, something like there was this person who got interested in band stands in London. And that was it. So I asked her, why did she not take a look at those things, to find out where exactly they stand, how long they have been there for, what kind of people go there, what they look like, and whether there still is music being played there or not. Those are concrete forms of research, and they can be very enjoyable for a fiction writer. You cannot undertake such research if you are writing, say, a dissertation on Robert Musil. But for imaginative writing, it is indispensable to go and take a look at certain things. That seems very obvious, but like most obvious things, it is often overlooked.

On workshops

SEBALD: Of course it is very important to deliver criticism in an acceptable form. It does not make any sense to expose the weaknesses of a text in a polemic way. One has to be very diplomatic and ensure that the positive aspects of a text are sufficiently honoured. And then you can say: maybe you could do this part here in a different way. Imagine a text like one I recently read, which starts with the description of three photographs: the first picture shows this, the second picture that, and the third one this, and this description takes up three pages. This repetitive element at the very beginning can be disadvantageous. In such a case it might be better to use only one photo and make it really beautiful. That is very simple advice, and that is the kind of influence one takes. Or when somebody uses this terrible trick of accumulating adjectives, or when sentences have no rhythm. You can raise awareness to such things by talking about another person’s text that is very rhythmic, but without sounding like kitsch. You can also show people that literature is, of course, about conveying emotions, but that the art is in conveying emotions without being sentimental. To give them a feeling for that border one must not cross, between drama and melodrama. All these things are demonstrable.

[When a student’s text is discussed in class], the participants usually maintain a certain level of diplomacy. That has something to do with the English national psychology. I could imagine that the atmosphere would be a lot rougher in a German classroom, because Germans tend to be a lot more direct. If they don’t like something, they say it very loudly, whereas the English are known for their politeness. They try not to step on each other’s foot. There are these coded expressions: if someone says a text is “interesting”, then it actually means it’s not very interesting. Everybody knows this, and then you either accept it or you don’t. That is why this diplomacy works very well here, because people are very considerate in their social behaviour. If someone writes some horrible nonsense – which happens – then people won’t go and say straight to this person’s face: that’s terrible what you wrote there. In Germany this kind of controversy arises very often, also in public lectures. There is always someone in the audience who has something to say, who is worried about some problem of his own, and not about the actual event. But of course you have to realise that a lot of the things that people write about are of a very private nature and that they are intricately linked with their self-respect. To undermine that would be of no use. Of course it is a problematic situation when twenty people are together in one group, because, on the hand, everybody who entertains literary aspirations will think that they are alone with their brilliancy. On the other hand, you are faced with twenty other aspiring authors, which works against that illusion.

You also have to make it clear to people that they do not have to become writers by all means. You can also write in an amateur kind of way, there is no pressure for you to be a writer. If you really are serious about it, then it will happen at some point. But you cannot force it at a certain time, you shouldn’t think, now that I have completed this course, I have to publish something by all means. It either happens or it doesn’t. You have to show people that this profession has so many uncomfortable aspects that you might be better off by not pursuing it then by condemning yourself to invent things for the rest of your life. Even if you don’t become a writer after this year, you haven’t necessarily wasted your time. This experience can be useful for all kinds of things. Not least it can help you to reach a higher level of self-knowledge, which is never a bad thing.

On getting a job

SEBALD: And I do tell people in private conversations that there are other ways of making ends meet, and that writing often doesn’t work when you try to force it. People usually understand that. I also make sure to tell everybody that it is extremely important to have a profession besides writing, no matter what job it is. There are certain professions that are more suitable than others, as a parallel to this kind of work. Being a doctor, for example, won’t hurt. Whereas being a dentist is not so good. You know, as a dentist you always look into the same mouths and see the same holes. You never hear anything from the patients, because they sit there like this [pulls his mouth wide open and continues sentence in mock constrained voice], and they cannot say anything. Whereas as a physician you receive valuable insight into social contexts, family stories, personal problems, that is a lot of material. Well, and the best thing probably is to be a notary. Hereditary matters. Nowhere can you see as clearly how human beings work than where money is concerned. But on the whole it doesn’t really matter what you are, be it an insurance agent or a teacher or whatever – you just have to have something that will free you from the burden of having to write something every day.

Even if your first book is published by a halfway decent house, a debut novel usually won’t sell more than, say, 1,500 copies. Let’s say it costs ten pounds, you get ten percent of that, then you’ve earned about 1,500 pounds. If you work on a building site for a month or two, you can easily earn the same money. Which means you will be forced to do something else anyway if you want to survive. A lot of people try to keep themselves afloat by writing book reviews, which is slave work, really. It’s a lot better to be in an altogether different kind of business.

[The final part of the interview will be posted tomorrow.]

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