Das Muschelessen or The Mussel Feast is a story that has shaped a generation of German readers. It’s a marvelous, impossible result, but Birgit Vanderbeke was always confident that her readers would understand her story. Written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the story is one of how revolutions start. What follows is an interview with Birgit, translated from German.
How should readers be introduced to your work? How should your work be described to them?
The most beautiful thing about stories is that you don’t need an introduction or explanation: you start to read and you’re already in it. From this moment on every reader is an expert. This is how I hope my work is introduced to people.
What made you first put pen to paper (so to speak) and begin writing?
I wanted to tell stories since the first book that I read as a child; it was “The Children of Noisy Village” by Astrid Lindgren. However, many years passed before I started writing because I had such a great fear of it. This is hard to understand nowadays with Facebook and Twitter but back then, it involved paper and knowing that writing would take some time. It required a lot of thinking and courage.
What is the most important thing to you when you write – by that I mean, for example, do you require a particular atmosphere? Or can you write anywhere?
I can write anywhere, even if my husband and my son are tearing down the kitchen wall.
I believe I was thinking about revolts and revolutions before I wrote “Das Muschelessen”, and three months later the Berlin Wall came down.
Did you expect the public’s response to it? I’ve seen it described as shaping an entire generation– and I thought about how many people your book much have touched, but I also wondered if it came with pressures to you as a writer?
I thought this story would immediately make sense to every reader. No one else thought so but me, even if I didn’t say it out loud — because of hubris. But then it did make sense to readers and I was very glad but not really surprised.
Your writing has often been praised for the power it carries in a few short and very subtle words – just enough to make a novella, for instance. How have you changed as a writer over the years?
I’ve learned that if disappointment tries to take your power, you’ve got to try to conserve this precious power.
What has drawn you to the novella and not the novel? What do the differences mean to you as a writer?
I am too impatient to use my time for anything but the essential of what I want to tell.
Who have been your influences as a writer?
There are authors who I struggled against as a young woman (because I’ve admired them: Max Frisch for example), and others that I could simply love without fearing them (Anton Tschechow and Julio Cortázar for example), but when I wrote, I only always wrote in my own voice – with and without struggle.
How has German writing in general changed in your eyes since you began writing?
Literature is a dying industry; not only in Germany. Just like many others as well: tailor, cobbler, clockmaker. This has to do with the cheap global mass production and it’s a shame.