Interview with Renko Heuer
Lodown Magazine March 2012
John, how’s life in the early days of 2012?
Life’s good: busy and warm! No need to light the coal oven yet. I’m trying to write; starting the follow-up to The Readymades, as well a series of erotica I’m writing that’s being illustrated by the American artist Kandis Williams. I think after last year the whole world feels like it needs a little break, enjoy a respite – but that won’t last long.
What was life like in the long ago, before you decided you wanted to be a writer? Before you moved to Berlin, before...
Well I come from the shoulder of Ireland, the one that’s got a chip on it and life was nice there, a small town universe full of odd jobs, drinking in fields and dreams of faraway places. I’ve lived in Dublin, then Paris and Oslo before Berlin. I always wanted to write, and Berlin has been the best place to do so. I studied for a year in Paris which opened everything up, and went back again to teach for a year and learned how not to take myself, or my writing, so seriously. And indeed that the past, the romantic past, is not one for the taking. Oslo is a beautiful, productive version of Dublin and I worked every type of job there, from packing fish to collecting rubbish bins and with people from over twenty different countries: I felt like I was walking along the horizon when I was in Oslo! Of course your question suggests that life has changed since shoring up to Berlin, perhaps it has, but life is life, each day its own.
Did you have a clear layout in mind as you set out to write The Readymades (and have it illustrated, have it seep into “reality” with those artworks, those events, that gallery etc.)?
Not really, I just wanted the canvas to be big, I wanted to push myself, make things difficult. I’ve always been surrounded by artists and I love how they work, the ideas they engage in and the more hands-on, public side to a lot of visual art taunted me in the face of the solitary act of writing. The real starting point was the idea: ‘how to find a missing avant-garde group, once it’s gone missing.’ This came to me in Italy one day when I was out for a walk on a hillside, just before moving to Berlin. So I knew it would have elements of a thriller, or a mystery novel. The overture at the beginning of the novel that is a condensed re-telling of Félix Fénéon’s three line story I had written before, and looking at it, despite the fact that it’s a kind of static tableau vivant, I realized I had the seed of a story I could tell, that could bring me places and make me explore a horizon I knew wouldn’t be timid or boring to me.
What came first: thoughts about that war, about art in general, or did it really all start with those three lines?
It came with erotica actually! This lit magazine in Dublin was trying to make an issue of transgressive erotica etc etc, and I thought, that should happen, that’d be cool – but the issue didn’t happen. Anyway, my submission wasn’t very erotic, it was a ornate re-working of Borges’ re-working of the story of the Norse myth about the end of the world – Ragnarök – that had a death from auto-erotic asphyxiation as its climax! From there I wrote about this John character in a world I experienced in Paris, then these Serbs came up in the story, who I knew were the artists I was searching for: but their art, their involvement in the wars of 1990s, all that came as I went further along the horizon of the writing.
Why should a novel mix and touch upon as many spheres as possible? When will it stop being a novel, or will it at all?
I don’t think a novel will stop being a novel just because it starts using elements that aren’t consecutive pages of printed narrative: you can call anything a novel. And in fact, more novelists would do well to allow their novels to touch many spheres of life. The type of novel I’ve always been interested in are those novels that see themselves anew, in the same way the first novels did. Printed text that can tell stories, create universes has never stopped changing, that’s why avant-garde literature has always been alienating at first, only to be accepted. Think how of how Facebook now offers ‘timelines’ and status updates to all of us: people relate and create biographies, personal myths, online. Let’s have a novel that incorporates the potential of language that’s being used in all this online activity. Letter writing was a big element of early novels for instance; it’s just moribund snobbishness if literary writers ignore how many people live and experience the world day to day. We need to find a new expressive language that can have gchat or Facebook or Ryanair sit naturalistically in ‘realist’ fiction. And more than that – influence the form too. The Novel is dead, remember: it’s always been dying only to be born again!
“The first novels” – you referring to books like Don Quixote, with all its retold mayhem, or later stuff? Who or what else inspired you along the way?
Yes, I think I had in my mind everything, from Don Quixote onwards. Each step in the formation of this weird thing called the novel caused problems it seems. I’ve always liked stories that had a frame around them, like The Canterbury Tales and indeed more postmodern outings of meta-narratives. But I didn’t really have postmodern gimmicks in mind. I think discovering Roberto Bolaño definitely left a mark on my writing: good stories can sit side by side with characters full of troubled humanity and the writing can be as beautiful and courageous as it need be. Film is also a strong influence, and the work of someone like Michael Haneke has affected me greatly.
By the way: Did you have a chance to read the amazing Pnin by now?
No, I haven’t. I was always wary or scared of Nabokov, mainly because I thought it was all about style and MFA apathy made me think of him as being too hard to shake off. A lot of people go on about him much like they do about someone like Raymond Carver or something. I read my first Nabokov book last year, Pale Fire, which was interesting enough in how he created the made-up world Zembla, and his use of footnotes.
Speaking of Nabokov, and since you mentioned Borges earlier, and metafiction in general: Was it weird at first to have your name in there, to write about that guy John who starts Broken Dimanche Press etc? And is the John Holten who read at Galerie Gojkovic the John Holten I’m talking to through e-mail?
It wasn’t that weird, because the decision to keep these names was made right at the end. I knew that publishing The Readymades with BDP would result in problems from a ‘career’ perspective, but what’s nice is allowing doors open into the real world when writing fiction, and follow the path down them. Hence, ‘John Holten from Paris’ has made a number of public appearances, and is not the same as the one you’re e-mailing with. It’s something that often happens: writers and their characters are confused with one another by the reader. I’m happy to play with that.
Still, is it easy to see where the dividing line between novel as “on-going fictitious event” and personal life needs to be drawn?
I think it’s easy enough. But I didn’t want that for The Readymades. The section ‘To Warmann’ that makes up most of the book is a non-fiction book. I wanted The LGB Group and Djordje Bojic to be ‘real’, and to do this I needed to create a blurred line between what is real and what is made-up. So I started with myself and Broken Dimanche Press.
Running a fictional publishing house, Broken Dimanche Press, nevertheless costs, I assume, real, non-fictional money – is that the case? What about German tax agencies vs. fictional publishing houses?
Money and publishing, sad news. Yes we’ve become registered as a company, have an accountant, a tax number – all that. Problem is we have little money and the selling of books is slow and not very reliable. If half of BDP’s Facebook friends bought just one book online, we’d be set. But as it is, the end may well be like a fictional event; I’d have to think about that narrative plot a bit. Could involve a long train ride, or new identities for our editors…
You mentioned “problems from a ‘career’ perspective” before: How exactly? Do you think this is still true in this day and age?
It takes a lot of work to promote a book, get it distributed, reviewed, all that. The Readymades is the first of three books I have planned, and I’d love to be able to get the next two published before a final omnibus would come out. I think today it’s completely okay to be involved in publishing your own work; I’m just lucky that I’ve had Line and Ida in getting BDP set up, and working with people like FUK Laboratories, Ann Cotten, Kerstin Cmelka and so many other great people, I’ve learned so much. But not every writer will have that network, nor would they have the time (they should be busy writing!) and I’m interested in how they will reach their readership seeing as mainstream publishing is losing touch.
Do you have a dream career in mind already? Being a writer forever, or something mixed with other things, just like your writing itself?
Yeah, I want to write: I’m a novelist first and foremost. But I’m already mixed up in things: I work with artists and writers a lot in producing BDP projects, that takes me places. I also edit all sorts of texts: all this teaches me new things, and I like that. If in the future if what I want to produce entails me calling myself an artist, or administrator, facilitator, whatever, then so be it. I’d love to write more about visual art, music and film, but not as a critic or so, but in an immediate, close-up way. And then of course, I’d love to write and direct a film – but that’s a distant dream at this stage!
Let’s get back to The Readymades: Tell me something about the collaboration with Darko Dragicevic – how did it come about? What did it look like, the process?
I met Darko in Berlin through my Icelandic friend Eirik, and he was really interested in my novel, but knew nothing about how ‘Serbian’ it was. I gave it to him to read as a sort of litmus test and he read it in one-go over a weekend when he was in Milan in February 2010. When I came to thinking about creating The LGB Group’s artwork I contacted him for advice and, talking about how to go about it, we decided he was best placed to perform a visual polyphonic catalogue of work. The process was easy in a way: Darko is a beautiful sort of ‘real life’ brother to the fictional Djordje Bojic, so when I met Darko I knew that I had created a character who was real, existed already in the world. Darko already had work that could fit this character, then he began work on the rest, going into the legacy and influences I had chosen for The LGB Group and getting inspiration from that and the manuscript. Darko did a lot of work in Berlin, Belgrade and New York during the process. We also wanted the work to get good shows, so we worked on exhibitions in Oslo, Berlin and Brussels, the last being a month long collaboration that saw us work and live together, which was a lot of fun. FUK Laboratories, our awesome design team, worked closely with us to make sure the work looked great in the book itself, as well as for the show in Motto’s vitrines in Berlin.
Did Galerie Gojkovic ever get “real” requests from art buyers?
No, but it should have! The LGB Group will be represented by Gallery D.O.R. (where we had the exhibition in Brussels) at The Armory Show in New York this March, which is a beautiful and cool full circle. I feel like we can rest happy that the LGB infiltration into real, working life has worked out well!
Where is your will to fully collaborate going to lead you to, in an ideal world?
I would say (in hushed tones): film. In an ideal world my will for it would bring me to talented people and endless sources of cash funding! But really, being a curator and editor with BDP already offers so many great opportunities for collaboration. I’d also love to work more with art institutions.
What else are you planning for the future of print as performance?
Ha, well in February we’re transforming Büro BDP in Berlin into a pharmacy of words! The great Danish poet and all-rounder Morten Søndergaard is presenting the English version of his Wordpharmacy (concrete medicinal poetry presented in medicine boxes!). Then we’re also launching a BDP Bier as a Kakofonie issue, and possibly a Kakofonie garden too. I’m also working on a mind-blowing manuscript that will see us create a video game in tandem to the book-object: I’m really excited about that. And then we’re publishing a fantastic anthology, Mountainislandglacier, that explodes the idea of Europe and which I’m really excited about due to the kaleidoscopic image it gives of Europe, which is after all the best possible way of seeing it.
What exactly are your feelings about that “shape-shifting sea we call Europe”?
I love Europe, which means I don’t know what I love. It’s endless and invisible, dangerous, murderous and precious – all these things. Having said that, I suspect that whatever Europe may be or has been, it can be generous, as a societal, cultural, historical or political entity, and I wish to explore it more.
By the way, is it true you started writing The Readymades the exact week the Lehman Brothers collapsed? Remember what happened the week you finished it?
Yes, I remember clearly the week I started in September 2008, it was also the week I moved to Berlin. And how much has happened to the world since then! Last year was crazy for news, something big everyday I felt. The week I finished The Readymades? I fell in love. That’s all I can say because it’s true, and also because I never finished The Readymades, there existed and continue to exist multiple ends: the drafting of the manuscript, the design, the exhibitions and launches, and then of course, the most mercurial of all, the readers who pick the book up and the finishing of the process which they perform…