Interview with Antje Rávic Strubel
”Förtrollad” (enchanted) and ”iakttagelse” (observation). These are the German writer and translator, Antje Rávic Strubel´s favorite words in Swedish. The summer of 2006 she went to the small island of Stora Karlsö and became just an enchanted observer, fascinated by the impressive rocks covered with birds. On board the ferry back to Gotland mainland, she wrote the first words on a story taking place in Stora Karlsö. Five years later the novel was published with the title Sturz der Tage in die Nacht (When Days Plunge into Night).

This is the second time that Antje Rávic Strubel is staying at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators. Since she first came to Värmland (a province in the middle west of Sweden) for canoeing and was captured by the beauty of the landscape, she has been visiting Sweden several times. She even bought a summerhouse in Värmland and her novel Kältere Schichten der Luft (Colder Layers of Air, S. Fischer, 2007) is taking place here at a camping site. The year that the novel was published she received the Hermann Hesse Prize and was nominated for the Leipzig Book Fair Award in Germany.

In the summer of 2013 she participated in the literary feast and 20 years jubilee of the Baltic Centre in Visby, reading an extract from When Days Plunge into Night (S. Fischer, 2011) – the novel that she wrote after an euphoric excursion to the bird sanctuary of Stora Karlsö, an island just outside the west coast of Gotland.

– There was a totally different mood then, Visby was vibrating. Now in the winter the atmosphere here reminds me of a cloister, in the sense of getting peace and concentration to work. This mixture of the quiet life in a small town and the almost archaic nature here – the pine woods and the juniper trees – is very productive. The landscape in its uniqueness evokes contemplation, she says.

Antje Strubel was born in Potsdam in East Germany in 1974 and she was 15 years old when the Berlin wall fell.

– As a child everything you experience seems normal to you, it´s only after the wall had fallen that it doesn´t look so normal anymore. I think the way I look on reality has to do with my past, because I understood that there isn´t just one reality, or if we think there is, it can be deconstructed anytime.

A name for a writer

Her latest book, which she just has finished, will be published next spring with the title In den Wäldern des Menschlichen Herzens (Into the Woods of the Human Heart), an episodic novel with thirteen independent chapters that also are connected – all the characters are on the road, travelling. Even in this book she has returned to Sweden: one chapter is taking place on the Swedish west coast close to Gothenburg and another in Herrvik on the east coast of Gotland – a landscape with sand dunes and pine trees reminding her of her childhood, when the family went camping by the Baltic Sea.

– My novels deal with how we perceive reality, its categories and invisible limits. I’m always asking why things are how they are. Do they have to be as they appear to us? What if it was the other way around? We don’t make much use of the freedom we ascribe to the individual which we yet celebrate so much.

Another theme that Antje Rávic Strubel returns to in her novels are borders: between nations, but also social borders. Several of her novels treat the connection between the east and the west and how they approach one another. The books also deal with our tendency to continuously put ourselves into categories.

– The most obvious example is my novel Colder Layers of Air, where I try to blur gender and age categories. It is a love story between two women in their thirties who fall in love, but not as these two women. They only fall in love because they create a love story between two teenagers, the first love between a boy and a girl. I have tried to write about two bodies and four identities, she says.

She invented her middle name ”Rávic”, which appears on the book covers but not in her passport, when she was 27 years old and her first novel was published. The name Rávic is entirely invented to describe a separate identity she assumes while writing.

– I feel that I´m different when I write, as if there is another identity or another way of being added to my everyday life. I played with letters and wanted it to sound like it feels when I write. In writing I’m disconnected from myself as if in an adrenaline rush, in a state of heighten perception different from the normal state of being. It was this experience that I wanted to give a name and Rávic sounds exactly what it feels like.

A novel is born in Stora Karlsö

Antje Strubel came to Gotland in the summer of 2006 to do some research for a travel-essay book on Sweden: Bruksanvisning för Sverige (Piper Verlag, 2008), where she reports about the history, mentality and landscape of the country. – I ended up in Stora Karlsö and was so totally fascinated by the place that the idea to a novel was born there. This moment was so beautiful and outstanding, I was gripped by this wonder which generated words immediately, she says.

Returning with the ferry she wrote the first two pages about the experience of arriving to this island and bird sanctuary. The story was developed from there and she did more research. It became a story about a female ornithologist from the GDR (German Democratic Republic) working in Stora Karlsö, a young man with whom she initiates a love affair and an ex secret service agent from GDR who spies on them, carrying a secret that include all three of them. When Days Plunge into Night was nominated for the German Book Prize in 2011.

Besides writing novels she also teaches at the German Creative Writing Program at the University of Leipzig, writes essays for newspapers, and plays and book reviews for the radio – especially about novels from Scandinavian and English speaking countries. Favorites among the Swedish writers are Hjalmar Söderberg, Kerstin Ekman and Sara Stridsberg.

After graduating from high school she trained as a bookseller and later studied American and German Literature and Psychology in Potsdam and at New York University. In New York she did research for a novel working as a lighting technician at a small theatre, just like one of the main characters in the book. Now she has moved back to Potsdam, the city where she grew up.

– After ten years in Berlin I felt that I needed to see the night sky again – not just the illuminated city sky – feel the seasons, smell the forest and the grass, she says.

This time Antje Rávic Strubel has been at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators during three weeks in February working with a translation; a collection of short stories by the American author Lucia Berlin. It was during a stay at the Villa Aurora (a German residency for artists) in Los Angeles that she discovered another American writer: the works of Joan Didion.

– I am totally fascinated by her precision, her sharpness. She is one of the most inspiring writers for me. When I discovered her, I wanted to find out what her language sounds like when I bring her into the way I hear German. I wanted to experience this transformation, that´s why I started to translate.

Text and photo: Maria Molin

One of the novels by Antje Rávic Strubel is translated into English: Snowed Under (original title: Unter Schnee, Red Hen Press, Los Angeles 2008)
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