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Interview with an author: Tips for young authors & (biographical) writing

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

An interview with Kevin Riemer-Schadendorf by Leonie Winter

Kevin Riemer-Schadendorf, author of the biographically inspired novella "Suffering for a Firework" (2021)

In our interview series, we talk to people from industries in which our artists already are or where they still want to go.

To kick off the series, we talk to Kevin Riemer-Schadendorf, author at Treibgut Verlag. Leonie asks him questions about writing, becoming an author and what it's like to write about the Second World War and your own family history.

Dear Kevin, we are glad you took the time to talk to us!

Academic writing and fiction

"You did your master's degree in cultural studies and your doctorate in sustainability management, but you didn't study classical literature. To what extent did your academic background influence your creative work?"

"Without a doubt, all life experiences in general flow into the writing process and inevitably influence the writer's style. Science in particular demands objective, truthful and fact-based writing from the author, with the aim of generating new knowledge in the sense of research. At the same time, this principle also sets limits, which, even if it may sound strange, makes writing easier. Fiction, on the other hand, allows a writer to write subjective stories - the imagination is limitless. I think every writer has sat in front of a blank page and wanted to start writing but didn't know where to begin. When almost anything is allowed, the biggest difficulty is developing a consistent style and plot."

Why become an author?

Fiction is more lenient, its rules looser, than science - but with freedom comes some responsibility and choices, as Sartre said.

"You have also published scientifically. When did you decide to go down a fiction route and become an author - and what did you want to achieve? Was there a specific moment when you thought to yourself: Now I don't only want to write scientifically, but also try something new? Or was it even an idea from childhood?"

"It was a flowing process. I can't say of myself that I aspired to become an author since childhood. At different stages of life, I was also expected to write in a different style. Scientific or promotional as well as social media or journalistic writing. Essays, advertising copy, blog articles and press releases all require their own style, as they pursue individual demands and goals. Writing blogs gave me the greatest freedom in this respect, although in my case they had to be subsumed under the subject of eco-social sustainability. Writing a book gives an author the greatest possible freedom, as there are no limits to one's imagination. At least as long as this fantasy is not forced into an economic corset by publishing specifications and/or editors. However, financial incentives were and are not a motivation for me to take up pen and paper, because, even if it may sound unromantic, I do not expect to be able to live exclusively from my writing. Jean Paul once wrote that an author should write "without greed for bread, without regard for the reader, merely absorbed in the subject matter". L'art pour l'art, if you will. I think this intrinsic motivation reflects my aspirations for my own writing quite well."

Tips für young authors

"Taking a pragmatic approach to l'art pour l'art is a new approach, but it is closer to the reality of most artists today than the dream of fame and success. Do you have any advice for young writers? For example, what do you do with writer's block, how did you go about finding a publisher, how do you start a new project?"

"Writer's block is perfectly normal across all ages and I think the more insistent you are about overcoming it, the more counterproductive your attempts become. To avoid writer's block in advance, for me, besides inspiration, the setting is elementary when writing: Quiet. Time. Contemplation. Joy.

In my opinion, the latter should also be the starting point for one's own writing. Someone who wants to write a book should therefore first ask themselves what subject they are passionate about and what experience they have in this area. In addition to writing guides, any form of criticism about the writing from friends and acquaintances with an affinity for literature can also be helpful. Finding a publisher, however, is a Herculean task. Book publishers are competing more than ever with digital media and are under enormous economic pressure. In addition, they are literally flooded with (unsolicited) manuscripts. It may therefore make sense to choose a smaller publishing house that specialises in your chosen genre. Nevertheless, the financial risk for a publisher to publish a completely unknown writer is high, so a young author should expect to contribute to the printing costs."

In the creative field, these so-called printing subsidy publishers are often frowned upon, and are considered exploitation - even though they can probably help an inexperienced young author with marketing, editing, etc., if necessary. In the academic field, it is a necessity in order to publish one's doctoral thesis or similar."


Suffering for a Firework – Biographical writing

Suffering for a Firework was published by Treibgut Verlag in April 2021 and is about a mother's escape with her eight children from the horrors of the Second World War in the German Reich. The novella is biographically inspired.

"Then we crawled out into the whistling hail of bombs. Around us the flaming billows whipped. Panicked screaming people tumbled headlong from their burning houses."(p. 23)

You write about the Second World War, from the point of view of the girl S.; one of the daughters of a single mother. The whole thing is not easy to take in when reading. Through the eyes of young S., the horrors of war seem even worse, as I as a reader felt for the protagonist from the first page.

"What made you decide to write about your grandmother's memories in your novella Suffering for a Firework?"

"Conversations with my grandmother. She is an incredibly humble and selfless woman. She comes from the war generation and measures happiness and contentment by entirely different values than our current consumer society.

When I spoke to her once, she told me about her war experiences and how lucky she was to have been able to flee from the East. She had travelled to the West by train with her entire family, including food and drink. This sentence conjured up a completely different picture before my mental eye than it actually was. After asking several times, I found out that they had just escaped the Russian Katyusha rockets on a goods train, half-starved and shivering from the cold. Apart from strictly rationed sugar water, all their mother and six sisters had to eat was a handful of earth-crusted turnips she had previously stolen from a snow-covered field. The more I inquired, the more such stories came out, all worth recording for generations to come."

"As a grandchild, it is often difficult to listen to the old generation. Unfortunately, authors often decide too late to deal with their own history and then can no longer ask questions. How did you come up with the title of your novella?"

Suffering for a Firework. The Flight of S. Rebesky is more or less a short summary of the content. The main character (S. Rebesky) suffers while fleeing the horrors of the Second World War and is only relieved of her suffering after the war at a fireworks display. How this suffering builds up and how she is ultimately freed from the same, the reader will of course only learn if they have read the whole book."

"What was it like to talk to your grandma about her suffering, what was the working process like? Did you stick pedantically to the memories she told you or did you add freely? Did she still have the opportunity to read your book?

"My father had already chronologically recorded the stages of my grandmother's escape a good fifteen years ago. Based on these facts, I interviewed - or rather interrogated - my grandmother several times. For me it was quite exciting; for my grandmother, on the other hand, it was sometimes stressful, because she understandably doesn't want to remember that time. Sometimes she confided extremely personal memories to me, but she did not want them published under any circumstances. Literarily regrettable, but humanly all too understandable. Accordingly, I only hinted at these memories superficially or omitted them altogether.

If my grandmother could no longer remember exactly, I asked her to give me literary leeway without falsifying her life story. To test whether our arrangement worked, I read her the first two chapters of the manuscript. At one point I added a passage about her hitting her head on an iron bar of a truck to illustrate her vulnerability and the close bond with her mother, who then comforted her. When I read this passage to her, she nodded in agreement, but nevertheless admitted that she couldn't remember it at all, only to confirm the next moment: "But yes, that's exactly what my mother was like. It was the most beautiful compliment she could have paid me as an author.

The last chapter of the book jumps to our present time; just before my grandmother's ninetieth birthday. The timing could not have been better as I presented her with the printed book for her ninetieth birthday! Of course, she has already read it and still distributes it diligently to her friends. She likes it very much. To be honest, her opinion was the most important to me - I could have taken any negative criticism, but not hers."

"What a beautiful gift! That her criticism was important to you is quite understandable, as personal as the book is, after all, it is strongly biographical. Would you say that the writing process was more difficult with this (biographical) work than with a purely fictional novel?"

"Fictional and biographical works can both prove difficult in their own way. A fictional narrative allows the author limitless fantasy, so it is difficult to generate a believable plot because narratively anything is allowed and possible. Biographical writing does help to develop authentic characters, in that these characters simply mirror real people. At the same time, this genre is also a limiting one, at least insofar as the author claims to write truthfully."

"Besides the limitations, biographical writing for you definitely means authentic writing. What interested you in particular about the subject of the Second World War? Especially in connection with your family history and biographical writing per se?"

"The Second World War was over 75 years ago now. It is therefore the last chance for authors to record the experiences and memories of contemporary witnesses for future generations through truthful narratives. Even if it does not concern one's own family chronicle, this fact alone should be motivation enough."

"Eyewitnesses are incredibly valuable and are becoming fewer and fewer, especially with regard to the Second World War. S. Rebesky is your grandmother in the novel - was there a particular reason why S. was not given a full name?"

"The choice of name was made for analogous motives as in Kafka's The Trial, in which Josef K. deliberately has no surname. In my novella, S. Rebesky just doesn't have a first name. But the principle is the same. As an anonymous heroine, she does not stand alone, but represents a whole generation of young German women who had to suffer comparable experiences and pursued similar dreams."

"A good approach to this topic, which affects not only one family but a whole generation and still shapes us. You describe family life during the war - sometimes more detailed, sometimes more fragmented. Scenes like holding out in the bunker, fleeing from bombs and death, but also everyday life in a new family (e.g. when they arrive at the Budaus' farm, p. 45ff). Did you draw on other eyewitness testimonies - or did you gather the necessary information more generally from non-fiction books etc.?"

"The example of the Budau family is appropriately chosen. At the beginning of the novella there is a Montaigne quote, which translated means that probably nothing holds on to memory more intensely than the desire to forget it. My grandmother could remember the Budau family all too well. They were not followers, but convinced Nazis from the very beginning. Mr Budau was in the SA, Mrs Budau in the Nazi Women's Association, the daughter was a BDM leader and the son in the SS. My grandmother even saw Herlinde Budau's clothes in her mind's eye: "Field grey skirt. Boxy suit jacket. Black tie. Triangular pin on black and white cross with gold engraving 'Nat. Soz. Frauenschaft'."

But of course these memories have to be flanked with a lot of research work on the net and in libraries. To illustrate with the example of the Budaus: The Budaus came from Bessarabia. What did a Bessarabian's farm look like in Pomerania in the 1940s? And what is a Bessarabian actually? Do they mainly raise livestock or do they farm? And if arable farming, what crops were grown, in what form and by whom? What were the climatic conditions like? What was the situation regarding food supplies? Any troop movements? What were the German place names in present-day Poland? Language use, mobility, architecture, clothing and technical status? And countless other aspects that had to be taken into account in order to give my grandma's picturesque memories the historically necessary framework."

"Thank you very much for this detailed answer - unfortunately we are very used to research work in the academic world! I still have one question about your grandmother's pictorial memories: After all, you describe various stages of S.'s life in great detail and pictorially (the separation from her family as a child, the nights in the air-raid shelter and her escape, etc.). Which part stuck with you the most?"

"Many situations that my grandmother experienced in wartime made me think, questioning my own standards and values. To put it in the style of Hermann Hesse, I am probably most impressed by her stage of life today. In the last chapter, she looks back on her life, criticising today's right-wing populism in Germany. However, I don't want to reproduce this here, because in order to fully understand her critique, you have to know her life - or just have read my book."

Thank you very much for your detailed and profound answers!

Riemer-Schadendorf, Kevin- 2021. Leiden für ein Feuerwerk. Die Flucht der S. Rebesky. Berlin: Treibgut Verlag.

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