Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Author Interview: Dorothy James

This week, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Dorothy James, author of A Place to Die: An Inspector Georg Büchner Mystery, along with assorted books and articles on German and Austrian literature. She is currently working on her second novel, a continuation of the adventures of Inspector George Büchner.

A Place to Die: An Inspector Georg Büchner Mystery

Other Links:
Book Review: A Place to Die: An Inspector Georg Büchner Mystery
Vienna Mysteries

I dug around a bit on and saw that you've published translations of Austrian and German literature. I don't often meet translators, and I'm curious: what are some of the difficulties faced in such an undertaking? How do you approach it?

I have done a lot of translating from German into my native language, English, and my published translations have been largely academic writing rather than literature. I have also recently translated websites for the Democracy Center, Vienna. However I love to do literary translation which presents very different challenges, and I have taught this at the Graduate Center, CUNY. I think you need to be very involved in a work of literature to translate it, and it is absolutely crucial to know exactly what the author means. I have read many translations which contain actual mistakes, incorrect words and misunderstandings of whole sentences. It is important to consult with a native speaker when in doubt but also to know one’s own language inside out so that one can take the translation beyond the literal and attempt to convey the style of the original.

That makes complete sense. And now, turning back to your own words: what are your favorite and least favorite parts of the writing process? How do you decide that something is "complete"?

Least favorite: copy-editing and looking up for the hundredth time whether two words, e.g post war,should be written as two words, or hyphenated or run together. I actually think this sort of thing is important for easy reading, but doing it gets on my nerves mightily. Favorite: I like the blank page, the excitement of starting a new story, a new chapter, a new section. I like the feeling that complicated events are somehow inexorably sorting themselves out and reaching resolution. And suddenly there it is, a not necessarily predicted but inevitable end.

I can see that. I would say more about it, but I don't want to spoil the ending of A Place to Die. Now, as I understand it, you're an educator as well as an author, having taught at universities both in the US and in Europe. How have these experiences contributed to your writing?

This is too big a question to answer with any real specificity. I have taught literature, I have taught foreign language, I have taught translation, I have taught creative writing--all these things have, over the years, affected the way I write English, and of course what I write about. The fact that I have always been in two-language university environments, whether in Europe or here, has broadened tremendously the kind of reading I have done, and thinking things out in two languages has of course left a mark on what I say and the way I say it.

It seems like you do a fair amount of traveling between the US, Austria, and Germany. You've also lived in England. What are some of your favorite things about each location, and what do you miss most when you're somewhere else?

Again this is a huge question! I will narrow it down by saying: I grew up in Wales—I love the language, the sound of my own people talking, the mountains and the sea, and I miss all these things, all the time. I would narrow down the US, Austria and Germany to New York City, Vienna and Berlin: in all of which cities I have spent long periods of time. New York City is my home, I like coming home to Brooklyn, to the tree-lined, brownstone-lined streets, the little cafes and restaurants, the Promenade, the skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge, the cosmopolitan sidewalks and the often brash but friendly people. Vienna? I miss sitting for hours in my favorite coffeehouse on the Saarplatz and reading the newspapers and hearing the Viennese sound of people talking in the dialect of the city. Berlin? I miss the excitement of this new and dramatically developing city, I miss seeing the sun rise over the Bode Museum on the Museumsinsel where I always stay.

It sounds like there is much to be missed. Let's get back to the writing process before I get too jealous! Now in your biography, you mention that, like Inspector Buchner, you enjoy writing poetry for pleasure. Is he the character you relate to best? Would you care to share one of your poems with us?

Inspector Buechner is the character in the novel whom I would most like to be. I do write poetry. My poems tend to be long, and to follow strict forms—that is what I like to do: sestinas, pantoums, villanelles, etc. I will put in a villanelle – this one continues the theme of “a language not my own” which seems to have cropped up in this interview, and the theme of getting older which belongs to the novel.

A Villanelle

Old women's summer this is what they say
Here in another land, a language not my own.
To this sweet fall the summer of the young gives way.

The leaves blow golden through the shortening day.
The tender sun shines through me to the bone.
Old women's summer this is what they say

Because they think, disguise it as we may,
The strength to take the real heat has gone.
To this sweet fall the summer of the young gives way.

But was the height of pleasure on a summer's day
Ever as sharply sweet as in September's sun?
Old women's summer this is what they say,

They see it keeps the winter's night at bay,
They point the downward path with mocking tone.
To this sweet fall the summer of the young gives way?

But should we grieve the last midsummer ray
Who know the sweetest fall is ours alone?
Old women's summer this is what they say.
To this sweet fall the summer of the young gives way.

Vienna, 26 September 2003

Thank you for sharing that with us. There's a very bittersweet feel to it that I enjoyed. While we're on the topic of the past, I do have another question to ask you. With all of the mentions of World War II, Nazi occupation of Austria, and the continuing tensions, I am curious - what are you drawing upon as you write about these things? Will this be a recurring theme in your Inspector Georg Buchner series?

I am drawing on many years of study, of reading, talking to people and teaching. I have taught the literature of Weimar Germany, of the Nazi years, of post-war Germany etc.. It will not necessarily be a recurring theme in the series. It was a theme in the first one because the characters were older people, many of whom had personal memories of those times. In the second one, the characters are younger and their lives have encompassed, for example, the fall of the “Iron Curtain” and the Berlin Wall, so these figure in the narrative in various ways.

I'm looking forward to your next novel! Okay, so this question is completely random, but I like to hear different authors' views: if you could be any character from any book for one day, who would it be and why?

I have read so many books and half-identified with so many characters, it is hard to say. The only character in a novel that I ever truly longed to be was Anne of Green Gables. I adored her when I was a girl, and I still cannot imagine any more delightful fantasy than to be her for a day in the mythical Prince Edward Island where I have never been, walking through the fields and going home to the wonderful substitute parents, Marilla and Matthew. This seems to me pure happiness.

That's all that I have for today. Thank you very much for doing this interview with me.

Thank you for suggesting it!


bookdout said...

A really enjoyed this interesting interview with the author! A Place to Die is an intelligent and entertaining read.

Alice said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the interview! I'm sure the author will be happy to hear that you like her book.

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