World Literature Today’s annual Puterbaugh Festival brings best-selling authors from around the world to OU and gives them the opportunity to meet and impact OU students. This year’s Puterbaugh Fellow is the German author Jenny Erpenbeck, author of “The End of Days” and “Go, Went, Gone.”
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
A: I didn’t want to become a writer because, as you perhaps know, I come from a family of writers. My grandparents were writers, and my father wrote fiction. My mother was a literary translator for Arabic books. Everyone was sitting at some desk, and I tried my best to avoid ending up at some desk. But, as you can see, I couldn’t succeed. I studied opera directing, and I became an opera director. I did some 15 productions of operas, and only then I switched slowly to literature. I sent one manuscript to someone, and then it was printed and was my first book, and so on and so on. It was not like I wanted to become a writer. It’s a wonderful profession, but I didn’t imagine myself as a writer.
Q: Going off that, in your book “Go, Went, Gone,” you focus on the European refugee crisis. Why did you feel like you needed to write a book on that?
A: I got the impression the world of the refugees that already in 2013 have been in our cities and in the so-called “our world,” but they are very far apart from each other, and that — there is something wrong about it. These two worlds should somehow be connected again. In 2013, there was an accident where one of the refugee boats capsized and hundreds of people drowned. In the newspapers, the journalists would just write, ‘Okay, this was bad, but they shouldn’t all come to Europe. That’s no reason to accept all of them in Europe just because of the capsizing. It’s a pity.’ And I thought this was not an appropriate reaction to the accident. So, I thought someone from the so-called middle of the society should take his or her time, I guess her time, to just deal with it and show the people that it is worth spending time exploring who these people are, what the reasons are why they came and also to show our society from their perspective, which I think is also very important. So, I just started.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the Puterbaugh Fellow this year?
A: It’s a big honor, as it seems. There are so many people involved in organizing all of these events and gatherings. Students are reading my books, and there will even be a ballet performed tomorrow, and I am looking forward to it. It’s nice to see people who are so far away are interested in the things I am writing about. It’s an honor.
Q: At the opening reception, all of your awards were read out loud, and people brought up the idea that the Nobel Prize might be in your future. How does all of this praise make you feel?
A: I think, perhaps it’s a bit too much expectation. Of course, it’s very nice. But in a way, you don’t have to get the award anymore when people think you could get it, you know. It’s enough. I’ve gotten a lot of prizes, and it is always very nice. Sometimes, it also helps in terms of economics, but it doesn’t help your writing. The writing stays difficult. If you are sitting at your desk all alone, no prize helps your writing. It’s kind of nice and honoring, but it has nothing to do with the real writing. It doesn’t answer questions.
A collection of Erpenbeck’s nonfiction work will be published this fall. She is also currently planning her next novel, which will take a few years to complete.