The Rumpus Book Club chats with Saša Stanišić about his novel Before the Feast, the challenge of writing a plural narrator, working with a translator, and book tours in Germany.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So to kick things off, I’d like to ask, why did you choose this particular part of Germany to write about? What was it about Fürstenfelde that appealed to you as a writer?
Saša Stanišić: I had a mosaic kind of tale in mind which was based on a really small village in the Bosnian mountains, a place where the ancestors of my family lived for centuries. The village is on the verge of disappearing; only about twenty people live there today. I wanted to write the stories of those still remaining, the legends of the region, its beauty and horrors, in order to keep something, anything alive and save it from being forgotten. But this became too intimate for fiction. So I decided to move the place of the novel to a kind of similar (disappearing) village in Germany. It was a coincidence that I discovered “Fürstenwerder” (that is the real name of the village I used in my research the most). A friend whom I told about the landscape which I had in mind for my fictional village recognized Fürstenwerder in it and brought me there. I was amazed with what I found there, all the stories, tragic and weird, all the people, funny and crazy.
Jordan K: Then that led you to walde, berg, and felde?
Saša Stanišić: Only to Fürstenwerder. Others are lies 🙂 I like playing with fiction even there where you wouldn’t expect it, like in the “Thank you” part. But all of them are home to some problematic issues of German and European societies concerning rural living—unemployment of the youth, a strong right-wing movement, the loneliness of old people, and so on.
Brian S: I really enjoyed the way you worked with the historical aspect of the town/village. The little asides were a nice way to give us a sense of just how long the town had been there.
Jordan K: Hilarious.
…not the part about problematic issues.
Saša Stanišić: I enjoyed writing/inventing those. They are written in different Language “ages” of German, so I was basically trying to imitate the way people wrote 500 years ago.
Brian S: Speaking of that, have you had a chance to see Anthea Butler’s translation of your novel? Did you work with her at all on that?
Saša Stanišić: I always wanted to create an own mythology of a place. You know, all those local legends and stories. This was my chance. But it’s also about what can old tales tell us about today. Most of them have very similar topics and discuss similar problems to our world today—there is jealousy and hate and love and money and sex and more sex and thievery.
Yes, I read Anthea’s translation and I really love it. She already did a great job on my first novel, but this was really magnificent.
Jordan K: Also, did you ever think of doing your own translation? I’ve never had to deal with that, but don’t expect it’s commonplace.
Saša Stanišić: I actually did think about it. I would have needed help because of all the mistakes I’d make, but on the other hand—when you have someone like Anthea Bell to do it, you don’t do it yourself. It can’t get better than hers.
Brian S: I took some classes on translation theory when I was in graduate school, so I’m always looking for the ways in which a translator handles issues like older language or regional accents, and especially jokes, because they’re so hard to get across.
Saša Stanišić: It is not that easy. I had a meeting with the other translators and all of them had the most difficulties recreating the old languages of their countries. But also they said they enjoyed digging into that as a kind of a (learning) game
Brian S: Bell made some good choices—the archaic spellings and capitalizations certainly got the ages across, though I’m glad the years of the events were there as well, just for clarity’s sake.
Why did you choose to center this around the Feast of St. Anne?
Saša Stanišić: It’s not an actual feast in northern Germany. But there was a girl who was murdered for supposedly being a witch some centuries ago, and she was called Anna, and people back then had a feast to honor the killing. She was only fourteen and even though we know about the cruelty of those weird times when many young women lost their lives to religious fanaticism, for some reason the tale of Anna got me and I kind of wanted to give her at least a bit something back for all that she has lost—that people won’t forget her name. Even though the village today doesn’t really know about her, the “We” of the narration does.
Saša Stanišić: Also I like the tense atmosphere in the nights before feasts. There is something magical about preparing a place for a party. Something uncanny, too.
Jordan K: Speaking of witches, all the folktales were local German stories? The pig with a human face, six suns in the sky, etc.
Brian S: Oh, okay. Because there is a St. Anne in Catholicism and the same person is honored in Islam—the mother of Mary—and she was married to a man named Joachim, so I was wondering if all those traditions were playing a role in the novel that I was missing.
Saša Stanišić: Some of them are motifs from German folktales, yes, some of them I invented myself, others are actual findings in church and city chronicles from the 16th and 17th centuries. People obviously were much more inclined to believe all kinds of stuff. The passage with the pig with the human head for example comes from one such city chronicle from the city of Prenzlau. The local priest says that he saw the piglet with the human head but doesn’t reveal anything more than that. So I bring the men to the piglet and let them discuss who looks the most familiar to the head. 🙂
Saša Stanišić: I think in some parts of southern Germany and Austria there is a small following of St. Anna, but in the mostly “Protestant” north, she doesn’t play any role.
Brian S: I laughed out loud at that scene, for the record.
Saša Stanišić: I like it a lot too. It’s so human in the way how the humans first all point the finger at each other but then agree to become a team when there is a complete “stranger” to blame. In this case, the devil.
Brian S: One of the more interesting formal aspects of this novel to me was the decision to use a plural narrator, the “we.” Can you talk a little about why you decided to do that, and what effect it had on the way you presented the stories of these characters?
Saša Stanišić: The first and most important task for me was creating a mosaic of a village now and throughout the times, and then I kind of wanted the mosaic to have a voice itself which had to be stronger than its singular pieces. Only a ‘we’ could provide such force. Also, ‘we’ is often used in rural areas, i.e. in conversations. It provides a sense of unity and agreement for the speaker, and at the same time it divides ‘us’ (the villagers) from ‘them’ (the outside world), thus creating a strong group “togetherness” which always seem to have more credibility and deliver more trust than one single voice. The ‘we’ in the story is a kind of collective voice of the village itself. I tried to imagine how it would sound if all the people who ever lived in this place merged into one. It would be protective towards the village since it consists of the village, it would be harsh because times were mostly harsh, but it would also be sensible and even poetic because of all the sensible and poetic voices that have lived in Fürstenfelde. And so on: the aim was to create a kind of a choir with singers long dead and some still alive, always singing, because a village is never quiet, not even in its darkest hours.
Jordan K: I appreciated the way you kept introducing Schramm. In a book that constantly has you questioning your footing, it was nice to feel something was constant.
Saša Stanišić: Schramm (and Anna) and to some degree the fox are definitely the protagonist glue that hold the thing together. I was aware that this kind of non-linear story-telling is a bit challenging even for myself to write it, so there had to be at least some constant elements where the reader could rest in knowing the task and the figure very well.
Brian S: That’s interesting. I saw Frau Kranz in that role, though I can see it with Schramm and Anna as well. Who was your favorite character to write? Or is that an unfair question?
Saša Stanišić: Yes, I forgot to mention her—Kranz is definitely also a “gluer.”
I enjoyed writing Mr. Schramm and Mrs. Kranz the most. Schramm is just this force of nature who in the past, in the GDR, has probably done some really bad stuff and now has this one last adventure to endure. And Kranz with her toughness and weird work ethic and then a biography similar to mine—of being forced to flee her home and now being an artist in a basically “foreign” country.
Brian S: ”Endure” is a really good word to use there. Shows that adventures aren’t necessarily positive experiences.
Jordan K: You a Buffy fan, Saša?
Saša Stanišić: I actually am! There was a big Buffy chapter around Johann’s mother but I took it out in the end, since it was twenty pages long and just an attempt to say that Buffy is a metaphor for a healthy socialism which loves healthy family values!
Brian S: Oh, I can talk Buffy for days given the opportunity. 🙂
Saša Stanišić: For him—Mr. Schramm—it really is a question of dealing with his own bad consciousness and bad choices and also of dealing with the fact that once, he was someone: an officer of the army, a big maker, and now, he’s no one, no friends, watching cheap porn in his house, being not even good (he believes) for a marriage—I don’t know the English word—marriage market?
Brian S: He doesn’t see himself as a catch, as a person anyone would be interested in.
Jordan K: I like “marriage market” as a term.
Saša Stanišić: My short story collection is out since a month now, and there is a story in it, set again in Fürstenfelde, and Mr. Schramm now lives together with Miss Mahlke.
Brian S: Oh, I’m so happy to hear that. I was dying at that scene where he destroys the cigarette machine with the farm machine. I really wanted something to work out for Schramm.
Saša Stanišić: Yes, if there was one person in need of a happy ending in this universe, it was Schramm.
Brian S: Is there a translation in the works for that collection? I’d love to read it.
Saša Stanišić: It just came out here. I am hoping there will be, of course; no news yet.
Jordan K: I would love to read it as well! Get Tin House on it!
Saša Stanišić: Tin House: You reading this? Two sold copies already!
Brian S: I’ll keep an eye out for it. Has there been any talk of you coming back to the states for a tour to publicize this book?
Saša Stanišić: I did a small tour with my first book years ago and it was great. Nothing planned as of now. In Germany, book readings are really a huge thing. I had 150 readings with Before the Feast and already almost a hundred booked for the stories now. So I am constantly somewhere else.
Brian S: That’s amazing! You told me you were busy when we were trying to schedule this, but I had no idea just how busy.
Jordan K: Book tours in the US are usually only a few cities. 150 dates! That’s like rock and roll status.
Saša Stanišić: Here, it’s like a never-ending trip. And it pays well, too.
Brian S: So what you’re saying is I need to learn German…
Saša Stanišić: Never too late to learn a language. And the good literature to come with it.
Brian S: Thank you so much for joining us today, and for such a terrific book.
Jordan K: Before you go, what are you reading?
Saša Stanišić: Thank you for the questions and for organizing the whole thing!
Jordan K: Thanks! Really great talking with you.
Saša Stanišić: Have a good evening!
Brian S: I’ll keep an eye out for it. Have a great rest of your evening, and again, thanks for making time for us.