It was the title of Michelle Steinbeck’s debut novel that first grabbed my attention: My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water. Upon opening the book, I was swiftly introduced to a nightmarish world that I couldn’t shake. At the very start of Steinbeck’s tale, a child attacks narrator Loribeth with an iron while she is sleeping. In retaliation, Loribeth throws an iron onto the child from above, launching the child out of an upstairs window and killing them. Loribeth then folds the body into a suitcase and then sets off on a tumultuous adventure, suitcase in hand, during which she encounters disturbing people with names like Curly and Eggbeard.
First published by Lenos Verlag in Switzerland in 2016, as Mein Vater war ein Mann an Land und im Wasser ein Walfisch, the book was shortlisted for the Swiss Book Prize and longlisted for the German Book Prize. Jen Calleja’s beautiful translation was published in 2018 by Darf Publishers, and her careful linguistic choices offer entry to English language readers into Loribeth’s challenges during her nightmarish journey. In our discussion, Steinbeck describes the meticulous process of Calleja’s translation, which included discussions between the two authors about how to best honor the source text.
Michelle and I corresponded from different German cities, and our conversation below covers her close collaboration with translator Jen Calleja, her use of dreams as a source of inspiration, and how surrealist Russian stories helped shape her remarkable first novel.
The Rumpus: Your title, which I love, is a reason why I initially picked up the book. The phrase appears on the second page and Loribeth writes these words down herself. Could you talk a little bit about how you chose the title?
Michelle Steinbeck: My working title for three years was “Der Koffer” (“The Suitcase”). Now I’m happy that my editor suggested to change it. It’s the only phrase that we know of Loribeth’s own writing, and it’s one that lead the story into a direction I did not plan when I started writing, so the idea of this being the title felt good.
Rumpus: You have a defined structure, with exactly ten chapters outlining the steps of Loribeth’s travels. Did you conceive of Loribeth’s journey alongside the structure of the book before you started writing?
Steinbeck: I had a skeleton draft in the beginning: ten chapters, every chapter another world. For every chapter I had an idea: a place, a character, maybe a dialogue. These often came from dreams. One idea was to send Loribeth through an apocalypse of my nightmares, and to let her figure out some stuff for me.
Rumpus: Does that mean that you write your dreams down in the morning as a place of reference for your work? And this might be too obvious, but was Freud a reference for you? I’m just thinking about how associative some passages seem.
Steinbeck: Yeah, like dream protocol. I like to do all sorts of protocols. Not so much Freud, actually; for me C. G. Jung was more interesting—his theory of the collective unconscious, I wanted to work with that.
Rumpus: I have read in German press descriptions of your book that the book is mainly about a young person resisting responsibility. How much do you respond to that view?
Steinbeck: I am interested in any kind of interpretation because I intentionally left a lot of space for that. I wanted every reader to see her or his own story. Given that descriptions like this reflect more on the person who expresses it, I cannot say that they are wrong. For me, Loribeth is trying to find a good way to live and for that she has to get rid of the baggage of fear and hesitations her parents passed over to her. I would say that means the opposite.
Rumpus: I also thought it was interesting because while you know Loribeth is a young woman, her age is left vague.
Steinbeck: I don’t know much about Loribeth myself. I don’t know her precise age and for me it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes I tried to find more information, for instance where she came from. And there was a past and places which I realized do not belong into this story. Loribeth is mysterious, “schillernd.” Sometimes she acts like a child and sometimes she might feel like she is a hundred years old—but don’t we all feel like that sometimes?
Rumpus: I don’t think Loribeth’s exact age matters, but I found it interesting that one interprets a sense of general “youth” despite that never being explicitly phrased.
Steinbeck: I would say the book is about becoming an adult and most of the time that happens around that time called “youth.”
Rumpus: When you say you tried to find more information about Loribeth… what do you mean exactly? Would you write into ideas and then cut or did this backstory emerge in another way?
Steinbeck: Probably all of it; I forget how these stories came. It’s part of the magic: imagination. How does it work? Sometimes it’s just sitting and staring into the void.
Rumpus: The book has been described as surrealist. Can you speak to whether or not any specific movement was at all a reference for this work? What is your relationship to fairy tales, fables?
Steinbeck: It all started with the Russian so-called surrealist Daniil Kharms. His writing was a revelation and set me free from boundaries I had before. I realized I can do anything. I can have fun. I can write the craziest twists and turns. Kharms was very important in the very first draft; in the process of developing the story, I had his books always with me and would consult them when I was stuck. Later when I was editing it and had some major doubts about it not being realistic, about too much crazy stuff happening, I stumbled over Pinocchio. I was hyped. What a story! And there was a person in a whale, too! Only then I thought: Oh, and in the Bible as well.
Rumpus: I read that you first began writing prose, and then started to write poetry in the process of writing this novel. Could you talk about that development?
Steinbeck: It certainly made the book shorter. After I had my first “serious encounters” with writing poetry I returned to the novel manuscript and edited it with the rules I had made for my poetry: every word is essential, has to vibrate with its surroundings, the rhythm, etc. There might be some traces in the novel from that phase.
Rumpus: Did you go through many drafts while writing?
Steinbeck: I worked on the book on and off. There are probably about five hundred drafts.
Rumpus: I’m interested in your relationship with Jen Calleja, who translated your book. I know that you have performed together, and have translated each other’s work (in and out of German to English) which I found very beautiful.
Steinbeck: Ah, now that’s a fairy tale! It’s called spaghetti con ricci. Jen came to visit me in Rome while I did a writer’s residency in this ridiculously beautiful villa in the heart of the ancient town. We did not know each other and both feared to bore the other or worse. We sat in my tower studio and worked on the translations she prepared, and I knew very quickly that I can trust her. She got the characters, she got the story, the feeling, the sound—and she got the cover of the book tattooed on her leg. I don’t know if I ever told her, but it actually felt a little like hanging around with Loribeth.
Rumpus: Wait, why spaghetti con ricci? Was that one of your first meals together?
Steinbeck: The very first!
Rumpus: Did you and Jen go through the book together together there?
Steinbeck: Yes, it started in Rome, where Jen prepared some chapters with alternatives for me to choose. I would read through and circle the words I found most appropriate or that amused me the most. She described it as her process of getting a feeling for me and my intensions in writing. Also, she would ask questions like “who are the dogs?” We also discussed formalities like how should we deal with the fact that in German there are three grammar cases in which “das Kind” is neutral, not gendered—“es.” Jen explained how “it” has a different connotation in English. In the end, we decided to go with “it” and even liked the new flavor it would give the work. We were playing with languages, balancing between the perfect equivalent and the smoother way to say it in another language. In the beginning, it was all about decisions which writing anyway is all the time, it was a kind of re-writing. After that, Jen went back to London, translated the whole thing, sent it back to me and so on. It was probably the first time I read my whole book—in Jen’s version. I was surprised how I had forgotten about some parts.
Rumpus: Since you mention that Jen got the book cover tattooed on her leg, can you describe a little how the cover was chosen and why you think people respond so strongly to it? Was there any debate about having the same cover again in the English-language translation?
Steinbeck: Nonda is a graphic designer from Zurich whose work I love, I asked him to do the cover and both the publishers liked it. My father says it looks like a children’s book. I don’t know if people react strongly.
Rumpus: In the book, amongst many other characters, we meet individuals named Unicorn, Mabel, Curly, Eggbeard, and Fridolin Siefert. Could you share a little bit about how you named the characters?
Steinbeck: With Curly and Eggbeard, I don’t have to explain much. Fridolin Seifert was there from the beginning—I have no idea where he came from.
Rumpus: I believe you speak German, English, and Italian. I was wondering what the experience of having your work translated into English compared with (for example) reading your own work in Italian?
Steinbeck: I also speak French. English is quite near to German compared to Roman languages like Italian or French. I knew it could have the same atmosphere in English, whereas in Italian I had my doubts, because the language is so different.
Rumpus: What are you working on at the moment, and where people can look for more of your and Jen’s work?
Steinbeck: I am working on my new novel! Jen is currently translating a selection of my short stories; they will come out next year at Makina Books in London.
An extract from Steinbeck’s novel is available to read here.
Photograph of Michelle Steinbeck by Jean-Vincent Simonet.