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"I need the Klagenfurt money"

Gerrit Bartels speaks with author Clemens Meyer about money, writing and tattoos

The three-day Ingeborg Bachmann competition took place from June 22 - 24, 2006, in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt. Writers read from unpublished works in a quest for Austria's most prestigious literary award, worth 25,000 Euros. This year Kathrin Passig won both the main prize and the "public's prize". Other awards went to Bodo E. Hell, Norbert Scheuer and Angelika Overath. Before the start of the competition, an intrepid Clemens Meyer - who unfortunately came out empty-handed - explained to die tageszeitung why it was time for him to win. Click here for our description of last year's prize.

Clemens Meyer. Photo Jörg Steinmetz

die tageszeitung: Herr Meyer, are you excited at the prospect of taking part in the Klagenfurt literary competition?

Clemens Meyer: Sure, I'm a bit scared, especially of the jury. But I'm more than 100 percent convinced of the quality of my story. It's great, really. I've had the idea for a long time now. The story is artificial, but it's full of substance. I hope it's going to land like a knockout punch. If people don't like that kind of literature, there's nothing I can do.

Your debut novel "Als wir träumten" (While we were dreaming) caused a real sensation at the Leipzig Book Fair. And it was nominated for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. Aren't you putting your freshly won laurels on the line in Klagenfurt?

Let's get something straight. I didn't win the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. Ilija Trojanow did. I haven't won any literary prizes at all, except for the MDR Literature Prize, and that was five years ago. It's time I won a really big prize, and I hope I'll be so lucky! It's not as if my novel has sold masses of copies and that I am rich now. I need the Klagenfurt money, every penny. I simply have to come away from Klagenfurt with one prize or another. I have economic reasons for going there, I'll be honest.

So you're travelling to Klagenfurt to win?

Of course, what do you think? An athlete doesn't go to a competition to lose.

You've received much praise for your novel, but critics are divided about your future: Some prophesy a big future for you, others talk about a "one hit wonder," someone who's written down his own personal experiences, but that's about all we can expect.

That's rubbish. Either you're a writer or you're not. It's not an autobiography, what I wrote! Of course part of me is in the narrator, in Daniel, but just as much is in the other characters, in Stefan, Walter, Mark, Ricco and even in Estrellita. You've got to turn your own experiences into literature, that's what makes it art, you could say. I worked on the novel for five years! I knew what it would deal with for a long time, just the form was missing. I can't write a historical novel, or research in archives. For me things have to be relevant to the world as we live it.

You live in the neighbourhood where your novel takes place, and you know the milieu very well.

I live in East Leipzig, in Crottendorf. I was born in Halle, but I've always lived in East Leipzig. Earlier I used to think I could write my way out of the place, earn money, get a nice flat in an old building, not a cubbyhole like where I'm living now, two rooms with low ceilings on the ground floor. But in fact that's okay. I've got my roots here, and I'm a keen observer of all that goes on around me.

I see in your biography that you've worked as a construction worker, a mover and a night watchman. How did you come to start writing?

I always wanted to write, even as a kid. Maybe my father also inspired me. He was a medical orderly with a tremendous passion for literature. He had a huge library with thousands of books. After I finished high school in 1996 I said: school's out for good. I wanted to work, really work. I went to a construction site and did all kinds of jobs: shoveling and digging, breaking apart debris, gutting buildings, hauling cement bags, tearing down chimneys, tons of things, it was a good time. That lasted two and a half years, then I had to stop because of back problems.

And you applied to the German Literature Institute in Leipzig?

Yes, with some smaller pieces I'd written. That was all rather by accident. I'd read about the institute in the newspaper, until then I had no idea there was such a thing in Leipzig. I liked the sound of it, and they took me right away.

How was your time there?

At first it was difficult. The first two years especially it took a lot of getting used to. I had a hard time with the people. For me they were a bunch of intellectual riff-raff. The atmosphere was strange. There were those who'd already published, and then there were the others with no publications. And the older ones always made it clear to the younger ones that they should keep a low profile. I had to get out of there fast when I heard stuff like that, or things would have got violent. And after a while they did. In the end, I got a whole lot out of my time there. I see the five years like a sort of doctorate. Above all, you learn how to deal with criticism, and how important every single word is in a sentence.

What do you think of the books that have appeared recently about the East German youth before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jana Hensel's "Zonenkinder," Jana Simon's "Geschichte des Felix S.", or the novels of Andre Kubiczek and Falko Hennig?

Most of them I don't know, aside from Jana Hensel. I read her because my father had bought the book.

They've all recently written about your generation, the people born in the early and middle seventies in the GDR.

I can't stand hearing the word "generation" any more. I see myself as an individualist. The people in my novel are too, they go against the flow. They're not right-wing or left wing, they're not hooligans or punks, at best they're petty criminals on the margins of society. I didn't want to tell the story of a lost generation. I find it extremely suspicious when people talk about "we" or a "generation". Everyone dies on their own.

How do you get along in the world of letters?

I am the way I am. I've got no experience whatsoever with the literature business. Sometimes I'm a bit clueless. I say things and later I think oh man, how could I say that? But what the hell! I don't change any interviews either, or edit them later. If I've said a load of crap, well, I've said a load of crap. But the questions are sometimes so stupid too! I put up with it because I'm always thinking of the book. I do it for the book. Once I read I was staging myself, and that I was always walking around in short sleeves, the nerve!

Because of your tattoos?

Of course. They're there, they're part of my life, why should I hide them? I don't make a big thing of them, other people do.

How long have you had those tattoos?

I started when I was 18. That's when I let a couple of jailbirds tattoo a lizard on me. I'm still in treatment, my body's permanently under construction.

Are you hooked on ink?

Something like that. I'm not completely filled up, there're still a couple of free spots. My back is completely covered, my chest, arms and shoulders are too. My stomach's free, my hips and my problem zones are also free.

What do you like about being tattooed?

You're a lot more aware of your body, your being, your ego, the confrontation with pain. But I don't want to make it sound too philosophical.

You say "jailbird": were you ever in jail?

Right after my 18th birthday, in the youth detention centre in Zeithain. For breaking into cars. I don't want to talk about that now, we were just fooling around, a bunch of kids, petty criminals, you know. I was in the youth detention centre twice. The other time was right at the start of my studies at the German Literature Institute. I kept putting it off, there were certain tricks you could pull, but then I had to go in, right in the first semester. Talk about stress! Burkhard Spinnen, the director at the time, was shocked: Herr Meyer, you have to go to jail! Then he said: "Shit happens."

And now he's on the jury at Klagenfurt.

Oh, then I have to watch what I say. No, on second thoughts, Burkhard Spinnen doesn't read die tageszeitung, I know that for sure.

Can you live from what you write, or do you do other jobs on the side?

No, I don't do other jobs, that's over with. I'd rather go on the dole again. I do write for newspapers, but I don't do everything they ask me to. The Welt am Sonntag wanted me to write about neo-nazi no-go areas. I said no, despite all the money they were offering. Next I'll write on a new edition of the works of Scott Fitzgerald and a tattoo exhibition. Readings also pay well. One thing I do hope is that I'll be able to get enough money together for a second place, somewhere in the country. That's got to be possible!

But things are going well for you at the moment.

Yeah, sure. But I must say: having to write all the time is both a curse and a blessing. It's taxing work, but it's also a pleasure and a privilege when you can make a living from it. Still: "Als wir träumten" has just gone through it's first run, the second is now in the bookshops. Trojanow has been on the Spiegel bestseller list for weeks now, but not me. And it's even hard for me to get grants.

Why's that?

Because of my dog, a Rottweiler Doberman. He's very sweet. I recently had to turn down a grant at the Literary Colloquium in Berlin because they didn't want my dog there. That's a strange place anyway. Günter Grass gets millions when he gives a reading there, I don't even get the money for a cab! Grass even gets a special bottle of schnapps for his readings. He drinks two glasses and then leaves the bottle. At least I got to drink Grass' schnapps after my reading there.


The interview was originally published in German in die tageszeitung on June 21, 2006.

Clemens Meyer was born in 1977 in Halle, and lives in Leipzig. From 1998 - 2003 he studied at the Deutsches Literaturinstitut in Leipzig. He has published "Der wilde Osten" (Fischer Taschenbuchverlag, 2002), "Nikita" (an anthology; Faber und Faber, 2002) "Die grünen Hügel Afrikas" (an anthology; Faber und Faber, 2004) and "Als wir träumten" (S. Fischer 2006).

Translation: jab.

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