Henning Koch’s Love Doesn’t Work, just released from Dzanc Books, is a collection of seven “dualist” tales that examine the struggles of the human condition with sharp satire but also surprising vulnerability. I picked up the collection at AWP and couldn’t wait to talk to Koch, an ex-screenwriter and literary translator living in Berlin, about his influences, the minefields of publishing, and why he thinks love doesn’t work.
So we did, and here it is.
Jen Michalski: I found it interesting that the first story of the collection is a satire involving Ingmar Bergman. This story definitely sets the scene for some of the some fabulist elements in the stories that follow, but I also wonder if you’re also exploring the idea of what Bergman and others called “necessary illusions” regarding love. You set up the premise that “love doesn’t work,” but yet by the end of the collection, in “Little Rabbit,” there is a bit of hope that love might work, if only we moderate our expectations of what it is.
Henning Koch: Actually, “In Memoriam, Ingmar Bergman” was the first story of the collection I wrote. At the time I wasn’t necessarily aware of any particular emphasis on exploring notions of love. There was not really a theme for the collection. But at the end of it I realized that a theme had emerged. I’m not sure I’m talking about “necessary illusions” in love. I’m more talking about the confusions around love, often caused by very high expectations that cannot possibly be fulfilled. I guess if one looks at Chuck in the title story, for instance, one would say that his happy ending is caused by dropping the illusions which are, in fact, “unnecessary.”
In “In Memoriam, Ingmar Bergman” I describe an imaginary cinematic genre (the “Scandinavian Death Rattle”) in which love relationships are not allowed to work. Certainly there is an aspect of satire in this. A large number of Ingmar Bergman clones are arguing about the correct form of presenting human emotion, which must be ritualized in some way (and rather gloomy) in order to be acceptable. “Little Rabbit”, on the other hand, is more naturalistic. A young screenwriter is bowled over by an amazing and talented woman, only to find himself struggling with his resistance to intimacy. Whether or not love ends up working for him we do not know but we probably hope that it will. “Little Rabbit” is the last story in the sequence. In one sense I wanted to indicate that love is a continuing process, not a finite occurrence in life.
The fabulist elements are more than anything an expression of my kind of imagination and how I like to structure stories. The “New Weird” literary tendency concerns itself with real people and events, but with a certain slant or twist that gives the reader a feeling of displacement. “New Weird” takes genre writing and turns it into something subtly different, and my imagination responds to that. Unless fiction is brilliantly written I tend to get tired of settings or preoccupations that are very straight or formulaic or bound by genre guidelines. Reality does not behave by any such rules, and neither do people. We live in all kinds of weird places and I think fiction needs to show that or it isn’t really doing its job.
JM: You mention you wrote Love Doesn’t Work in 2005-2006, between relationships. You are now expecting a child with your partner in September. Do you think you could have written the same collection today? How has your outlook changed, and how has it affected your subsequent work?
HK: I think there is always an unclear relationship between what you write and where you are in life. I wrote Love Doesn’t Work five or six years ago. At the time, I had been writing for a number of years without getting anything into print, and I had made a decision to write precisely what I wanted to write, in whatever way I chose, without any concessions made to taste, the market or any notions of what was “publishable.” That was the most important aspect of these stories for me: giving myself the freedom of pleasing myself and, in the process, expressing something I wanted to say. So, on one level, I could say this was the book where I set out to do artistic work for the very first time. Luckily for me I also found a publisher in Dzanc Books that responded to this.
It is difficult to say whether in 2005 when I started writing I was more skeptical about love than I am now. I had just come out of a relationship and I suppose I was reflective about that. I was reading about the Cathars in the south of France and the Albigensian Crusades, and I got fascinated by their way-out views on sexuality and love. It seemed to me that people struggle, and have always struggled, with immense hopes and dreams. But what kind of insight and happiness we can achieve through love alone?
My thinking about what love is and how it operates has changed a good deal since 2005-6. I am much more convinced by the concept of giving love rather than lying on my back like a baby, kicking my legs up in the air wanting someone to give me a bottle of love. Because that is what people do. Maybe partly as a result of writing this book–after all, writing a book is a very intensive experience forcing you into a fairly deep examination of your ideas–I now tend to view love as something you give rather than expect to be given. Although both possibilities are very welcome, of course.
In the title story (“Love Doesn’t Work”), Chuck is a retiring English chap who has never before had a girlfriend he was crazy about. He meets Archie and is overwhelmed and very excited by the whole thing until he realizes that it is not enough for him. What’s lacking for him is an inner balance. We are all looking for what we want but only few of us are properly aware of what we need.
Similarly in “Apologia” we have the dictator who has used his powers to change the world and, in so doing, liquidating large numbers of his critics. The dictator has strong ideas on how people should conduct themselves, preserve the environment, express their sexuality and religious feelings. He has another perspective on love and how it operates–more of a socially grounded perspective. After all, love is also an immense humanizing force that guides our societies and even how they are governed, their respect for human rights and the rights of people. In other words, this collection of stories is not only talking about romantic love but the concept of ethics: love as a guiding force in the world.
To answer your second question more directly: perhaps if I had never written Love Doesn’t Work I would sit down and try and write it now in some form. But books come along at a certain time. If as a writer you do not grab the opportunity when it presents itself, it will probably never come again. You will rework the ideas and they will emerge in a different form and context.
JM: I do see the Cathar influence (i.e. that matter is intrinsically evil) in your work, rather ironically, in the way Archie transforms her and Jimmy’s sex life from a real to symbolic act in the title story. The title story, coincidentally, is also set in Sardinia, Italy, where you lived while writing this collection. Are there any other influences, aside from the Cathars, Italy, and Ingmar Bergman, that I’m missing?
HK: More than anything I have been influenced by travel writers, such as Charles Doughty, Gerald Brenan, Karen Blixen, Robert Byron, and Freya Stark. They taught me the value of language and also the importance of a certain amount of learning and scholasticism which I admire, although these should be hidden and subtle. I realized early on that I did not just want to write about myself. I wanted to somehow write about ideas and about the world outside my own routines.
Other “action” travelers, such as Wilfred Thesiger, Peter Fleming, and Thor Heyerdahl, were the people that shaped my imagination when I was very young. I spent years and years travelling after I graduated. I was always attracted by people who got out, saw something different, and found another truth or perspective.
Probably my strongest influence when I was starting to write was Flaubert. His “Sentimental Education” really blew me away and, with Maupassant’s “Bel Ami”, set out what I considered to be perfect books. I knew I wanted to write stories about people struggling with something, possibly social forces or “the world” (another important dualist word). Stories where things happened unexpectedly as they do in life. I suppose I was fascinated by storytellers who had the skill to introduce elements seamlessly, without clanking or jingling as they threw their ideas into the machinery. It spun in silence.
I think I am also attracted by the notion of the old world before globalization, partly because I just caught the tail end of that era in my own travels. I love the concept of diversity and difference in cultural terms: the times when one could go to places without a Starbucks in every street.
Finally, I think there has always been a lyrical element in my writing which perhaps does not come out very much in these short stories but which people may notice more in my next book, The Maggot People (forthcoming, Dzanc, 2012).
JM: I think your struggle with finding the magic formula for publication is a universal one, and it’s no coincidence that writers begin producing their best work once they give up their notions of publishing and just write whatever the hell they want. Speaking of which, I love that your fictional characters, you’ve said, introduce themselves to you in your dreams. I’ve had whole stories come to me in dreams, most recently the novella May-September (Press 53, 2010). But what do you feel you’re working out in those dreams? Freudian issues of your own or Jungian issues of the collective unconscious?
HK: When I first got to Sardinia I stayed with a friend, who gave me a haunted room in her house–that was what she claimed, anyway. I had incredibly vivid dreams in there. But yes, like you I found whole stories would just come to me. “Mental sex” (in the story “Love Doesn’t Work”) came to me in that room as a dream. Whether Jungian or Freudian I can’t say. I am not always fully aware of what I am writing or why. Maybe that is another aspect of writers (you say you also sometimes work like this) who use their free imagination to create scenarios, only to afterward ask themselves what they mean. Whether good or bad, that is a little how I was working with these short stories. Things are a little more self-aware for me now in the book I am working on–I am writing much more slowly and with more conscious reflection.
While I was working on the stories I had a strong feeling that I would publish them one day. But I was able to push this aside and tell myself that this was not the important part. And in fact it isn’t, though it is of course frustrating to be rejected. Over the years I must have had forty or fifty rejections from publishers and film production companies. I think this is a part of any writer’s journey, and possibly even the most interesting part. In my case I was a very slow learner.
I do find the literary scene in America refreshing compared to England, where it is stuffy and insular, a sort of club with very high membership fees.
JM: Oh, it can be a little insular here as well–the grass is always greener and all that. But to get back to what you were saying, I also use a bit of fabulism in my work because, like the language of dreams, I like the elasticity of it, the ability to things symbolically and illogically. Speaking of which, I love the story “Have You Met Lumpa?” I don’t want to say too much about it and spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but I think this line from it sort of summarizes the dualist struggle going in the collection: “On an analytical level, I realized this was the very basis of all life on earth. The very air we breathed was full of minute Lumpas, all pursuing their meaningless lives without any awareness of their purpose.”
Although Robert’s ex Susan plays a very prominent role in this story, I was struck by the fact that none of the stories are from a female point of view. Is this deliberate, this gender split, or is it more that these particular stories happened in this way?
HK: Yes, exactly, the symbolic and (perhaps) surrealistic elements can be brought in to make things seem “off center.”
At the time of writing I was so involved in the dualist ideas that they had absorbed into me and I was no longer aware of all the little ways they were coming out. “Lumpa” is a good example of this. Most readers won’t have any particular awareness of dualist ideas but they should be able to get something out of the story anyhow. I hope. I had decided not to be too explicit about the dualist aspects, and I deliberately tried not to explain too much.
It is very true what you say about the male perspective. Maybe because I was writing about love I somehow saw things from my own perspective. It is quite a challenge writing good female characters (for a man, I mean) but in my current work-in-progress novel my main character is a woman, so I guess “Love Doesn’t Work” had a particular male perspective for me at the time of writing. Although I hope this does not make the stories less appealing to women readers.
JM: Well, they certainly were appealing to me. What language do you write in? There’s a very light, clean, agreeable sense to your English in Love Doesn’t Work that makes the stories very inviting. As an interpreter, do you find yourself paying special attention to your own language?
HK: Thanks, Jen, I sometimes worry that I am too dense in my language, and this is something I want to avoid, so if I ever find denseness I try to disentangle it. Language should be inviting, not a block to the reader’s involvement but an inducement. To me, bad writing often has an element of posturing about it. I do not consider myself knowledgeable about any particular area; I have always been a generalist. I enjoy trying to use language artfully but I do not use words unless they feel natural.
I only write in English. I can write in Swedish but it is not my language of choice, not the language I work in. In my translation work I only work into English. Usually translators work into their native tongue so I suppose this means English is my first language.
JM: How did you get Love Doesn’t Work into the hands of Dan and Steve at Dzanc? I mean, it’s no surprise that you guys found each other, because Dzanc really seems to find a wide range of strong voices. But being that you are overseas, had you tried any European publishers first? Is the independent press scene a little different over there? My impression of foreign publishers was that they were definitely more experimental and took more risks than (mainstream) American publishers. So it seems a little ironic, in some ways, that Love Doesn’t Work is debuting in the U.S.
HK: For some years I had been spending most of my time writing screenplays. I made a few short movies with friends, adapted a book for a studio (the film never got made) and wrote/translated/adapted the dialogue for a Swedish feature film made in English. Then I had a script optioned and got locked into a 12-month development process that almost killed me and certainly did kill my script. In the end I threw the whole thing in. Gave up.
At the time I was an assistant editor at a Swedish Arts Council-funded magazine called The Swedish Book Review, published by an obscure network of Swedish-English literary translators. Or in fact not so obscure, there are some pretty eminent translators there. One day our Honorary Secretary told us that he had heard from an American journal called Absinthe, which was looking for advisers to help find interesting European fiction. I wrote to Dwayne Hayes at Absinthe and he was great: open-minded and passionate about writing. I became a literary adviser to Absinthe, which proved to be a dynamic and professionally produced magazine. Before long I found myself sending him one of my short stories, “In Memoriam, Ingmar Bergman,” which he accepted for publication in the magazine. Soon after he told me about Dzanc Books and its initiative to publish a number of works of short fiction. I sent Dzanc the manuscript of Love Doesn’t Work, forgot all about it and then, four months later, had a letter from Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett saying that they’d like to publish my book. Dan and Steve changed things dramatically for me. Dzanc opened my eyes to a whole growing subculture of literature and reading which I found far more developed than anything I had come across in Europe. I never tried to publish Love Doesn’t Work anywhere else. Dzanc were the first publishers to read it. And the same goes for The Maggot People.
The scene in Europe is very different. The UK has one or two publishers who are doing what Dzanc are doing, but the scene is not really happening there yet. Sweden has a thriving environment for small publishers, but then the Swedish economy is growing and the whole place runs on new technology–including e-readers. The UK is struggling with its legacy, the UK seems a society with deep structural problems and this reflects in its cultural offering. Only the theatre is still a flourishing cultural form (though financially weak). Film is an offshoot of theatre in the UK, the best actors come out of the theatre scene. Publishing went directly from gentlemanly publishing houses such as Faber & Faber to the hard-hitting behemoths: Harper Collins and OUP and Random House. Consolidation, basically. In the UK we have gone from Virginia Woolf to Iris Murdoch to Beryl Bainbridge to Helen Fielding (“The Diary of Bridget Jones”) and “chick lit”. There was a brief renaissance with travel writing, the UK produced a good group there. And of course there is a small group of excellent writers (patricians, on the whole: Oxford/Cambridge, mainstream journalists, friends of Prince Charles, etc.) in the UK, but only last year one of the last small, independent publishing houses Dedalus was struggling to have its Arts Council grant renewed. Most of the small publishers rely on public grants. And the writers are also reliant on grants. That’s it.
The fact is, though, that I have not lived in the UK for almost ten years, so I am way out of touch with publishing. And in Sardinia I lived as if I were a hobo, way out in the country, more concerned with olive oil and goats than the publishing industry.
JM: Those aren’t terrible things to be worried about, you know! I need to find a good olive oil myself. Can you give me a little preview of The Maggot People, which is also forthcoming from Dzanc?
HK: The Maggot People is a bit of a pastiche novel, in the sense that it is imitating/ satirizing the rash of “mystery code” novels coming out everywhere. But in another sense it is a continuation of Love Doesn’t Work, not least in my attempt to take a Gnostic pot shot at the workings of the Catholic Church. It all started like this: one day in Sardinia I was walking in the countryside when I saw a snake writhing in the grass. As I drew closer I realised it was dead. Its writhing was caused by maggots inside its skin. I decided to write a story about a group of people who live their entire lives filled with maggots. They have their own brains, their own concept of what life is. Everything else is pure maggot. The maggots want to expand, colonize other bodies, and thus they pressure their hosts into having sex. A group of church people, in an attempt to control the influence of the maggot, have formed an underground church that is actually a secret part of the Vatican. A young man, Michael, and a young woman, Aerial, attempt to have a love affair in the midst of this chaos.
Sounds like genre writing, I know–horror, sci-fi, fantasy etc–but it really isn’t. The novel is out September 2012, and I am starting on rewrites as of May/June more or less.
JM: Wow, it sounds like with The Maggot People you might find yourself back again writing a screenplay! Looking forward to reading the book (and seeing the subsequent film. Of course, I might want to have dinner before I see it, not after).
Find out more about Henning Koch here.