Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Interview with author and translator Cora Buhlert

1.) Cora, you have quite a list of writing credits. A good number of your short stories have been published and you have quite a few short stories and novelettes in e-book form. You even have several non-fiction writing credits. Can you tell us a little about your writing and yourself as a writer?

I've been telling stories to myself all my life and somewhere along the way I started writing them down. Though I did not decide that I wanted to be a writer until I was in my twenties. Before that I wanted to be a film director.

I started selling while I was at university and my first sales were actually fiction and poetry sales to newleaf, the university magazine. Though "sales" is relative in this context, since they only paid in contributor's copies. A bit later, I got on the internet and found a couple of other magazines that liked what I wrote and were willing to publish it. So by the time the e-publishing revolution rolled around, I had a nice backlist of previously published short fiction as well as of some completed stories that never sold for one reason or another. The majority of my e-books are actually reprints of those old backlist stories, though there are also a few that have never been published before.

Originally, I viewed myself as a science fiction writer, but my actual work is all over the genre map. I like to experiment with different styles and genres and want to try everything at least once. Just writing the same type of story all the time would bore me silly.

As for the non-fiction credits, apart from academic papers (which are a whole different kettle of fish) most of my non-fiction pieces grew out of my interest in vintage pulp fiction and popular culture. I basically wrote about stuff that I enjoyed and that was a formative influence on my own writing. I will probably collect all of those essays in one volume one day, since the originals are out of print and hard to find and –– in the case of my essays on German pop culture – the only English language information about some writers, characters, book and films at all.

2.) What plans do you have for your writing in the future? Have you considered writing a novel?

I have actually written a novel, a Steampunk regency romance called Colfrith. I finished it a few years ago, started looking for publishers that accepted unagented submissions and sent it out in the world. In the end, it only went to one publisher who rejected it stating that they were changing their focus and that Colfrith would not fit the new direction. Then my MA thesis started eating my brain and I put querying on hold. I planned to shop around Colfrith some more after I got my MA degree, but for some reason I never got around to it. I will probably self-publish it later this year, though I first need to take a good long look at it, since the manuscript is several years old by now and my writing has evolved since then.

I also have a second novel, a science fiction novel called Prisoners of Amaymon, that is approximately half finished. Prisoners of Amaymon is another casualty of my MA thesis, for after fighting to be allowed to write my MA thesis about the writing of a science fiction novel, I found that I did not want to see the manuscript again for a very long time after I finished the thesis. So I delved into short fiction again to cleanse my palate. However, by now enough time has passed that I can actually look at Prisoners of Amaymon again without breaking out in hives and can hopefully finish it.

I also have a third novel-length work on the go. This time around it's a piece of realist fiction, a contemporary romance for lack of a better term.

You will certainly see Colfrith for sale some time soon and hopefully Prisoners of Amaymon and the third novel will eventually make it to the shelves as well.

3.) Besides being a writer, you also offer translation services from German to English and English to German, and are a native German speaker. Do you feel this gives you a nearly unique perspective as a writer? Do you think it affects how you approach writing?

Well, I'm not completely unique, since there are a few writers who write in a language that is not their mother tongue, including a handful of Germans writing in English. And some of these writers are bound to be translators, since it's a natural career choice for those who are fluent in two or more languages.

Regarding my translation work, I have done a bit of fiction, but the overwhelming majority of my translation work is non-fiction, business and tech translation, because that's where the money and the work is. Even though it's unfair that tech translation pays so much better than fiction translation, because fiction translation is very difficult to do well.

As for whether being bilingual and writing in a language that is not your mother tongue gives you a different perspective as a writer, it certainly does. First of all, being bilingual gives you a heightened sensitivity for language in general and improves grammar and vocabulary skills as well. There's plenty of research to back this up. And since language transmits culture, being multilingual also heightens cultural awareness, which is extremely useful when writing about people (or if you're an SF or fantasy writer, beings) that are different from yourself.

A curious side-effect of writing in a language that is not the language you grew up speaking at home and in school is that writing swearwords and the like won't make you cringe. Because the sense of violating a taboo while swearing is something that we acquire in childhood and you only acquire it for whatever language the world around you is speaking during that time. But while I intellectually know which English words are considered very rude or even completely taboo, these words don't evoke the visceral cringing that the equivalent German word would evoke.

Finally, writers are the sum of their influences. And due to having grown up in Germany (though I also spent part of my formative years in the U.S., the Netherlands and Singapore), I have a couple of influences e.g. British or American writers don't have. I even wrote non-fiction articles on a few of those influences such as the Dr. Mabuse series, pulp heroes John Sinclair and Jerry Cotton and the German Edgar Wallace film adaptations of the 1960s. And of course these influences show up in my fiction, even though I have published only one story which is set in Germany (The Other Side of the Curtain, a spy novella set in 1960s East Germany) with another, a historical novelette set in the late Middle Ages in the Rhine-Moselle region, coming soon.

4.) As a writer, what do you find are some of the differences between the German reading audience and the American audience, or the audiences of other nationalities?

There definitely are differences between German and American or for that matter British audiences. For starters, the e-book market in Germany is still very small (between 1 and 1.6 percent of the total book market at last estimate) and while it is growing, it is growing slower than in the U.S., because certain factors that pushed the rapid adoption of e-books in the U.S. (e.g. a widespread feeling that print books are "too expensive", many people feeling self-conscious about reading genres like romance or erotica and wanting to hide their reading choices, frequent moves which make lugging around boxes of books difficult, etc…) are just not present in Germany to the same degree.

Of course, there are also differences in taste and genre preferences. For example, the medical romance a.k.a. nurse novel, a genre which died off in the U.S. in the 1970s, is still going strong both in Germany and Britain and Australia as well. Meanwhile, the ultra-macho alpha heroes who are popular with a large subset of American romance readers don't fly so well with German romance readers who are often put off by domineering and borderline violent behaviour in romantic heroes. Going by a cursory glance at the romance sections in British bookstores, Brits seem to love historical romances set during World War II, while you will hardly ever find a WWII set romance in a German or American bookstore.

In the crime fiction genre, the U.S. still adheres to the hardboiled tradition on the one hand and the cosy mystery tradition on the other, while Germans prefer their crime fiction with a dose of social realism, which is why Scandinavian thrillers do so well over here, and with a strong sense of place, which is why regional crime fiction clearly rooted in a specific city or region is very popular in Germany.

Meanwhile, the dystopian trend in young adult fiction that was sparked by The Hunger Games has almost completely bypassed German teens. I sometimes work at a high school, so I see a lot of teens. And not a single one of the teens I talked to had read The Hunger Games or any other dystopian young adult novel, nor had they heard about the books before the movie came out. So whatever made The Hunger Games and similar books such a huge hit in the U.S. does not appeal to German teenagers in the same way. Instead, those German teens prefer paranormal YA fiction or YA fantasy.

Finally, German popular literature has a whole genre that doesn't exist in the U.S., namely the so-called "Heimatroman", which are stories about feuding farmers, brave mountaineers, heroic huntsmen, villainous poachers and virginal forester's daughters with a strong focus on Alpine settings. Most of these "Heimatromane" are romances of some kind, but you also have family sagas and adventure fiction. The "Heimatroman" has somewhat declined in popularity and is mainly read by little old ladies these days, but it still exists. I want to write one someday just for the heck of it.

5.) If your writing took off tomorrow and made you suddenly quite wealthy, would you consider writing full time as your day job?

Well, if my writing suddenly were to take off and make me a whole lot of money, I would probably cut down on my other jobs, i.e. take on less teaching hours and fewer translation jobs, though I doubt that I would give up my other jobs completely and I'd still keep working on my PhD as well. For starters, because I'd hate to let my loyal translation customers on the one hand and my students on the other down. Besides, I tend to be the cautious type, so unless I was making J.K. Rowling level money I would always worry that it wouldn't last and thus keep my other jobs in case I need something to fall back on.

6.) Some consider the literary world to have been something of a boy's club in the past, and some might argue it remains so to this day. Do you feel this has changed?

In most Western countries, women read more than men in general and in particular they read more fiction than men. And the majority of the editors at the big traditional publishing houses are women. Plus, women writers dominate such popular and bestselling genres like romance, erotica, urban fantasy and young adult fiction to the point that it can be difficult to find young adult books with male protagonists. So you'd think that everything is fine on the literary gender front. But unfortunately that's not the case.

Because we still have anthology table of contents, awards shortlists and year's best lists (e.g. Publishers Weekly best books of 2010 list) without a single female writer. Books by women are reviewed less frequently and often less favourably in many of the prestigious review outlets, as a survey last year has shown. If a man writes about modern life and coming of age, of finding a partner and one's place in the world, the resulting novel is called literary fiction and deemed as representative of the human condition in general. If a woman writes about the same subjects, the resulting novels are called chick lit or women's fiction or even romance and is considered only of interest to other women.

What is more, those genres that are dominated by female writers are often dismissed as so much trash. Reputationwise, romance sits at the bottom of the genre totem pole with only erotica below it. The female dominated cosy mystery tradition is viewed as less important than the male dominated hardboiled and noir tradition. The SFF community regularly dismisses the female dominated urban fantasy subgenre as "vampire porn", whether or not a given novel includes vampires or sex scenes. Urban fantasy novels are rarely reviewed by SFF magazines and not nominated for major genre awards such as the Hugo or Nebula or World Fantasy Awards, even though they outsell almost all SFF novels out there except for George R.R. Martin and some media tie-ins.

I don't know if you've ever read How to Suppress Women's Writing by the late science fiction writer and critic Joanna Russ, but the book is truly eye opening. All of the mechanisms and dynamics described by Joanna Russ in that book still apply, almost thirty years after it was first published, and that's bloody depressing.

However, the reviews in the mainstream media, the awards and year's best lists are very much tied to the traditional publishing model, which is changing (and some say dying) fast. And in the new world of publishing, factors like word of mouth and reader reviews are a lot more important than professional reviews, awards and year's best lists and the parts of the publishing establishment that favoured male over female writers are rapidly losing their relevance. It will be interesting to see where this goes and whether the points of Joanna Russ will still be as valid in ten or twenty years time.

To find out more about Cora Buhlert, check out her ...
Personal website and blog: Cora Buhlert
Publisher website and blog: Pegasus Pulp
Amazon Author Central page


Charles Gramlich said...

I also found that I couldn't stay in one genre. I read too widely and enjoy too many different kinds of stories.

Cora Buhlert said...

Thanks for having me, Ty. This was my favourite of all the interviews I've done so far.

Ty said...

Charles, I feel the same way. My interests drift from time to time, and I have been known to temporarily burn out on a genre.

Cora, any time. Thank you for the excellent answers.

Estara said...

Totally fascinating read. Great questions and of course in-depth answers, which I expected given Cora's regular blog posts ^^.