Friday, 3 April 2009

Leipzig's Literary Godfather - Claudius Nießen

I once happened to stand next to the owner of a certain small chain of pizza restaurants here in Berlin, at the back of a punk gig. It was crowded so we were standing quite close together, and a whole series of people kept coming up to him to pay their respects. Every one of them gave me an obsequious nod as well, looking slightly confused as to who I might be. Walking into Leipzig’s Moritzbastei for the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht with Claudius Nießen was not dissimilar.

The man would appear to be somewhat of a living legend. He organises the Krautgarden festival in Leipzig and New York, the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht and a series of literary events by the name of Turboprop. He’s the managing director of the Leipzig School of Creative Writing and regional head of Saxony’s writers’ union. Oh, and he writes too when he finds the time. It’s hard to actually talk to him for more than 30 continuous seconds during the fair, as there’s always someone else wanting his attention. So I interviewed him after the fact.

Claudius, tell us about Krautgarden. How did it start back in 2006?

That was easy enough. We were students at the Leipzig School of Creative Writing and we had always dreamed of reading in New York. And after a long run-up, it worked out really well. We knew pretty quickly that we wanted to do it again and extend the event with young US authors – and hey presto! The idea of Krautgarden as a festival was born.

You had some pretty big names this year (Benjamin Lebert, TC Boyle...). How do you choose the authors for the project?

It’s always a stroke of luck when you have a big name on the bill. But we’re not interested in the big names as such, more in bringing young writing talents from the two countries together, both poets and prose writers. Obviously though, one or two more familiar names do help the project as a whole to get the attention every festival needs.

How did you go down in NY and Leipzig this year? Is the English-speaking world suddenly discovering young German-language literature? (Four of the prose writers who’ve appeared so far have been or are being translated into English - Benjamin Lebert, Thomas Glavinic, Kevin Vennemann and Thomas Pletzinger.)

We went down very well. Despite the big names, the readings by the less well-known young authors were well attended too. And in New York we didn’t just have German ex-pats in the audience, but a lot of young Americans as well, which I’m really pleased about. We want to reach out to the US publishing and literary scene more in future as well. That’s been working well so far but it could be more targeted. I’d be happy if Krautgarden could play some small role in shaking up the market for German-language writers in English translation, especially for younger authors.

Apart from Krautgarden, you also organise the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht at the book fair. Do you ever get to hear any of the readings?

I’m afraid I hardly have the time and energy during the fair. I try and take a quick look at everything, but really sitting down and listening is something I haven’t managed yet. Luckily, though, I read most of the authors’ books in advance – so I don’t end up buying a pig in a poke. And even if there’s the odd thing I can only flick through before the fair, afterwards I hide myself away and settle down on the sofa with a pile of books to catch up.

Krautgarden and LLL are almost what you call “water glass readings”, where writers sit behind a desk with a glass of water and read, read, read. But the Turboprop events are your and Christoph Graebel’s attempt to inject a little novelty into the format. How do you go about that?

Water glass readings aren’t necessarily a bad thing – but you can organise them well or badly. At Turboprop we just thought we’d like to make a real show out of literature. With little films, interview sections, short readings, quizzes, live editing and a writing exercise for the audience. We wanted to overcome the divide that often distances the audience from the writer, as far as possible. So we write our own short texts for the show, for instance, which our guest author then has to edit live – the less objective the better, of course. There’s always a document shredder on stage if need be. We want to banish all reverence for the text. Literature can have magnificent content and excellent style, and be entertaining at the same time – and that’s what Turboprop’s all about.

The list of authors who’ve read at Turboprop in the past reads almost like a literary wet dream to me. Do you have any special favourites or tips? Who do US and British publishers need to discover?

I’m never quite sure what criteria apply for translating books, so I’ll have to be a bit careful here. But we’ve published an anthology containing ten stories by our guests, Turboprop - Beste Stories. All the writers in the book are some of the most important German voices, for me. And at least one of the ten, Sasa Stanisic, has gone down pretty well in the States as well.

(The writers are: Paul Brodowsky, Guy Helminger, Tobias Hülswitt, Philip Meinhold, Clemens Meyer, Annette Mingels, Selim Özdogan, Jochen Schmidt, Sasa Stanisic and Anke Stelling.)

What can we read by Claudius Niessen?

The great thing about organising is that you have so many distractions from actually writing. But it hasn’t quite worked after all. It’s no secret that I have a huge soft spot for Leipzig, and then I got a call asking me to write a slim volume about the city, my Leipzig if you like. So I did. Heimatkunde Leipzig.

What’s next on your agenda? World domination?

Oh, that can wait. I’ve got enough books on my bedside table I’d have to finish reading first. But however much I read, the pile never seems to get smaller.

Many thanks again to Claudius Nießen. I have to say, his Leipzig book is most amusing and inspiring. If you’re planning a visit, don’t bother with a tourist guide – discover Leipzig the Nießen way. And watch this spot for more on that anthology.

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