I am participating at the AIR Litteratur Vastra Gotaland Residency programme in Stromstad, Sweden. Here I have fortunately found the feted Austrian author Daniel Wisser in the cozy and spacious duplex apartment where we live. He lives upstairs but we have shared the kitchen. I have really enjoyed Daniel’s superbly made tea and coffee during the breakfast, during my stay here. Both of us have conversed on many topics ranging from art, literature, cinema to socio-economic and political situations of Bangladesh and his homeland Austria alongside other European countries.
Daniel is simultaneously a novelist, short- story writer, performer and musician, who has been active since 1990. He was born in Klagenfurt in 1971 and lives in Vienna. He has published five novels till now. His most recent novel Die Konigin der Berge (Queen of the Mountains), published in 2018, has received the Austrian Book Award in 2018 among other accolades. It has been translated to Norwegian, Estonian, Georgian while other translations and a stage and film versions are on the way.
A soft-spoken, introverted and earnest writer from easy observation, Daniel’s adequate knowledge and keen study on Bengali cinema and literature really puzzled me. In the course of my attempts to cater for my pondering, Daniel has given me some thoughtful replies which the readers would find useful to learn about his writing process, how he develops the plots and characters, the changing norms of fiction, his most recent bookshelf outing, his idea about spirituality behind writing and many more.
What comes first, the plot or the characters and how do you develop these two?
My plots are very simple and usually can be told in one sentence. Usually I think about a plot for many years, before I start writing. It’s rather difficult to collect and organise all the sub plots, than telling the whole one after completion. A novel needs a lot of sub plots and the writer has to define, how big they can become inside the novel or how small they have to remain. I consider myself rather as a master of sub plots than a master of plots. Concerning characters I do not make up things at all. I prefer watching. No matter, whether I travel or just walk down a street, I watch people and I talk to people. That is enough for a thousand novels.
How do you dig into the characters?
To depict a truthful picture of the world with all its complexities plus ambiguities and avoid the simple black and white or just the good and bad, the writer must accept the world as it is, with all its contradictions and absurdities. Literature is always something compressed and shortened (otherwise my last novel would have had ten thousand pages). A person, the history of a person, is something very complex. This means that the writer has to collect a lot of data and stories, that she or he needs, but maybe they will not appear in the novel at all. I think that the idea of a writer's block is nonsense. The only block is found, when you do not have enough material, stories and ideas about your characters, or when they are not precise enough.
Your most recent novel Die Konigin der Berge (Queen of the Mountains), published in 2018, has received the Austrian Book Award in 2018 among other accolades. It has been translated to Norwegian, Estonian, Georgian while other translations and a stage and film versions are on the way. What is the salient feature of the novel?
Many moments in the novel successfully cover a big range of feeling within short episodes, light in description but dense in emotional weight. The pace of the novel is maintained throughout due to short chapters. I have tried to keep the narrative original. But the tone and frankness of the novel (Queen of the Mountains), both within Turin's perspective and in the way it often goes unchallenged, are also original and make Die Konigin a sometimes difficult but always engaging read. In some ways the novel is comparable to other narratives of debilitating illness such as Le Scaphandre et le Papillon.
For the literary buffs, it might be added here that the novel is about a multiple sclerosis patient Robert Turin, who resides in a care home at the age of just 47 with other elderly patients and like these patients seeks to end his own life. It intersperses engaging depictions of broad spectrum of human interactions with elements of black comedy, ethical musings and social-historical detail. An incurable patient Turin, resorts to be misanthropic, suicidal and prefers to objectify women. Though he is not likeable the narrative is believable as the readers would find themselves harmonising with Turin, when he seems to possess a dormant love for his ever-caring wife Irene and develops intimacy with his lady psychiatrist despite his urge for suicide. This lady, Katharina Payer finally assists him covertly to find a safe option for suicide before which he beholds his love for Irene and keeps wondering at what 'Uber' really is! The novel has touched the heart of critics and readers alike, and was especially acclaimed for its humour, which from sets it apart other similar works.
Where do you get your ideas and what is your writing process like?
I do not look for ideas. The topics I write about and want to write about are the problems of today's world. I cannot imagine to deal with anything else. My novel "Queen of the Mountains" is just an example for that. The subject matter would register well with English-language readers; euthanasia continues to be an important moral question of our times in the developed world, as does social care more generally.
Have you read or thought of anything that has made you think differently about fiction?
If the novel should be an appropriate form to deal with current society, it has to be changed. This seems like a contradiction: In order to stick to the novel, you have to change it. That is why "Queen of the Mountains" at first hand, seems unconventional: the dialogues are written like in a film script, there is text crossed out, black bars hide some text and there is text in two columns. But these things are not introduced just to be "different", they have a special meaning connected to the topic of the novel.
Do you interpret or think writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
I am myself a secular person, and when I talk to people I accept their belief and religious belief as their personal views. I do not see anything spiritual in my writing. Yet, I must admit however that I also cannot explain why I have been so obsessed with writing since I was a child. But by the end of the day, maybe not to have an answer is the best thing.
What is the most difficult part about writing for you?
The only thing, which is difficult and downright painful, is writing novels. Short prose is something I love to write. Sometimes on a plane I scribble a short story on the airsickness bag in front of me. Then I can throw it away or type it and send it to my publisher, or work on it, maybe just to make little corrections, maybe to rewrite it many times. But novels need a different approach. It is necessary to change plans again and again. Whenever I am writing a novel, I think: "I can't do it. I can't write a novel." But then, I realise, I did it before. The two or three years that I actually need for a novel, are full of doubts and concerns, and also there are weeks, when I don't write at all. But in the end, you know, when I hold the book in my hands, it is like a little wonder.