I've only been living in Berlin for three years. I spent a larger part of my life in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. When I was seven, my parents moved with my siblings and me to a tiny village in the border area of the former GDR. That was at the beginning of the 90s. As a kid, I enjoyed being near the animals in nature, though it also meant that we had an oven heater and didn't have a bathroom for a long time, just a latrine in a former pigsty. The older I got, the more I wanted to get away from there. It was all a bit dreary. Alcoholics would talk at you in the school bus. If someone showed up at the village fair with the wrong haircut, they got beat up. And someone was always disappearing into prison or rehab. While others my age were playing experimental games in bi-lingual high schools, I was drinking Vodka Red Bull with neo-nazis. For a long time I thought I would never have the chance to achieve anything because I'd spent so much time in the country.
How does your novel differ from other recent novels about life in the countryside?
The thing that bothers me about many of the novels about rural life is the romanticizing view from outside. That's how villages look when you see them from Prenzlauer Berg: nice barns, sweet cows, and homemade jam. And if it gets too boring, one complains about the neighbor's lawnmower. But that's not the country life I knew. In my novel, I want to show how it actually looks in farm houses and cow barns. For many farmers, agriculture has become a struggle for survival and comes with a lot of worries and lost sleep. We live in a time in which farmers have lost importance. For many, that's an identity crisis that destroys their sense of worth. Particularly jobs that are considered typically male and are considered very traditional in rural areas are of less and less use.
Like you, your narrator Christin is part of the generation that no longer experienced the GDR, but grew up in post-reunification era. What interested you about this character?
Christin was actually born before reunification, but can hardly remember the GDR. But she was raised by a generation of parents that overwhelmingly grew up under Socialism. Even if the GDR ceased to exist as a state on October 3, 1990, many of the values and societal expectations persisted, though in constant interplay with the influence of a globalized world that beams into every abandoned village over televisions and internet, awaking wishes, expectations and fears. Men in particular long for a traditional family image, which gives them meaning as providers. But women are less interested in that. No region in Europe loses more women than the rural parts of East Germany. The men stay behind frustrated. With the women, they lose the feeling that they can build up a happy future there.
Can you identify with Christin's conflict between the longing for another life and the inability to leave the familiar environment behind? You managed to get out.
I think the novel is an attempt to understand her. I also was and still am very attached to the society that Christin inhabits. Everything there is familiar to me. But I haven't been connected to country life over generations. My parents were born in West Berlin and have a whole other background. Nevertheless, I can understand very well why Christin behaves the way she does. I couldn't imagine living there for much longer when I was eighteen, but the life I didn't want was the only one I had. Familiarity and adaptability can also be a prison, and it requires courage to break out of it, especially when one doesn`t know anyone living outside the world one wants to escape. This is true of a lot of different life situations. The intolerably familiar is still, after all, familiar. You don't know what's going to happen and whether it'll really be better.
Last summer, the weekly newspaper Die Zeit printed a dossier on the devastating consequences of the agricultural revolution specifically for dairy farmers in the EU. Your novel plays on a dairy farm. Why did you choose this theme as a background to your story?
There's a dairy farm in the village where I grew up. It belongs to the parents of a classmate of mine. I was often in the stables with her as a child, in the milking parlor and on the pastures. And when I pass the cold shelves in the supermarket and see the prices of dairy products, I can't help but think about that family and how much they and others have sacrificed so that our dairy shelves are always full. It's very frustrating that the work of dairy farmers isn't reward appropriately. All the protests that happened a few years ago didn't make a difference. Often they weren't even covered. That heightened the sense among farmers that the political class and the press don't care about their concerns. They are progressively subjected to global developments, which they have no influence over whether or not they are politically active. Farmers in New Zealand don't need a barn, while German dairy farms are subject to precise regulations on how the animals should be kept, which is often connected to higher costs. The sanctions against Russia also meant the loss of an important export market for cheese. Not to mention the scrapping of the Milk quota. These are all political decisions that hurt the farmers more than they help them.
Despite their not exactly rosy future prospects, the characters in your novel never resign or become maudlin. And yet one still gets the feeling that they've given up on themselves. Is that a social problem?
The characters try to make the best of their options. For Christin's father that means drinking schnapps from morning til night. Torsten tries to work around his limited opportunities by finding creative ways to making money. Christin destroys all connections to the life she no longer wants. Many factors come into play here that ensure their future prospects are miserable. At its center: the failed integration of former DDR citizens; parents who over decades have been impacted by unemployment and alcoholism, who can't even convey the hope of a better life to their children. Not to mention the before-mentioned patriarchic value system that gives men a longing for conservative values and prevents them from adapting to changing circumstances.
In what literary circles do you see yourself? What authors have influenced your writing?
Ingeborg Bachman's prose convinced me during my German degree to write more consistently. The language and themes of her stories as well as the incomplete Death Styles series continue to fascinate me. Probably also because she is one of the first female authors that I came across after all the male-dominated study materials. On the shelf next to my desk, where I keep all the books I reach for most frequently, there is also Clemens Meyer, Jörg Fauser and Claire Vaye Watkins, as well as a few Danish authors like Helle Helle and Dorthe Nors.