sun 06/12/2020

theartsdesk Q&A: author Katharina Volckmer | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: author Katharina Volckmer

theartsdesk Q&A: author Katharina Volckmer

Interview with the first-time novelist on her deeply funny, subversive new novel

"I found the writing process itself easier than I expected"© Liz Seabrook

Katharina Volckmer’s début novel The Appointment follows one woman as she vents her frustrations, confusions and regrets to her doctor during a lengthy appointment in London. Ranging through ideas from sex to Nazism, religion to technology, this novel provides a panorama of modern life via the deeply personal journey of its narrator, and frames the highs and lows of human existence with vibrancy and humour.

Katharina Volckmer’s début novel The Appointment follows one woman as she vents her frustrations, confusions and regrets to her doctor during a lengthy appointment in London. Ranging through ideas from sex to Nazism, religion to technology, this novel provides a panorama of modern life via the deeply personal journey of its narrator, and frames the highs and lows of human existence with vibrancy and humour. Volckmer offers a refreshing view on many themes that are traditionally approached with the utmost trepidation. At times breathless, other times pensive, this is a book whose tone varies as much as its subject.

I spoke to Katharina about her novel on a video call, about the process of writing, its more provocative themes, and the profound questions it raises about modern life.

Charlie Stone. The Appointment is written as a monologue: a solitary narratorial voice utters her thoughts to a silent, increasingly present doctor. To me, there’s a conversational tone to this narration, which ranges between the joyously profane and the subtly profound. What moved you to write The Appointment in this form?

Katharina Volckmer. I think it’s because I found that voice: I was writing short stories, and suddenly this voice appeared, but it always appeared in connection with the doctor. To me, Dr Seligman is the silent centrepiece of the book, but I didn’t want to let him speak. It’s a monologue but, in some ways, it has aspects of a dialogue. She does address him throughout, she does ask him questions, even though he doesn’t talk. It’s a confession in many ways. Some people have already asked me to write his point of view as a follow-up, but I think it works much better if he’s silent. It’s a confession and it’s so personal that I thought it had to be written in the first person.

CS. The monologue brings an intense theatricality to the novel. It’s easy to imagine it on stage – it’s a book that refuses to conform neatly to its category as a novel. Did you think about this formal fluidity when writing the book?

KV. I would love to see it on stage! It’s a monologue, yes, but it was very visual when I wrote it: I could see the two characters in that room as you would see them on stage. But whether it is a novel – to me that doesn’t matter too much. Monologue isn’t really a separate genre that you can put on a book. The term ‘novel’ is a term that people need in order to buy a book, because if you call it anything but a novel, it puts people off, they struggle. But nowadays a novel can be almost anything: it’s just called a novel so that you know where to put it in a bookshop. There aren’t many other categories that we play with. We have short stories, memoirs… but I think it’s a novel because I don’t see what else it could be. In many ways, it’s very frustrating that you need these categories.

CS. There are various clues in this novel that point towards its deeply personal nature – the German nationality of the narrator, the character known only as ‘K’. Would you call this novel autobiographical?

KV. I wouldn’t call it autobiographical. I do find it quite hard to say when something is fiction and when it’s autobiographical: sometimes you will take an image from your life and you will let it spin into something that becomes fiction, and it’s hard to say at what point this is me and at what point this became something else. A lot of The Appointment is purely fictional, but there are certainly some parallels with my own life. Perhaps novels are always autobiographical to an extent because they are shades of you, things you’ve seen, images in your head. However, I don’t like it when people who are close to you read your work – they always find themselves! For me, that doesn’t work, you can’t just take a real person and write it into a piece of fiction, you always have to add something. So autobiography is not a label I would consider.

CS. K is an enigmatic figure: he comes slowly into the foreground and seems to serve a metaphorical purpose, even representing a form of alter-ego to the narrator herself. She thinks “someone has split you into two versions of yourself” – but it is when she discusses K that she feels a sense of completeness. What role did you have in mind for K when you wrote the book?

KV. K is in many ways the reason why the narrator goes to see Dr Seligman. People might prefer to think of The Appointment in terms of what it says about Nazis and sex, but I think it’s also a love story. It’s the story of this dilemma where the narrator loves him but not as the person she is. He’s the turning point in her life. I think it’s very sad when you cannot be the person for someone that they would like you to be. K’s colour in the novel is purple, a colour of mourning and sadness. It’s an important colour because K represents the moment when she turns away from a certain kind of life that is no longer sustainable for her. There’s certainly a play on gender: she takes on a lot of his personality and in some ways already thinks of herself as a man rather than a woman.

CS. The style of your writing is wilfully provocative and broaches taboo themes: Nazism and sexual fetishes, among others. It’s unafraid to bring that which is traditionally untouchable brutally down to earth (your narrator says of Jesus, for instance, that “as far as we know he was happy with his cock”). In what ways are these ideas – and the way in which you approach them – important to the book?

KV. I think they’re very important, and they work in combination with humour, because with humour anything is possible as long as you respect certain rules. Humour is a way of approaching these subjects that makes it in some ways easier and perhaps in some ways more difficult. It’s a book that for Germans might be difficult, because we’re not used to having such an open conversation. There’s a particular way of approaching history and victims that in my opinion is not enough. There are layers of guilt, and I think the current debate about giving space to what we refer to as ‘other voices’ is not enough: we also need to look at ourselves.

CS. Your book discusses sex and gender, and implies the repressive nature of these categories. “I felt more at ease in a world of costumes and allegories,” says your narrator, “where at least occasionally you would see a woman dressed as a man or men dancing in tights”. What does The Appointment have to say about the conventional dividing lines of biological sex?

KV. These dividing lines make a lot of people very unhappy. They are unhelpful, and even become deeply ridiculous if you really look at our everyday life, where there are colours and smells that you associate with gender… I’ve always thought of it as very repressive, but people find it unsettling if you question it. I hope that this book will make some people a little more open to questioning these dividing lines, because it’s important to think about how difficult it is for people who don’t feel aligned with these categories, even in a world where everything is divided by gender. Nowadays everything is binary and there are people who feel threatened by that which is non-binary, which they perceive as an attack on their own lives. But it’s important to be sensitive: I think it was Tolstoy who said that sensitivity is one of the key qualities of humanity.

CS. Your narrator tackles some of life’s great questions: sexuality, religion, memory… Persistently, however, she is ambivalent about technology. There’s a fascination with technological advancements that enable the mimicry of a variety of human experiences (sex among them), but there’s also an implicit criticism that technology contrives inauthentic experiences: “they deprive us of all human contact”, and debase what should be experienced directly. How would you describe your narrator’s relationship with technology? Is it a deliberate paradox?

KV. On the one hand, the narrator is fascinated by new technology, but at the same time, she’s scared of it. I think she’s scared of loneliness, and therefore worried that technology gives you the illusion of not being lonely when of course you are lonely still. There is also the moral aspect: you can create a sex robot, but what sort of consciousness do you give them? Do you give them a conscience? What does it mean for us that we have this fantasy of subjecting them to our will? This aspect of modern technology is probably not very good for us. It’s very dystopian, in fact, this obsession with being comfortable, with staying at home and avoiding human interaction. The Appointment was written before lockdown, and perhaps lockdown has shown that technology doesn’t truly replace human contact.

CS. Linked to the theme of technology is the weight of religion, more specifically, of Christianity. There’s a powerful childhood image of an automated Baby Jesus model: if you were to place change in its machine slot, it would “ride around in a circle and give you a blessing”. Once again, we are confronted with a contraption that actually debases the authenticity of experience, or even points mockingly to the cheapness of the original experience by rendering it literal. Can you talk about how Christianity is significant to the book, and how this image of the Baby Jesus model might point to more profound questions about the sanctity that the Church has awarded itself?

KV. These machines do exist, by the way! To me, the Catholic Church has always been about money. I’m fascinated by this human tendency to give something in order to feel better about oneself, and in a Catholic context you could give money to get a blessing. The Baby Jesus model itself is very basic, but it captures something about the Catholic Church that’s universal. Think of the Middle Ages, where you would pay for indulgence. And think of the continuities: donating to charity, for instance, nowadays. If you wanted to be cynical, the reparations we have paid after the Second World War are similar, too. You pay money for the damage that you have done. The principle is the same. The Baby Jesus machine brings a lot of these issues together.

CS. Some lines in The Appointment are particularly pertinent in light of recent events. A criticism your narrator makes of British collective memory, for instance, is that “they only need to build memorials for themselves and not the crimes they have committed elsewhere”. You also broach issues such as racism, antisemitism and colonialism. How important is it for literature to address injustice?

KV. I’ve always struggled with literature that ignores these links. All art is political – or it should be. It’s the writer’s responsibility to be aware of these things and bring them into their writing, as a form of testimony to their time and the injustices therein. What has become apparent is that people have very different concepts of what literature is and what it should do. It is certainly a form of entertainment, but it’s much more than that: it’s a good form for normalising and challenging at the same time. Good literature usually addresses issues of its time. Kafka said that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”, and while I understand escapism and kitsch, I’m in favour of the axe!

CS. This is your first novel. You work for a prestigious literary agency, and I was wondering whether this experience – your work as an agent – has at all impinged on your writing process, or taught you, to some extent, what works well in writing?

KV. I think of my work as a form of apprenticeship, because as an artist you have to understand how the industry works. Because, in many ways, it is an industry like any other. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know some very interesting writers, but the important thing for me is to know that if you don’t understand the progress of a book from a manuscript to the published work then you’re at a disadvantage. Strangely, I found the writing process itself easier than I expected. I think that if you write in a language that’s not your own it makes a difference: it’s liberating whilst also limiting your scope. You don’t get caught up in the meaning of a word, in the use of an adjective, and you have fewer cultural references… Writing in another language gives you a blank canvas.

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