A Conversation with Thomas Pletzinger, Author of Funeral for a Dog
Q: For a time you were a semi-pro basketball player in Europe. Did this experience influence your writing?
This experience is something I think about a lot. I had always wanted to become a professional basketball player, and almost did make it. I do not know if a certain ambition or competitiveness or the desire to achieve or complete something is related to having been a basketball player or a sports person in general. Maybe it is, but maybe these things were there before I even started playing basketball. Certainly elements like discipline, ritual and monotony as well as play and creativity - aspects that shape the basketball player's life day in and day out - made a reappearance in my writerly life. Especially training and ritual and the abilities that come from them. And the physical and sensual aspects of sports are important to me as a writer as well. I still love to run and lift weights. I ran a couple marathons. And I still love basketball, even though I failed at it as a player. Right now, I am even working on a non-fiction book about basketball that picks up where I left the game fifteen years ago.
Q: Funeral for a Dog takes readers to several different locations around the world. You yourself have lived many places. How much of yourself, and your love of travel, made its way into the book?
I have discovered that the places are the most autobiographical part of the book. The story is invented, but the places aren't. I grew up in Germany, but I have been to Finland and Brazil for longer stretches of time. I go to Lago di Lugano on the border between Italy and Switzerland every year. And I have lived in New York. I have been to Coney Island many times. I have seen cockfights in Brazil. I love to travel and spend time away from home. In fact, I did not really know what home meant until fairly recently. For me, home was always where the good people are. And my good people are spread all over Germany, all over the world even, so I have to travel to see them, so I came to like traveling a lot. My favorite thing for a while was the all-year train ticket for all German trains. I was living in trains, basically. My characters are like that a little bit as well: they can go anywhere they please, they move around, they look for the ideal place. They have endless possibilities to try out places and ways of life - which is not the easiest thing to do. And all the time they are searching for some kind of home. So that's autobiographical: I really like seeing places and trying to understand their nature, their characteristics, their heart. And if that comes across in the book, I am glad.
Q: The number three appears throughout the novel - the three-legged dog, love triangles, three main locations, Mandelkern saying Elisabeth's name three times, even her initials are E.E.E. The famous German author, Heinrich von Kleist, is notorious for creating references to the number three. Is this just a coincidence or is there a little Kleist in your writing?
Is he? Well, definitely not only him, the number three is probably the number most charged with meaning. It is everywhere in literature and storytelling, in fairy tales, in movies, in music. It is a meaningful number in all the big religions, isn't it? The Trinity. Many things come in threes, good things, but bad things too. Three little pigs, three brothers, the devil's three golden hairs, Shakespeare's three witches in Macbeth. The Third Man. I have read somewhere that a child always feels like the weak third to its strong and all-knowing parents, and we therefore very early on learn to identify with the number three. It is important to my book, too, obviously. A love triangle is an unsettling constellation for a society and religion that believes in marriage as the best, if not the only true form of human existence. A love triangle questions or threatens that notion a little bit, people struggle with it no matter how progressive they are. I really like the movie Jules et Jim, which deals with these feelings. The dog in my book - of course - has three legs because he accompanies the three people through their tragic love story. Lua is the glue for their stories and emotions, he holds everything together.
Q: I understand you'll be a father for the first time around the time of publication. Do you anticipate that being a parent will have any parallels to nurturing ideas that eventually become a novel?
I hope that my daughter will not be as unruly as the ideas I am working on. And I hope that I will not be planning her life as obsessively as I have been planning the book. There are parallels, sure, but I'd like to be a different father than I am a novelist. Less doubting. Less controlling. Less bound to structure. Of course you somehow imagine a life for your kid, even before it is born. But it very likely will turn out different. The novels you write very rarely surprise you, I think, maybe only one percent of the time you spend with them. But children will. I'd like my daughter to grow up to be a surprising person. A fun person, of course, but most importantly a person who surprises me. She already is, actually.
Q: This book was first published in German and will next be released in English. Do you worry that some subtleties may be lost in the translation?
No, not at all. I watched my translator Ross Benjamin at work, and I am shocked, absolutely impressed by and proud of his work. Of course, being a translator myself, I know that you always have to lose something of the original - either rhythm, sound, local color, references, content, wit, and so on. Something is lost. You have to make choices, you have to pick your poison. But I can say that Ross Benjamin is the best decision maker I know. He is meticulous, never gets tired, always finds the right word, gets to the core of the sentence and preserves everything important. He is a detective, too, and finds the mistakes. Any mistake. He only lost the things that were superfluous anyway. He probably understands my book better than I do.
Q: Who are some American and German writers who have influenced you?
There are lots and lots of very different writers who mean something to me and my writing. Some of them are openly referenced in the book: the great American poet Gerald Stern - a great friend - and, for example, John Irving and his novel The Water-Method Man, Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer, Theodore Dreiser and his Sister Carrie and so on. Most important to me is the Swiss writer Max Frisch and - extremely important for Funeral for a Dog - his brilliant novella Montauk. Uwe Johnson, the great and almost forgotten German writer with his masterpiece Anniversaries was important. Some influences are only there under the surface, some I may not even know of. But I could go on an on with their names. Writers. Musicians. Filmmakers.
Q: Funeral for a Dog is your first novel - how long did it take you to write it? And how did you work?
It took me a long, long time. As maybe many writers do, I did not fully understand that it would become a novel when I started writing it. I saw myself as a poet, really. One of my teachers then told me that my poems really were stories and that I should stop calling them poems. So I did and I discovered that I really like writing prose. I wrote some stories, some were bad, some turned out good. I realized that I was loosely using the same cast in all of them. Then I won a very prestigious prize for a short story and someone asked me if I had a book. No, I said, but I started thinking about connecting my stories. When I gave them to a publisher, he said, it's a novel! And I had to agree. I then sat down two more years and really planned the book. I covered the walls of my Leipzig apartment with brown paper, diagramming plotlines on it, collecting character descriptions, quotations, poems, bus tickets, photographs, hotel bills. My room was covered with fragments of the world of my novel. My girlfriend hated it and moved out. I finished the book and she moved back in. All in all, it took me six, seven years to build and write this book. She was very patient.
Q: Seven years! Will the next book take as long? What are you currently working on? You mentioned translations and a non-fiction-book.
I had to take a break from novel writing. It is important to me that I do not only do one thing, I need variation. I have translated a few books into German, among them the fantastic graphic novel Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. I have translated poetry - Gerald Stern and David Berman mostly. I wrote screenplays for a German TV crime show. I have been teaching. Right now, I am working on a non-fiction book about professional basketball, spending one season on the bench of the premiere league team Alba Berlin - which is fascinating and totally unlike novel-writing in that I'm not able to plan or plot at all. It's refreshing. But I have to admit that I have been thinking and collecting material and ideas and stories for the next novel all along. Lots of material for the walls of our apartment. Maybe I am not that great at taking breaks.