Opening up your ears and letting it make sense: Interview with Berlin novelist Anna Winger

Babbel interviews Berlin novelist Anna Winger.

Anna Winger, novelist, photographer, mother and all-around Berlin renaissance woman, talked to Babbel Blog about her recent novel “This Must be the Place”, writing between languages, multi-lingual motherhood, and her new US National Public Radio series “Berlin Stories”. She will be doing a live reading at 9:30 pm on November 26th at Kaffee Burger in Berlin.

Click here to hear the interview with Anna Winger – (Right click to download mp3).

Babbel Blog: You wrote a novel called “This Must be the Place” which came out in August of 2008. The book takes place in Berlin, and has two main characters: Hope, an American, and Walter, a German. Could you briefly describe their relationship with each other and what part the German and English languages played?

Hope and Walter are neighbors in the same building in Charlottenburg, they have no prior knowledge of each other before they meet in the elevator of their building. I guess I chose specifically these two characters, one who is a German, who kind of lives a fantasy of the United States in his mind, so he has this idea of America, he fantasizes about going back to live in America –he lived there once when he was young and actually had an American mother who died – so he has this fantasy idea of America in his imagination, and then an American character who has never really been outside of the United States so she has never seen the US from the outside before. She doesn’t speak any other language and it’s really her first time being alone in a foreign country, so the German language is very opaque for her, it sort of increases her sense of isolation that she can’t understand even basic information.

Anna Winger

Whereas Walter makes a living doing the German dubbing voice of Tom Cruise, so he has this sort of double life where he speaks fluent English but he never uses it. He interprets the English into German and then he speaks. He gives Tom Cruise a German voice because all the Hollywood movies are always dubbed in Germany. Most Germans never hear American actors speak with their original voices. They always hear the same German actor do their voice. Sometimes for their whole lives … for example the same man has done Robert Dinero for like forty years. Language plays a very important role in Walter’s identity, cause he’s always interpreting English. In Hope’s case she can only speak English and the lack of her understandng of German really defines her sense of being foreign in Berlin.

You were saying that Walter is this actor who dubs Tom Cruise’s voice. How did you come up with the idea for this character?

When I met my husband many years ago, I actually met him in South America, and I had been to Germany only once very briefly, I knew nothing of Germany, one of the first conversations we had was about Woody Allen. He said that it had only been since he was in South America that he’d seen a Woody Allen movie in the original. He thought that Woody Allen sounded really funny in English.

I was so amazed at the idea of that. That you could have another voice – literally another voice – attached to a famous face, to such a degree that when you heard their real voice it sounded strange. It seemed absurd. Of course it seemed particularly absurd that it was Woody Allen speaking German. I always thought that was funny. As I got to know my husband better and moved to Germany, that was something that was always an interesting idea for me. I’m a photographer, that’s my profession, I had never written anything else. So when I thought about writing a novel I began with that idea of, what if this person whose voice is so identified with an American action hero was actually anything but an action hero. What would it be like to have the person whose voice it was, contrast so completely with the voice he represents? The disassociation between voice and character really interested me.

Could you read for us a passage describing Hope’s first encounters with Berlin and the German language?

This is a scene where she is alone in her apartment and pretty fearful about going outside. It’s describing the words…she’s flipping through the dictionary because she has no one to talk to, certain words stand out to her:

“For orientation about the culture, she preferred her textbook from German class to his history books, its lengthy descriptions of Christmas traditions and accompanying pictures of happy children. Sometimes she just flipped through the dictionary. Certain words wer similar to their English counterparts: Nervenzusammenbruch, for example, was the word for nervous breakdown. Others, like Schwangerschaft, which meant pregnancy, or Schmerz, which meant pain, had no relationship at all. Still others, simple words like Kind, the word for child, meant one thing in English and something different altogether in German. Then there was a host of terms that had been imported wholesale from English: brainstorm for example, or midlife crisis. Hope imagined people saying these words with a heavy German accent in the flow of otherwise unintelligible conversation. Even if she spoke the language, she probably would not recognize them.”

So I know it’s a bit taboo, or at least simplistic, to assume that a work of fiction is autobiographical, but there are some basic similarities betweeen you and Hope…

I have to say when I was on the book tour people asked me that all the time and it really is not autobiographical. I mean, I deliberately chose an American who had had very little exposure to the outside world which is not my experience, I grew up all over the world. I have lived more than half my life outside of the United States, even before I came to live in Germany, but I thought it was interesting how she was like a blank slate… so she knows nothing about Berlin, nothing about her environment, and I deliberately wanted to create a character like that because in a way, Walter has been somebody who has been so long in the same place, that he can’t see the world around him anymore, because he’s so used to it. And Hope knows nothing about it so she experiences it all for the first time, and through their relationship he sort of rediscovers where he is, he sees it for the first time through her eyes.

I invented him as a character first, and I wanted her to be someone who had no preconceived notions of where she was, and no sort of biases against it either. She’s more neutral. I think actually there aren’t that many people who have a totally neutral experience of Germany before they get here. I tried to create a person who was open to the possibilities that Berlin might offer.

I was going to ask you more along the lines of her encountering German. Did you start learning German when you came here? I think you said you had no previous knowledge at least of the language.

I didn’t even learn it when I first came here. I lived here for a couple of years without speaking German. I tried to take a class but I found it really boring. I used to skip class, I was a bad student.

Why was it so boring?

It was just deadly. Just to sit there for three hours every day while somebody declined verbs, I just couldn’t stand it. Sometimes I would fall asleep. I just didn’t like it. I ended up learning to speak German…. basically the will to communicate was strong enough. At one point I just decided I was going to understand it. I know that sounds crazy, but I was just around it so much. People would always speak English for me but I was listening to German all the time, and I just decided to open my ears and let it make sense, sort of concentrating on what people were saying. Once I started concentrating, of course at that point I had been exposed to it for about two years so I probably had a latent vocabulary, but then I just started to imitate how people spoke.

I still can’t read it or write it very well, there’s this real disconnect in German with how it sounds and how it’s spelled. I speak Spanish fluently, I grew up in Mexico and in the United States, and that’s sort of the opposite end of the language spectrum, because everything is exactly phonetically spelled, once you hear it… Germans always claim that German is phonetic, but I don’t think it is. Words sound completely different than how…. like when I see something written I can’t believe it’s the same word. So I learned to speak it at the playground… once I had a child I really had a desire to speak to other mothers and stuff, and that’s how I learned to speak German. And now I speak it really well.

How old is your daughter?

She’s four.

I always thought this was interesting… does she teach you German?

No, she speaks perfect English and German. We were told from the beginning to always be very consistent, I only speak to her in English and my husband only speaks to her in German. At the beginning she was slower to develop language skills than monolingual children, so that when she was about 2, when other kids are really talkative, she had a more limited vocabulary in both languages, but then about nine months later it really kicked in and she spoke both languages really well. She’s very comfortable with both.

Sometimes when I’m with her and a German speaking child I have to say things in both… like I’ll speak to a friend in German and to her in English. She won’t accept it if I speak to her in German. It’s funny, she often says, a mother doesn’t really speak German. Even though she knows that I do, I think she just thinks it’s ridiculous. But she doesn’t really teach me. She sometimes corrects me. Mostly it’s pronunciation. She’ll tell me the way I said something doesn’t sound right.

I heard a funny story about that yesterday at another birthday party, friends of ours that are another German-American family. Their daughter who is also four was talking to a Dutch man in German, and he had an accent, and she said, you know, I can speak English, and he said yeah, I have the same accent in English. She just assumed that he was an American speaking to her in German. He said, I can speak both languages, but I still have an accent. So… it’s funny with kids and languages. She’s a sponge. I speak Spanish a lot in Berlin, a lot of my friends are Latin American or Spanish, so I probably spend as much time speaking Spanish as I do German, and she can understand it a lot, which impresses me, because she’s never really learned it.

Obviously the book is written in English and we can assume that a good part of your readers probably don’t speak another language. But here in Berlin, at least among native English speakers, there’s this phenomenon of Denglish, where we create words in English based on the assumption that the other person understands German. Did you run into any difficulties though, writing about things that might be untranslatable or unfamiliar to the reader that doesn’t know German?

Well in a way a lot of the book is about explaining those things. I mean having a character that doesn’t speak any German made that easier. Had the book only been about Walter, I mean, he’s so in both languages that he runs the risk of Denglish. But since he’s with somebody who knows nothing, and needs everything explained, I think there’s an opportunity to clarify most things. Nobody who read it said they didn’t follow it. On the other side, people who were familiar with Berlin found that there was too much information that they already knew, so that was a question of striking a balance. I guess in the end I had to choose whether to write for an American audience or for a knowledgeable expat audience. I wrote it – rather edited it – and the final version was really for an audience that didn’t know anything about Berlin, or very little. I didn’t want it to just be an insider book, you know.

A common question for an author is, for example, when a man attempts to write in a women’s voice, like, how did you get inside the head of a woman? So my question is, how did you get inside the head of a native German speaker?

Well I guess I needed my native German speaker to also be American in his mind, it was important that he have a strong identification with America in his mind, a frame of reference that related to America, so that I could relate to him. I don’t think I could’ve written a character that was like 100% Bavarian.

The other thing is…. and I did sidestep this question. I had it in an earlier version of the book but I decided it was too complicated. You know, Bavarians can all speak Bavarian and Hochdeutsch, and of course since Walter comes from a village in Bavaria, he can presumably also speak Bavarian. Bayerisch. So he in a sense grew up bilingual as well. Because everyone I know who comes from villages in Bavaria spoke Bavarian with their parents and Hochdeutsch in school. So there are more bilingual Germans than you realize, because they speak little dialects and then the universal German for academic purposes.

In one draft of the book, his girlfriend who leaves him is also from Bavaria. So they have this kind of private language as well, but somehow it got lost… I think the chapters ended up on the cutting room floor so to speak. They never made it into the book.

Like if your imagining a conversation going on in German, and then to try and express those nuances for an Engish speaking audience that might not have famiiarity with German at all, then to try and explain those little distinctions can probably be difficult.

I don’t have trouble imagining a conversation that takes place in another language, the meaning of conversations is not necessarily so different. Maybe that’s because I grew up bilingual. For example I have a lot of bilingual friends who speak Spanish and English, where we can switch back and forth. When I remember a conversation that we had, I often can’t remember if we had it in Engish or Spanish. It’s not important. I remember what was said but I can’t remember what language it was said in.

But if you’re writing a descriptive scene and there’re little plays on words, you know, the way people say things, again if it’s in another language and you’re trying to explain it in English, sometimes those things can get lost.

True, they can also be sort of funny. I tried to use some material like that. You know, for comic effect, deliberately in places where the way you say things in German has to be explained and the explanation in English sounds absurd.

At one point Walter doesn’t like the script translation of the word “shit-eating grin”. To an American it’s very clear what that means. But if you try to explain or take apart the statement it sounds disgusting. All it said in the translation was, “he smiled”, “wipe that smile off your face,” and he says, a smile isn’t the same thing as a shit-eating grin. He had to explain what a shit-eating grin is, and the other German he’s trying to explain it to is like, that’s totally gross.

I tried to use some of those things to comic effect. Because they interest me. But in terms of how I got into the mind of a German character, I didn’t find that so difficult. And also he’s a man… Like I said, it was the first thing I ever wrote, and I deliberately chose a male character because I thought it would give me the license to fictionalize. If I had begun with a female character it would inevitably come closer to the autobiography and I wanted… the challenge for me was to see if I could make something up.

So you’re doing a series for US National Public Radio (NPR) called “Berlin Stories”.

That’s right. I sometimes write stories for the New York Times Magazine about my life in Berlin, and NPR launched here a year ago, and it’s the only place outside of the US that has a local NPR station, it’s at 104.1 Berlin. There until now hasn’t been any local programming. They record lectures that are given at the American Academy and play them in their entirety, which is great on the radio, but there has been nothing produced specifically for NPR Berlin, so when they were figuring out what they could put on they asked me if I could do something like the pieces I write for the New York Times, and I thought about it and I felt like I didn’t really want to do that but I thought it would be interesting to create an audio archive about the city from many different people’s perpectives. So the series is going to launch in January.

It has many different components but the main thing is English language writers whether they’re American or English or Irish or Scottish, writing about Berlin, and we named the series “The Berlin Stories” after the Isherwood book. People are writing very short pieces, just three minutes recorded, which is about 500 words. It’s amazing, it’s like kaleidoscopic. Most of them are novelists, some are musicians, and artists and I think we’re going to expand to include all sorts of creative people. People have written mostly vignettes, things they’ve experienced. Some are about language.

One wonderful one, Louisa Thomas a writer from New York, wrote this piece about the word Lebensabschnittgefährte, which means my lover for this moment in my life, my partner for this moment in my life. Which for Americans sounds like the most amazingly cruel thing to call somebody, but it’s actually a term that exists in German. So people have written interesting things about language.

But in general they’re about the city, they’re about the culture, and part of the series is we’re going to have actors read historical novels that take place in Berin. Passages from Berlin Stories, How German is it? the Ian McEwan novel The Innocent, from spy novels, there are incredible books. Then we’ll have another series within that with German novelists writing about America, which is a chance for American listeners to be exposed to some great German writers who rarely have their work translated, who don’t really have an audience in America. It’s a great chance to introduce them to well-known German writers who are very serious and very talented.

There’s going to be a website which is

Will it only be broadcast in Berlin?

No, it will be broadcast around the world on NPR Worldwide.

How often will it be?

In Berlin twice a day. I don’t know how often it will be on NPR Worldwide. They’ll also play it on local NPR stations. The way NPR works in America is there’s a public radio bank where people share materials, so it will be available in that bank, and I think it will be played certainly in major cities, but I don’t know the schedule yet. I know it will be twice a day in Berlin. All that information will be on the website one we launch in January.