Criminal Record

NBG talks to Ferdinand von Schirach, bestselling author of Verbrechen (‘Crime’) and Criminal Defence Lawyer in Berlin. Crime will be published in English in March 2011 and Schirach’s new collection of stories, Schuld (‘Guilt’) is out now in German.

Did you always want to be a lawyer, or did you also consider writing as a career?
I actually wanted to study Art History, but I was worried that I’d die a pauper. The Law seemed more solid, somehow.
Do you see a link between the Law and writing, and between legal writing and creating narratives?
As a Criminal Defence Lawyer, you are responsible for people, as an author only for stories. For both of them, you need to be able to analyse people. As a Criminal Defence Lawyer you write very little – and what you write has nothing to do with literature.
How did you decide to write stories about your experiences in your career?
I can’t sleep at night and at some point I just started to write. No exciting background story there, then.
Schirach’s first book in English,
Crime (Chatto & Windus) will
be published in March 2011.
Schirach’s new book, Schuld, is out now
To what extent are your stories in Crime and Guilt true stories, and to what degree are you the narrator that appears in every story?
The essence of each story is true. You have to imagine it as one of those beautiful old printers’ typesetting cases. When you have been a Criminal Defence Lawyer your whole life, then you have quite a stock of typesetting cases full of people, events and little episodes. And I then put these together anew for a story. The only thing that I don’t change is the basic tone of a case, the motive, the atmosphere.
To what extent do your considerations of the topics ‘Crime’ and ‘Guilt’ have philosophical elements?
That’s for the reader to decide. I just write stories.
Is there space for pity or sympathy in your work as a lawyer or in your writing?
The relationship between the lawyer and the client is essentially one of distance. On the one hand, you try to understand what really happened, but at the same time you try to find a strategy for helping the person. But it’s not like on television, you don’t sit sobbing with the client. I listen and I reflect and I write a few things down; sympathy is something personal, which may then play a role in the final stages. You need distance in order to mount a reasonable defence; you can hardly defend your friends. You don’t go out for dinner with your clients, either. All of that is absolutely out of the question.
Would you say that your stories are at their core Berlin stories?
No, crimes are international, because the same people live everywhere.
How have you reacted to the great popularity of your first book, and has that affected your work as a lawyer?
Not at all. And nothing has changed, either. There are still the same judges, the same solicitors and the same crimes. And I still go to the same restaurants.
Do you intend to continue dividing your life between Law and writing?
I will always be a lawyer. And perhaps, now and then, I’ll write something.
Translated by Charlotte Ryland
‘He is a marvellous story-teller because he relies entirely on his characters and their fates.’ – Der Spiegel
‘Reading these stories, you experience moments of happiness as only when reading Fitzgerald or Capote; [...] the reader’s mind is flooded with the riptide of a – there’s no other word for it – film.’ – Welt am Sonntag
‘These are little masterpieces of enormous precision and power.’ – Die Welt