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Writing across Borders

NBG talks to Zoë Jenny, a unique example of literature crossing borders. The young Swiss author lives in London and now also writes in her second language, English.
Published when she was only twenty-three, Zoë Jenny’s first novel Das Blütenstaubzimmer (The Pollen Room, 1997), won global critical acclaim. It is the best-selling debut novel by a Swiss author in history and has been translated into twenty-seven languages. It was published by Bloomsbury in 1999, in an English translation by Michael Hofmann. Since then, Jenny has published numerous best-selling titles in her mother tongue, and is widely regarded as one of the best writers of her generation. Her first novel composed in English, The Sky is Changing, is published in May 2010 by London-based independent publishers Legend Press.

NBG talked to Zoë about this development in her career and began by asking her how she views the relationship between her writing and her origins in Switzerland.
I grew up in Basel, a small town on the border between France and Germany. I think the openness of the town geographically had an effect on me – I always felt the urge to leave and explore the world. I have always been very curious and books have helped me to travel the world without physically moving. It is one of the phenomena of literature that never ceases to amaze me.
When did you start writing?
I started reading first – and ever since I have been fascinated by words. I read Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra as a teenager. I didn’t understand the subject matter but I was completely drawn in by the beauty of the writing.
I wrote my first poem as a seven-year-old about loneliness and my fear of darkness. I went on to write stories and the first one was published in a literary magazine when I was sixteen. I never consciously decided to become a writer, it just happened naturally. Writing has always been a necessity for me rather than a choice. I completed my first novel at the age of twenty two.
How did the translation of ‘The Pollen Room’ by Michael Hofmann come about? Did you cooperate with him on the translation, and how did it feel to have your work translated?
Sadly I never met Michael Hofmann but I feel very lucky to have been translated by him. I think he translated the novel beautifully.
How important has travel been to your writing process?
Travel is as important to me as writing – in many ways it is the same. Writing a novel is like going on a journey without knowing where you will end up. In any case it is an adventure. Between the ages of twenty and thirty I travelled extensively, living in many different places. I always felt inspired by big cities – New York, Berlin, London. All these places are reflected in my writing.
Would you consider translating your own works into English, or do you feel that has to be done by a third party?
I don’t think I would be interested in translating my own work as long I have new ideas for books. I would rather write something new.
Why have you decided to settle in London?
For many reasons. London is a very creative place, and a lot of very talented people live here which gives the city an inspiring energy. It is also very difficult to make it here as a writer. It certainly would be much easier for me in Switzerland or even Germany – but I have always enjoyed a challenge! I also got married here to an Englishman and my daughter was born in London.
What motivated your decision to write your forthcoming book in English?
I think it is a process of emancipation. I always wanted to free myself from the shackles of my mother tongue. Swiss German is a language few understand – I learned ‘high German’ in school and wrote my first four books in that language, but I never truly felt ‘at home’ in it. The English language suits my writing very well. German is very analytical – an excellent language for philosophy but not necessarily for narrative and telling stories. I feel I can write much more freely in English. My new novel The Sky is Changing is set in London and it just wouldn’t have made sense to write it in German. My next novel is going to be in English as well.
Zoë Jenny’s first novel in English, The Sky is Changing, will be published in May by Legend Press.
Jenny’s first novel,<br /><em>Das Blütenstaubzimmer</em>, has been translated into twenty seven languages.
Jenny’s first novel,
Das Blütenstaubzimmer, has been translated into twenty seven languages.
‘After hearing Zoë was going to write her first novel in English, I have been pleading with her to let me see it as soon as it was finished. As soon as I started reading it, I knew we had something special.’
Tom Chalmers, Managing Editor, Legend Press