Monday, January 20, 2014

Jan-Philipp Sendker talks about his extraordinary new novel, A Welll-Tempered Heart

A year or so ago, a book came through the mail for a blurb: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker. I started to read and was soon carrying the novel around. I was so astonished by this novel, so stunned, that it was really all I could think about. Fast-forward to Booktopia in Washington State. I was at a reception meeting and talking to all sorts of sublime writers, when someone said, "Oh, have you met Jan-Philipp Sendker?" Stunned, again. Jan-Philipp turned out to be as mesmerizing in person as he is on the page, and I immediately told him I had to have him on the blog.

He was the American correspondent for Stern from 1990 to 1995, and its Asian correspondent from 1995 to 1999. He's also the author of Cracks in the Great Wall. A Well-Tempered Heart is the sequel to The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, but you don't have to have read one to worship the other.  The book follows Julia Win, who begins hearing a voice prodding her to examine her life and to discover the story of a Burmese woman. About love, life, loss, faith and art, the book is as profound as it is moving.

Thank you, Jan-Philippe for being here.

A Well-Tempered Heart is the sequel to your sublime The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. What made you decide to do a sequel and were there any difficulties and surprises  in revisiting the characters? 

 I never planned to write a Sequel. They story came to me and wanted, needed to be written. Three years ago I was sitting in a tea house in Kalaw, where "The Art of Hearing Heartbeats" is mostly set and was day dreaming. I thought about the book and was wondering what Julia might be doing now, 10 years later. How she has been doing all these years, if the first trip to Burma and the story of her father had changed her. I thought about it and I got really curious and very slowly her story started to evolve. I went back to Germany, I just had started another novel and wanted to forget about Julia but could not. For weeks I pushed her aside, eventually I gave in, called my German publisher and told him that I have to interrupt the novel we had agreed on to write another one. It felt like I did not have a choice.
Revisiting Julia, U Ba, Burma was very easy, it was like seeing very old, very good friends again. I do enjoy their company so much that there will be a third book about Julia, U Ba and Thar Thar, you might have guessed it...

Your novel  is both shockingly and tragically realistic and also deeply magical, which is a wonderful blend. So much centers on the  power of the individual to try to make things happen, yet your characters are also changed by fates they are powerless against. Do you think we can control our fates?

Very, very good question, for me one of the fundamental question for every human being, therefore very difficult to answer. I don't have a conclusive point of view yet. On one hand I am a very strong believer in Buddhas words ( and not only his, of course) that we are responsible for our actions and their consequences, that we create our own "Karma", "fate", however you want to call it. That we, before we blame others, should look at ourself. On the other hand I have met many people who have suffered so much, they had been treated so badly by other people and I could not find their part in it, could not see how it was their fault. Having said that I must admit that I have seen how human beings  reacted in very different ways to illness, bad luck etc. proving that you can be the master of your fate - to a certain extent.
So I guess my characters are a good reflection on my own ambivalent thoughts and doubts when it comes to controlling our fates.

"What do you want in life" is the question posed to Julie. Why do you think it's so difficult for many people to know the answer to that?

That is a little easier to answer: Because we have so many choices. There are so many distractions, temptations, possibilities. Finding out who we are and what we really want is a life long journey, would you agree? And only if we know who we really are do we know what we want in life.

There's a rhythm in your novels. The books slowly and hypnotically begin to grab you until you realize you can't stop reading, even if you want or need to. How do you do such alchemy when crafting your stories? Do you outline? Do you know the story before you begin?

Again thanks for your very kind comments. I wish I knew the answer to your question. I never visited a creative writing workshop, I am this learning by doing type of person. I have always been a passionate reader and I have always loved good story telling. I see myself as a story teller and I tell it the way I would like to hear it I guess. Even in elementary school I told my class mates stories I had made up. They loved to listen to me and I liked their attention of course...
I deeply believe in the power of good story telling because that is one way we learn about the world and ourselves.
I do not outline my books. I have the most important characters, their emotional conflicts and start from there. I need a very emotional hook. Writing is like a journey and I do not know where it ends. The drama of Nu Nu and her two kids evolved while I wrote it, chapter by chapter, I do not know where it came from...

What's obsessing you now and why?

That is a very personal question I would rather answer in person while sharing a good glass of red wine with you... 
Only so much for now: Writing is, as you know so well, an obsession and I think one of the most difficult things is to balance that obsession with the rest of your life especially when you have three kids...

What inspires you?

My answer: Many things and people, among them my unshakable belief in the the abilities of human beings to do good, in the magical and mysterious power of love... (as described in my books :)  (OFF the record: Having read that again I am afraid I am a hopelessly romantic soul but at least: It is authentic)

When can we expect another novel?

Hopefully soon. I have written two novels set in China, they have come out in Germany and some other countries. The first one is being translated into English now, the complete translation should be ready by the end of March next spring and I hope to find a good house for it in the USA soon after...

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