Ever since Christopher Isherwood penned his classic collection “The Berlin Stories”, partly fictional tales of life in the dying years of the Weimar Republic, the German capital has had an allure for broke foreign writers trying to make a name for themselves.
Cheap rents and the fact that you are "sitting in the shadow of history" still act as a magnet for young writers almost a hundred years later, says Jake Schneider, editor-in-chief of SAND Journal, a biannual English-language literary magazine based in Berlin.
"If you have a certain number of creative people in one place, the one-upmanship creates this creative ferment. That is definitely something that has existed here, and I hope it will continue to, despite rent increases. It is something that is exciting to share with people who aren't in Berlin," Schneider tells The Local.
But the difficulty for foreign writers to get their names on a letting contract, and the rapid increase in rents are putting a pressure on this community, he says.
“A year or two ago, Berlin was a place where people who had lived in New York or London could take the time to write a book. I’d like that to still be true.”
The New Jersey native himself arrived in the city “just as it was being written up by the New York Times” back in 2012.
“I discovered back then how cheap it was,” he says, laughing at the very pragmatic reasons for why he gave up his dream of living on an organic farmer in the US to live as a literary translator in Germany. “There were these huge rooms in Berlin that cost €200 that were beautiful with potted plants.”
But despite housing market gloom, Schneider insists that Berlin has a distinctiveness that makes it worth paying attention to.
“You are sitting in the shadow of history. We still notice that line of cobblestones when we move from east to west. People still know whether they are in the east or west, and it has been 25 years.”
And despite the cynics who say Berlin is a place where people come to pretend to create, the city is still providing a roof over the head of writers nailing down their first book deals.
Ryan Ruby and Kate McNaughton have recently signed deals with mainstream publishers for their Berlin-based novels. Then there is Nell Zink, the much-hyped US author resident in Brandenburg, whose debut novel The Wallcreeper is also partly set in the Hauptstadt.
Jake Schneider (centre-right) and the SAND editorial team. Photo courtesy of SAND.
SAND sees its mission as fostering more unheard of names, from the Berlin literary scene and beyond. Founded in 2009, the independent and volunteer-run journal is bringing out its 15th edition on Friday.
Schneider, the fourth editor-in-chief after quickly rising up the ranks from guest poetry editor, heads a team of 16 who study hundreds of submissions from authors from inside the native English-speaking world and those who have taken it up later in life. The new edition features prose and poetry from writers of 17 different nationalities.
“There are few other cities where the literary scene is influenced by so many languages and where people from so many countries come together in one place," says Schneider. "In most countries, foreign literature is imported. In Berlin we are all in the same place and we are learning from each other - I think that’s really unique.”
The magazine also runs workshops and competitions for local writers, but what really marks it out is something much more distinctively Berlin.
“We are trying to do more events, but we are best known for our parties,” Schneider explains. “I don’t think there are any other literary magazines that throw all-night parties. We have a reading at the beginning followed by DJs, and it pays for the issue.
“It’s really important to also hang out and less loose with other literary people… I think partying is just as important as more earnest literary endeavours.”
His advice to young writers moving to Berlin though is much more sober.
"Get a job if you want to come here as an artist. There is an artist's visa, but it's hard to get it if you aren't established. There are a lot of English jobs in Berlin - I know writers who have done everything from working for startups to making bouquets at a bouquet factory."
So the Berlin literature scene may not be the paradise it once was, but it is still very much alive.