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‘Berlin is no longer a place where you can come and just write a book’

Rising rents are tightening the screws on aspiring young writers, but the capital city still offers a uniquely cosmopolitan literary atmosphere, the editor of a Berlin literary magazine tells The Local.

'Berlin is no longer a place where you can come and just write a book'
The book release of Fragmented Waters by Ron Winkler, translated by Jake Schneider. Photo courtesy of SAND

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.

“I don’t think Berlin has quite hit the wall just yet, but it is getting more difficult. The people who were just hanging out living very cheaply and writing, and who didn’t have a day job are having a hard time – and that’s a real shame, because ultimately artists go where they can afford to live and make their art, and not have to worry.

“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.

SEE ALSO: How I ditched London and became a writer in Berlin

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.

SEE ALSO: 10 German books you have to read before you die

FRANKFURT

How Frankfurt is holding the world’s largest book fair in a pandemic

The Frankfurt book fair, the world's largest, is going ahead this week even after a spike in coronavirus infections turned the German city into a high-risk area.

How Frankfurt is holding the world's largest book fair in a pandemic
An interview being conducted remotely at the opening of this year's Frankfurt book fair on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

With authors signing books behind plexiglass, audiences wearing masks and industry events moved online, this year's edition is unlike any other.

The rapidly worsening outbreak, in a country that has so far coped relatively well with the pandemic, forced organisers to rewrite their plans several times.

Just 48 hours before Wednesday's kickoff, fair director Jürgen Boos and his team decided to ban audiences from attending readings and interviews in a concert hall that had been due to host 450 people at a time.

READ ALSO: 10 German books you have to read before you die

“We had to react right away,” Boos told AFP, after Frankfurt was coloured red on the coronavirus map.

It was a huge blow to a fair that last year drew 300,000 visitors and has already been drastically scaled back.

The on-stage author talks at the now eerily empty Festhalle arena are still taking place however and are being live-streamed.

Also empty is the adjacent conference centre, normally a hive of activity where booklovers could rub shoulders with top publishing executives and writers like Dan Brown and Cecelia Ahern.

'Safe'

With many international visitors unable or unwilling to fly in because of the virus this year, organisers have built digital platforms for publishers and agents to discuss trends, sniff out the next bestsellers and haggle over translation rights.

Literary happenings and political talks have also shifted online and can be followed by anyone with an internet connection.

But there are still ways to experience the “Buchmesse” in person.

Hotels, museums, bars and bookshops across Frankfurt are hosting dozens of readings and discussions until Sunday to bring the fair to life, welcoming audiences of up to 50 people.

Guests have to mask up, follow social distancing guidelines and share their contact details so they can be notified if someone at the event later tests positive.

“Everything has to be completely safe in terms of health precautions,” said Boos. “But we must be able to have these personal encounters.”

At Walden cafe on Wednesday evening, retired teacher Christiane Decker-Eisel, 67, queued patiently for German novelist Bov Bjerg, seated behind a large plexiglass screen, to sign her book.

“I'm interested in his work and really wanted to be here,” she told AFP. “I feel protected with my FFP2 mask on.”


Social distancing at the opening of this year's book fair. Photo: DPA

'Chaos'

Being forced to switch to a mainly digital fair has its upsides, Boos said, allowing for larger audiences and attracting speakers who might never have come to Frankfurt.

More than 4,400 exhibitors from over 100 countries have registered to take part virtually.

For members of the public, this week's live-stream highlights include interviews with Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong, US whistleblower Edward Snowden and legendary author Margaret Atwood of “The Handmaid's Tale” fame, whose native Canada postponed its role as guest of honour at this year's fair to 2021.

But Boos said nothing could replace the physical fair with its “creativity, chance encounters and a little bit of chaos”.

Volker Bouffier, the premier of Frankfurt's Hesse state, said at the opening press conference that it was “brave” of organisers not to cancel the 2020 edition, “which would have been easier”.

But cancelling the high-profile fair, which dates back to the Middle Ages, was never really an option.

READ ALSO: 'We must prevent uncontrolled Covid-19 increase,' says Merkel as rules tightened

Boos said there was a need for the industry to get together after other book fairs, including in London and Bologna, were scrapped because of the virus.

Surveys in Europe suggest reading has increased during the Covid-19 lockdowns, particularly among children and young people, and book sales are up in several countries.

“When the bookshops closed, we realised how important books are,” Boos said.

By Michelle Fitzpatrick

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