«How is it different when you began writing, and today?»

– Rucha Bhawkar.

Dear Rucha

it would be easier to list what hasn’t changed since I started out, more than thirty years ago. Just thinking about it makes me feel so old! I don’t want to be one of those boring people who constantly lament «back in the day, we did things differently, oh my!»

But hear me out.

I was fortunate enough to start out at a time where the Zeitgeist allowed for trial and error and failure and starting over. We thought of the established cultural institutions as being outlived and outdated, so while being rejected by publisher after publisher did hurt, it didn’t mean I was not a writer. I was just a writer who hadn’t made it yet. There was a certain pride in being a reject, and it didn’t stop me from doing what I wanted to do, which is write. I published my first short stories in a magazine that my then-husband and I threw together on the bulky computer in his bookstore, printing 250 copies, decorating each one by hand – or mouth. One issue had lipstick prints all over it, after we kissed every single cover page. Another was taken to the shooting range and shot right through with a pistol. We had fun, and most of all, we had the freedom to experiment, to be creative.

I was also very lucky to be surrounded by like-minded and supportive friends, some of whom ended up publishing my first books.That meant complete and total artistic freedom. No «real» publisher would have let me write about a grown woman falling in love with a teenage boy! But «Die Putzfraueninsel» became a bestseller, not immediately, but over time. And suddenly, I had more offers than I could handle. I signed with a big German publishing house, and for a glorious short while I had both, artistic freedom and the support of the establishment.

But all that changed radically. I remember the annual lunch my then-publisher threw at the Frankfurt Book Fair, a charming, chaotic, loud and boozy affair, where we would linger all afternoon, talking about books and reading and writing. And then, one year, it was had been turned in to a sterile corporate event with a powerpoint presentation and a lifeless buffet. The publisher had been swallowed up by an international concern that treated books like any other merchandise they were selling. I remember looking around and realizing that I was the only woman the table, the only fiction writer, the only one not wearing a suit and a tie with bright diagonal stripes. From then on it was all market analysis and reader surveys and other buzzwords. Gone were the days when I could talk for hours about the behavior of my characters or the perfect choice of words with my editor. Now it was all about the bottom line. Every cover draft from the art department showed a combination of stiletto heels and martini glasses, because after all, that was my so-called «brand» or was it my «target audience»? I changed publishers twice, until finally I am again in a place where I feel that there is a dialogue between literature and business.

Don’t get me wrong, of course I do want to sell my books! But the crucial word here is «my». My writing is part of me. It’s not something an algorithm set to «bestseller» spit out. It comes from the very core of my being.

This is what I have to offer. I hope you like it. If not, at least I tried.

And that’s exactly how I felt when I started out all those years ago. That is the one thing that hasn’t changed.

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