Knowing Your Y

March 24th, 2015

My publishing house has reached a nice cruising altitude. I would like to take it to the next level. But I don’t know what that next step should7452450872_9c501628d1_z look like. Because simply increasing the amount of books and losing control of the quality is not an option. So for the time being I’ve decided to expose myself to as many new ideas as possible.

‘Why on earth are we here?,’ Peirene sighs while we are heading into our next lecture. The Nymph and I are attending a business conference.

‘Because it’s good for us to listen to cool-headed, strategic, business people. We might get some inspiration,’ I tell her – not for the first time.

We sit down in the auditorium. Peirene demonstratively crosses her arms and closes her eyes even before the speech has started. ‘It worries me that a company dedicated to beautiful books should be taking an interest in “management”. Before we know it we will be run by accountants,’ she mumbles.

I decide to ignore her. Next up on stage is motivation coach David Pearl. He shows a clip from Chicken Run. I nudge the Nymph. ‘You should listen to him.’ She opens one eye. She is beginning to pay attention now.

David asks us to draw our life graph. The Nymph rolls her eyes and draws a circle. I draw a slightly ascending zigzag line indicative of up and downs.

David then asks ‘So if the x-axis shows the passing of time what does the y-axis represent?’

‘Happiness,’ someone suggests. ‘Professional achievement,’ someone else replies. ‘Self-actualisation,’ Peirene offers. I can sense that she is finally starting to enjoy the session.

No. None of us has hit the mark. The Y-axis indicates the ‘why’ – what motivates us personally, what gets us up again when we are low, what we love doing and often most naturally do best. Each one of us has a different Y or Why-axis – even if we do similar jobs. It might be the ability to help others, the passion to teach or the skill to overcome obstacles. Being aware of the Why-axis helps to figure out the next step.

But of course it isn’t easy to recognize your own ‘Why’.

Back in the hotel room, I am lying on the bed trying to find the answer to my own Why. Peirene, on the other hand, is using her bed as a trampoline, jumping up and down. Eventually I persuade her to stop. ‘It would be useful if you too can think about your Why, ‘ I remark.

‘No need.’ She stops jumping and sits down on her bed. ‘I know precisely what makes me get up every morning– compassion for you. And I am extremely good at it too.’ She smiles and hands me a little gift. I open it. It’s a massage oil. ‘I’ve booked you a massage,’ she explains. ‘I’m sure the Why will become apparent far more easily when you are relaxed.’

Image by CircaSassy.

Hero of the Revolution

March 16th, 2015

Last week I spoke at a TEDx conference about Contemporary Revolutions. I was surrounded by giants. The speaker before me was facebook’s policy director for 68766132_65f6fc03a8_zEurope, Middle East and Africa, Simon Milner. The speaker straight after was the Vice President of Spotify, Marc Hazan. Then came the founder of Mumsnet, Justine Roberts and Tom Hulme, General Partner of Google Ventures Europe.

Needless to say the Internet featured highly during the day. Milner spoke about how facebook can transform the cycle of friendship – sustaining connections that would otherwise have fallen away after school. Hazan used the success story of New Zealand teenage singer Lorde to demonstrate the power of the Internet to create a global audience overnight. And Roberts talked about the anonymity of most Mumsnet users and how such a set-up allows for honest conversation.

I, too, made reference to the Internet in my speech, pointing out that even a small, independent press like Peirene can now sell ebooks anywhere in the world and that twitter, facebook and blogging allows us to build and interact with a global community of readers.

So, the Internet was outed as a 21st century hero. Or was it?

‘None of the other speakers has talked about how they make their money,’ the Nymph whispered into my ear half way through the conference. ‘It’s all very well, talking about truthful chatter and overnight fame in the virtual world. But these Internet platforms employ a lot of people. So were is the money coming from?’

‘Shh,’ I hissed. ‘Making money is not the focal point of this conference.’

‘Well… revolutions need money… just saying. ’ Peirene continued. ‘You and I know that the Internet serves us well as a marketing tool. But we make our money primarily through subscriptions, the roaming store and our sold-out events.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘If you ask me, the Internet is a lot of fluff and empty air. People ultimately still want to belong to a real community, made of flesh and blood.’

‘Peirene, please be quiet.’ I was embarrassed sitting next to a whispering Nymph.

But Peirene continued: ‘One more point. Which were the slides of your speech that evoked the most reaction? The image of 50 adults on little plastic chairs in your front room, and you in your thick down jacket behind the stall at the farmers market. Humans love the real stuff. That was the case during ancient Greek times and it is still the case. The future of revolutions may depend not on a few Internet giants but on many small enterprises building and sustaining communities in the real world. So… now I will be quiet.’

And she indeed was, until the end of the conference.

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No New Lipstick

March 8th, 2015

‘So, for the first press conference I’ve put out your blue dress with the grey kitten heel and the little teardrop earrings – nicely understated. For8176907432_e2d0db6f35_z the second press conference your grey pencil skirt and your purple jumper, the brown heels and the little purple sparkling earrings. And then for your event in the evening, I suggest the green dress with your black heels and earrings.’

Peirene has called me away from my desk, ushering me into the bedroom, where she is now proudly pointing to the outfits she has laid out for me on the bed. A suitcase is standing open on the floor, ready to be packed.

‘Peirene, I’m not going for another three weeks,’ I point out.

My novel ‘Magda’ was published in Polish translation at the beginning of the year. At the beginning of February it had shot up to No 6 on the Polish bestseller list and my Polish publisher decided to invite me to Warsaw.

‘I know, I know,’ the Nymph is folding the clothes. Her face is flushed, her aura is one of busy happiness. ‘But you’re an international star now and you have to be ready to board a plane at any moment’s notice.’ She’s in her element, and I know that she is seeing us both in her mind’s eye already walking down the red carpet. Suddenly she interrupts her movements and looks up at me with a critical glance. ‘And please, do me a favour. Book an appointment with a hairdresser before you go. Your hair is a mess.’

That was two weeks ago. Then came bad news. An email from my Polish publisher. They had canceled my reading, canceled the press interviews in fact canceled the entire trip. For the evening event I was supposed to be interviewed by an important Polish cultural figure. But the important Polish cultural figure, having read the book, decided to withdraw. He then persuaded the venue to withdraw. And finally the publisher withdrew – nervous – perhaps justifiably – at all the raging controversy.

‘Oh, what a pity,’ the Nymph pulls a face. ‘I’m sure you would have dazzled the audience in your green dress… and your eloquent arguments,’ she adds quickly.

‘Yes,’ I nod. ‘And I had wanted to buy myself a new lipstick at the airport which would have gone beautifully with the dress.’

For a moment we both contemplate silently this missed opportunity of a new lipstick.

‘But,’ Peirene then says, ‘you should be proud: Your novel clearly has hit a raw nerve. And huge compliment to the Polish translator who must have done an excellent job.’

Image by 1950s Unlimited.

One Year Older

March 3rd, 2015

‘Welcome back to the land of the living,’ Peirene greets me with a teasing smile.3280874479_f96240c935_z

It’s Tuesday late morning and for the first time this week I am making an appearance in Peirene HQ. A migraine struck at 6am on Sunday morning and kept me bed bound for 48 hours.

‘You could show me a bit of empathy,’ I mumble as I shuffle to my desk. There is still a lingering pain in my right temple. ‘After all, you too, sometimes suffer from headaches.’

‘Ye-es,’ the Nymph draws the vowel ominously long. ‘But it’s never self-inflicted.’

‘I don’t inflict this upon myself either,’ I retort sharply in self-defense. Peirene has hit a raw nerve.

On Saturday evening we held our latest Salon with Finnish author Aki Ollikainen. As usual all went really well. Author was brilliant, guests were delighted. I allowed myself a glass of sparkling after the discussion. Well, two. That was a mistake. Deep down I knew I was playing Russian roulette. But I was enjoying myself. And I lost.

Over the last year it has become increasingly clear that my body can’t deal with alcohol any longer. Sometimes I drink a glass of wine and it’s fine. Sometimes half a glass makes my head explode and I am out of action for a day or two. Thus, a few months ago, I stopped drinking completely during the week. But on weekends? And after a successful Salon discussion?

Peirene has more wisdom to offer. ‘Last week was your birthday. You are now a year older. A woman of a certain age. You won’t get any younger….’

Before she continues, I interrupt: ‘Thank you, thank you. I’ve understood the message.’ The pain in my right temple has suddenly increased again. And as I turn on the computer I make a mental note to look into serving non-alcoholic cocktails at the next salon.

Image by Kris Gabbard.

To Stockholm and Back

February 24th, 2015

I had a wonderful weekend. I went to Stockholm and back.3985117642_4e96ded0ca_z

Though I grew up in the northern part of Germany, Schleswig-Holstein, which borders onto Denmark, I know little of Scandinavia. As a child I visited Denmark. And a couple of years ago I was invited by Finnish publishers to Helsinki. So Stockholm was an exciting discovery.

I loved the solid old buildings – unharmed by any WWII bombs. The clean, icy breeze. I was astonished by the emptiness of the roads. By 9pm the center was a ghost town. I relished the calmness of the museums and galleries. There were just a few civilised visitors and they gave you enough space to contemplate the paintings. And beautiful, healthy looking, families everywhere.

London in comparison is crowded and noisy and dirty. A dense patchwork of buildings and people and tastes. A precarious, daily balancing act between pulsating life and chaotic mess.

Envy plagued me all weekend. Why did I end up in London? Thirty years ago when I left Germany the world was my oyster. I could have gone to live in Sweden, married a handsome Swede and would now live a life of beauty and ease in a high-ceilinged 19th century apartment.

Instead I chose this rainy island in the middle of the North Sea.

Upon my return, Peirene showed no sympathy with my weekend agonies.

‘You had a great break.’ she commented dryly. ’You gained insights into the Scandinavian soul. And you know precisely what you found in London: a publishing company and an Ancient Greek Nymph.’ Then she added with a sly smile in the direction of my desk: ‘So count your blessings and get back to work.’

Yes, my darling Nymph knows me well. As I walked those lovely Stockholm streets, it did cross my mind: Scandinavia consists of some of the richest, most democratic, gender equal countries in the world. Yet, Peirene’s darkest and most disturbing books come from there: The Blue Room, White Hunger and The Looking-Glass Sisters.

Scandinavia may not be the civilised paradise that it appears to be on a weekend trip. But my goodness, Stockholm puts on a good show.

Image by Frank Douwes.

The Founding of a Trades Union

February 15th, 2015

‘Oh, no.’ I point to the typo on the back cover of our latest book. Peirene’s name has been misspelled in the web address.

‘How could that happen?’ The Nymph stares in disbelief.


I shake my head. ‘I don’t know. I approved the cover. Then the proofreader signed off too. Neither of us noticed the mistake.’ I feel deeply embarrassed. I search desperately for an excuse. Eventually I find one. ‘It must have been the Gremlin.’ I add with gathering confidence, ‘the same one who steals our post’.

‘You think so?’ Peirene asks doubtfully.

I nod vehemently. ‘Yes. I’m certain.’

Before I have time to utter another word, the Nymph jumps up from her desk, rushes over to the sofa. She kneels down in front of it and glances underneath. Then she is back on her feet, opening all the cupboard doors. ‘This time I will find him…,’ she raises her voice, ‘Do you hear me, you Gremlin,’ she shouts, her face flushed. ‘You do not cross an Ancient Greek Nymph.’ She hurries out of the office. I hear her searching the house from top to bottom. She is banging doors, moving furniture, even looking behind picture frames on the wall. Because Gremlins can hide anywhere.

In the meantime I return to my work, pleased that I am no longer being blamed – but not entirely at ease with myself.

Then the ceiling above my head starts to shake.

‘What on earth are you doing?’ I stop at the door to my son’s room from where the commotion is coming.

Peirene is lying on her front. She has removed a couple of floorboards and is prodding a cricket bat into the space between the joints, knocking every now and again against the ceiling of Peirene HQ. I gently bring her to her feet.

‘That’s enough,’ I tell her. ‘The house is old, the ceilings are shaking, and there are no Gremlins hiding here.’

‘But he must be somewhere!’ Peirene exclaims.

I take a deep breath. I have no choice. I need to own up to my mistake.

‘Overlooking the typo was a human error. The proofreader or I should have picked up on it. I’m sorry that we misspelled your name.’

We fix the floorboards in silence. I head back to my desk. When Peirene walks into the office fifteen minutes later, her aura has visibly changed. She has washed the dust off her hands and face and is beaming contentedly.

‘The Gremlin has come out of his hiding place, ‘she announces. ‘We had a chat.’ Her eyes glitter with cheeky delight. ‘And we have decided to found a  Trades Union for gremlins, nymphs and other ancient spirits. We need to defend ourselves from being unjustly blamed for human shortcomings.’

Image by Prayitno.

Returning to Mother Tongue

February 10th, 2015

‘Did you read the German translation of Magda?’ asks my assistant Clara as she walks into the office on Monday. I shake my head.2896235298_8bb571d55a_z

‘I was very busy over the last few days, ‘ I explain defensively.

‘Excuses, excuses,’ the Nymph’s voice comes from the other end of the room. ‘There was nothing she couldn’t have put off.’

I throw a guilty glance in the direction of the ten copies of the German Magda. The Austrian publisher sent them to me at the beginning of January. The book looks beautiful. When it arrived I even took a picture and put it on my facebook page. But I haven’t yet opened the cover.

‘You tell our authors that the translation of their book will sound strange,’ Peirene says. ‘And you explain to them that’s because they have the rhythm of the original in their ears, while we create an English text. The result will always feel jarring to the writer, even if their English is very good. But they shouldn’t worry. We know what we are doing. That’s how you reassure them, don’t you?’ I can feel that Peirene is preparing herself for an intellectual knock-out.

I nod.

‘So… now you have to trust your German translator and the Austrian publisher that they have translated your novel well.’ The Nymph comes over to me and hands me a copy of the German Magda ‘Clara and I will manage on our own today. Go to a cafe and don’t come back until you’ve read it.’

Peirene speaks wisely. Of course. And despite all my angst I am curious to know what my novel sounds like in my own mother tongue. Will I cringe? Be amazed? Want to hide for ever after?

The first pages sound really strange. I stop and order a second cappuccino, and a Danish pastry to calm my nerves. Then I continue reading. Gradually I lose the awareness that this is ‘my book’. Of course I recognize the thoughts, the scenes, the emotions. But this isn’t my language, these aren’t my words. The narrative sweeps me along, and three hours later I’ve finished. I order the third cappuccino while I think about the story. The reading experience was very different to what I remember when I read through my final English draft. What new thoughts the German Magda has provoked in me. What unfamiliar associations and interesting insights. Eventually I have to admit that I have had an inspiring afternoon. Thank you to my German translator Martin Thomas Pesl and the Austrian publisher Edition Atelier.

Image by Colin Mutchler.

Hero Worship

February 2nd, 2015

‘You have a lovely husband.’ Peirene takes the family photograph down from the shelf. She coos at the picture. ‘Would it be possible to have a6516591541_77d8e34a6d_z photo just of him – without you or the children in it?’

‘Peirene, have you arrived drunk at work?’ I furrow my brows. This is truly peculiar behaviour – even for my Nymph.

‘No,’ she replies absent-mindedly, as she is dismantling the picture frame. Sitting down with the photograph at her desk she brings it close up to her face.

‘I wonder if he is a mortal?’ She turns the photo to the left and the right, peering at it even more closely. ‘In fact, I think he might be an ancient Greek god.’

I laugh out loud. ‘He is no god. He’s got too many human flaws.’

‘How can you say that?!’ The Nymph shakes her head without averting her gaze from his image. ‘His only fault is that he married a human female who cannot see his true virtues.’

I walk over to her desk. No smell of alcohol. I put my hand on her forehead. No fever either.

‘So why this sudden appreciation for my husband?’ I ask.

‘Because he spent the entire weekend helping you to sort out the company spreadsheets and the 2014 royalty statements for all our books.’

I nod. ‘Yes. Indeed I told him that he is a spreadsheet hero.’

‘That’s just not good enough.’ She fastens the photo onto the wall behind her desk.  ‘He deserves to be worshiped.’ She takes a blank piece of paper and sticks it across the children and my image. Then she sends air kisses towards him and bows her head in silent adoration. I decide to let her be.

A few days later I discover that the photo is back in its frame and in its place on the shelf. ‘Has the god tumbled down to earth again? ‘ I enquire with a smile.

‘He certainly has.’

‘How did it happen?’

‘I nearly tripped over the open dishwasher. Only mortal men don’t know how to close dishwashers.’ She sounds disappointed. Then she perks up. ‘Still, I would like a photo of him – just of him, please. Even if imperfect, he is one of the best examples of his species.’

Image by Dee Ashely


January 25th, 2015

‘I’m not having a veiled woman on the cover,’ Peirene states. Her lips are closing to a terse line with the sides of the mouth drawn down. A photo[2]sign that she is determined to stick to her point.

‘Who says we will, ‘ I enquire calmly.

‘I’m just making it clear from the start. In case you or Sacha or Salt had any ideas.’

‘Oh, my lovely lovely Nymph,’ I bend forward and pinch her cheeks. ‘You really needn’t worry.’

Peirene, however, is not in a jokey mood. She ducks from underneath my hands and takes a few steps away from me. ‘Your next novel is dealing with a very sensitive issue. I don’t want to stir trouble.’

I point to the pile of A4 printed out pages on the coffee table in the office. ‘Have you read Kauthar?’ Peirene shakes her head, adding defensively, ‘but I know it’s about a woman who converts to Islam and then things go wrong.’

‘That’s a pretty rough summery ‘I reply dryly before I continue: ‘Kauthar is the Arabic word for the river of abundance in paradise. It’s also a woman’s name. The story takes as a starting point my own experience of wondering whether to convert to Islam when I studied Arabic at university. The plot then goes a step further and examines the psychological factors that lead my protagonist to distort her religious faith.’ I pause. ‘So the novel is about identity, memory and distortion of religious texts – the Bible as well as the Quran.’

Peirene starts leafing through the paper pile. ‘Wow. That is a challenge for the cover.’

‘Indeed. But I’m really lucky. The artist Whitney McVeigh has agreed to collaborate on the project. We are using one of her images – created with ink and water – and Sacha and Salt have come up with a fantastic design.’

I show the cover draft to the Nymph. She stares at it in silence.

‘You don’t like it?’ I’m suddenly worried.

‘No. no. It’s absolutely stunning. There is only one problem with it.’

‘What?’ My heart sinks again. I wonder if we have all overlooked something.

‘The novel will be a disappointment. It can never be as good as the cover,’ the Nymph gives me sparkly smile and kiss on the cheek. Then she picks up the manuscript from the table. ‘But I guess I still better read it.’

Big Money Plans for 2015

January 19th, 2015

‘What are you doing?’ Peirene’s face appears over my shoulder. I am sitting at my desk, the company spreadsheet open on my screen.5929622407_dd7f0033e3_z

‘Counting up how many books we sold in 2014 so I can work out how much money we will donate to the Maya Centre this year.’ I reply in a preoccupied voice.

She brings her face closer to the screen and begins to run her finger down one of the columns.

‘Go away.’ I am irritated. The Nymph has to poke her nose into everything.

‘I just want to make sure that you are not overlooking any books. You know that the Maya Centre is important to me,’ Peirene says calmly without moving away an inch.

‘To me too. But it’s a complicated calculation,’ I justify my working outs. ‘There are the wholesaler, the bookshops, our website and the stalls.’ I am holding up four fingers. ‘And every now and again I miscount. So I have to start all over again.’

‘Hm,’ the Nymph mumbles, as she keeps her eyes firmly fixed on the screen. ‘Looks to me as if you haven’t added the figures from the Christmas stalls.’

For a few seconds I am silent. I’ve been found out. I feel the heat of embarrassment rise to my face.

‘OK.’ I eventually admit. ‘You are right.’ For a brief moment – but only for a very brief moment –  I had toyed with the idea of doctoring the figures. We sold a lot of books with the Roaming Store in 2014. But overall it was a tough year. Partly because we ran over 80 stalls and the operating costs are huge.’ I sigh. ‘But I will now include every single book that we’ve sold, just as we state in our promise to the Maya Centre. After all it’s for an important cause and I am proud that we support them.’

Peirene puts her hand on my shoulder. ‘And I’m proud of you.’ Then her face lits up with a mischievous smile. ‘And let me tell you how we can save some money this coming year.’ She begins to giggle. She seems to be very pleased with her idea. ‘You will have to man more stalls. That way we save extra staff cost, can sell more books and break even more quickly.’

‘Well, my dear Nymph. I have an even better idea.’ And now it’s my turn to giggle.  ‘You will be on a dress- and shoe-shopping ban for all of 2015. I think that will give our accounts a healthy boost indeed.’

Image by Images Money.