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.

Storm in a Teacup

January 12th, 2015

‘Ohhhh! I’ve had enough,’ Peirene throws the paper she’s been reading straight across the room. ‘How stupid do they think I am!’1998379409_810472752a_z

I look at her in bewilderment.  Peirene had been leafing through the Times Literary Supplement which features a review of The Blue Room.

‘Is it that bad?’ I asked, slightly surprised.

‘No it’s excellent. Very insightful,’ the Nymph confirms. But her body language expresses something different – her arms folded, chin on her chest, lips tight.

‘So? What’s the issue?’ I enquire.

Peirene gets up, walks across the room, picks up the paper from the floor. At my desk, she opens it up and with a finger shaking with rage follows the line as she reads out loud: ‘The publishers do Ørstavik few favours by billing her novel as the unsung precursor of Fifty Shades of Grey.’ She inhales deeply. ‘Yet another critic who has misunderstood our introduction.’ She looks at me with gleaming eyes. ‘And all because of you,’ she then adds. ‘You… you insisted on mentioning Fifty Shades.’

She marches back to her desk, while I read the article. In the background I hear her continue her tirade:

‘I warned you, didn’t I?! I said don’t mention Fifty Shades of Grey, didn’t I? People see theses words and think they know what you are saying without actually reflecting upon your statement.’ She pauses and I take this opportunity to interject.

‘The misunderstanding is fascinating, especially since it was so obvious to me that The Blue Room certainly doesn’t resemble Fifty Shades. Instead our book provides an explanation of why some women enjoy degrading sexual fantasies as portrayed in Fifty Shades.’

‘Oh listen to yourself! You think you are so clever! But clearly not clever enough to explain so everyone understands. Instead you totally embarrassed me.’ Peirene gets up and walks towards the door.

‘I will hide in bed until I can face the world again,’ she says and leaves the room. But already half an hour later she is back.

‘That wasn’t long,‘ I can’t help teasing her.

‘I thought about what you said,’ She settles back in front of her desk. ‘If readers and critics misunderstand but still read the book… then I guess we’ve done a good job.’

‘That’s right,’ I nod enthusiastically. I knew the Nymph would get what I was playing at when I decided to mention such evocative title as Fifty Shades of Grey.

‘And…,’ a wicked smile appears on her lips, ‘I am of course completely innocent. The whole introduction bears your name.’

Image by Marcie.

Winter Sleep

December 20th, 2014

Peirene and Meike wish you a happy festive season, Fröhliche Weihnachten und einen Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr. Thank you for following our adventures this year. See you back here second week of January. Winter Chair copy

Family Competition

December 16th, 2014

‘I will not be exploited as your family’s beast of burden!’ Peirene walks into the house with a flushed face and drops of perspiration on her 124753728_54ac2d7122_zforehead. I am confused. As far as I am aware, she just took our gift orders to the post office. Like every day for the last two weeks, there were quite a few envelopes but they all fit perfectly into the shopping trolley. And pulling it to the post office is not such hard work after all.

Peirene throws herself onto the sofa, fanning her face with a magazine. ‘Your son!’ she is gasping. ‘Half of the trolley was stuffed with his packages.’ She breathes in short bursts. ‘Get me a glass of water before I die.’

While I head towards the kitchen I can’t help smiling.

I often worry about my children’s future. Their lack of Germanic order exasperates me. I am convinced that they will never achieve anything in their lives without it. My proof? My son drops his coat on the floor or the stairs. I find his muddy football boots in the living room or kitchen or toilet. And his dirty clothes are thrown in the vicinity of the washing basket, but never ever inside. And my daughter, who travelled for six months on her own through South America and has just completed her first term at uni, returns home only to stand in my office six o’clock sharp: ‘Mum, when is dinner? I’m starving.’

They can’t even look after themselves! How are they supposed to achieve what they want? All my role-modeling of hard work and discipline has not born any fruits.

I pour a glass of water for the Nymph. The facts, however, clearly contradict my worries. My daughter is organising an art festival at her college and my son has set up a business on e-bay – selling DVDs. It’s booming and he has even cracked the art of job delegation.

I hand the Nymph her water. She drinks, then closes her eyes. ‘Leave me alone,’ she mumbles. ‘I am exhausted.’

I walk upstairs to my son’s room. ‘You’ve exhausted the poor Nymph. I think you owe her an apology.’ I stop. ‘Having said that… I am impressed by your success,’ I continue in honest admiration. ‘How about expanding your e-bay shop and selling Peirene books. Like that you might be able to persuade her to continue doing the post run for you.’

He rolls his eyes. ‘Mum, my business works because I offer well known films, not some obscure books,’ he informs me.

‘Well, my son, then I guess you have to get the Nymph a very nice Christmas present indeed and promise to give her a smile and a hug whenever she carries your parcels to the post office.’

Image by Jos.

Discovering Serenity

December 7th, 2014

‘You are a hero,’ I hear the Nymph mumble in the background as I light a candle. I take my mug and sit down on the sofa. It’s two o’clock on 3740820498_8a2e8a3bef_zthe Sunday afternoon following the 24th Peirene Salon. As I sip my tea I close my eyes and think of the conversations I had last night.

‘You are a hero.’ Peirene repeats, sitting down next to me. She has some kind of list in her hands.

‘Are you talking to me?’ I open my eyes and turn to her in surprise.

‘Yes, of course. There is no one else here, is there?!’

For a moment I am speechless. It’s not often that Peirene pays me compliments.

‘Why am I a hero?’

‘Because for the first time in five years of running the Salon you got us help with the clearing up.’

It’s true. I brought in some help and so the house returned to normal by Sunday lunch time. We both turn our heads and stare into the dancing flame on the table.

After a while Peirene says: ‘I wonder, if the twenty three other times  you wanted to punish me. ’

‘Punish you?’ I raise an eyebrow in disbelief.

‘Yes. You create something everyone enjoys – the authors, the guests, your family. Each time we should be in seventh heaven, proud of ourselves. Instead we work so hard in preparing the salon and then equally hard to bring the house back to order that there is no time to breathe. That to me sounds like a punishment.’

I contemplate the Nymph’s words, while she in turn is warming to her subject.  ‘But now I have an idea how you can pay me back. With all this time on your hands you can start wrapping the gift orders now. Then you can take off a day for Christmas shopping during the week.‘ With that she shows me her list. She has a slightly guilty look on her face.

‘You will be able to buy most of the things around Bond Street – and after working twenty-three Sundays I think I deserve it’.

I breathe in the sandalwood smell of the candle and smile mildly. ‘Whatever you say, Peirene.’

Image by Akuppa John Wigham.