Monday, July 6, 2015

Nina George: The Power of Books to Heal

The Writer's Life
Nina George writes contemporary novels centered on people "who undertake a physical journey that leads to self-discovery" because, she admits, she does the very same thing in her own life. "The quests, the odysseys, the 'joyful wanderings' (exploration, seeking the way, straying from the beaten path) are what constitutes a life." While she is of German descent, France is "in her blood" due to influences from her mother's side of the family. She believes "the French soul lay closer to (her) heart than German sensibilities." George lives in the Finistére region of Brittany, "at the end of the world.... Although," she claims, "some say it is where the world begins." The Little Paris Bookshop (read the review below or link HEREwas first published in German as "Das Lavendelzimmer" in 2013; it has sold over 500,000 copies and been translated into more than 27 languages. Crown will publish the novel in the U.S. in June. (Interview translated by Heidi Holzer.)
The Little Paris Bookshop largely takes place on French waterways. Have you ever taken a river cruise through France?
My father died the same year I'd planned to take the tour, and I also had a titanium implant in my neck. So I talked to "river people" and borrowed their river diaries. I spoke with tourists and locals. In 2014 (after the book had been on the bestseller list for a year), my husband, Jo, and I finally drove along the route. We ate and drank in Montargis and Cepoy, checked out houseboats for sale and drove across the canal bridge in Briare.
Sanary-sur-mer becomes the cornerstone of the novel. Is there any special reason why you chose to make this locale central to the plot of the story?
Oh, yes! In 2012, I explored Provence and drove around the region, 1,500 kilometers [930 miles], until the land answered my questions. I went to Sanary-sur-mer because it was the home of German women writers in exile. In a way, I felt as though I were in exile as well. My father had died, my body--my neck--was injured. It felt as though I'd lost my way: my life, my sense of inner childhood, my security. Sanary was a place of healing for me. I believe that everyone has a secret place where they are made "whole" again, no matter what it was that broke them in the first place.
Would you say a sense of brokenness inspired the novel?
Life. Death. Books. Dreams.... It began with the success of Die Mondspielerin/The Moon Musician, after which people expected me to write another novel. I wanted to explore the great themes of guilt, heartbreak and beginning one's "'actual" life all over again. My father died in 2011, and that was the caesura in my life, in everything that I am. I've been writing for 23 years. I'm a professional writer. Yet after my father's much too sudden death, I felt something break inside--my deep grief brought me back to myself. And it also redefined what I want to and am able to write about.
So I wrote about life, about survival after the death of a loved one, about the power of books that can heal everything--absolutely everything. And about living in one's own dreams. I felt free to do whatever I wanted, because I'd already gone through the worst possible thing in life. Since then, rules have no longer applied to me. For survivors, nothing is forbidden.
You pay your father a beautiful tribute in the dedication to this novel.
My father was a loving man. I never met any human being like him. He was kind and strong. He didn't have a great deal of education--no one did in postwar Germany--and yet he was wise and read up on everything. We'd been discussing my work since the early days of my career--I landed my first job, with a newspaper, at the age of 19. By 22, I'd written the first of what are now 26 books--and he read everything I wrote. We debated, he offered praise. He always wanted to know how I came up with things. No one else has ever been so intensely interested in what I think. He never wanted me to be simply "pretty" or "a good girl." His desire was for me to think, to develop internal endurance. He encouraged me in sports, challenged me to think. He helped develop my political sensibility and demanded that I respect people, cultures and religions. I was never to assume that my truth is the only one that matters. In a sense, the way he brought me up laid the groundwork for how I'm able to see the world.
Why has this novel resonated so deeply with readers?
Because it's a story about death and about how much we can be shaped by loss, by missing a person. Grieving, or admitting that the loss of a loved one has derailed us, was unfashionable, forbidden for much of the past. Also, there is a dedicated community of people in the world who will always be able to connect with each other across all languages, boundaries and religions. It is the "Readers' Club." People who read a lot, starting at a very young age, are people who were raised by books. They have learned about forms of love and hate, kindness, respect and ideas that are different from their own. They experience the world as something infinitely larger than before. They enjoy the indescribable feeling of having found their true selves.
We readers are book people, and Jean Perdu [the protagonist] is one of us. We are all traveling on an invisible literary riverboat, one that carries us down the stream of life. It shapes, holds and comforts us.
At the end of the novel, you include a compendium of books/titles to cure whatever ails a reader. If you were to include The Little Paris Bookshop on that list, what ailment would this novel serve to cure/alleviate?
Catharsis and healing. Das Lavendelzimmer/The Little Paris Bookshop is both a kind of cleansing and a literary form of solace. It penetrates areas of the soul where old and grand emotions are hidden. Grief, melancholy, regret that we are not 16 anymore, compassion, the desire to be loved by our parents, finding the place where we feel whole, understanding the fears in our dreams. The book cleanses these wounds--and above all, it provides solace. In Germany, people often give books to friends who are starting over: a new life, a new job, a new era.
Jean Perdu has a favorite book that changed his life. Do you have a book that changed yours?
My library holds 3,500 books, and I've read around 4,200 in my life. Every book has had an effect on me, but I'll mention only three:
Ein Fisch ohne Fahrrad (A Fish Without a Bicycle) by Elizabeth Dunkel: At a time when I didn't know whether I wanted to love or be loved, or which one would be harder to bear.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: At a time when I felt I didn't trust myself to be the person I am.
The diaries of Anais Nin: To help me understand that I have a sexual identity.
Will there be a 27th book?
I'm working on a novel that is about being afraid that one is not good enough and what awaits us in the space between life and death. It also deals with the question of whether there is even such a thing as the "right" life. 

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of
 Shelf Awareness. To read this 

Q&A as originally published on Shelf Awareness  (4/8/15), click HERE