Peter Stamm is an accomplished author and Man Booker Prize nominee (2013) with work including books, editing, plays, prose, radio plays and translation work. Born in Switzerland, Stamm was an accountant and psychiatric clinic intern before winning several literary awards including the Rheingau Literatur Preis in 2000 and the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize in 2014. His works are published in the U.S. by Other Press and translated into English by Michael Hofmann.
Stamm recently answered detailed questions about his impressive new book To The Back of Beyond (his sixth), his process and future plans.
How long did it take you to write To The Back of Beyond?
I made the first note on the project about fifteen years ago, but it was only one sentence and a vague idea. Over the years I now and again thought about it, but I only started writing the book in January 2016. I finished it about a year-and-a-half later.
Who are the characters fictional or based on real people?
I never base my characters on real people. Or only minor characters. But I hope that they become real people while I’m writing. The backstory of Thomas however is more or less mine. He has the same career as I did (with the difference that he doesn’t become a writer). He lives in my mother’s house and he has two kids like me. But when it comes to the daily life of the couple, Astrid is closer to me than Thomas.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
The first idea was just that a man walks through the country at night. That was a bit too vague – I did not know who he was or what he was running away from. In 2013 I spent some time with Michael Cunningham in a writers retreat in Tuscany and he told me about the story Wakefield by Nathanael Hawthorne. That was the spark that set me aflame.
I loved the structure where the main characters Thomas and Astrid take separate paths particularly the creative ways they thought about each other. How did you form their actions and thoughts while intriguing the reader to continue in the story?
When I read Wakefield it became clear to me that in a realistic novel I could not let Thomas live next to his wife and observe her for twenty years without him being found out, as Hawthorne does. So I thought he might just imagine what she was doing without him. And later in the book it’s probably Astrid who imagines his life.
I did not plan their actions, I just constructed the book while I was writing it. To be honest I don’t believe in planning books. It’s like with holidays. You can of course book an organized trip where you know beforehand what you’ll do on any given day. But you won’t discover anything if you travel like that. I prefer going to places and just let things happen and make discoveries. With the risk of losing my way once in a while.
Motives are a key component in this book. How did you decide when the reader had enough background before separating Thomas and Astrid? How did you decide to approach their shared life together?
Well, they separate immediately. I think in the whole book they do not spend more than fifteen minutes together. The background, how they have met, how they have lived together, is told much later in the book. I want the readers to meet my characters as they would meet any stranger on a train or on a party or in the street.
When you meet someone, your first question won’t be about background. You start talking about anything and if you like each other and continue talking you’ll find out one thing after the other. The motives get into the text through the personality of my characters, they are not planned. I often only discover my motives when I’m doing readings and read the book over and over again.
How did you form the motives, choices and feelings of the characters?
My technique is at the same time very simple and very difficult. It has more to do with feelings than with thoughts. I use my intuition to decide whether a person would do one thing or another. There is no planning, most of the time it’s not even real decisions. If I don’t know what the right way is, I’m probably on the wrong way anyway. As for motives: I have no idea why my characters do certain things. I can interpret what they do as a reader, but there is no certainty. And probably I don’t have to know. I’m just observing them.
A reader might ask themselves “what if my life was different?” as they read this book. What were your thoughts on the different paths people take in life and even concepts like fate while writing of this book?
I don’t really believe in fate. After all Thomas chooses himself what he does. What interests me more is these deciding moments. He takes the road less taken and that changes his life and the life of his family forever. And there is no going back. I’ve just written a short story about this moment, in which a young guy plans to rob a bank. It’s all about this moment, when he stands in front of the bank and becomes aware of this immense freedom to go in or not. That’s the whole point for him.
The European settings had a great effect on the book’s characters. Did you complete extensive research on these settings or use more imagination based on your own personal experiences?
The longer I’ve been writing the more I “stay at home” in my texts. More and more often my books take place in the landscape of my youth. Thomas starts out in Weinfelden, the little town I grew up in. But I did start walking one night as he does. And I looked for my way as he does, deciding at every crossing which road or trail to take, sometimes getting lost, walking at night or sleeping outside. But unlike him, I did have a sleeping bag and food with me.
What future plans do you have in writing and your professional career?
Well, I’ll just go on writing books and short stories. That’s what I like most and what I can best.
Any ideas, settings or character types you want to explore next?
If I would know that, I would start writing. Right now I’m between books and have no idea what I’ll write next. A situation I quite like, as everything is possible.
Who was this book dedicated to (“For Jaume Vallcorba Plana”)?
Jaume was my wonderful Spanish publisher and a dear friend. He died while I was writing the book. When I last saw him I told him about the book and that I would dedicate it to him. So maybe that’s why to me the book is also about death and how we remember those who are not with us anymore.
Thank you so much.