Author Q&A:
Olivia Wenzel

1000 Coils of Fear
(Dialogue Books)

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Personal, political and wildly experimental, Olivia Wenzel’s debut literary novel takes the form of an extended question and answer between a Black, queer, East German woman and a disembodied inquisitor. The structure allows the narrator to lead us through her daily life while telling the story of her family. 

She attends a play about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the only Black person in the audience, and she explores her mother’s past as a punk in East Germany. She sits by a lake with her boyfriend when a group of neo-Nazis turn up, and she laments the absence of her Angolan father in her life. She’s in New York when Trump is elected and receives panicked messages from friends and she remembers the death of her twin brother at the age of 19. Exploring identity, belonging, love and politics, 1000 Coils of Fear is original, powerful and timely.

Your background is in theatre writing and music. How different was writing your debut novel to your other forms of writing and how do your creative practices feed into one another?
The main difference was that I was able to really take my time with this book and follow stories, images and thoughts with an intensity that until then I hadn’t known in my creative process. Not only because it takes longer to write a book than a play, but also because this is my most personal work so far.

The writing process was very calming, healing, sometimes a bit magical, but also mentally quite exhausting. I’m lucky that I have several ways of generating output/content, so when writing starts feeling too much like an obligation, I can chill at the piano, play some chords, hum a little melody. I’m convinced that these breaks (where nothing is actually produced for anyone but myself) are as important as those parts of my process that feel like performing one’s duty. Besides this, due to my background in music, I think that when you read the book, it can become actually audible.

Tell us about the unusual form and style of the book and what that allowed you to achieve.
In large parts, the book is written in the form of a dialogue. An unknown entity is asking many questions – sometimes rigid ones like in an interrogation, sometimes tenderly or as if this entity would know or tease the narrator. This structures the novel dramaturgically (it’s neither plot-driven, nor chronologically storytelling), and it allows for me to write in a way that readers get the impression that they follow the narrator into her mind – like into a wicked stream of consciousness or a form of self talk.

We know your protagonist is Black, East German and queer but we don’t know her name. What were you exploring about identity and what defines who we are?
I was trying to look at what it can mean when these labels intersect. In Germany, when people think about East German identities, they mostly think of white, heterosexual people. I wanted to challenge that stereotype by saying: look, a narrator like mine might have to endure many struggles within the intersection of these identities, especially in East Germany, yet this, too, is a normal life and a life that is worth reading about.

How does your narrator’s sense of self shift depending on where she is in the world?
My narrator longs for a place to belong to, geographically and emotionally. While travelling in different countries like the US, Germany, Morocco or Vietnam, she’s confronted with very different ways of being perceived as a Black, queer person and therefore the way she perceives herself changes too. Eventually she finds peace within the idea that only she herself can build and be the home she needs.

How and why does the discovery of images of her teenage mother as a punk change the dysfunctional relationship your narrator has with her?
Images were important for my writing process. Time and again I was collecting images that I felt were lacking in the public eye, especially in Germany – images of a Black girl that is ice skating. An image of a boy of Asian descent, painted with dignity and a smile, around 1830. Contemporary pieces of art in which Black bodies are depicted as cryptic, morphing beings that I can’t really understand, yet feel – these were all images I wish I could have seen growing up. I tried to transfer the vibe of many of them into the novel.

And regarding the bit the question was referring to: there are pictures described that show the narrator’s mother as a teenager, shortly before she must have become pregnant. This creates the narrator’s wish to meet her mother (and her grandmother) at an impossible point in time, when they are all 15 years old. The relationships between these three characters don’t change profoundly throughout the book – they stay dysfunctional. Yet in my narrator a heightened awareness awakens, and with that a little compassion for her mother and an interest in getting to know her mother outside of her own unhappy motherhood.

Tell us about the factors that shape the fear that hangs over the novel.
There are different fears constantly at play: the fear of losing someone (the narrator lost her twin brother), the fear of loving someone, the fear of becoming the victim of racist violence, the fear of these fears themselves, the fear of falling asleep. At one point, my narrator develops an anxiety disorder that was long nourished by her constantly being in a state of high alert. At some point she starts seeking help but she doesn’t immediately find it through a therapist, let alone a therapist of colour. Eventually she manages to embrace parts of these fears as tools she had to develop in order to survive.

You speak English fluently but the book was written in German. Was the translation a collaborative process with Priscilla Layne or did you surrender control? And how did you find the process?
The process was challenging.

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