Peter Stamm’s latest novel, All Days Are Night, is out this month. He is the author of the novels Seven Years, On a Day Like This, and Unformed Landscape, and the short-story collections We’re Flying and In Strange Gardens and Other Stories. His prize-winning books have been translated into more than thirty languages. For his entire body of work and his accomplishments in fiction, he was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, and in 2014 he won the prestigious Friedrich Hölderlin Prize. He lives in Switzerland.
Q: The plot of All Days Are Night is deceptively simple. How did this story come to you? What made you want to write about a woman’s reconstruction of her life after an event that could have destroyed it?
Peter Stamm: Twenty years ago I wrote a novel with a similar theme: whether we are who we are playing, or who we are when we undress and show ourselves naked. Unfortunately it failed. What interested me in All Days Are Night was the relationship between our interior and our exterior, so I needed a character whose appearance changes from one moment to the next. Or even better: a character who has no exterior, no face for a while. An accident was the easiest way to create such a character. Of course we all change our appearance over time, but it’s normally a slow process and we gradually adapt to our faces growing older, our hair turning gray. The whole book is about images we make from ourselves and from others, true and fake images. That’s where the painter comes in.
Q: Gillian’s disfigurement and the reconstruction of her face are incredibly formative moments in her life, and you describe both events with startling clarity. Was it difficult to inhabit Gillian’s mind after her accident?
PS: It’s the job of writers to imagine other people’s states of mind. But in this case I did have help from a woman who was disfigured as a child and whose face never was completely reconstructed. (Her accident happened when plastic surgery was in its infancy.) She became a psychotherapist and had very good insight into what happened to her in the years of her healing. When I showed her my half-finished novel, she confirmed quite a few of my imagined scenes but also helped me with things I had gotten wrong.
Q: All Days Are Night is told from Gillian’s point of view as well as Hubert’s. Why was it important for Hubert’s experiences to take such a central place in the novel?
PS: I think we expect artists to see below the surface, that their images be truer than the photos in a magazine. Hubert tries to see the essence of Gillian, but he doesn’t succeed. Maybe there is no essence of a person. We are continually changing. A true image would probably have to be blurred. I still think it’s interesting to have Hubert’s point of view, to see how he tries to paint Gillian. In addition he somehow also loses his face by going through an artistic crisis. A painter who doesn’t paint is not a painter anymore. His self-image is also in danger.
Q: When we meet Hubert in the second part of the novel, we find that he’s in the midst of a creative crisis, at an impasse that Gillian seems to have found her way through. Do you think destruction is important for an artist?
PS: Not necessarily destruction but uncertainty. I don’t think you can make art or write literature just with your skills. You have to take risks and you have to fail from time to time. It’s the only way to get on. Even today, after more than ten books, some of my texts fail. And every time I start a new novel I think, “How can I do it, how can I ever write a book?” I’m completely helpless. Sometimes I don’t write for months, trying to figure out how to start. And then, sometimes, I take off and it works. I don’t want to mystify the process, but there is a certain amount of magic in it.
Q: You’ve mentioned before how translation is more important for readers than it is for writers. How do readers benefit from reading literature from a multiplicity of countries? How has reading from countries outside of Switzerland shaped your writing? Considering the importance of translation, how has it been to work with a translator as well regarded as Michael Hofmann?
PS: I couldn’t have read half of the books I have if they hadn’t been translated. Literature was always translated; it’s our best means to understand people from other countries, other times, to widen our worldview. What would the Romans have been without reading the ancient Greek texts? We can only learn from other literatures. A literature that is not open to the world gets complacent and doesn’t develop.
Michael Hofmann is very easy to work with. He does not ask many questions and just does a wonderful job. After having translated all my books he knows my work probably as well as I do. He understands what I’m after. And, perhaps most important, he likes my books, if that’s not too vain to say.