Interview with Herman KochPosted by Goodreads on June 3, 2014
In his latest novel, Summer House with Swimming Pool, Koch has created another politically incorrect narrator in Dr. Marc Schlosser, a family physician for famous actors, writers, and artists, who's unrestrained in his lurid judgments of both his patients' bodies and creative works. When Schlosser's family is invited to a famous actor's summer rental, the intersection of the two families results in a terrifying crime. Perhaps in an inverse of The Dinner's central question, Koch's readers will now be invited to experience how far a parent will go to avenge their family. Interviewer J. Ryan Stradal asked Koch about his true crime inspirations and writing unlikable characters.
Summer House with Swimming Pool, Marc Schlosser, is a doctor whose patients are artists and creators, yet he despises both their bodies and their work. How important to you was it to have the experiences of the narrative happen to a man who hates his job, his clients, and the human body?
Herman Koch: The medical profession has lost a lot of prestige in the last 50 years. Artists tend to see themselves as more important people than doctors nowadays. In Summer House with Swimming Pool this particular doctor has been in the profession for too long. He only gets to see the surface of the human body and realizes that, in reality, his influence over life and death is zero.
GR: Your last novel, The Dinner, was inspired by a specific public crime in Barcelona, the murder-by-immolation of a homeless woman by three Spanish teenagers. Are any of the crimes depicted in Summer House with Swimming Pool also inspired by true events, public or private? What came first: the character of Marc or the crimes in the novel?
HK: The character of Marc came first. But I was thinking of the infamous case from the '70s involving Roman Polanski and the 13-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson's house. In fact, the girlfriend of movie director Stanley Forbes in the novel is called Emmanuelle. The other true fact is that a Dutch university professor was expelled because of his ideas about the criminal mind in the '70s as well, just like Aaron Herzl, another character in the book. [This professor] approached the brain in a 100 percent biological way, and the core of his theory was that some of us might be born as criminals.
GR: Marc reveals himself early on to be, among other things, a sexist. He makes glib pronouncements like, "Any father would rather have a son than a daughter. Any mother would too, in fact." How did you set out to explore the contradictions of having this man seek retaliation on behalf of his daughter?
HK: I think Marc isn't conscious of the fact that he is a sexist. And even a sexist might defend his own daughter at all costs. Being the character he is, he thinks the only way out, in this case, is retaliation. A less sexist man might have gone to the police first.
GR: Goodreads member Spencer asks, "Many of your works suggest a darkness inherent in the human psyche. Do you think this is innate, that we are born with these internal, dark impulses, or is it something that develops as a product of our individual experience/environment?"
HK: I think we all have these dark thoughts from time to time, but we mostly don't act on them. There is also always the sense of political correctness that forbids us to think like Marc, or Paul in The Dinner, but I believe a lot of readers think secretly: "These guys think exactly like me." I myself do have them from time to time, but I don't linger too long in the darkness. It is only in our thoughts that we are completely free, but we have to be careful about how we act and what we say.
GR: The character of Ralph Meier, the host at the summer house and client of Marc's, is also politically incorrect, but in a different sense—he's consistently portrayed as a man in a state of arrested development. To what extent is this also true of Marc? He may not be the slave to impulse that Ralph is, but he's close. It must've been fun to set these characters against each other.
HK: It was great fun. Marc criticizes the behavior of Ralph, but Marc behaves in almost the same way, without ever admitting this to himself. When I started the book, I didn't know this. I was even disappointed to some extent when I found it out along the way.
GR: Conversely I'm intrigued by a moment about halfway through the book when Marc says, "I would do everything differently. Everything." Given what happens, the moment of circumspection feels like a nod to sanity in an otherwise insane trajectory. Tell us about your decision to give Marc a feeling of regret at this point.
HK: At a certain point Marc realizes that his pursuit of Ralph's wife was the cause of all the harm that came to his family later. They only go to the summer house because of him. I like your phrase "in an otherwise insane trajectory." It certainly is!
GR: Goodreads member Laura asks, "In both your books, The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool, the father is the narrator. Did you ever consider shifting the perspective to the other characters? And how do you think the story lines might have unfolded from someone else's point of view?"
HK: Yes, with The Dinner I first thought of giving all the characters their own voice and point of view. But then I came up with the idea of the unreliable narrator, and I found it more interesting to tell the whole story from his point of view. In this way we will never know what actually happened, and we only learn of the thoughts and opinions of the others by what they say and through Paul's perspective.
GR: Goodreads member Maxime asks, "I'd like to know why you often create unlikable main characters. In The Dinner the main character has a similar roughness as the main character of Summer House with Swimming Pool."
HK: I sometimes think we are all a bit unlikable in our most secret thoughts. Some people act a little more on these thoughts then others and become truly unlikable. And of course: Unlikable characters are always more fun than too likable ones.
GR: As Maxime hinted at, Summer House with Swimming Pool shares a similar tone and structure with The Dinner. Was this a coincidence? What did you set out to do differently this time?
HK: No, it wasn't a coincidence. I realized right from the beginning that the tone and structure would be similar. With most of my novels I try to write something completely different the next time, but this time it was impossible to write the novel in another way.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
HK: Well... I get up in the morning, read the paper, and have coffee. After that (by then it is usually around 9 a.m.), I start to write. At around 11 a.m., I stop. The concentration I need only lasts that long. For the actual writing I take the most comfortable position possible, the same as for reading, in fact: lying down on a sofa with a laptop.
GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?
HK: In my teenage years I mostly read the work of 19th-century Russian authors: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. But later Salinger, Fante, and Hemingway.
GR: What are you reading now?
HK: Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn.
Interview by J. Ryan Stradal for Goodreads. Stradal's writing has appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Joyland, and Midwestern Gothic, among other places. He lives in Los Angeles, where he's a fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown, coproduces the literary/culinary event "Hot Dish," and is editing the 2014 California Prose Directory anthology for San Francisco publisher Outpost 19.
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