The Austrian writer, Robert Prosser, has published the novel Phantome in 2017. The book was highly-acclaimed by critics and readers, and even managed to get on the long list for the German Book Prize. Wolfgang Kühn found some interesting questions and got – no wonder – some interesting answers.
You like to travel a lot. And your travel experiences tend to enter your writing. When you come to a new place, do you already feel that it might be part of a story or a novel one day?
While travelling, there’s a kind of instinct at work, a feeling, that a place can actually be more than an inspiration, but of significant importance for a new text. I used to travel for the sole purpose of gathering kilometres, being on the move. The thoughts and feelings, the rhythms found their way into my prose and poetry in a rather chaotic, irrational way. Nowadays it’s more focused, I love to combine travel, research and writing. The last novel has a lot do to with Bosnia, and it was a very special, very intense phase in the writing process, to travel through the country, researching, with the unfolding story in my head. I was in Bosnia and in my imagined version of Bosnia at the same time. I was researching while the novel gained momentum and followed its own ways.
In this much-acclaimed book, Phantome, you make use of your travel experiences to Albania and former Yugoslavia, but also your past as a dedicated tagger finds entry into this novel. Does one have to experience things like this, or is it also possible to inform oneself through other channels in order to write that precisely about it?
I guess there are writers who can establish precision in writing and storytelling solely without first-hand experience. I am definitely not that kind of writer – I need to be at a place in order to write about it, mainly to grasp a kind of essence. For example, it’s one thing to google the Bosnian Vlasic-Mountain range, one of the novel’s settings, or be there yourself, in the woods and on the summits, or between reading about Srebrenica or attending the memorial for real. The general opinion that, thanks to the www, you can look up everything and don’t have to go anywhere is just an excuse for laziness, I think. Be it a village in Bosnia or in Vienna, everywhere there are so many details, so many stories you’ll never find in any blogs or on Wikipedia. You have to discover them with your own senses. This sensual approach fuels one’s own poetic language, because if a certain amount of experience is missing, the danger of getting lost in stereotypes is imminent.
Before Phantome you published two books of prose and one novel with a small, but dedicated Austrian publisher, Klever, then you shifted to Germany to Ullstein. Is a success like the one you had with Phantome only possible with a big German publisher, especially when you are a writer of the younger generation?
I don’t want to believe that, but I am afraid it’s true – because recognition is, in its root, simply a question of reach. A publisher like Ullstein has a whole machinery at hand, be it marketing, contacts or distribution. On the other hand, even with a big publishing house, you still depend on a fair share of luck. No publishing house, no matter its size, can guarantee a book will find its readers. And only through Klever was it possible for me to grow as a writer, to test myself and to establish the direction I want to take as an artist. My first book was published in 2009, since then I was able to write, to perform and travel a lot – it’s been a great ride so far, thanks to the independent publisher as well as to the big one.
A reading by Robert Prosser is not a reading in the proper sense of the word, it is a performance, a happening. You know your texts by heart and you actually perform them in a very special way. How did this come about?
I was experimenting with performance and spoken-word for some time. A year or two ago, I decided to take that approach more seriously and bring something special to the stage. It’s an aspect of my artistic work I appreciate and love. I put effort in, I want to grab the audience’s attention, to show the energy, the anger and passion, which forms the core of the text. As a writer, I consist of these two aspects: The writing itself, and the on-stage-performance, the speaking-out-loud. Also I want to transform the experience I had while researching for Phantome. I did a lot of interviews, collecting the stories of people from former Yugoslavia, and every time I got deeply immersed in these stories, I was swallowed up by them. When I thought about a way to bring that experience on stage, the best solution seemed to know parts of Phantome by heart. The contact with the audience gets deeper this way, more direct, also more energetic.
How difficult was it to find a balance in the book? I mean not to be biased, neither to the Bosnian cause, nor the Serbian, nor any other?
With the advantage of being an outsider, a foreigner writing about Ex-Yugoslavia, I was able to collect a lot of voices and fates from all sides. I had the idea to form a kaleidoscopic view on the war, even though, and I think the novel tells that as well, the major aggression came from the Bosnian-Serb side. There’s the political aspect, the propaganda, the war-machine, kept going by Milošević or Karadžić alike, and there’s the individual aspect, the stories of the people you meet on the road, in daily life. And if you tell it from this private point of view, a kind of balance is reached, as many people suffered and are still suffering, no matter what family background.
Did it happen that people confronted you because of the content of the book? Did somebody feel offended by something?
The Srebrenica part caused some discussions – with Bosnian Muslims, who think that a foreigner is not supposed to write about it, or with (Bosnian) Serbs, who feel blamed as murderers. Srebrenica was a challenge – how to write about this place, this unbelievable tragedy? I hope, by writing through the eye of a foreigner who gets confronted with Srebrenica at the 20th memorial, I found an honest, respectful approach.
Do you have any plans for a new book?
Gladly yes! I am in the middle of the next novel. It’s still a chaotic whirl, mainly concentrating on boxing and the Viennese martial arts scene. And I even got an outline for the novel after. But that’s a long way to go… Baboons will play an important role, that much I can disclose.
Is there a special place in the world, which you still have to visit one day?
Definitely West Africa. I’ve been to Ghana once, the surrounding countries are very tempting. Honestly, I want to go to every place I haven’t been so far. And there are a few places where I’ve been and really would like to go for a second time. I used to live in Manchester, for example, and it would be great to spend another period of my life there.