In Conversation: Paul Neale

British contemporary artist Paul Neale was born when the Cold War was hot. JJ Marsh asks him about red lines and coded environments, fractured figures and distorted bodies. 
paul pic

Image courtesy: Paul Neale

What do ‘Borders’ mean to you?

 A defunct chain of bookshops, quite good I thought.

The imperial response, redivisioning other people’s territory for mostly financial gain and resource acquisition.

Nationalism. Brexit. The Mason Dixon Line, The Maginot Line, The Great Wall of China.

Borders are entities to cross without permission, should you consider you need any. The current crop of wars are redefining so many borders at the moment: physical, ideological, religious, political, media but mostly by the point of a gun, the drop of a bomb, the amputation of a child’s limb. The break-up of the ex-Yugoslavia is another example.

Borderline, something to be crossed or not.

Borderline psychotic borderline insane borderline schizophrenic borderline nuts live or die pass or fail do or don’t do

Borderlands ill defined unpoliced anarchic, rusting coils of barbed wire, radioactive and risky.

The Thin Red Line.

pgn1, Paul Neale

That’s curious. The concept of a ‘red line’ in German is the central argument, the core that holds the whole together. But perhaps that’s what a border is. It’s a theme I wanted to explore with such an artist. You frame or reframe subjects in your work to create an unusual angle of observation. How did such a style develop?

First, I do not think I have a style, at least I didn’t set out to create one. A few years ago after making a whole bunch of drawings for a show, I discovered that my eyes had gone funny and nothing was in focus anymore, so I got glasses and started buying second hand cameras.

Although I purposely set out to work with a predefined set of imagery and transform it into something new, I was not sure how anything would turn out. It was terra incognita for me. Later on I started to work with certain ‘looks’, visual tropes.

I worked by instinct to begin with. Working with pre-existing imagery, changing, using the strategies of collage and appropriation, chance, control, choice, no choice, and so on seemed to be the way. Plus you cut out all judgements of craft/technique. The viewer is, as you say, complicit. It was and remains a way to think about the coded visual environment.

It does seem to me, however, that I am sharing something rather than hitting people over the head with statement imagery.

pgn5, Paul Neale

Agreed. It’s very subtle and yet some of your pieces evoke Picasso’s fractured figures or Bacon’s distorted bodies, immediately striking and visceral, even if the viewer can’t say why. How far is this an attempt to crack open the façade of what beauty actually means?

I sort of use a fixed vocabulary of images. Models on covers, the fit, the bronzed and airbrushed, the post-produced and ready for printing and distribution. Luxury items. Heavy metal. Kind of identikit really, I just move the elements around.

There is a sense of a lens. Sometimes scratched, sometimes out-of-focus but always a reminder that one is a watcher. Much like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, you make the observer complicit and aware of that complicity/responsibility. Would you agree?

It is because I often use an image from a magazine of some kind. We all know how they must have got there, right? So that sense is already part of the viewer’s expectation. What the complicity you mention may be is a sense of the viewer as witness after the event. Any complicity is due to iconographic familiarity. (I can’t believe I just said that.)

pgn2, Paul Neale

I can. How far is your art influenced by where you live? Or do other factors dominate the creative process?

Yes. And. No. Certainly I could use material from say French or Japanese mass-market publications. Having said that, where I live has great museums and libraries. The region has some great arts organisations. There are groups of artists who have set up their own thing, like Aid and Abet or Art Language Location. There is Kettle’s Yard. They continue to do great shows of emerging and established artists.

When your well of inspiration is empty, where do you go, what do you read, whose work do you study? How do you replenish your resources?

Well I am flattered that you think I even have a well to dip into, let alone run dry.

I keep notebooks religiously. I keep a diary. I draw a lot and take photos every single day, I am pretty obsessive. I am not too worried if I am not inundated by mind-blowing ideas twenty-four hours a day. I can’t pretend that my work makes that much difference to anyone except myself. I write as a way of sorting my ideas out.

pgn3, Paul Neale

That sounds familiar. So many artists, authors and creatives I’ve interviewed have endless scraps of ideas knocking about which ‘might come in handy one day’. Who, in your view, are the most exciting artists on the scene today?

Interesting word, exciting …

The Art Market has brought to the fore a whole bunch of fantastic artists and also an even bigger bunch of crap ones. So let’s ignore that. Transition Gallery and Workplace Gallery are good. Galleries pop up all the time.

My favourite artist at the moment is Corinna Spencer, also David Kefford. Paul Muse had a good visual diary. Of the big fish Nan Golding and Steve McQueen, an Oscar and Turner winner. Anybody working in expanded drawing or painting has my vote. Andrew Cross and David Cotterrell are both independent visual thinkers with international reputations. Once I find an artist I can relate to in some way, I tend to keep tabs on them. I am a bit of a fan really. William Kentridge!

In Switzerland you have Fischli and Weiss, and Pipilotti Rist, but I do not know any of anyone in the emergent scene there.

I hesitate to say who has influenced me, German artists mainly. When I was doing my M.A., I was all about the Vietnam War, Robert Mapplethorpe and Oliviero Toscani the Benetton guy, who did the AIDS and starving kids. Powerful. These days I’m hard pressed to say IF I am directly influenced by anyone or not. I look at a lot of art but I am pretty detached really.

lungs, Paul Neale

Why do you make art?

A way of communicating through my shyness and lack of confidence in activities that others find easy. I find as I get older that it is easier to focus on the work itself, but the rest of how I cope is sometimes a bit iffy. Recently, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into, I have had quite a bit of ‘therapy’ as the Americans say. I feel better now.

Lately I have been working with reflective surfaces, steel and aluminium. There is a certain type of phone box, K 100 I think, which has a blank metal or aluminium back. It reflects just enough of the local area to make things interesting. There are not many of these phone boxes so when I find one it is quite an event. Anyhow I have got better things to do with my time than hunt down mystery phone boxes so I ordered some aluminium sheets and I’ll be using them to make landscapes and self-portraits. I spend a lot of time, it seems, just trudging around shooting stuff.

And finally, The Woolf special question: what is one of your favourite works of fiction and why?

I would say that John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one that I can read and reread and always find something new to laugh at or admire.

“Get away from me you deranged trollop!” is a typical utterance from Ignatius, and one I have used on many occasions whenever strange girls have made a grab for me or even offered to buy me a drink. I like the character because he is comical, but if you have any idea about mental illness you soon realise the story is rather tragic, dealing as it does with failure and breakdown. He is also surrounded by some of the greatest comic creations to have had a supporting role in a book. Ignatius J. Reilly is also hard to act and hard to illustrate. It is fantastically written with a sublime feeling for New Orleans voices, vernacular and cadences. Unfortunately, the author killed himself. It was his only book. I believe it was published after his death. It is a classic. An epic.

Paul is launching Airburst magazine mid-2016.


In Conversation: Padraig Rooney

Padraig Rooney spent the best part of 40 years outside his native Ireland and lives in Switzerland. He has published three collections of poetry and won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Poetry Business Award, the Strokestown International Poetry Prize and the 2012 Listowel Poem Award. His work is anthologised in Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry (Viking), Haiku World and The Haiku Seasons (Kodansha), and his short stories appear in Best Irish Short Stories 2 & 3 (Paul Elek). 

padraig rooney

Image courtesy: Padraig Rooney

I’ve read The Gilded Chalet was inspired by a visit to Basel’s Paper Mill and Literary Museum. How did the Earls of Ulster’s journey kick off the idea to explore the relationship between Switzerland and writers?

Clio, muse of history, presides over The Gilded Chalet. In March 2008 there were a number of commemorations in Switzerland and elsewhere, marking the passage of the Earls of Ulster from the Low Countries to Rome in March 1708. They passed through Basel and along the road to Liestal and most likely through the St. Alban Gate, nearby the present Basel Paper Museum. I’m a poet, and I like the way images cohere unexpectedly, bringing together disparate times and events. I’m also an Ulsterman and the sad romance of the end of the old Gaelic order is touching in its political and linguistic ramifications, which the passage of the Earls represents in Irish history. I was brought up a mile from the border during the Troubles, my father was an Irish speaker, and so there was a certain allegiance to a now rather old-fashioned Gaelicism.

You’ve a passion for writers and their locations in a wider sense. What’s at the heart of your interest? The influence of location on their work, their perceptions of the place or is it driven by your own exploratory nature?

I think because I’ve travelled quite a bit myself, I tend to assume place is central to the experience of exile. It may not be. Many of the writers in The Gilded Chalet were exiled in one way or another, and in search of a home. In Irish literature the fashionable term for exiled writers is the diaspora. For Russians at the beginning of the last century, it was the émigré life of Berlin and Paris. Switzerland still seems to me to be a very multicultural place, where people from all over the world congregate and communicate in several languages. It’s not just one homogenous culture, which island nations tend to veer towards.

I left Ireland after graduating in 1976 and haven’t much lived there since. I’ve always been attracted to travel, the details of place, to negotiating the world in several languages—second nature to me now. I do like a good, detailed, particularised setting in fiction, rendered in a painterly way. When there’s a description of a meal, as a reader I want to know what’s on the menu. I like the particulars.

You cover a huge time period in The Gilded Chalet and provide insights into the writers’ private lives as much as their writing. How far was your intention to add a human level to some of our literary icons?

Gossip is an underrated activity. The danger with this kind of book is to make it overly academic—there are enough of those—so some ‘human level’ as you put it, alleviates the tedium of academe. Maybe even a low human level. Byron with his boys and Rousseau with his kids farmed off to the workhouse, present interesting opportunities to showcase canonical writers, warts and all. Nabokov couldn’t have afforded to spend 16 years in the Montreux Palace Hotel without the cash from the sales of Lolita and from Kubrick’s movie adaptation. The fact that John le Carré was recruited as a spy in Switzerland and is the son of a con man, is no minor matter as regards the direction his fiction has taken him. There are certain dangers in keeping literature in the province of academia, with its critical-reverential approach.

Humour, too, tends to pull down icons: that is a good thing. I wish more people would use humour against the pervasive business culture, executive culture, celebrity culture of our time. These are our new vulgarians for Mammon.

gilded chalet, Padraig Rooney cover image

Cover: The Gilded Chalet Padraig Rooney

When we met in Geneva, I’d just had a lively debate on the subject of academia and the dangers of educators getting stuck in ‘transmit’ mode. Yet you, as a head of an English Department, seem to actively seek the experience of learning, be it travel or researching other authors’ work. Do you make a conscious effort to keep ‘curious’?

Much of education these days is in ‘deliverology’ mode—to borrow a term recently used in the London Review of Books—a mode patented by Tony Blair. The ideology of business has in the past 40 years moved into areas traditionally regarded as hands-off—water, education, health, patenting seeds. The wonderful Noam Chomsky has been writing about this recently too with regard to the use of non-tenured faculty in American universities: the culture of temps. I give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is God’s. Caesar is going to steal from you anyway, so you can short-change him now and again! I have to fight for my time and I’m curious by nature.

Much of The Gilded Chalet got written between six and eight in the morning, and then I went into homeroom. It used to be that academia or teaching were favourable occupations for writers but I think that’s no longer the case, and hasn’t been the case for several decades. There’s a lot of fluff talked about fostering creativity in schools. It’s the bottom line which increasingly rules; fluff comes cheap.

A poet, journalist, author and photographer have different constraints/freedoms. Can you hop easily between roles or are they strictly separate? Where do they blend?

The late writer W. G. Sebald pioneered a blend between those formerly distinct modes or genres, and good travel writing that partakes of journalism and a poetic sense. I find that I didn’t write much, if any, poetry while working on The Gilded Chalet. I just didn’t have enough energy. Poetry requires pressure from the poem—you can’t will it into being. Many bad poems come from merely being exercises of the intellect. Poetry is also about waiting, whereas prose can be got on with, a thousand words a day, until you have a draft. So, personally, I wasn’t able to hop easily between them.

padraig pic

You’re a border man. Growing up just on the border of Northern Ireland and now living in Basel, right on the hub of three countries, what effect does that have on a sense of identity?

The fashionable lit-crit jargon for that is liminality, but “a border man” sounds great to my ear. I love moving between the butter people and the olive people, from north to south, and back again. One of my uncles was a small-time smuggler across the Northern Ireland border, and my mother smuggled butter into the South all the time—it was considerably cheaper in the North, and she had five children. So the world of smuggling has a certain appeal in borderland, even in Switzerland.

The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.

One of my favourite quotes is from Bob Dylan: “Steal a little and they put you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.” I’m writing this in the week the Panama Papers have revealed how the rich and famous smuggle, steal and launder. It’s an imaginative terrain—John le Carré wrote a novel called The Tailor of Panama and Graham Greene tackled Panama somewhat in Getting to Know the General. The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.

I sometimes miss, too, the particular language of the border counties, the accent and diction of my parents, surrounded as I am by Anglo-Americanism or globlish. I miss the linguistic pattering of my childhood: bits of Ulster Scots, Gaelic inflections in the English, countrified pronunciation. I sometimes hear the clichés and ready-made phrases of mid-Atlantic English as a vulgar tide, swamping everything.

If you could bring back three characters from The Gilded Chalet for a round-the-table discussion with yourself, who would you choose?

 I’m not sure all three would work round the same table together, so perhaps individually. I’d like to have a coffee with Annemarie Schwarzenbach because I’m translating some of her journalism about 1937-8 New Deal America at the moment. She travelled to the American South at a time of labour unrest and segregation. We might talk about the death of the left, about the current state of American politics. I don’t think Vladimir Nabokov would be very chatty, with nothing off the cuff, but I’ve been a fan of his writing for a long time and would like to hear his rolling, preening accent in English. Finally, if I sat down with Anthony Burgess I could thank him for a kind review he gave of one of my short stories back in 1976. Late, but better late than never.


Edmund White described The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland as “a superbly amusing guide to all the writers who’ve been drawn to or emerged from Switzerland”.

Read more:

Gallery: Borders

JJ Marsh talks with Paul Neale about red lines and coded environments, fractured figures and distorted bodies, and how he works and plays with pre-existing imagery. You can read the interview here.



Geneva Writers’ Conference

Centers of Wisdom, by Olivia Wildenstein

gwc banner

Conferences are hubs of knowledge and talent. They fuel the imagination and broaden social networks. They are important for every trade, but especially for writers, since writing is such a solitary job.

In Geneva, on the weekend of the 19th of March, a large group of authors and agents came together at Webster University to discuss writing and publishing. It was an exciting weekend, jam-packed with workshops and Q&As that shed light on how to transform your manuscript into a gripping masterpiece, and land that coveted publishing contract or self-publish it with success.

The first time I put a book out into the world, Ghostboy, Chameleon & the Duke of Graffiti, I did it without a master plan. I just wanted to publish my story, because I loved my characters and thought they deserved better than being locked up inside my computer, along with all the others I’d made up over the years. Also, I wanted to be able to say ‘yes’ when people asked if I’d published anything. I wanted to feel like a real author. Now, after the conference and the months of work I put into the launch of my second novel, The Masterpiecers, I realize that I should have had a master plan. Not because Ghostboy wasn’t received well—it was—but because it took me a year to slip it into the hands of more or less five hundred readers.


gwc group

At the conference, I gleaned new strategies from other self-published writers like Jill Marsh, who emphasized the importance of finding your tribe, because they are the people whose criticism will be the most constructive and whose encouragements will be the most sincere. Where do you find your tribe? In targeted Facebook groups, at conferences, in writing groups. In today’s ultra-connected world, the possibilities are endless. Even if you live in the most remote town in Switzerland, you can join websites dedicated to people who write in the same genre as you do.

Liz Jensen’s workshop was not to be missed. Her novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, is currently being turned into a film. She wasn’t exuberant in her way of ‘teaching’, and she didn’t throw around big smiles to charm us, but she explained the mechanics of storytelling in a way that made you want to pick up a pen and write the best book of your life. She used examples like Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment, where children were all given a marshmallow and told that if they waited, they would get a second one. Some ate it, some waited. Forty years later, the people organizing the study looked up these children. The ones who’d waited had been more successful in life than the others. Jensen used the example to demonstrate that giving your character a desire, but not fulfilling it on page one, will create greater gratification for the reader at the end.

Then we played around with different plot techniques to raise the stakes in a story. Your character needs to get from point A to point B, but things keep happening that hinder his journey. Here’s the example Jensen used: you need to go to the hospital because your mother is ill. There’s a traffic jam. Then you find yourself involved in a car accident where you’ve hit a person. A mother and her child. The mother dies. When you search for papers to phone the baby’s next of kin, you realize she was an immigrant, and therefore carries no papers. There’s no one around. This will create a great dilemma for your character, and dilemma is essential to a terrific character arc. “Put your protagonist through hell,” advises Jensen.

gwc daniela

The other author whose workshop I attended was a prodigious show-woman and storyteller: Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle. Unlike Jensen, she used her workshop hour to explore a selection of short stories, such as Raymond Carver’s Popular Mechanics and Alice Walker’s The Flowers. Studying writing is essential to writing, which made the time well spent. We analyzed how writers can create tension and satisfaction using very few words. The other memorable moment of Hood’s workshop was when she shared with us something she’d heard from author Grace Paley: “No story is one story. There’s the one on the surface and the one bubbling beneath. And the climax is when they collide.”

So once you have that great story written down in a neatly edited pile of words, what do you do with it? Enter the agent. You hook one, they champion your work and sell it to a major publishing house, and then you’re gold. Although part of this is true, it’s a simplistic view of the publishing system. There is still a lot of work involved on the author’s part: social networking, building a mailing list, accumulating reviews and entering competitions. An agent will help with some of this, but they won’t do your job for you. And that mammoth publishing house won’t either. Very few books are even allotted a marketing budget. But you do have a team to assist you with cover design, manuscript edits and placing your book in brick-and-mortar shops and libraries. Those are not trivial parts of the publishing process, but in a way, for having done it twice now, they’re the easiest part.

Conferences will challenge you, unlock new prospects and instigate key relationships. But most importantly, they will make you a wiser writer, and wisdom is tantamount to success.

olivia pic


Olivia Wildenstein lives with her husband and three children in Geneva, Switzerland, where she’s an active member of the writing community.



Making Tracks

Summer is a laid-back season for events and competitions in writing and the arts, but there are always a few tasty morsels out there in the wilds of Zürich and beyond … especially for those who like a writing retreat.

Partial image, courtesy Paul Neale

Partial image courtesy: Paul Neale

Kaufleuten has a selection of cultural events and readings planned for the coming months, including an evening with Donna Leon on 13 June

Openair Literatur Festival Zürich, 11-17 July: Readings and other lively lit events, mostly in German but also with David Mitchell and Nell Zink

Geneva Writers’ Group, 11 June: End-of-year panel discussion in Geneva on “What’s New in Publishing and Marketing”

Webinar, 9 June: The Germany/Austria chapter of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), with literary agent Stephanie Fretwell-Hill, on “Creating Memorable Middle Grade Characters”

Writing, music and yoga retreat, 19-26 June: Writing in a wellness context, with Deborah Moffitt, in the Italian part of Switzerland.

Paris Writers’ Workshop, 26 June – 1 July: this year with workshops for novels, short stories and novellas, poetry and creative non fiction, as well as expert panels, author readings and social events.

Writing retreat, 29 August to 4 September: gain writing confidence in a French Château, with teacher Clay Tennis.

Paris Writers’ Retreat, 5-9 September:

Video interview series: As part of the Zürich-meets-London festival, art and performance collective Neue Dringlichkeit and ImpactHUB Zürich are releasing weekly video instalments of interviews with Zürich creators and entrepreneurs around entrepreneurial futurism, including the future of work and the creative economy. Watch this space:

The Voyage Out: Mr. Pinocchio

Susan Platt

A stone’s throw away from Zürich’s traffic nexus Bellevue, at a safe distance from Bahnhofstrasse’s extravagant and standardised luxury retail windows, sits one of the city’s best-kept, playful secrets. Behind glass windows, an eclectic selection of books, toys and vintage calendars with motifs from the 1950s vie for attention, giving off just the slightest hint of the million wonders that await inside.

Mr Pinocchio by Lyle Deschant

Mr. Pinocchio signage, image courtesy Lyle Deschant, license CC BY

Italian born and bred, but having moved to Zürich for love in her twenties, Antonella Ghelardi Keiser had a passion for stories and storytelling that sparked the idea of opening a small bookshop to be able to provide reading material in her mother tongue for her own two children. When a small location in a side street off Rennweg became available, Antonella jumped at the opportunity and opened Zürich’s then-first multilingual children’s bookshop in 2001, with a modest selection of classic children’s books in Italian, English, German and French. Honouring her roots, she named it after one of the world’s most beloved characters in children’s literature who had sprung from the pen of an Italian author: Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio.


Image courtesy: Antonella Ghelardi Keiser

The lovingly selected choice of books and toys soon caught the attention of Zürich’s international community, and Mr. Pinocchio became a popular hotspot for both parents and young readers of all ages and nationalities. Four years into its existence, the shop had outgrown its premises and moved into better-located grounds on Oberdorfstrasse, where it still resides today.

From the get-go, the store has been powered exclusively by a small group of women, among whom is Antonella’s daughter Giulietta—when she is not tied up in her studies at Zürich University. “It is a real family affair,” Antonella laughs, and her eyes sparkle with joy whenever she talks about her ‘libreria’ and the small team that keeps it going.

Antonella’s zest for life as well as her knack for nostalgic items have been infused into the small space, and are almost tangible. More often than not, those who enter Mr. Pinocchio’s magical realm find themselves hopelessly lost in childhood memories, discovering and re-discovering books and toys from their own past, while on the hunt for the perfect gift for their youngster or a god-child.

Those looking for the latest commercial toy craze will not be successful here. Everything on the shelves has been handpicked and acquired in small quantities by Antonella, on her frequent travels throughout Europe.


Image courtesy: Susan Platt

Each item here tells a story, tickles the brain or takes you on a trip down memory lane. The paper pop-up books, of which there is a whole array on Mr. Pinocchio’s shelves, attract collectors from all over Europe and have been a staple product of the business for over 15 years. Today, they are flanked by children’s classics and picture books in English, Italian, Spanish, French, German and even Russian and Croatian.

Alongside the books, masterfully crafted hand puppets, wooden model sets, colourful instruments and room decorations jostle for attention with building- and experimental kits, gruesome fake teeth and whoopee cushions—all of these comprising the many quirky and ever-growing categories of treasures.

When asked how the addition of these items came about, Antonella simply smiles and quotes Italian writer and educator Gianni Rodari:

“Vale la pena che un bambino impari piangendo quello che può imparare ridendo?”

“Is it worth it for a child to learn while crying, when they could learn while laughing?”


Notes from the Unexpected: The Rote Fabrik

Images and text: DB Miller

Another day, another train ride—and the whoosh of brick, graffiti and thicket still makes little sense. A constant of the commute and Zürich’s most unlikely landmark, the sprawling red jumble not only follows its own logic, but dares to do so on what is now prime lakefront property.

Then again, the Rote Fabrik got here first.


At one time a silk-weaving mill on the outskirts, the ‘red factory’ dodged the wrecking ball in the early 1970s to eke out a new life as a cultural center. Its real rebirth came in 1980, when throngs of the young and forgotten rejected the establishment definition of culture—which infamously excluded rock music and the more experimental youth arts scene. Words mattered when the lavish funding went elsewhere, mainly to the Zürich Opera House. But history ran its course: riots ensued, the Fabrik got its subsidies and, within a generation, unsuspecting opera audiences might catch some full-frontal before the night was through.

Today, the Rote Fabrik churns out a packed program of theater and dance, as well as reams of rock, indie, rap and jazz gigs. The organization behind the cultural center is also responsible for the themed events, from poetry slams to debates about the migrant crisis. With its bustling agenda, the place has its fans. Or maybe it’s just because the Rote Fabrik is the only spot I know where the heavily-inked, stroller-bound and chess-playing are equally welcome to grab some homemade carrot cake and mill around the still-drying tags. For some, it’s all a bit messy.


“Like the zoo,” says Sarah, one of 17 in the management team, “I think sometimes people see us as a zoo. As in, what we do over here is just about acceptable, but at least it’s contained.”

NFTU RF3 The site does appear unruly, with its concert halls, artists’ studios and sailing school, not to mention the bike shop, kindergarten, museum and restaurant. As much of this is tucked away or camouflaged by graffiti, extra time must be budgeted to find the right door. And then, there is the exotic way things run: as a collective.

Here, equal salaries reign and inexperience counts. As Sarah puts it, “It’s not as easy to understand as a bank.” But rules are in place—the team is adamant that tolerance not be confused with anarchy—and those who become a member of the Rote Fabrik get to shape it.

I look through the industrial-sized windows at the lake. Just out of view, a new multi-million-franc walkway juts into the water and connects the Rote Fabrik to more familiar shores. A marina, swanky restaurant and boutiques are only five minutes away—and their counterpoint, five back.

* Seestrasse 395, 8038 Zürich


 DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

In Conversation: Liam Klenk  

Tumbling into this world prematurely and in a girl’s body, Liam Klenk has travelled a long and tumultuous road to gender reassignment and a sense of identity. Susan Platt asks him about the process of penning his autobiography, the use of crowdfunding site Indiegogo, and a search for home.

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Image courtesy: Liam Klenk

Welcome, Liam. When I read your autobiography, Paralian, I couldn’t help noticing how many borders you crossed on your journey—both mental and physical. What do borders mean to you?

For me, borders have multiple meanings. Through being half Italian, a quarter German, a quarter French—and also because of my intensive years abroad—political and geographical borders ceased holding any meaning for me years ago. I don’t let them stop me. If I find employment across one of those fictional lines, I’ll go and seize the experience. I am a world citizen, not just a citizen of any one country.

Then there are the borders as in life challenges, limits, gender assignments, societal constructs, etc. They’re there to be overcome. So we can be our true selves.

I firmly believe in equality, freedom and the rights of the individual. I believe in not judging people and more than anything I believe in valuing people exactly as who they are. We erect too many walls and borders that don’t need to be there in the first place. Diversity, change and fluidity are a gift, a privilege, not a threat.

You were born in Germany and moved all over the globe during the last few years, in your search for identity. Recently you returned to live in Zürich for the time being. What is your connection to Switzerland and Zürich in particular?

In 1991, when I came here to study at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, I was a mess. I felt homeless, lonely, uprooted—it had nothing to do with my move to Zürich and all to do with my internal state. Getting away from my rather difficult family situation, making a positive new start (as positive as I could), leaving everything I knew and seeing the world around me with fresh eyes was like being born again.

The discussions at college, my artwork, friends who became a surrogate family—all of it helped me to find myself and overcome. Zürich was my first real home. It was here as well where I finally understood that I am transgender. When I left 10 years ago, Zürich stayed in my heart. So when we left Asia in 2014, it felt only natural for my wife and me to see Zürich as a potential destination where we could make a home. We went to Germany and then to Malta for a while, but all we endeavoured there failed. On the other hand, whatever we applied for in Zürich—job, apartment, my wife’s job—all worked out immediately. So here we are.

Did you have a special writing spot during the creation of Paralian? Are you a writer who needs a quiet spot or do you prefer a stimulating environment, such as a café?

I’m getting better at writing in noisy places like cafés as well but, at heart, I’m a writer who needs solitude and ideally nature all around me to be at peak performance. For the creation of Paralian I found the perfect spot. I quit my day job and dedicated an entire year to writing eight to ten hours, five days a week. My wife and I moved to Lamma Island, half an hour by ferry from Hong Kong Central. In the little village of Yung Shue Wan cars and motorbikes aren’t allowed. All you hear are crickets, millions of frogs, birds and quadrillions of greedy mosquitoes. We found an apartment at the edge of the jungle with a little pond in front of our door. I spent all day sitting at my laptop behind a large window, gazing out at myriad shades of green and bustling fauna. Unfortunately, sitting outside wasn’t an option since the flying vampires would’ve eaten me alive, but what I had was the next best thing. In my breaks I walked to the beach or into the forest, both only minutes away from our house. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect and inspiring.

When did you first get the idea to put your life’s story into a book? Do you remember the exact moment or was it an idea that slowly evolved over a certain amount of time? What was the catalyst that made you sit down and put pen to paper?

It was an idea that slowly evolved, but I do remember the exact moment when I vowed to make it happen one day: I was around 17, still living at home with my dad, utterly unhappy, yet holding on tenaciously. One evening I sat in my little room, listening to Peter Gabriel at full volume, and wrote a short 5-point bucket list. No. 1 was “be happy“ (doing the very best I can at all times). No. 2 was “live abroad” (done and far from finished). No. 3 was “learn to scuba dive” (done extensively). No. 4 was “write a book” (done and ready for more). No. 5 was “learn to fly a plane” (I seriously aim to get around to that rather sooner than later).

To sit down and actually begin writing my first book was an instantaneous decision. I’d been writing paragraphs in my head for many years but had never seemed to find the time to actually get started in all seriousness. Then I sat in the office on the 21st floor of a Hong Kong skyscraper, doing a job I hated and thought, “You don’t need to put yourself through this Liam. For once, don’t endure. You don’t need to prove anything. Just let it be and move on.” Right after that I thought, “Ha, this is it. It’s time to finally write my book!” I resigned the next day and began writing a week later.

The working title of the book was The Fortunate Nomad until it got its definite Paralian title. How did the change of title come about, and does it imply that your nomadic days are coming to an end?  

They’re definitely not coming to an end. We arrived one year ago and I can’t deny already thinking of faraway places and new adventures. Being a nomad is in my blood, and thankfully it seems it’s in my wife’s blood as well. Still, we’ll make a home here for quite a few years before moving on. You never know of course, but there’s no need to rush.

The first working title came to me one day and seemed the perfect fit: I am a nomad and I do feel quite fortunate despite or rather because of all the difficulties I have encountered and survived so far. However, writing draft after draft, I developed a concept of naming my chapters after the bodies of water that had been most important to me. My life follows a blue thread so to speak, water being an ever-present, powerful force.

The longer I thought about it, the more it occurred to me how most people (myself included) would associate ‘nomad’ with dry deserts. I needed something more fitting to the water theme that flowed through the pages of my story. My wife was the one who suggested ‘Paralian’ (from ancient Greek, meaning ‘one who lives by the sea’). I instantly loved the idea and the title was set.

All of the chapters in your book carry the name of a body of water in one form or another. Why does this element resonate so strongly with you?  

Let me quote a paragraph from my book:

I finally reached the shore, out of breath and delighted, longing for more and feeling intensely alive. I had glimpsed boundless strength and passion within myself. For just an instant out there, in the arms of the Atlantic Ocean, I had felt beautiful.

Water has always been a source of strength as well as a soothing presence. Whenever I felt truly lost, I instinctively went towards the waves, gently lapping, or wildly surging.

Especially gliding weightlessly underwater, I feel in tune with this blue symphony.

Clumsy on land, stumbling, unsure of myself, and perpetually awkward within my own body, I transform as soon as I am in the powerful arms of my blue home. Underwater I am graceful. I feel self-assured, handsome, completely at ease with the world and with my entire self. I’m at one with myself. And it’s the best ‘place’ to be.

As a first-time author you took some unusual measures and launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds and help cover costs for the launch of the book. The campaign raised a respectable USD 10,000. What do you think is the secret of that success?

Transparency, tenacity, reliability and honesty.

I must add that no strangers donated to my campaign. All-in-all about 100 people donated in exchange for a signed copy of my book once it was published. They were all friends, family, buddies, acquaintances and former work mates.

No matter what circumstances they knew me from, they knew I keep my promises. Being true to my word at all times is very important to me.

In my proposal on Indiegogo, I outlined clearly what I was going to write about and how I was planning to go about it. I added photographs and some video footage. Then I proceeded to inform people about the campaign every few weeks via all my social media pages. I was stunned how many people donated. Even work mates I had totally forgotten about. Everyone sent supportive messages. Some people even donated up to three times. I kept my promise a month ago and sent them their books. It felt fantastic and I am eternally grateful to them all! The collaborative nature of my book project has made it an odyssey unto itself. Utterly unforgettable. 

Following up on the Indiegogo campaign: On top of being a first-time writer and learning the ropes, how much extra work went into preparing and then tending to all the extras of that campaign? Would you consider another crowdfunding campaign for other projects, and what would you do differently?

Depending on how much people donated, I had promised homemade postcards, bookmarks and of course the signed book. My wife put a lot of work into creating those postcards and bookmarks, and finally my dad, my wife and I spent weeks organising to send those parcels to addresses all over the world. But you know what, in the greater scheme of things it wasn’t much work at all and it was a pleasure. I’d do another campaign any day. And I can’t think of anything different I’d do.

Paralian just celebrated its worldwide release on 28th May. What is next for the book? Will there be an audio version of your tale?

My PR manager and I have talked about a possible audio version. I must admit that I’d rather wait until, hopefully, the book has had enough success so I can have my pick of who will read it on the recording. One of my absolute favourites would be Stephen Fry!

One thing I am hoping for next is translation into other languages, foremost German. Since my publishing company doesn’t offer translation services I am thinking of finding someone brilliant who’ll translate the book for me. I could do it myself but I’d rather direct my creative energy into moving on. I am also dreaming about the book (or at least part of it) being made into a movie. No idea if that’ll ever happen, but I am surely going to stick my feelers out and pitch it to producers.

What’s next for you? Are you going to keep writing? 

I’ve got five concrete book ideas in my head at this very moment, and more ideas floating around that could lead to even more tales to be told. So yes, I will definitely keep writing. The challenge is to make and find time to do so.

Over time, there could be entirely different genres. At the moment I am mostly fascinated by human-interest stories. For example, many of the professional acrobats I’ve met over the years have inspired me with their passion and dedication. I’d love to write a book of short stories about their lives.

Another person I’d love to write about is my grandmother. She was born in 1909 and grew up labouring on her dad’s farm. She survived two world wars. Her first husband was run over by a train, leaving her to fend for herself with her little daughter. Later she found love again, had another child (my dad), but lost her daughter due to a medical error. Her difficulties in life didn’t end there … Still, Grandma was a fighter and she was always positive. Whenever she entered the room, the sun began blazing and people’s lives improved instantly.

People with character traits like compassion, kindness, integrity, honesty, courage, grit, loyalty and open-mindedness are my heroes and idols. They are the ones I want to tell the world about in some form or another.

And finally, The Woolf special question: what is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

That’s a difficult one to answer. I am an avid reader and, on average, devour one to two books per week, ever since I learned to read. One of my all-time favourites is The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny. I love the eloquent, compassionate style of the author. The life story of 19th-century explorer John Franklin is a stunning ode to individuality and personal strength.

A recent favourite of mine is The Humans by Matt Haig. I laughed and cried my way all the way through (in the process, freaking out people on my morning commute). It truly is a novel with an enormous heart and is the tale of an alien impostor who thinks humans are repulsive. But to follow his orders and gather intelligence about a human breakthrough in science, he needs to go undercover in the most literal sense of the word: inhabit a human body and get close to the people around him. Quite involuntarily at first, then with ever-increasing openness, he learns to love the ambivalent, loveable creatures we are. It’s a heartbreaking book about what it means to be human. I felt lost when I finished it, longing for more.


‘Paralian’ is Liam Klenk’s autobiography



The Borderlands of Identity

Lindsey Grant

Where once I was generally classified as ‘Southern’, hailing as I do from Atlanta, Georgia, being labeled ‘American’ is a broad and amorphous identifier. It wasn’t until I relocated halfway around the world from the US to Switzerland and became an immigrant that I began to examine my understanding of origin, the importance of national identity, and how it impacts a person’s definition of self. I’m compelled to study anew the attitudes toward and policies regarding foreigners in my home country because I am subjected to those of my adopted one.

My husband is no stranger to ex- and repatriation, and has helped me navigate my way through the murky waters of voluntary displacement. Though his parents are American, he was born in Hong Kong and lived there for 14 years. His father lives in Hong Kong still, for longer now than he hasn’t. When my husband was born in 1980, Hong Kong was a British colony. For a period of time, until China assumed sovereignty, he could hold dual US/British citizenship. In the 1997 handover, though, the rules became muddled and, on paper at least, he is just American. Like me.

Until I expatriated, the word ‘border’ in my mind was synonymous with the separation between the US and Mexico or Canada. Border equaled a dichotomy. Here versus there. Us and them. This or that. And always distinguished by distance. Some citizens live a lifetime and never encounter a border or cross over into another country. This ingrained oppositional connotation I attached to the notion of borders surely has something to do with the fraught nature of immigration in the US. For a country called a melting pot of cultures, founded by immigrants, and where very few are truly native, it appears to have strayed from its pledge to embrace the tired, the poor and huddled masses from whichever land.

In as tiny a country as this, abutted by no less than five others, with almost as many official languages, it’s no wonder that all my previously held notions of borders and belonging, all understanding of ‘we’ and ‘they’, have been reordered and considerably complicated.

Living in such close proximity to so many different cultures, languages, geographies and political systems, the detail of where people come from seems both more and less significant. The proximity of so many other nations does not at all diminish the Swiss identity—perhaps it necessarily strengthens it—but the reality and immediacy of otherness is ever-present here. Those ‘others’ are geographically much closer than in many countries around the world, especially the US. Here, anyone can travel a couple of hours in any direction and become an outsider.

Grappling with the intricacies and paradoxes of identity while trying my utmost to assimilate to Swiss life, I went and got pregnant. The notion of ‘me’ versus ‘you’ and ‘native’ versus ‘foreign’ took yet another hairpin turn into the unknown. The idea of borders becomes further complicated when you are a Matryoshka doll of a human. ‘Other’ takes on new meaning when your body has been colonized by an additional being. The delineations between me and my daughter are those of membranes: cellular and so clinical when compared to the barriers that exist between people and places on a map or in history books. Figuring where I end and she begins, or vice versa, is pure science. Humans, organs and tissue have walls and borders; the flow of blood between us, however, is limitless.

Yet in two months’ time, when she emerges from my body as an entirely separate entity, she will naturally be of this place, while I hail from another. Her birthplace will be here, while mine will ever remain there. Her native language or languages will be manifold while mine, frustratingly, remain singular.

After her physical freedom from the boundaries of my body, will she be like a colony to me? Does the dominion of a parent ever end? And how much influence will my own nationality have upon hers? I feel like a Trojan horse sneaking my spawn into this foreign land, one which I love and wish to remain in. But many an immigrant knows that even as you adopt a country as yours, that country may not take you in return. By being born here, she isn’t granted citizenship, yet she will be formed by this place. On paper, she will be American, but what will she know of America?

One day she will likely think of where she came from, perhaps with regard to where she is going, and I hope she has the rare opportunity to choose where she wishes to be. My smuggled cargo of a child will develop allegiances of her own, which I can neither predict nor dictate. The question of belonging may get lost between the lines, but I’m starting to think that the answer is never finite anyway. Maybe it is best left just out of reach, in the no man’s land that exists amid a multiplicity of tidy conclusions.


In Conversation: Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell is a writer, editor, musician, book cover designer and the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and Vine Leaves Press. She is also an editor/writer for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide.

In addition to her novels, poetry collections and her bestselling pocket writing guides (Writing in a Nutshell Series), she has published a variety of works in online and print literary journals and anthologies, including Australia’s Cordite Review, Writer’s Digest, and the anthologies 100 Stories For Queensland and From Stage Door Shadows, both released through Brisbane, Australia’s eMergent Publishing. Jessica will be teaching a one day workshop on How To Publish A Book as part of WriteCon16 in Zürich on 21/22 May (book your place here).

Untitled-8 Jessica Bell

All images courtesy Jessica Bell

I first encountered you as an author, but I’ve since found other Jessicas popping up all over the place: musician, writing coach, litmag editor, cover designer, poet, workshop organiser. Which came first?

I started writing poetry when I was about twelve, inspired by the Greek landscape, but then I soon dove right into music at around thirteen/fourteen. My parents were (well, still are) musicians, so I was surrounded by music for much of my teen and young adult life.

Untitled-7 Jessica Bell

Zürich has a thriving literary programme in various languages for readers. But ten years ago, the opportunities for English-speaking writers were limited. Thankfully Zürich Writers Workshop changed all that and The Woolf grew from a desire to connect and inform writers. What kind of a writers’ scene do you have in Athens?

A very small and narrow one. There are some English writers here, and I’ve met up with a few on occasion, and though they are absolutely lovely people, I don’t have much in common with them on the writing front. The ones I’ve met are very focused on writing romance books set in Greece, or travel writers writing about Greece to boost tourism. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not that kind of writer. Yes, my debut was set in Athens, but it’s so far from Shirley Valentine that I very much doubt readers of Greek island romance would desire to pick it up.

Many of our readers are expats or third culture kids. What do you see as the benefits of living in a different country to the one where you grew up?

There are many fabulous reasons, but I think the main one, as a writer, is that I’m able to experience the way a different culture behaves and I can therefore incorporate those differences into my writing. I love to include characters of various cultures in my books. The culture clash between them is great for tension and relationship dynamics. Of course, I think it goes without saying that being so close to everything in Europe is a godsend. I wouldn’t be able to travel to so many wonderful places so often if I still lived in Australia.

Where does the Vine Leaves journal come in? Who are your readers and how does it work?

Vine Leaves started in late 2011 with my co-founder, Dawn Ius, to draw more attention to the vignette. As it says on our website:

“Vignette is a word that originally meant ‘something that may be written on a vine leaf.’ It’s a snapshot in words. It differs from flash fiction or a short story in that its aim doesn’t lie within the traditional realms of structure or plot. Instead, the vignette focuses on one element, mood, character, setting or object. It’s descriptive, excellent for character or theme exploration and wordplay. Through a vignette, you create an atmosphere.”

vine leavesI believe our readers are people who really enjoy the manipulation of language in a way that isn’t considered the ‘norm’. This doesn’t mean that everything is ‘poetic’, or so experimental that it would take a room full of professors to encrypt it. What it means is that our readers, and writers alike, understand that every word used in a vignette is a choice. To write an excellent vignette, one needs to only use words that have a great amount of weight and significance to the vignette’s overall purpose.

For the first three years we published a new issue every quarter, but from this year forward we are only publishing biannually because we’ve now also opened Vine Leaves Press to unsolicited submissions. We’ve now ventured into book publishing! However, if you’d like to submit your vignettes to the journal, you can find out how here.

Tell us a bit about why you wrote the Writing in a Nutshell series? Was that driven by a desire to pass on what you’ve learned?

writing nutshellIn Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says a writer needs to focus on short assignments to avoid feeling overwhelmed. She refers to the one-inch picture frame on her desk and how it reminds her to focus on bite-sized pieces of the whole story. If you focus on one small thing at a time, the story will eventually come together to create a whole. The same applies to learning writing, editing and publishing craft. If writers focus on one aspect of the craft at a time, the process will seem less daunting, and piece by piece, it will come together.

With more than eleven years of experience as an editor and writer of English Language Teaching (ELT) materials for various ELT publishers worldwide, I know that “breaking down” language and tasks into smaller focus areas is an effective learning method. After much experimentation on myself, and volunteer aspiring writers, I discovered it is extremely effective with writing, editing and publishing, too. And so the Writing in a Nutshell series was born.

Your novels all have a powerful voice—whether it’s the torn musings of Melody in String Bridge or the range of distinctive characters in White Lady. How far is this talent with voice connected to your ear for music?

I’m really not sure, to be honest. I do suppose I have an ear for how language should sound rhythmically due to my experience with music, but I wouldn’t say it has a direct effect. When I write I just try to sound authentic. I don’t write stories. I write ‘real’ life. So my voice is a natural result, I think, of wanting to make the narrative sound as realistic as possible. And even when I’m being ‘poetic’, I believe that is realistic too. Because I strive to portray the ‘truth.’ It can be literal or symbolic, or through trying to make the reader feel what my characters are feeling by using poetic prose to create an atmosphere.

When you begin a book, do you start with the voice and find a story to fit, or does character development dictate the tone? Or perhaps you’re a rigorous planner?

I’m all over the place and unpredictable. Sometimes I’ll start writing a character, and a story evolves to fit him/her. Sometimes I’ll think of a plot idea and develop characters to fit that. Sometimes I write without a plan, and sometimes I write with strict chapter by chapter summaries. It all depends on my mood and what kind of book I’m writing. If I find that I need to organize my thoughts, I’ll plan. For example, I needed to plan White Lady so that all the plot and sub-plot points would link up together properly and make realistic sense. String Bridge and The Book weren’t planned. I wrote String Bridge completely out of order motivated by what the main character was feeling. I then pieced the excerpts together and filled in the gaps to create a flowing narrative. The 1st draft of The Book was written from beginning to end in three days, without a single scribble on a notepad to guide me. It just goes to show there is no ‘right’ way. Whatever works for you and gets the book written!



What made you self-publish your novels, and was that the right decision for you? Why?

My debut, String Bridge, was actually first published by a small press in America called Lucky Press. I guess they weren’t so lucky after all because they went bust only six months after my book’s release. I was then confronted with a big decision. Do I let the book go out of print only after six months and completely waste all my marketing efforts? (I’d also written and recorded an accompanying soundtrack to go with it.) I decided to take the matter into my own hands. Since then I haven’t looked back. I love having control over the publishing process. And I especially love that I’m able to publish books that aren’t ‘commercial enough’ for the Big 5, and still have the opportunity to build a dedicated readership that enjoy reading books by a writer with a different voice. This way I get to be the real me. Not a product that has been developed with profit as the main motive to sell it. Of course, we all like to make money. But that’s honestly not why I write. I design book covers to make money. I edit and write text books to make money. I organize workshops to make money. I do voiceover acting to make money. But the writing? That’s just my heart and soul finding a vehicle to express themselves. And if the result of that expression is making money, fabulous! If not, then I have everything else to keep me on my feet.

As an experienced cover designer, you must have a strong opinion on what does and doesn’t work. What are your key principles when creating a cover?

white ladySubtle colour combinations. If bold and vibrant, not too many! Space (very important!). Focus on portraying a theme and/or emotion, not specific story elements. People are attracted to visuals because of the way they make them feel. Which is why you often see TV commercials implementing a narrative that doesn’t seem to have very much to do with the product, but has managed to grab your attention because it has pushed the right emotional buttons. For example, while I was in Australia, I saw an advert that captured my attention. The narrative shifted from scenes in various homes with happy and relaxed families and individuals. Cooking, reading, playing with a baby, a writer content at his desk, etc. All the people in this advert were smiling and at complete ease. In a literal sense, it looked like it was an advertisement for either a furniture store, or a real estate agent. There was no text, until the end, when the Bank’s name popped up, along with something about their new easy Internet banking system. What was their message here? Bank with us and you’ll be able to enjoy life completely stress free. This is what I believe a book cover needs to do. It needs to show potential readers how it’s going to make them feel, not by telling them what is inside, but by pushing the right emotional buttons to make them take a look at the blurb and see what’s inside.

And apart from a busy year of speaking engagements–Zürich, Chicago, Dublin–what’s next for you?

I really want to try and get my books into audio format. Which won’t be too hard, because I’m also an experienced voiceover actor, and have my own recording equipment. The problem is finding time. I think I will try to get started on these this year. I also want to write another album. I miss music!

In advance of our May weekend and your session–How To Publish a Book–what are the most common errors writers make when putting their work out there?

Jessica 3They RUSH. And try to learn everything there is to know before they’ve even finished writing. By trying to do everything at once, you lose focus, and miss (or even create) errors. You really do not need to start thinking about retailers, distributors and marketing, etc. until the book is ready. So don’t rush. Get your book ready for publication FIRST. Step by step. Focus on writing the book. Then focus on editing the book. Then focus on cover design, etc. Through each step of the process, make sure the result is as good as it can possibly be. Then you will have the brain space and power for the logistics of getting it out there and for sale.

Finally, if you’d not embraced the world of writing and language, what else would you have become?

Oh, that’s easy. A rock star. (I still dream about it.)