This is the first part of a two-part interview with Newsviner CartoonCat, author of the book Planet Germany
I have a standing offer for all Newsviners: Send me a book, cd, dvd, you made and I'll do an interview with you about it, which helps promote and publicize your product while giving me and those reading it the chance to get to know you better in the process.
Last week, for example, I published the first part of my interview with Pamela Drew about her dvd about GMO's.
I actually had no idea what CartoonCat's book was about when I agreed to do the interview about it. Only last week did I get around to reading Rebecca's review of it.
So CartoonCat doesn't yet know of an odd coincidence of the it's-a-small-world variety, namely the city where I live (Hagerstown, Md.) has a sister city which is… you guessed it… in Germany. Wesel, Germany, to be specific. Also, I'm part German. So I may have more connections to this book than CartoonCat initially anticipated.
With that, let's get this interview going.
Scott: Let's start with something you said via email:
"I don't have a blog (actually the book came about because I'd been about to start a blog... and then I realised that what I wanted to write was a book - maybe that's why the book is split into little anecdotes which are all about the size of blog entries...)"
Can you elaborate?
It was 2004 and I'd just started to discover online communities. I started posting little snippets and anecdotes about quirky things that happened in Germany - and I got a lot of great feedback from other community members. A recurring theme was either "You should write a blog" or "You should write a book." Initially I thought a blog would be less daunting. But as I thought about it more, I realised it was a book I wanted to write. I wanted something I could hold in my hand. Turn the pages. I wanted people to read it and re-read it.... not just have to search back through google to find a particular entry...on its own... out of context....
So a book it was.
Scott:What is Planet Germany about? Did I miss a news story and Germany became a planet?
Actually it wouldn't surprise me. (But I missed that story too... Newsvine obviously didn't give it front page coverage)
But if you land here...on Planet Germany during, say, Karneval...you wouldn't necessarily recognise it as Planet Earth. Those tedious straight-laced Germans we all know about - you know, the ones with no sense of humour, who don't know how to enjoy themselves.... well they all get up in fancy-dress costumes and hold a week-long street party involving quantities of alcohol which would keep a small Balkan state supplied for a year. Not only that they forcibly eject the Burgermeister (mayor) from his Town Hall, snip off his tie (that's symbolic for emasculation - yes I know, I know, too much information...), and the clowns and jokers take over government....
(Hmmm... now I mention it, maybe it's not that different from Planet Earth after all....)
Scott:What made you decide to write the book?
Living in another culture is a fabulous and unique experience. Unique in the sense that nobody else experiences it quite the way you do.
I have three kids who are growing up in Germany - and were under the impression that this culture is normal. I wanted mainly to write it for them - to show them through a different perspective, how all the incidents and adventures we've had, which are their "normality" are actually weird and wonderful to some people - including their mother!
We had a great time over the many months when I was writing. I used to read out bits of what I'd written to the kids - and they'd fall over laughing and say: "I never saw it that way before!" It really brought us together as a family - and made us talk a lot about experiences we'd shared. I mean talk on a different level... about things like, "What's really bizarre about going to the supermarket...." In "normal life" you don't even talk about those things - they're like life's wallpaper. And suddenly you start to see everything a little differently. Life has a whole new texture....
Scott: What were your goals with this book? Did you accomplish it?
What I wanted to achieve was a picture of life, our life, over one year which happened to be quite a seminal year for many of us. I was starting a new business, two of my kids were changing school. We were all growing and experiencing some important personal milestones.
There are some messages in the book - about culture clashes and how we relate to and accommodate each other's cultures - but the primary aim is to entertain. We enjoy our life here. I mean...we really laugh a lot. Lots of funny things happen to us - and they are stories which we regale each other with daily. Those stories are the mainstay of the book.
Scott:When did it come out?
The book came out in November 2007 (according to the publisher), though I only found it on Amazon and got my first copy on December 1. So that's "my" publication date.
Scott: How has it been received?
The last month - ever since the book came out - has been absolutely amazing. I've never experienced anything like it. I've been contacted by all sorts of people I don't know (but who seem to think they know me pretty intimately). I've been blogged about by people I've never heard of! Like this: Unbelievable! An indonesian woman living in Cologne has bought my book and blogged about it! How cool is that?
I've had all sorts of reviews (you've probably only seen the ones on Amazon US - but take a look at Amazon.co.uk - amazing!) and I've just been interviewed by one of the mainstream UK newspapers (The Telegraph) - the review will probably be in February or March, though - apparently there's a backlog.
What's really peculiar is that a lot of people who write to me after they've read Planet Germany, tell me which was their favourite bit in the book. And so far (out of about 15 people) only two had the same story which was their favourite. Oddly enough, it was the Oily Cat incident - which I nearly left out anyway as it wasn't particularly related to culture-clashes and integration.
Scott: What do you do besides Newsvine and writing a book? Do you work? What kind of work?
I have my own consulting business, which I run from a pigsty along with my German business partner.
Scott: You said in your email to me that you like to travel – what is it about traveling that you like?
Actually, I take it back. I hate travelling. I hate airports, trains, queues, document checks, petty dictators in peaked caps and not being able to find a vacant toilet. OK - I've got that off my chest.
What I do like is living in another culture. Before Germany I previously lived in the Netherlands and Belgium. And I fancy trying another country in a few years. Maybe Italy or France - I'd like to go somewhere with warmer weather for a change.
I like really getting under the skin of other cultures. Trying to integrate - trying to see beyond the initial irritations ("I can't make this work, I don't know what to do, how do I get the right documents" etc.) and understand the philosophy, the humanity, the humour of everyday situations as well as the extraordinary events which make life memorable.
You can only do that, though, if you are prepared to recognise your own failings, accept that your own culture may be inferior in some (or even all aspects), and that the only thing you can do to save your dignity is laugh heartily at yourself.
Scott: Often authors are asked if the characters in their books are based on real people but you say the opposite, if I understand your email right? Can you explain? And real cats too?
Yes, the characters are based on real people, but they each have a particular role to play in the book. As a result, certain character traits are exaggerated, others are suppressed, so they no longer bear a close resemblance to the individuals who inspired them. This is particularly true of Birgit, my business partner, whose role in the book is to disapprove of everything English. Actually, the real life woman is a lovely tolerant Anglophile lady with a balanced and rounded personality (OK - most days she is....). But the book wouldn't be funny if I'd portrayed that side of her.
The cats are very real, and all the incidents relating to them actually happened (I even used their real names). The white cat, Constantine, says he's never helping me research a book again after the oil incident.
Scott: What are you working on next?
Ooooh! The squillion dollar question!
I have three ideas at the moment. One's a thriller. A completely different genre altogether - and I've got a great plot idea (but I can't tell... it would spoil the ending already!). And there are two potential "Planet Germany" offshoots. I'd love to write something covering the subsequent period - including the World Cup in Germany which was an absolutely fabulous and magical event for us... a whole summer long. The other is a Prequel - when we first lived in North Rhine Westfalia we were living in a bizarre and very quirky community which for years we said someone should turn into a book or a soap opera - it's just that such odd things happened that we thought nobody would ever believe it. One day... I will have to tell that story.