This is the second part of a two-part interview with Cathy Dobson, aka Cartooncat.
The first part is here.
Rebecca's review of the book is here
I have a standing offer for all Newsviners: If you produce a movie, publish a book, record an album, etc I'd like to interview you about it. The idea is this would both help promote your product and result in an interesting interview.
Cathy took me up on that offer. I do my interviews in two parts: Part one is about the life of the artist and their intentions for the product. Part two, coming after I finish the book, is focused more on questions about the book itself.
Cathy has written a hilarious book, which made me laugh out loud several times, about what it was like for her British family to live in Germany.
She and her German business party, Birgit, work literally out a pigsty.
This is her first novel and I join others in hoping she writes a second.
Scott: What does Birgit think of the book?
Cathy: I gave a copy of the manuscript to Birgit before sending it to press. She read about half of it and then said: "You can publish it if you like—but I don't think anyone will laugh. It's all very boring and just about normal life. Nobody does anything amusing or unusual."
But of course that's what you would expect Birgit to say.
What one reviewer said to me about Birgit is:
"As I read, I found myself wishing for as much of the characters in the book as there is of Germany. Birgit for example. Hilarious. I wanted more Birgit. More Birgit and less cats."
So I started thinking about a sequel, which goes far more deeply into the dysfunctional relationship between the German and English business partners. I've already mentioned it to the real-life Birgit as a concept. I said: "It would be entitled something along the lines of Things my German business partner and I have argued about."
Her response was to shrug and say: "Whatever you strange Brits think is funny. But this time, make me a proper villain. The portrayal of me was much too nice in the last one."
There's no pleasing some people, is there?
Scott: If you could go back and rewrite it would you have changed anything?
Cathy: No, I don't think so.
I get a very strange mixture of feedback about the book. Some people hate the cats and love the Germans. Some hate the Germans and love the cats. Birgit seems to be universally popular... and what everyone so far has said is that the book made them laugh a lot.
Perhaps in the future I won't try to combine cats and Germans in the same book... but on the other hand, the feedback has been so overwhelmingly positive that I don't think it's really a problem.
Scott: What do you hope someone takes away from your book?
Cathy: My book is not intended to convey any deep fundamental messages... I wrote it purely to entertain. If you're looking for insights into the human condition or deep psycho drama, you'd better not buy this book!
What I do hope people take away from Planet Germany is that wherever you are in the world, the place is interesting and funny and you in that place are the funniest thing of all. Most people think Germany is fundamentally dull. Well, if you look at it through dull eyes, then it will be dull. If you look at Germany through my eyes, it's an odd quirky and fascinating place.
The key to living abroad is developing your senses. You need to see below the surface, to listen to more than just the spoken words, to delve for the underlying meaning and subtleties. And most of all, you need to be able to laugh. As an ex-pat, you'll always be the fish out of water. The butt of the jokes. The one who is helpless and baffled while all around you seem to know what they're doing —however stupid it may appear. Laugh at the situation, laugh at them and most of all laugh at yourself.
Scott: What do your German friends think of your book as opposed to your British friends?
Cathy: They all thought it was very funny. I suspect for a different set of reasons than the Brits.
I think what they see in it is the slapstick of British people making their way, Benny-Hill-like, through a normal orderly society. Occasionally falling flat on their faces, walking into ladders and slipping on banana skins. But they do also appreciate the humour of seeing their own country through different eyes.
Scott: Did the topic of World War II come up at all – Britain and Germany being on opposites sides of that one- and was that awkward?
Cathy: I didn't write about this aspect of Anglo-German relations deliberately. It's been done to death and it is simply not something I want to dwell on. The war's been over for more than 50 years for goodness sake! And yet every time England play Germany at football (soccer to you!) the British headlines all draw parallels with the war. I honestly think the Brits need to get over themselves on this point.
Scott: What is the biggest stereotype about Germany you found to be untrue?
Cathy: There are so many!
Seriously, I think two stand out. The first is that Germany is boring. It isn't. It so isn't. It may be orderly... but it's weird, quirky, fun, silly, funny, beautiful, eccentric.... need I go on?
The second is that Germans don't know how to enjoy themselves and can only be serious. Again, totally untrue. Their enjoyment is often meticulously planned and timetabled, such as Karneval, the Whitsun fair, the Tanz in den Mai, the Oktoberfest and so on. But when those festivities come around, the Germans let their hair down like no other nation. They dress in silly costumes, they sing, dance and drink copious quantities of alcohol without (in the main) causing any social upsets.
They also have crazy traditions... right now, for example, in Bavaria, there will be teams of Germans in villages all over the state plotting ingenious ways of stealing the neighbouring village's Maypole. Why? Because once they manage to steal it, the Maypole can be held to ransome (beer and bratwursts are usually the demand). The only "rule" is that when the team is out on a Maypole raid, they are obliged to leave their own Maypole unguarded....
Scott: What part was the most fun to write?
I enjoyed writing most of it. But the really fun bits for me are the stories which kind of forced their own way into the book. They aren't there because they were essential to the plot or belonged in the structure... they are the stories which just had to be told, come hell or high water. Like about serving curry to the Germans, or sneaking pumpkins into the house. I also enjoyed all of the characters in the book - of course they're all based on people I know. But it was lovely to develop them and savour their individuality.
Scott: How much of this is true and how much is fiction?
I'm not telling.
OK... I'll tell you one story which partly explains a bit about my writing process. The family was sitting around the tea-table one day last year and I was trying to work out what to say about the St. Martin's Day parade. We all recounted our favourite experiences, and what we remembered from last year and how the lanterns were made and everything.
Then we talked about the parade itself, and how we'd been walking right up front, directly behind the horse.
Diana: "Do you remember when the horse did a poo.*giggle*"
Alex: "And it nearly hit Dad. Mum - in your book, can you make it hit Dad"
Dad: "What? You can't write that!"
Me: "Shall we take a vote?"
Alex: "OK - the poo hits Dad."
*helpless laughter from all kids*