Bernhard Schlink, OLGA

Bernhard Schlink, OLGA

Zibby is joined by Bernhard Schlink, author of the international bestselling book, The Reader, to discuss his latest novel, Olga. Bernhard shares how the titular character was inspired by the women in his family, which of his own experiences shaped the novel’s premise, and why he prefers to read a very specific type of book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Bernhard. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Olga.

Bernhard Schlink: Hi, Zibby. I’m so happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. What a beautiful story. In this book, you have captured an entire life, expectations crushed, happiness attained and then lost, multiple generations. It’s really amazing, the way you’re able to craft this person who we now feel like we know and have lived this whole life. What’s the secret? How do you do this so well?

Bernhard: I don’t know, Zibby. I don’t know. I can only say the women who inspired me to write about Olga, it’s my grandmothers. There were several old aunts in my family. When I was a child, they had time for me. Then when I got older, I so much enjoyed talking to them and learning from them and hearing about their lives and their times. I think all that went into Olga.

Zibby: What you said really resonates with me, that your grandparents made time for you because I feel like that’s the only true gift we all have to give the people that we love. It sometimes feels like the hardest one to spare.

Bernhard: Grandparents sometimes can give what parents can’t, a kind of understanding, time. They don’t judge. They just are happy to learn what the grandchildren are interested in and want and do.

Zibby: Although, Olga’s grandmother was not particularly nice to her.

Bernhard: Olga had bad luck with her grandmother.

Zibby: Bad luck. In fact, you have this one passage maybe I could read if you don’t mind. Is that okay if I read a little, a few lines?

Bernhard: Please go.

Zibby: You said, “When Olga arrived, her grandmother was already lying in her coffin in the church. Olga sat beside her and held the wake. From nightfall until daybreak, she sat beside the woman who had taken her in and raised her but had not liked her. She did not mourn what had been between her grandmother and herself, which was now over, but that which had never been. She also mourned the unlived lives of those fallen young men and the life she and Herbert would never have. For the first time, all of it was real, the loss, the farewell, the pain, the mourning. She started weeping and could not stop.” I loved that passage because that’s part of grief, which I feel like is coming more into the mainstream. You’re not just sad and devastated by the loss of the person, but all those experiences you would have had and then could not have.

Bernhard: The experience she couldn’t have with Herbert because he died on this futile expedition and with the men of her generation who died in the first world war by millions and also the experiences she wasn’t allowed to have as a woman. How hard did she have to fight to become even an elementary school teacher? She would’ve loved to go to university. This life under her possibilities, and often next to men who lived above theirs, that was a tough life.

Zibby: What do you think Olga would do if she was alive today? What would her job be, do you think?

Bernhard: She would go to university. Maybe she would become a professor or a doctor. I don’t know, but she certainly would go to university and be someone.

Zibby: She was so motivated.

Bernhard: I mean, she was someone, but be someone with more success.

Zibby: Yes, very motivated. I feel like maybe she would’ve won the National Book Award or something. Who knows? Another interesting part of her story is that she goes deaf. You show us what it’s like to live in the shoes of somebody who can’t hear the world and also to be someone who regularly is in someone’s orbit. I’m not saying that very properly. Her student, if you will, who has a huge affection for her and yet she can’t hear him, it doesn’t even seem to matter. It’s like she learns how to listen when she can’t even hear. What was the purpose of that?

Bernhard: One inspiration was, when I grew up, like Ferdinand, we had a seamstress who couldn’t hear. Like these other women, she still became important for me. I remember, as a very small child, I shouted at her and couldn’t understand why she didn’t respond. Later, we found our way to communicate. She was very good at lip reading, and so I spoke slowly. She had interesting things to tell me.

Zibby: Wow, very interesting. You also included both third person and first person. You have two points of view. You introduce this character halfway through who ends up linking everything all together.

Bernhard: I wanted to get closer and closer to her. First, it’s a kind of third-person omniscient narration. Only at the end you learn that it’s Ferdinand who tells everything he has learned from her and about her. Then in the second part, it’s his meeting her and talking to her and liking her and being liked by her. Then in the third, I wanted to get even closer and hear her voice in her letters.

Zibby: Yes, in the letters, of course. Did people really do that? Were that post offices that held all the letters the way it happened here, that you could have stockpiles like that and have people come in and rummage through? Yes?

Bernhard: Yes. I learned, by sheer accident, about a post office where they were really too lazy to sort out what had to go to the National Archives and what should be thrown out. They just put it all in the attic. There it lay for decades. At one point, it was found.

Zibby: Wow, what a treasure trove. Oh, my gosh. What was the act of writing this book like relative to The Reader and your other works? What is your process like in general? How did this stay the course or deviate?

Bernhard: I don’t have a ritual in my writing, probably because I started writing when I was so busy as a professor and a judge. I just had to take every chance I got to write. I write whenever I have time. I’m still pretty busy with other things. Sometimes it’s just an evening. Sometimes it’s a whole weekend or a week or even a month. I wrote Olga partly in Germany and partly in the United States where I also live.

Zibby: How has it felt having so much acclaim with your writing? Does it ever make you nervous to start another project? Does it have any impact at all? Are you just delighted and you move on and do your thing? How does it feel?

Bernhard: I think it’s such a gift that I was so successful so far. I think there will be readers who will enjoy my next book. If it’s not quite the success that the last was, who cares? I enjoy writing so much. It’s a way of escaping, some escapism that I write. I create this world or I find this world. I escape into it. I’m very happy when I sit down and write.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. Did you always love to write? Did it start when you were a kid? When was the first time you wrote a story?

Bernhard: I started as a child. I wrote stories about animals. Then when I grew older, I wrote bad poems and bad plays. Then I started writing scholarly stuff. I thought the joy of writing would fulfill itself in scholarly writing until I realized something was missing. At first, I didn’t know what was missing. I went to the California Massage Institute and got an education as a masseur. I tried jewelry and did that for a while until finally I realized, no, I have to go back to writing, and started writing mysteries and then turned to other fiction. Writing was part of my life from early on.

Zibby: How about reading? What types of books do you love to read?

Bernhard: I’m not a very systematic reader. I love short books. I understand moms don’t have time for thick, fat books. I love short books. I love old books, nineteenth century literature again and again. I try to keep up a little bit with what’s coming out.

Zibby: What about stories that you’re eager to tell that you haven’t told yet? Do you have a lot of characters floating around who you’re excited to write about? Is it more the plot that appeals to you? What propels you to decide, this is going to be a novel?

Bernhard: I start with a plot. I play around then, of course, also not just with the plot, but situations and atmospheres and characters. The first is the plot. Sometimes it fits, and it becomes a novel or a story. I have a feeling it fits. I don’t fit it. I don’t do it. It comes. That’s wonderful. Then when I have an idea, finally, it fits. Then I can start writing. I pretty much have the whole thing in my mind before I start. I know other writers go from chapter to chapter. Maybe because I am a lawyer who has to systemize things, I have to have it all in my head before I can start writing.

Zibby: Tell me a little bit more about the dynamic of Olga and Herbert’s family and never really feeling accepted from the beginning and not being able to really have the relationship that she wanted because of external constraints.

Bernhard: It’s not the relationship she wanted because of that. Also, once he suggests marriage, it would mean for her to lose her position as a teacher. In Prussia in those days, once a woman teacher got married, she had to give up her profession. She loves the independence and the strength that she gets from being a teacher. She’s also reluctant to give that up and to marry Herbert. She has, also, a very clear sense of his flaws and his shortcomings. She loves him anyway. He’s lively. He’s charming. He’s enthusiastic. She also sees that he is somewhat elusive.

Zibby: Did you ever have a lost love like this?

Bernhard: Like Olga had for Hebert?

Zibby: Yeah.

Bernhard: A little bit. It was a woman. Women are different in their elusiveness than men. A little bit. Of course, what I have experienced goes into my characters. We can only write about what we know. We know what we have experienced.

Zibby: Although, a lot of people write about things they haven’t experienced. I feel like there’s a lot of debate now. Is that okay to even do? Can you write from somebody else’s point of view if you can never have their lived experience? Is that okay or not? Do you have a view on that?

Bernhard: I find this a very strange debate, I must say. What would we do without Anna Karenina? What would we do without Doris Lessing writing about men or James Baldwin writing about white people? We have to know how others see us, how others experience us. We can only get it from them talking about it and writing about it. I think a world where everybody would only write about his own experience would be very poor. Of course, even if you write about the other, we can’t write about the other fully authentically, but that’s not what we did. We know someone writes about the other and tries to understand. I think we need it. We absolutely need it.

Zibby: I feel like, with fiction, all you’re trying to do is see the world through someone else’s perspective. That is the embodiment of empathy. That is what we’re trying to get everybody to do, is to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. This is just the literary outgrowth of that emotionally intelligent exercise. I don’t feel like it takes anything away from other people.

Bernhard: Quite to the contrary.

Zibby: I think it’s trying to be additive. It’s trying to say, look, here I am taking years of my life putting myself in your shoes. Maybe this isn’t perfect, but here I am trying my hardest.

Bernhard: Also, obviously, it’s an offer to communicate. If I don’t get it right, talk to me. Correct me. Make me understand more and better.

Zibby: I totally agree. I agree. Even in acting now, there’s some backlash. People are saying, can you really be a character if it’s not exactly like you? It’s like, well, isn’t that acting? Isn’t that what the exercise is? That’s like writing. Isn’t this what the exercise is? So what are you working on now? Do you have another book in the works?

Bernhard: I just finished a novel in German. It’s also about women, three generations. I have often been asked, why do you write about women so much? I think basically, I find them more interesting than men. I think one reason is this last century was such a century of change for women, new roles. Old patterns didn’t work anymore. They had to define them in a new way. They had to enter into society and politics. For women, much more happened than for men. This is going to change. The world’s becoming ever more difficult for men. The old roles don’t work anymore, so we have to find new ones. Maybe in the future, I would write more about men. This last century was really the century of women. I think that’s probably why. The new novel is a story that also deals with East Germany and West Germany. Even though we are united, we still haven’t really together. All these years of being a communist country hasn’t just disappeared. It has shaped people, shaped their expectations, their hopes, their resentments. We are still two different societies that are still in the process of growing together. That’s what the novel is dealing with.

Zibby: That sounds good. I was interested in this novel, also, how you introduced several Jewish characters or how you were trying to handle that in the context of the time and place and how people even viewed Jewish people a little bit. Tell me about that and if you were conscious in your depictions of that.

Bernhard: That happened the first time with The Reader. I remember when I then came to New York after it had been a success. I have been invited by several book groups of old Jewish ladies. I wondered, oh, god, what are they going to say? Will they be unhappy with what I wrote? Hanna becomes a figure that is not just a monster. No, they were interested. They were interested in Michael and his generation. How does this generation experience what their parents did? They were also interested in Hanna. How do we experience these ? the father or the uncle or whoever was important in his life and suddenly finds out, involved in something awful. How do you deal with that? Do you automatically stop loving the person? No, of course, not. You are torn. It’s a difficult feeling. They were interested in that too.

Zibby: Interesting. If you had advice to give to someone just starting out as a writer, what would you say?

Bernhard: One advice that I found once — it’s not from me, but it’s excellent. You have to love sentences. Can you develop a love for sentences? The other that’s obvious, read. Read really with the consciousness that you are dealing with other lives. You are feeling yourself into them. What is it? Do you really enjoy that? Do you enjoy playing with it? Then go ahead and try.

Zibby: I love it. What are you reading right now? What are you going to read today?

Bernhard: I read an old novel. I was with my American partner in Northern Italy. To take a book on this trip, I took about this couple who wants to get married. For years, they can’t because there are wars and then diseases and conflicts. It was written in the nineteenth century. It pretends to retell a from the seventeenth century. It’s much fun. It’s really much fun. I know that in the end they will be able to get married. There’s still another two hundred pages to get there. This is a relatively fat book for my normal way of reading.

Zibby: It’s funny, though, when you’re reading and you know something is going to happen, and yet you can still wish so hard that it’s not going to or hope so much that it will. I’m reading a book now. I know that there’s going to be this death, but I keep hoping that maybe if I just read it, it will change. Maybe it won’t happen even though in real life, I knew it happened. It’s that wishful reader thinking that makes no sense.

Bernhard: Maybe you have to wish harder.

Zibby: Maybe I have to wish harder, yes.

Bernhard: Isn’t that wonderful how we can be drawn into books?

Zibby: Yes, oh, my gosh. Sometimes I think, what does it say about me that I want to spend my whole life in books? What does that say about my actual life? Why do I do that? Is it a problem? I just love it. I feel like I was in Olga’s life. I experienced that. I could feel the cold. I could just feel the whole thing. It’s just so magical.

Bernhard: We want to live more than one life. That’s also the reason to write. I was with Olga as you just described. I love all my characters. When the book is done, it’s always a painful farewell. Now they go out into the world, and I am not with them the way I was for one or two or three years.

Zibby: Who knows how the universe works? We have all these souls here, and yet then there are all these characters in all these books. They also kind of float around. Where do they go? It’s hard to believe that once you craft something or something gets created that it can be lost entirely. It’s out there.

Bernhard: That’s how it is. You have lots of books behind you.

Zibby: I do. I love to read. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for introducing us all to Olga and the various cast of characters in her orbit. Thanks for taking the time.

Bernhard: Thank you, Zibby, for having me. It was fun to talk to you.

Zibby: Good. I’m so glad. It was fun to talk to you too. Have a great day.

Bernhard: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

OLGA by Bernhard Schlink

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