HISTORY, PORN, AND ADVERTISING
"I like most of Kubrick's soundtracks, except some songs on Full Metal Jacket, and scores from original Blaxploitation Movies like Coffy, Trucker Tusk, Three Tough Guys , both With Isaac Hayes, Blacula, Foxy Brown. I had a little discussion with Quentin Tarantino about his usage of music. I bumped into him in Amsterdam, in a specialized video-shop called 'Forbidden Planet'. They can get you rare imports from Japan, really gory shit -- not available in the States. That's what he said. He was wearing a black beret, a needle-striped jacket and a crazy colourful Mexican wool bag over his shoulder. I wonder how they'd let him aboard the plane! It must have been in 2001, because he was talking about Foxy Brown with Pam Greer. He seemed to know an awful lot about Blaxploitation. He also read Darius James, who is a friend of mine, who'd written a good book about the scene."
Jake Purbright interviews German literary upstart Thor Kunkel for 3AM.
COPYRIGHT © 2005, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
3AM: Introduce yourself.
TK: I was brought up in small town called Frankfurt A.M, nowadays the financial centre of Germany. During the late 70s and early 80s it was like living in a shopping mall turned graveyard -- or vice versa. An American friend of mine used to call it a "dingleberry". I still remember the ring of that word.
The situation was hopeless. Imagine something like the outskirts of Dallas. No culture, just steaks and badly-dressed women. But you couldn't complain. My family lived in four storey-flat-building. We had 42 square metres for five people, but had to eat. The area was nicknamed "the Cameroon". No-go area, very industrial, but I call it "home". Still do.
I used to hang out with the "wild bunch": GIs, punks, LSD-astronauts, junkies, you see, speed-freaks came in all sizes, and we used to meet at the Burger King or in a small alternative movie- theatre watching Sunday morning Kubrick's Clockwork Orange in the original English version. I mean every Sunday, because the film ran for years. Funnily enough, we called normal people "the zombies". It was not some on-going joke, I think, we believed it. We thought they were all dead. Brain dead. Everything was so sick and mind-warped, and I tried to capture some of it in my first novel.
My GI buddies came from Camp King in Oberursel, that's in the woods near Frankfurt. They were privates from the 3rd Armored Division. They gave us dope, we introduced them to some "broads", that was the deal. Let's just say, we had the better part. I bought my first gun from a GI named 'Doc', when I was 16. US Colt Commander. Never used it. Only for fun. Making holes in traffic signs on the country side.
I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I felt like being in some kind of "biological film", I hated the set and I wanted to shoot the director.
Nevertheless, I always liked movies. My parents wanted me to study economics - "This is where the money is," I still hear my father shout. He had some serious drinking problems. When they wanted to take off both of his feet, he decided to check out by himself.
I couldn't care less. I wanted to do something better with my time, become a real person. Being too poor to buy myself a good camera, I turned to Xerox-Art and Paintings. All my old friends thought I was nuts, most of them got decent jobs -- like unpacking stuff in a supermarket or becoming a clerk. The smart ones did.
When I started to study Fine Arts & Film, in 1981, I felt it was time to get away from that fucked-up Frankfurt-scene. I applied for a grant at the DAAD, and to my big surprise they send me for one and a half years to San Francisco. The place was called SF Art Institute, I think it was on Chestnut Street, near a lovely park. Coursework: Film and video, Performance Art. For fun I joined some kind of night writer-class on a voluntary basis. You would probably call it "creative writing". My first writing was a screenplay called Day of the Doll featuring some female sexbot, a 'real doll' with brains, turning into a real mean assassin. Some friend of mine, a gay hairdresser, wanted to shoot it. He also wanted to play the 'killer doll'. He never did, and I returned back to Frankfurt in 1983. I had no money at all, and when I had the opportunity to join Young & Rubicam, an advertising agency, I took the chance.
I stayed there for two years and almost died of boredom. It was some lousy existence. In 1988 I flew over to London, and joined a Swiss agency based in the Soho Area. They were called GGK. My clients were Swiss Air and Lois Jeans. I also did lots of work for charity: Greenpeace, The Samaritans, Nature Wildlife Fund. Then I met my Dutch wife Gerda and we moved to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I became Creative Director, working for Young & Rubicam again, but joined the new branch of Wieden & Kennedy. I worked for their major brands, Nike, Coca-Cola and Levis. Picked up some awards at the Cannes Festival for a campaign called 'Nobody wears Levis anymore.'
I stopped working in advertising in 1996 and started writing. Took me three years to write The Blacklight-Terrarium, and won immediately one of the most prestigious literary awards at Klagenfurt in 1999.
3AM: Sounds like something from Christiane F! A typical German childhood then?
TK: I don't think it has something to do with Germany... If you're from a poor background, if you have parents who can't help you, because they couldn't help themselves, if you have no idea where to go, then, yes, it might be typical. Typical German was the way we indulged in our depressive minds, in all the bumfun, the drugs, the nihilistic blah-blah. At least, I think so.
3AM: So what writers were turning you on during this period?
TK: I read an awful lot of HP Lovecraft, JG Ballard, Harlan Ellison and obscure French writers from the fin de siecle: Alfred Jarry, Joris K. Huysmans, Theophile Gautier. I totally ignored contemporary German writers like Grass and Boell. I found their work utterly boring. Later I discoverd Beckett and Joyce and that, in a second hand bookshop in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, Thomas Pynchon's V. Instead of studying at the SFAI, I spent an entire week in bed reading and re-reading Pynchon's novel. I think that was when I decided to join that "nightwriter" class on Polk Street.
3AM: You were keen to reject writers like Gunter Grass but how does this fit in culturally, do you think, as a German writer?
TK: The end of history has not been noticed yet in this country, it's obviously because they are used to it since the end of WWII. The survivors were farmed like microbes, in the fertile soil of capitalism.
There was no need to comprehend why Germany had lost the war and nobody took the time to separate Nazi ideology from German culture or philosophy. They threw it all in one big trash-can. It might sound strange to you, but can you imagine how it would feel to grow up and listen all the time to German pop music. In America? All around the clock. You wouldn't be able to understand the meaning of the lyrics, but who the hell would care? Not many young people, including myself, liked Krautrock, they'd rather listen to the Bee Gees, though not me. The ignorance of our own culture, whatever that was, was considered being cool. In school, World War II, the worst disaster ever caused by the human race, was reviewed in less than a week: conclusion? We lost, they won. Strange, but while Hitler only ruled Germany for merely 12 years, the Kohl government threw the rest of German history overboard. I still don't know if that's what I'm going through it, simply discovering my past.
3AM: Do you 'do' Krautrock these days then?
TK: To be honest, I am more into soundtracks and classical music. Less rhythmical stuff is good for my writing. Didn't Picabia say "The rhythm is always right"? I think it's just too loud. No massive beats for me while I'm writing.
3AM: Some would say Tangerine Dream is stripped of rhythm and has more in common with classical. What soundtracks?
TK: OK, Tangerine Dream isn't not too bad. I think I have a copy of Alpha Centauri somewhere around here. Do you know Klaus Schulz? His early work is a bit similar. He wrote the soundtrack to a Lasse Brown porn movie called Bodylove. The film makes you want to kill all hippies, but the music itself is amazing. I even got the additional tracks, which have been never used.
I like most of Kubrick's soundtracks, except some songs on Full Metal Jacket, and scores from original Blaxploitation Movies like Coffy, Trucker Tusk, Three Tough Guys , both With Isaac Hayes, Blacula, Foxy Brown. I had a little discussion with Quentin Tarantino about his usage of music. I bumped into him in Amsterdam, in a specialized video-shop called 'Forbidden Planet'. They can get you rare imports from Japan, really gory shit -- not available in the States. That's what he said. He was wearing a black beret, a needle-striped jacket and a crazy colourful Mexican wool bag over his shoulder. I wonder how they'd let him aboard the plane! It must have been in 2001, because he was talking about Foxy Brown with Pam Greer. He seemed to know an awful lot about Blaxploitation. He also read Darius James, who is a friend of mine, who'd written a good book about the scene.
I also fancy the old John Carpenter soundtracks, remember Assault on Precinct 13? Just nostalgic reasons, I guess. But it's a killer track, which has been remixed many times, but nothing beats the original: simple Moog-bass, an ancient rhythm-box, some OB-strings.
What have I been listen to lately? Let me see. Silent Running, The Strawberry Letter, Rollerball, Soylent Green, Lalo Schifrin's 'The Fox' and Picnic at Hanging Rocks, a film by Australian director Peter Weir. I must admit my girlfriend isn't too keen on that particular pan-flute... She thinks I am hopelessly stuck in the seventies. Oh my... Hell, no! Last year I discovered David Holmes' Ocean's Eleven. Not bad, but since everybody likes it over here I feel a bit over-exposed to his music and need a bit of distance.
3AM: Does this shine through in your writing, do you think?
TK: You mean the seventies thing? No idea. As I said before, I definitely like the novels and movies from the seventies. I hated the fashion.
3AM: You worked in advertising, as did Beigbeder before he took up writing. Do you see any similarities in your work?
TK: We have a different way of writing. The only similarity could be in content. In this country some critics compared my work sometimes with Houllebecq or Bret Easton Ellis. Which is, of course, very flattering, but I don't see any similarities. I don't glamorise the low-life, I don't think I am a cynic. I want to tell stories which haven't been told, like Endstufe, which shows the Third Reich in a very different way Germans are used to. I just write what intrigues me about my life, past, the world whatsoever. I have my own "themepark". The more I write, so more I learn what kind of reality I have experienced.
My time working in advertising has probably influenced me, talking to clients can disillusion you to a degree that you consider something like 9/11 as a real answer to your problems. I mean listen to their fucking schemes, the way they want separate people from their hard-earned money and knowing they'll get away with it, that makes you wish for some Tabula rasa in the universe of brands and branded people.
3AM: How do you think your work is seen internationally? Any plans to translate it into English soon?
TK: I don't know yet, but Endstufe will be translated into six other languages and then we'll see. Russian, Hungarian, Czech and Turkish are among them and I am very interested to see how they cope with my vision.
I have a feeling that English and American readers will appreciate my way of telling the story, mixing fact and fiction. I was told I have a sense of black humour, you find nowhere in German literature. Actually I know that for sure. Even young German writers, sound so damned serious. Why? Imagine there would be a God who has created all this mess, all these constant misunderstandings and fuck-ups, he must have some wicked sense of humour. Unfortunately critics in this country are not very smart, they are always so serious, so pompous and righteous. Down from their ivory towers they accused me of being "to deny the idea of moral progress". My response? The progress of morality these days is as relevant as the progress of the emotional mole.
3AM: Is it your sense of humour that allows you tackle more delicate subject matter without the fears or self-imposed restraint that others might have? What did you make of the controversy over Endstufe in Germany?
TK: The controversy over Endstufe was started by Hendryk Broder, a Jewish Lobbyist and established "thought-policeman", who treats normal Germans like a bunch of dangerous imbeciles. He made a living reminding the Germans constantly about their past, exploiting cleverly the brand "holocaust". You can't imagine how cheeky that guy is when he argues, knowing no one dares to stand up against him.
You have the N-word in America, and the "race-card", in Germany it is the "J-Card" which means someone who claims to be of Jewish heritage is untouchable, "above the law" if you like. For reasons I found hard to believe he condemned Endstufe before it was published! From sources he would not want to reveal, he published unauthorized material. He never bothered to speak to me in person. He just "executed" me. Unfortunately, he functions like a signal-tower and many left-wing journalists simply repeated what he said. There was a time when I was very worried about the mount of crap that was published, blatant lies and primitive accusations, as if the critics didn't bother to read. I think they used "Stürmer" methods of malicious agitation: the Nazi-publication Stürmer aimed to make the 'mischief' of Jews in the most hideous way, the sort of rabble-rousing that could have easily lead to an assault.
More neutral newspapers spoke of "manhunt", for a while I was "public enemy no.1" for no reason at all. At least I think that you'll find nothing in Endstufe that would raise your eyebrows.
3AM: Are there other areas of Germany's past you would write about as an author? Actually, what does the future hold for Thor Kunkel, do you think
TK: The past is a good mirror to reflect the future. From Endstufe, which projects the development from the Third Reich's scientific insanity to modern 21st century pornocracy, I decided to move on to the present. My next novel will be about Neuromarketing and schemes of brands like Nike, Mercedes and a fictive corporate conglomerate called the Glob trying to make people "vote with their taste buds". It reads kind of funny. A bit satirical.
My future? No idea. I emerged from an egg and one sperm like all of us. I started to live and decided to tell my stories and that's simply how I continue my life. I am going to carry on, until it's over, enjoying every moment of it. In between I am prepared to live with massive criticism, because I know nobody's perfect. Perhaps I am an artistic failure, a misfit, a mutant, I just don't care.
In the end, I think, to be a writer means to sit "between all chairs", as they say over here, and I am going to continue what I do head held high. They can bash me, exclude me, hate me, whatever. But they can't stop me from writing what I think. It's my damn right not be absorbed by some lefty hegemony over here, which is the dead-mask of every literature and the fine arts. Perhaps I've turned the cold plaster muse of German literature into a whore, but she's alive and that's a quality rare to find in contemporary German literature.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
From his website: Thor Kunkel, boy-wonder of German literature. His award-winning debut The Blacklight-Terrarium quickly gained him the reputation of being one of Germany's hottest literary properties.
Born in 1963, in Frankfurt, Thor Kunkel studied film and fine arts in San Francisco, before pursuing a nomadic lifestyle, working in-between countries. He lived for 5 years in London before he decided to move to the Netherlands (1992). In 2002 he moved to Berlin. His published work his been positively reviewed all throughout German media, press and TV.