Jul 12 2011
This week, my special guest is author Christa Polkinhorn. Originally from Switzerland, Christa lives and works as writer and translator in Santa Monica, California. She divides her time between the United States and Switzerland and has strong ties to both countries. Among her many interests, aside from writing, are traveling, studying foreign languages and cultures, drawing and painting, meeting people and forming friendships.
Welcome, Christa. I’m excited to have you as my guest this week. Please, tell the cool peeps about yourself.
Thanks, Molly, for having me on your wonderful blog. Here is my life in a nutshell: I was born and raised in Switzerland in a small village near Zurich and lived about half of my life there and a little more than half in California. In my early twenties, I came to the United States and ended up staying, got married, moved back to Switzerland with my husband, moved to California, got divorced, and live now in beautiful Santa Monica, California. I spend several months each year in Switzerland. I love both countries and feel at home in both places and when people ask me where I want to live when I “grow up,” I have to say I don’t know.
(Home in Switzerland)
(Santa Monica, CA)
I had always wanted to see Switzerland since reading Johanna Spyri’s “Heidi” as a little girl. Now, I can proudly say I have been to Switzerland. It is breathtakingly beautiful. What was it like growing up there?
One thing that’s different from the United States is the closeness to foreign countries. Switzerland is a tiny country in the middle of Europe where you only need to drive about three to four hours and end up in a different country. Growing up there, you automatically come in contact with foreign languages and cultures. Switzerland itself has four national languages: German (standard German as well as a bunch of dialects), Italian, French, and Romansch. I think that’s one of the reasons, I developed a love for language and traveling. I have always enjoyed exploring new countries. This is also visible in my two novels which take place in Europe, the United States, as well South America.
(Some places in Switzerland where you can still feel like Heidi)
I know you have a great love for reading. Where did that begin?
I grew up almost as an only child. My only sister was eighteen years older. Living in a small town, where not that much was going on, I had to find ways to entertain myself. I became a voracious reader and I lived vicariously through the books I read. Fortunately, my parents shared my love of reading and so there were always books in our home. I was also an adventurous child and I knew early on that I wanted to come to that—in my mind—most fascinating country in the world: AMERICA.
(Christa’s mom (middle) at one of her birthdays. She lived to be 102.)
I’m a reporter at the moment, but am still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. ☺ When did you know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start seriously writing?
Although I have always loved to read and I studied literature and linguistics both at the University of Zurich and later at the University of California, I started my own creative writing fairly late in life. In fact, I took many detours on my path to becoming a writer. I started out going to business school (my father, who was an artist as a young man, wanted me to have a “solid” foundation in life), worked as a secretary in Switzerland and the United States, went back to school to study literature, took another detour into computer programming, became a translator, and ended up a writer. I must have been a gypsy in one of my former lives!
Your native language is German, but you write in English. You also do translation work. I’m fascinated, Christa. Tell us more.
Most of my education in literature took place in the United States and it was here that I began to take my writing seriously. Consequently, I ended up doing all my creative writing in English and not in my native German. However, I do my translation work from English into German and so I switch a lot between the two languages, which is both an advantage and a challenge. The advantage is that I can draw from both languages in my writing. The challenge: Although I am fluent in both languages, I’m not perfect. I sometimes mix up idioms and use slightly odd ways of expressing myself. That is one of the reasons I always have my manuscripts edited by a native English speaking editor.
You just published a new book, An Uncommon Family that is a prequel to your first novel, Love of a Stonemason. Some days I write in reverse order, too, but not on purpose. How did you come to write the prequel second? Tell us about the books and their characters.
Well, I guess “writing in reverse order” is not quite the correct term here. I wrote about Karla’s childhood (Karla is the main character in Love of a Stonemason and one of the main characters in An Uncommon Family) in an earlier manuscript, which I abandoned. I didn’t seem to be able to get past the novella stage. Then a few things happened in my life that inspired me to write my first full-length novel, Love of a Stonemason. At the end of 2005, I lost my mother and found myself to be the sole survivor of our immediate family in Switzerland, my only sister and my father having died earlier. Death and its impact—the pain of loss and loneliness—play an important role in Karla’s life in the novel.
Cleaning out the family home in Switzerland, I came across my father’s early paintings. I talked to a stonemason and sculptor about the tombstone on my parent’s grave. That gave me the idea for my main characters and their professions. I spent time with my relatives in the Ticino, the Italian canton of Switzerland, so the Vallemaggia became the central location. My trips to Peru and Italy also found their way into the novel.
(Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy)
(Spectacular view of Florence from the top of the Duomo)
After I finished Love of a Stonemason, I was so used to the characters I created that I couldn’t let go of them yet. I remembered the abandoned manuscript and began to explore what happened to Karla as a child. I wanted to get to know her aunt as well and so my second novel became reality. An Uncommon Family takes place in Zurich, Switzerland, New York, and Guadalajara, Mexico.
I know that your novels take place in foreign countries? Did you write all of this from memory?
One of the fun parts of writing those novels was the research I did in different countries. I had been to the places I wrote about before, but I had forgotten a lot of details. So I had to go back and explore them again and this time through the eyes and minds of my characters. It gives research and traveling a whole different meaning.
(Old town of Zurich with Grossmuenster)
(Zurich with river Limmat and old part of town)
(A typical stone house in the south of Switzerland)
(Lago Maggiore, Switzerland)
(El Beso Sculpture in Lima, Peru)
What are the most important elements in your writing? Where does your passion lie?
Although the different countries the novels take place in are part of the stories, the novels are not travelogues by any means. The real focus in both novels is love and the relationship between men and women, between parents and children, and between friends. These are basically stories about love, compassion, loss, betrayal, and forgiveness—elements that are part of most relationships between people. A secondary theme is art and the healing aspect creativity can have on our lives. Those are the things I feel passionate about.
The world of publishing is changing so rapidly. It’s hard to keep up. Any thoughts about the ever-evolving landscape? Predictions?
You’re right; there is so much happening and so much change that any prediction will most likely become invalid within a short time. One thing, however, is certain: this is an exciting time for authors, particularly for those of us who decided to try it on their own, meaning without going through agents or publishers. Independent publishing will go through many different stages and will change with time. I think ebooks and ebook readers are here to stay, but I hope that paper versions will remain as well.
Since everything about publishing and writing is in flux, it is all the more important to be aware of WHY we write. If the goal is to make tons of money and become bestseller authors, we may end up sorely disappointed. If we write because it gives us joy, it gives our life meaning, or it is something we need to do, then we’ll do it no matter what.
Many people write their first book and have no idea how to begin to promote it. What advice would you offer? What are the best ways to use and not to use social media?
I published my first novel in 2010. I’m still a newbie to promotion, so I don’t think I can give a lot of advice yet. I use Twitter, Facebook, my own blog (I’m not very prolific and that’s one area I need to improve), and I have a website. I try to get my books reviewed, which helps as well. Interviews (such as this one) and doing guest blogging on book blogs are good ways to make yourself and your books known. One thing I did notice though. Trying to only push your own books, doing aggressive self-promotion tends to turn people off. Personally, I enjoy helping other authors promote their books by writing short reviews of books I like, re-tweeting their tweets, and pointing to their works on Facebook.
If you could have a dinner party and invite your favorite fictional characters, who might we see seated around the table?
Well, first and foremost, my own characters: Karla, Andreas, Lena, Jonas, Anna. Then some characters from other novels: Daniel, Julián Carax (The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón), Clarissa Dalloway (Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf), gee, there are a lot more but I think I need to limit myself. I’m not very good at cooking for a lot of people!
What do you know now that you wish you knew five years ago?
Hmm, that’s a difficult question. Let’s see. Perhaps the personalities of some of the men I got involved with (just kidding).
What do you hope to know in five years that you don’t know now?
Gee, Molly, you ask some tough questions. I hope I will keep improving not just as a writer but also as a human being. That probably doesn’t answer your question, but tough luck.
I’ve been forever called picky, but I maintain that we’re all picky creatures. What are you picky about?
I am very picky about typos and I absolutely hate it when I find them in my own novels after they have been edited and published.
Any parting words for the masses? Any shameless plugs? Where can people find you online?
Both my novels and also my poetry are available at Amazon (for the Kindle and as trade paperback), B&N.com (for the Nook), and Smashwords (different ebook formats). Here are the links:
You can find more about me on My Website and My Blog (and if you clicked the Follow button on my blog, that would be really appreciated!).
And I’m also on Twitter and on Facebook and Goodreads and I’m a member of The Independent Author Network.
Thank you, Molly, for your time and thanks to all the cool peeps who take the time to read this. I hope you enjoy the pictures!