Explorations in a parallel cultural universe

by Chris Corbett

“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Berlin Wall by @libby_ol

I first went down the rabbit hole when I moved from America to Switzerland. I then descended further when my first novel was published in Germany before being published in English. I was inspired by one of my favorite crime writers Don Winslow (The Cartel) whose next book is appropriately enough called Germany and is coming out in the German language before it’s even been announced in English.

Following in this noble (if somewhat unorthodox) tradition and seeing how other writers like TC Boyle sell as many books in German as English, I went down this road. The competitive nature of mainstream publishing in the English language is very difficult. After meeting Winslow at a reading in Zürich, I thought living in a German language country might mean bigger opportunities.

Seeing that the second biggest media market outside of the English language world is Germany with its tens of millions of people, I engaged a translator who in turn introduced me to a publisher. He loved my story and soon offered me a contract. The champagne flowed and the celebration went on into the wee hours in the way Berliners celebrate these events—a table full of empty wine bottles by the end of the party. (Good thing the Berlin metro runs 24 hours.)

Metro Berlin

Grudgingly, I had to accept a German style cover over my preferred version, and the publisher also argued successfully to change the title. I gave in. This is Germany, so different rules apply and I’m now happy to say the title is growing on me.

CC cover

Image courtesy Chris Corbett

The book launch was in a small club in a funky neighborhood of Berlin. At the same time I was reading to the twenty people in the theater area, another twenty were at the bar doing what Berlin people do on a Saturday night—drinking and being raucous. But that only added to the atmosphere and gave my book Nirvana Blues an authentic atmosphere. Afterwards, at the signing, I met the man who had been blurting out ‘Happy Christmas’ at random intervals all through my reading and he explained those were the only words he knew in English. I took it as a compliment.

CC stalker

Image courtesy Chris Corbett

Later, an ancient rock ‘n’ roller at the bar with greased back hair and leather jacket sent an emissary to have me come and talk to him. His hair was jet black and looked like he had dyed it in the kitchen sink with shoe polish. We talked about music because he had seen a guitar image on the book cover. He said he’d managed tours for people like Bob Dylan so I gave him my card and was surprised a couple of days later when he wrote me with some names of venues I could approach to do a book tour in.

One of the other people in the audience was a groupie from the ’60s. She told me about a friend of hers, a well-known blues musician who could be interesting to work with. I took her comment with a grain of salt and had another beer. And as the magic of wonderland expanded, a couple of weeks later the guitar player agreed to do a tour with me.

I was getting ever deeper into the world of German culture as my normal American sensibilities were left far behind, as well as my British roots of proper behavior and stuffy, formal conversations. I was enjoying the friendly directness and enthusiastic embrace not seen in my reserved Swiss colleagues who had become my standard of social demeanor.

I met the guitarist between Christmas and New Year and we bonded over dinner at a Greek restaurant next to his concert venue. My book, which is a Romeo and Juliet in ’70s California, has 64 different songs mentioned in it to provide a basis for our special tour. He told me about the tour he had done a couple of years earlier supporting the works of Charles Bukowski (best known for Barfly). The actors reading from Bukowski drank incredible amounts of alcohol to get into character and after the tour the guitarist was so shattered he gave up drinking, smoking, drugs and a lot of other things. Now as a sane citizen he will make a really solid touring partner when we hit the road in a month. Baltic Sea here we come!

Berlin Sunset

My German language skills are still very basic so I’m completely at the mercy of these helpers in this foreign environment where I find myself. It is not only interesting and exciting but also culturally enlightening. The book will come out in English in the springtime so I’m looking at climbing out of the rabbit hole to resume my normal life. But until then I’m living in this wonderland where colorful characters appear and funny adventures unfold. And while I’m wandering through the looking glass I’ll try and remember to not drink from the bottle that says ‘DRINK ME!’.

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www.chriscorbett.com

Author: J.J. Marsh

Writer of The Beatrice Stubbs series, founder member of Triskele Books, columnist for Words with JAM magazine, co-curator of The Woolf magazine, Bookmuse reviewer, blogger and Tweeter. @JJMarsh1

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