Photo by Jason Harrell
Following a successful reception in London, Berlin-based author Tod Wodicka launches second book, “The Household Spirit”, with us! Join us at Urban Spree for a reading introduced by fellow American expat writer Greg Baxter, music, a new issue and more on June 29 at 8pm. In preparation, he sat with us on the Maybachufer and shared a bottle of whisky...
It took Wodicka seven years to write The Household Spirit. Not that it was his first try: All Shall be well; and All Shall be well; and All Manner of Things Shall be Well (Pantheon) was released in 2008 to rave reviews. But his second novel was a tumultuous two-stage process by which Wodicka wrote an entire book, became unhappy with it and started all over again. The novel is about sleep paralysis (a disorder Wodicka experienced for years), the disparities between our waking and sleeping life and realising how we fit into other people’s narratives. It is also a book about hope – something that the Berlin-based writer attributes to his experience of seeing people change in positive ways. Wodicka – who’s known for his love of whisky – sits by the Maybachufer canal in Kreuzberg, the bottle of Queen Margot we bought him between his legs.
This is your second novel. At what point did you feel you would be writing a new book?
Random House bought the book before I even wrote it. They liked my first book and asked me if I had a proposal for the next one. All I knew is that I wanted to write about sleep paralysis and existence, and that it was going to be called The Household Spirit.
Where did the name come from?
This Sokurov film, Russian Ark. In the bonus DVD there is a documentary about the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. And they go into the house of one of the workers at the museum and there is a little kid who shows them a picture he drew of a monster and says, “This is the household spirit.”
Interestingly there were two versions of The Household Spirit, right?
Yes, I finished the first Household Spirit a few years after my first novel and it was really bad. My first novel was about a 63-year-old medieval re-enactor. Someone who is an alcoholic, who has fucked up his family. He had a very distinct and personal voice, and for my second book I wanted to write something completely different. I wanted to move away from my own voice. The first manuscript was as close as you can get to suicide in a sense. I wanted to be a different person, a different writer. I wanted to write like someone who’s cool. I wanted to make a book that was dark, strange, sexy and cool.
How hard is it to realise that what you are doing isn’t leading up to something satisfying?
Honestly, if someone would’ve told me that I would have to rewrite my second novel when I was in the middle of writing it the first time, I would have jumped out the window or stopped writing all together. But looking back I had to write this ridiculously shitty book to realise what my actual voice as a writer was, what I was good at. And then you circle the wagons. So it was a really hard process, but once I started writing the real The Household Spirit, it was a joy to write.
What relationship did you have with your editor through this process?
I went to New York after I finished the first Household Spirit and we spent all day in a boardroom with her going through it. We decided at that point that 60 percent of it, at least, had to be re-written. In the beginning I thought maybe I could keep the skeleton, but then it became a completely different book when I introduced the character of Howie.
So, what is The Household Spirit about?
It’s about paralyses. How you are paralysed during your waking life, during your sleeping life, and breaking out of that.
That’s Emily, the 25-year-old who’s suffering from sleeping paralysis... can you explain her character?
Emily is someone who is unable to take the waking world seriously because she has seen things that completely devalue the experience that we are having now. It is almost like having taken psychedelic drugs for a long time and being attached to that experience your whole life. The only way for her to really break through is to try and find a connection with the real world.
Why does Emily need Howie?
Emily would be dead without Howie. Emily needed someone or something, it could have been anyone, but no one would have worked as well as Howie. Howie gives her the ability to slowly return to this waking reality that we all share without putting any pressure on her. He asks no questions. He allows her to cohabitate with him. And in the same way she is exactly what he needs. They both help each other. I wanted to do a book where people change and things get better.
How did you come up with Howie?
I was in a German class in Berlin and there was this guy – he looked like he could either be 80 or 30. I remember staring at this face, it was massively weathered and strange-looking and somehow really sympathetic, like it was carved out of a tree or stone, and I thought, that’s Howie. Later of course, Howie developed into who he is and some of that is very organic when you’re writing, but I knew his voice, I knew his life.
Organic in the way your characters come to life?
They don’t talk back, but they do things that I don’t plan them to do. You can see ahead in a broad, structural way. You can see what is going to happen at the end of the chapter, but then you might realise that it goes somewhere else. The most enjoyable thing is sitting down and not knowing what is going to happen.
What was your writing process for this book?
I used to need solitude in order to write. Now I write wherever I can. And I write with very loud music. Music that has nothing to do with what I’m working on. So, I’d be writing a romantic scene, but I would be playing really loud Norwegian death metal or old Dinosaur Jr. albums. And I need that kind of support because if I write in silence I get scared of myself.
Is writing that hard?
Every writer is different, but for me writing is a joy. When I’m in there, once I’m in that zone, I can do it forever. But it’s so tied up with who you are... Once you’ve caught what Burroughs calls the “word virus”, you are just language in your head. And taking some of that out is stripping yourself more nude than you will ever be. I could show someone my penis and that would be nothing compared to showing what I am as a writer.
Was writing something you always wanted to do?
Ever since I was five or six, that’s all I wanted to do. There was never anything else I wanted to do with my life and there was never anything else I was even remotely good at. So I never had a choice – which sounds ridiculous. I’m not even saying that I do writing that well. What I’m saying is that I would have been a massive fuck-up at anything else.
You’ve lived here for over 10 years, but decided to locate your novel in upstate New York, where you come from. Why?
It’s a book about dreams and nightmares, and it’s a dreamlike version of my home. I have always been amazed by the history of the place where I grew up – a suburban neighbourhood in the middle of the mountains; it was like they took the idea from Long Island and they brought it up in the middle of nowhere. I find the idea of history more potent in America than in Europe. History is everywhere here.
The novel takes place in two houses on a desolate cul-de-sac. Is Route 29 a real place?
It’s a real place. It really does have all those old paper mills and they’re all ruins and they’re beautiful. It’s a place that is evocative to me, and if you set a book in a place that is real to you in a certain way you hope that that translates and becomes more real for the reader.
I’ve been working on a new project for about a year now. My dad owns a gay sex club in upstate New York and I thought about the idea of writing something completely autobiographical to do with the bathhouse. The next thing I knew, I was working in my dad’s bathhouse for a week. I cleaned sperm off the floor and it was amazing. Then I went to the North American Bathhouse Association conference in Las Vegas, where I met all the bathhouse owners in North America and sat with them as my dad’s heir apparent. This was the book I was born to write. But then I decided I would never write a novel again. The Household Spirit took so much out of me and I ran out of money. So instead I’ve been adapting it into a television script.
THE HOUSEHOLD SPIRIT (Random House), Berlin launch and reading on June 29 at Urban Spree. RSVP on our Facebook event.