What would you tell your suicidal teenager
Author Milena Moser: "We only hear the most tragic stories"
Milena Moser's new novel spans three generations of family history and world history. It's about abuse, resistance and social upheaval
Milena Moser from Santa Fe arrived the evening before. She's a little late at the agreed appointment at her publishing house, the tram has a new route - things that she takes with ease today. At the photo session on the roof terrace in the English Quarter of Zurich, she is not bothered by the wind that blows her curls in her face and laughs heartily.
Milena Moser is open, lively and cordial, she often lets her facial expressions or her hands lead a thought to an end. However, she doesn't want to talk about America, nor about her own youth, but rather about her new book: a family novel spanning three generations, which primarily traces the life biographies of two male characters.
Milena Moser, five years ago you said that life would start all over again at 50 ...
Milena Moser: My mother always said that, and it was very much confirmed.
Do you have a new life now?
Absolutely. It's not so much the external circumstances. It feels different how I deal with life. I recently reread my autobiographical book about my trip to America. Then I thought: the poor woman! That was so far away. Today life doesn’t hit me like that anymore.
A new basic serenity?
My life is not easy with a man who is seriously ill and with all the emergencies we've had. It is so tempting and so wrong to think that if you live in the right country and know the right man, everything will be fine! You don't feel better when you change the external circumstances. It's the other way around: the outside is the result of being more in touch with yourself - oh, now I sound like a guru ... (laughs) The next question, please!
Does that have to do with age?
For me sure. I really hope most women are faster than me. 50 is a bit late. I've played it through for years: I'd really like to do this, but my husband wants this, my mother wants that. Well, then I do what you want, then you will love me more. But nobody wants to be with someone who sacrifices himself. You have to find someone with whom it fits.
Your sons are big now too.
I still hear: where are your children, I could never do that! - You don't even have to. It was just my choice. And of course, the children are far away! But my older son has already told me: If you lived in Switzerland, you wouldn't live with us for three weeks. My mother always said: All important decisions are made 49 to 51 percent, not 99 to 1. That always helped me a lot.
What do you miss from Switzerland?
In the personal area there are a lot of things that I miss. And: Switzerland is better organized. When I'm on an emergency with Viktor, I wish we were in the university hospital and not in the Marc Zuckerberg General Hospital.
Is that what it means, really?
Yes, the founder of Facebook donated a few million. But that didn't change the quality, at least not in an emergency. Otherwise, I mainly miss the people.
You are currently renewing your visa. What is it like to live with the uncertainty as to whether they can return?
If it is not renewed, then all of my wonderful beautiful new life will collapse! But it's typical, I never thought about it. I have already been detained twice on entry, which is very uncomfortable.
You have lived in Santa Fe for three years. How is it with the German?
I write in German, I think in German, I dream in German. The ultimate test is how you react when you see a baby. Or how to count money.
When you're writing, English doesn't get in the way?
I think I need fewer English-language expressions than someone who lives in Switzerland, where the language is interspersed with English words. I separate the two languages more strongly.
Is Writing in English an Option for You?
I don't know how long it will be before someone starts doing it. I know a lot of Swiss people in Santa Fe, I often speak Swiss German, read newspapers and books from Switzerland, and if I don't understand something I say: I am so sorry, but I am from Switzerland! My younger son says: If you had immigrated to Switzerland, you would be accused of being poorly assimilated.
That has something.
Yes, yes (laughs).
In each of your previous novels you drew heavily from your own life ...
Everything is drawn from one's own life. What I live, remember, dream, think, my stories grow from it.
So far they have all been female characters.
I don't have that much control over my characters. They crowd into my consciousness. Often it is a picture or something that I hear. Then I write that down and follow that. There's something magical about it, it's what I love to do most. But it always annoyed me when someone said that it was written by a woman, the main character is a woman, this is a women's book. You never say this is a man's book because it was written by a man and a man is the main character. I am a bookseller and I am addicted to reading. It either grabs me or it doesn't.
However, her new novel is almost all about men.
I think that's the biggest difference. It started with the boy in the forties, with Luigi and his mother on the train. It wasn't until I was almost finished that I realized that it was almost all about men and boys. It just turned out that way. The writing process was no different. The book just needed more space.
Was that the real reason you emigrated?
I wanted to see if there really was something that needed the space and then filled it. The bravest part was giving up all the things that I really love to do: my courses, the theater, the radio, the weekly column - and the financial security that comes with it, of course. It was more than three years before I knew that there was a whole world that was pulling me into it. But only now, since the book is out and with it the first reactions, do I know that this is what I meant and that you obviously notice it.
How much of you is there in the male figures?
I reveal a lot more about myself in a novel than in my autobiographical books because I have no control over what I tell and what I focus on. So much comes up in pictures. I only realize that when I prepare the readings. This book contains a lot of my experience, or rather the essence of the feeling of an experience. Even if they are men: "Madame Bovary, c’est moi."
How did you find your way into the psychology of men?
A central question for me is: Why do two people who experience the same deal with it completely differently. I'm interested in psychology, which deals with happiness and resilience instead of disorders: How is it that someone who has survived the concentration camp never leaves the black cloud while someone else manages it, halfway to live a full life? This question bothered me. I don't know all men and my characters don't represent all men. They are just my characters. I know your psychology.
Does the ability to be happy lie in the individual?
I think so. In Buddhism they say: the first arrow that hits you is what happens to you - your husband leaves you, you have cancer, you lose your job, whatever. The second arrow is what you make of it. I think that's a very good picture. The second arrow brings the poison, not the first.
What promotes resilience?
It is said that even if a child grows up in horrific circumstances, if there is a person, often a teacher or a neighbor, who gives the child the feeling: I see you and I am interested in what becomes of you, I believe in you, I don't care, then that's often enough.
Has today's society improved?
It's not like child abuse doesn't happen anymore.
Not that, but isn't society more open and offering help?
People talk more about things like that. But similar to how people started talking about cancer thirty years ago: We only hear the most tragic stories that permanently destroy a life, just as we used to only hear about the fatal outcome of the disease. That is why we cannot imagine that every fifth person sitting in a restaurant, for example, was abused as a child. We don't look at them.
Have you experienced any form of abuse yourself?
The book is not an experience report, it is a novel.
Your novel spans three generations from the forties to the seventies to the present day. How did you tackle the plot?
My first draft is a mess. As soon as the story is clear to me, but I don't yet know how to tell it, I make colored cards and write keywords on them. I lay out the cards on the floor and see how I like the colors ...
Do you look how you like the colors?
A great French author, Amélie Plume, who writes novels in poetry and is originally a painter, told me years ago that she does it that way. So I have the cards on the floor (stands up as if the cards were lying there), then I start pushing and just pay attention to the rhythm. I know if it's a story that goes fast or in gentler waves. At some point I will know: this is it. Then I do the finer work and adjust the connections. That sounds a bit weird, (laughs) but it works for me.
In the 1940s, Luigi came to a school that implemented the founding concept and natural philosophy. How present are these ideas in the USA today?
"Preppers" are quite common in Northern California. They prepare for the end of the world and hoard food and water in the forest. But what interested me about school was that the good and the bad were so close together. When I was still writing, the story of Jürg Jegge became known. That broke my heart. As a misunderstood, unhappy teenager, I wanted to go to his school.
Did Jürg Jegge go into the book?
No, I had already described "my" school. But it's always like that, when you deal with something, you suddenly see it everywhere.
Is the book indirectly an answer to Trump.
The basic question is a universal one. But sure, a lot of people I know are scared now. And a lot of people say their relationships have changed. I know a psychiatrist who told me he had to increase the dose on all of his patients.
Books play a role in your book, as do films ...
I made up all of the films, which was a lot of fun. (laughs) The films are about the history of the Indians and how wrong it is in classic westerns.
What are you interested in the Indian legends?
As a Federica da Cesco-influenced European, I jumped into the sagas and hoped to find wisdom there. But these are also prejudices, even if they are positive. In the beginning, the legends frustrated me because they didn't make any sense, they kept repeating themselves, had no punch line, no morals. You break up the linear narrative, the striving to get to one point.
How normal is it to have two fathers in San Francisco?
Completely normal. When I was living there twenty years ago, the schools in San Francisco had written such complicated letters to parents: Dear parents, co-parents, step-parents, co-parents, single parents ... so as not to exclude anyone. These families are often super money. Probably because they fought like that. You don't want to question the family form.
"What happened to us has nothing to do with us," is a key phrase in the novel. What is meant?
The friend to whom I dedicated the book once explained it to me like this: If a drunk pukes on you on the bus, it's gross, but it has nothing to do with you. When you are abused you always have the feeling that it has something to do with you. That's the second arrow. One should process, but not suppress.
Where do you get the strength yourself to start over again and again?
Since I was a child, I have had access to another world, first through reading, then through writing. I started making up stories when I was eight. That was certainly an escape, but I also saw that there is still a world in which I can find my way around and feel comfortable. And I have an irrepressible will, I just want to be happy.
What helps you with that
Buddhism and meditation are extremely important to me. A lot of what I've been able to change in my life has to do with it. In meditation you learn that everything comes and goes. Even if something grows over your head, it is not the reality. But above all: I am not a victim. I just want to be happy. (laughs)
To anticipate it right away: “Land der Sons” is Milena Moser's best novel. The author was born in Zurich in 1963 as the daughter of the psychologist Marlis Pörtner and the writer Paul Pörtner. She has two sons aged 23 and 30. In 2015 she emigrated to the USA for the second time and lives in Santa Fe. She is a trained bookseller. In order to publish her first novel "Die Putzfraueninsel", she founded the Krösus Verlag. Her most successful book is the autobiographical report “Happiness always looks different” from 2015. “Land der Söhne” tells of precarious self-discovery in puberty and dealing with attacks against the background of World War II, the hippie movement and today's social upheavals. America is more than a backdrop, life biographies and world history are reflected sovereignly.
Milena Moser: “Land of Sons”, Nagel & Kimche, 420 pages.
published in AZ Nordwestschweiz / AZ Medien on September 3, 2018. Image © Claudio Thoma
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