We then moved on to the panel discussion, which was chaired by Dr Katharina Hall from Swansea University. The panel consisted of German crime writers Mechtild Borrmann and Mario Giordano, and British writers Louise Welsh and Michael Ridpath. The writers, all of whom are very successful and are also widely translated, each read an extract from one of their novels - the German authors read the original text, which was then read in English by one of the actors. As a German speaker myself I really loved this bilingual aspect and it was very interesting to compare the originals and the translations. Many of the texts read were new to me but each of them appealed to me very much.
The discussion that followed covered various topics, starting with a debate about the importance of the place in which the book is set. Michael Ridpath and Louise Welsh, for example, have both written books set in Berlin, and talked about the challenge of setting a story in a foreign city, and the research that is necessary to be able to do this effectively. Mechtild Borrmann, on the other hand, is less focused on location than she is on her characters - the setting is for her a secondary element. One piece of advice given by the writers in relation to setting/plot was to perhaps start by writing about what you know, for example Michael Ridpath writing several books about the financial world, in which he worked for many years, branching out to other topics or settings later, once you have established yourself.
Many of the writers are also interested in historical fiction, primarily the Nazi era. Michael Ridpath's novel Traitor's Gate tells the story of a Hitler-assassination that was planned in 1938, but which was called off after Hitler stopped his invasion of Czechoslovakia due to Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. Mechtild Borrmann is interested in how the Nazi past affects today's generations in Germany, a topic that I find fascinating too. Michael Ridpath discussed the difficulty of researching Berlin in the 1930s, and how heavily he relied on books to paint a picture of the city at that time, as he was obviously unable to see how life was back then for himself. The writers were asked about the GDR history too and the possibilities for writing crime fiction set in this period of history. Whilst they all agreed that there was a lot of scope for this as a subject, and indeed many writers are already choosing the GDR as a place in which to set their novels, Mario Giordano pointed out that for many Germans this period is still too close to write about in (crime) fiction, and therefore suggested that it is more likely to be tackled by British and American authors than German authors, at least for the time being. I find the question of when is the 'right' time for writers to start writing about a difficult period of history very interesting, but I think probably there is no easy answer. If a writer chooses to set a novel in a particular era then I believe that as long as they carry out comprehensive research to ensure that the basic historical details are accurately portrayed, as far as is appropriate to the plot, historical fiction can be of great benefit to readers who want to find out more about that particular period of history. I love reading novels set in times that I will never be able to see for myself, experiencing them through the characters and the plot, and I think this is essential for getting people to think about the past and what others lived (and died) through and for.
The final topic of discussion before we all moved on to a drinks reception was the writing process of each of the authors, and the translation process too. The general consensus seemed to be that starting with at least a rough plan is helpful, as long as you don't force yourself to stick with it too rigidly - sometimes the story will take you in an unexpected direction, and you should let that happen. Louise Welsh's main piece of advice was that a writer needs to be 'selfish' in terms of their time, not letting life get in the way as far as possible. According to Mario Giordano, it is better not to overthink things - just write and let the story come out! All authors agreed that when being translated, they are incredibly happy to answer any questions the translator may have, and like entering into dialogue with them. As Louise Welsh said, the translator is often the best reader as they pick up every tiny inconsistency and ask the most detailed questions, which she said is very humbling for a writer. I love the idea of translators and authors developing such a close relationship and feeling able to discuss all kinds of questions and minor details. I was very happy to hear how positive they were about translation and being translated. All in all I thought the panel was very well chosen, and Katharina Hall was an excellent chair. The Goethe Institut is a lovely setting for this sort of event too, and it was lovely to meet up with a few translator friends there and make some new ones. I look forward to the next event!