Thomas Pletzinger by Sufjan Stevens

BOMB 115 Spring 2011
115 20Cover
Thomas Pletzinger 1

Photo by Juliane Henrich.

Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, a riveting story of search and loss, combines its protagonists’ physical and mental restlessness with something of an old-European lingering. A marathon across continents and between past and present, the book nevertheless thrives on its characters’ condition of “just being”—they’re not exactly idle but not productive either. Disorientation prevails as the author ponders life’s two grandest mysteries: love and death. Pletzinger’s debut novel propelled him to the front row of new German fiction and will be published in English this spring.

When BOMB approached Pletzinger for an interview, he wished to speak with musician Sufjan Stevens who, indirectly, shaped his book—namely by inducing a certain state of mind with his songs. (Pletzinger continually listened to Stevens’s albums while writing Funeral for a Dog.) There are obvious affinities between the two artists’ works: an interest in the symphonic, in empathy, and a “courage for pathos”—a resolution that Pletzinger’s main character, a writer, arrives at in the end of the book.

Pletzinger and Stevens met for the first time via Skype while they were both on the road. Their conversation drifted from missing limbs to hip-hop and will no doubt continue in some form.

—Sabine Russ

Thomas Pletzinger Hello, Hong Kong? This is somewhere near Cologne.

Sufjan Stevens Hello?

TP Good. I’m very excited to talk with you.

SS Ah, it is beautiful, this technology that we have access to now.

TP Did you have a chance to read my book?

SS I haven’t quite finished. I’m reading a whole bunch of things at once.

TP What else are you reading?

SS I just finished Patti Smith’s memoir about her and Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids.

TP Did you like it?

SS I love Patti Smith. She’s so sublime. As a performer, she is a real social-energy force for transcendence. Whenever I see her I’m inspired. Reading her book I loved the anecdotes, the history, and all the nuanced information in it. She and Robert had a beautiful and symbiotic relationship—companionship. The book is worth reading, even just as a voyeur if you have interest in that ’70s scene in New York. It was the tail end of the Andy Warhol thing.

TP I translated a collection of poetry by the American poet Gerald Stern into German. Have you heard of him?

SS Yeah.

TP He is 85-years-old now. Last year I invited him on a trip to Germany and we did a series of readings, one of them in Cologne, at the literary festival lit.Cologne. When Gerald Stern and I checked into the hotel, Patti Smith was there. She had this whole entourage with her and she was the star of the festival. I found her very charismatic. And Gerald Stern approached her and patted her on the back. They were chitchatting for a bit and she seemed really, really nice. Stern and Patti Smith talked about Warhol, actually. Stern grew up in Pittsburgh and knew Warhol back then. When Warhol moved out from home, Stern was the one who drove him to the train station.

SS Oh my lord.

TP Warhol was going to be a commercial artist for a shoe company or something in New York. So Stern gave him a lift to the train station. Warhol had all these bags and he had this painting with him. He gave that painting to Stern for driving him.

SS No …

TP So Stern went home and gave it to his mother and she said, “Really, that Warhol, that pimply Polack, can paint?” And then she threw that very early Warhol away. (laughter) Stern always says it’s the story of his first lost million.

SS Wow, that is tragic. Well, you know, money wouldn’t have done him any good anyway. Poets are meant to be poor.

TP Yeah, yeah. But he is not really poor. (laughter) You live in Brooklyn, right? Have you gotten to the New York chapters of my book yet?

SS I have, actually. I was excited about the number of times you referenced the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the BQE.

TP Well, my protagonist Svensson and his dog walk to Williamsburg and through Greenpoint on the BQE. I myself was living on Lorimer and Skillman, right next to the BQE, across the street from a bar called Union Pool. Do you know that one?

SS Yeah, Union Pool is right on the expressway.

TP So, in my imagination, my characters live on this street corner. Right above a corner store. In reality, there is no store. I simply put one there for the book.

SS Were you writing the book while you were in the city or was this something you wrote afterward?

TP I was living in New York from 1999 to 2001, but I didn’t write the book then. I wasn’t even writing, really, at that time. I wrote it several years later, mostly in 2007. By the way, I was listening to your BQE album yesterday. Last night, actually. I put it on at dinner for my sister and her kids. They didn’t quite get it.

SS The BQE is not good for digestion, I suppose.

TP You’re probably right. The two little kids wanted song and we wanted to listen to Wagner in traffic on the ugly highway. They wanted sugar and storytelling and we kept telling them to listen carefully. It was hard for my sister to hear anything, let alone references to architecture and urban planning and development and weirdness and Robert Moses—all translated into music. (laughter)

I was actually wondering if you thought the New York parts in my book were okay? You know, they were first written with a German audience in mind.

SS I really appreciated a lot of the references. There’s a kind of linguistic cacophony. The characters in the prose are very distracted, which is evocative of the physical New York landscape. Especially that area in Brooklyn, near the expressway, where you have all these bisecting lines of streets. Your narrative has that same kind of shape to it, narratives upon narratives. There are three different time sequences going on in the same story.

TP Yeah, for the characters it is a very distracting time, because it is September 11. I didn’t want to tell a story where people are able to make up their minds. Everyone at that time was making resolutions and deciding to do this or that—to change their lives, to move somewhere else, to hate Arabs, and so on. People were making up their minds and going in one direction. My characters don’t do that. I felt that this was more a sign of the times than anything else—they had to go back and forth, they had to talk a lot, about both nonsensical and very interesting things. And they have to get drunk because they can’t make up their minds, really.

SS It’s interesting that you position this kind of major catastrophe with this collection of people. They are so ambivalent. There is a kind of emotional anarchy in these characters; they never seem to come to grip with the event itself, you know, with this major event. Instead, there is this nearsightedness; they only see what is in front of them and they are just barely getting by from space to space and from moment to moment. It becomes almost surreal, in a way. And at some point you have the dog talking as well.

TP Yeah.

SS Because the prose is kind of surreal in itself—everyone is drunk, doing drugs, or wandering around—it seems very natural that the dog starts talking.(laughter)

TP Yeah, the dog is what you would call, in team sports, the glue. (laughter) He is the one that holds it all together. The dog offers his opinion or his reflections, usually when everyone is drunk. It’s then that he seems to be able to talk. Later in the book he actually really speaks and articulates his wisdom and all the pain he experienced. He is a real character in the book, he is not only a dog.

SS The dog is the prophet in some ways, he’s the spiritual advisor.

TP Absolutely. Have you gotten to the point where his leg is amputated?

SS I’ve gotten to the part where Tuuli cleans the fish for dinner and she insinuates that she had amputated the dog’s leg. But I haven’t gotten to that scene yet. I’m so behind. I need to finish it and call you back. (laughter)

TP No, don’t worry at all. It’s nice to talk about a half-book. It happens very often, but people always—more or less successfully—pretend otherwise. Let’s talk about unfinished things.

SS The story of my life is the story of half-finished projects and half-read books.

TP Is it?

SS Yeah, I never really finish anything.

TP Sometimes I finish something, but in comparison to how much I start, it’s pretty shameful. (laughter) But that is how things work, don’t you think? You start more than you finish.

SS How do you know when you are finished?

TP With this book? Actually, I’m supposed to be finished with it, but I’m not. And probably will not be finished for a long time. For the next novel, I’m using the same characters again.

SS Oh.

TP I didn’t want them to go away and abandon me. Tuuli, who is a medical student in Funeral for a Dog, will be an older doctor, a surgeon, in the next novel. And she will be amputating my protagonist’s leg, again.

SS Oh my lord.

TP But my next protagonist is 85-years-old and Tuuli gets to work on his leg as a surgeon. It sounds terrible, but she is a good doctor.

SS So what’s your fascination with amputated limbs?

TP You know, in Germany, every young man has to do mandatory military service or a substitute public service. You can work in a hospital instead, or care for children, or the elderly. Everyone has to do something, right? I didn’t want to go to the army, so first I worked with kids and then I worked with an elderly woman. I went to see her every day, helped her with whatever she needed, like cutting her toenails, or going shopping, feeding her parakeet—all these things. Apart from high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes, she had this infected toe. All these conditions that don’t kill you fast but add up to real misery. Because she had diabetes and her leg was gangrenous, the infected toe was amputated first. Then half her foot had to be amputated, then the entire foot, then the leg below the knee. She remained strong somehow or at least she pretended to keep her spirits up, although she physically disappeared, really. And I found this terrible, of course, but fascinating at the same time. I thought one day I’d want to use that experience in my writing.

So eventually I used it on the dog in Funeral for a Dog. I also wanted this dog to have a name with three letters and his name was Lula before, when he was a police dog in Brazil. Then one of his legs is shot off and he becomes Lua, the three-legged, talking, beer-loving dog.

SS So you lose a letter and you lose a leg.

TP Yeah, they shoot off his letter.

SS I’ve seen three-legged dogs and cats. They seem to get on as if nothing is missing. A three-legged dog doesn’t appear tragic.

TP They can run really fast with three legs. When their entire body gets up to speed, you don’t even notice the missing leg anymore.

SS A person is much more affected, whereas an animal is still proficient in spite of the disability. You mention in the book that the dog doesn’t experience phantom-limb sensation.

TP Exactly. Dogs don’t know nostalgia and melancholy either, do they? Humans are sad and nostalgic, so my next book is a sad story of a missing leg. I will talk about a human amputee. Even before his leg is removed, he thinks about everything he once was able to do with his leg and everything he will be missing. The biography of a leg.

SS It seems like the human characters in Funeral for a Dog are all experiencing phantom-limb syndrome. Even though they are not missing limbs, there is this anxiety about something missing and an anguish about the past.

TP Yeah, that is what they deal with, right? They live in ruins, basically. And Svensson literally lives in a ruin—a rundown house with holes in the roof, surrounded by garbage. Everyone else deals with their own ruins and broken-down situations, broken homes, in some way. This is what the book is about. The different parts—the New York, Brazil, Finland, and Italy parts—all come together at one point and it becomes clear that the characters are all dealing with ruins.

SS In spite of all the movement … And there is so much geographical movement, change of landscapes and countries and continents. It’s that restlessness versus the kind of static deconstruction of the ruins, the lightness of movement versus the heaviness of the ruin. How did you manage all this motion in the book?

TP Well, the characters are moving around, trying to find a place they can call home. And then there is this Svensson guy who decides that all this traveling is probably not a good idea, so he tries to pin himself down. He settles in this one traumatic place where his best friend, the mysterious Felix, has died. He stays in a boathouse on the lake and doesn’t move—to see what that’s like. Technically, it’s montage. You jump from chapter to chapter, switch places on a page, or from paragraph to paragraph. I think it can be confusing, but I wanted it to be a kind of a voyage for the reader too.

Is that a kid crying in the back?

SS Yeah, that’s my nephew, my sister’s two-year-old. I’m surrounded by stuffed animals right now.

TP I’m actually surrounded by a collection of old Donald Duck comics. (laughter) I’m at my sister’s house too and my little nephew just woke up and came in here. He’s three and a half. Do you have kids?

SS No, no kids.

TP I’ll be a father in six weeks.

SS Wow! Congratulations.

TP Thanks. I’m excited to see what that’s like.

SS Will this be your first?

TP Of course. I mean, not of course, but it is. (laughter) What’s your favorite name? We are still hunting for a name for the baby.

SS I always liked Maximilian. It sounds like a dictator.

TP It is.

SS Or like a robotic space leader. I think that one is from Walt Disney’s The Black Hole.

TP It’s a holy Roman emperor’s name. Where does your name come from?

SS Well, Sufjan is probably Persian.

TP Is it your real name or an artist name?

SS No, it is my given name.

TP Does everyone in your family have Persian names?

SS Four of us do. We are six kids. There is Djamilah, Djohariah, Marzuki, and Sufjan. My parents changed their names to Rasjid and Hadidjah, which are very Middle-Eastern names.

TP But they are originally from America?

SS Yeah, they were born in the US. My parents were members of a spiritual group called Subud. The leader of the group, Bapak, would sometimes rename group members or, if you wanted that, name the children. He was Indonesian and Muslim, so he chose a lot of Middle-Eastern names.

Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens. Photo by Marzuki.

TP I was thinking of naming our child Tuuli because I like that name a lot. But my wife said, Nah. She doesn’t want a name from my book. It’s too much baggage and our daughter might one day feel pressured to become a surgeon and amputate peoples’ legs. (laughter) So we decided no names from the book.

SS Are you familiar with Flannery O’Connor, the American short-story writer and novelist from the South?

TP Yes, I am.

SS In high school we all had to read her short story “Good Country People.” It has a character with a missing leg.

TP I don’t know that story.

SS If I recall the story correctly, there’s this lumbering, obstinate woman; her name is Hulga and she has an artificial leg. There is a Bible salesman who kind of woos her, or tricks her, and eventually steals her leg.

TP What does he do with it?

SS He just runs away with it. (laughter) I’m not exactly sure what he was going to do with it.

TP That’s terrible.

SS Yeah, it’s kind of tragicomic. I thought you might appreciate the story.

TP I’m going to read the book and maybe use it. I will be on a reading tour in the States in April. You know, when you talk to journalists they always want references, so I could say that Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” was a motivation for me. (laughter)

SS Where will you be reading?

TP In New York, at McNally Jackson in Manhattan, and maybe somewhere in Brooklyn—because the book is set there.

SS You should do a reading at Pete’s Candy Store. They have a fiction and poetry reading series.

TP And they have that nice little back room with the small stage. That’s right. In addition to New York, I’m going to Washington, Chicago, and Boston, then to Iowa and Rochester. You know, a couple of places, eight in two weeks. You, as a musician, must do it all the time.

SS Yeah, but, you know, pop music is candy. You are dealing with a much higher art form.

TP I don’t think so. Not at all! I always envy you musicians. You can influence people directly at the very moment when you sing. People come to see you and when they leave they are exuberant or thoughtful or whatever. Sweaty, maybe. It’s always immediate.

SS Well, music involves the body. As a musician, I’m creating an emotional environment. It’s a sensory experience for the audience, while fiction is a more cerebral experience. A kind of mental gymnastics occurs.

TP But are you serious when you say it is a higher form?

SS I guess it’s moralistic of me to be imposing such a standard, but I’ve always believed that every time you add a sensory stimulus, you are cheapening the art form. So movies are the cheapest, especially 3-D movies. (laughter)

TP Maybe that is true. A movie comes at you from so many angles that you have no chance to really reflect on it. A 3-D movie can be terrible. It needn’t be, but it can be. But I would very much like to be able to sing or act or write a good screenplay.

When I write, I listen to music all the time—exactly because of that immediate influence on my emotions and thoughts. It impacts my creative energies. I know the effect that a certain song can have on me, and when I need that emotion or that state of mind I simply turn on that song and it usually takes me to the place where I want to be. For writing that is very useful! At concerts I always feel like a rat sitting in the audience while the guy or the girl with the pipe is on stage, and I want to follow that pipe.

SS In English we call it The Pied Piper.

TP I like following the guy with the pipe. I have seen videos of you performing, but I’ve never seen you play live.

SS What you were saying is stimulating a few thoughts about music translated to fiction. Thinking about your writing, I’m wondering what kind of music you are translating into your prose.

TP You can take a guess.

SS We have this thing in English grammar called a comma splice. It happens when you have a series of sentences; instead of separating them with a colon or a period, you just throw a comma in there. It is considered bad grammar, but it is very common now with the broadening of rules for written language—thanks to the Internet, text messaging, and so on. People don’t obey those established rules anymore.

Your novel is almost like a series of run-on sentences. There are all these comma splices. Musically speaking, it would mean that there are never resolutions, that ideas are all compounded and interjecting each other—like a collage, like a mash-up.

TP The New York parts and the Brazil parts are definitely like that, and the notes that Mandelkern, the journalist, takes are…well, actually, they are also like that.

SS A lot of it feels like note taking. I like that; there is a rhythm to it. And it feels like a narrative exercise—capturing and recording data, the habits of a journalist—they are all infused into the style of the prose. Is it the same in German?

TP Absolutely. I’ve read the English translation and I think it’s pretty much what I wrote in German. It’s all long sentences, lots of commas, and it’s exactly what you said. It’s a journalist using the techniques he knows and then meandering. He starts on a professional level and then he takes off into the personal and emotional realms, but still taking notes like a journalist. He starts using brackets and parentheses more and more while adding personal stuff to the professional notes.

SS I like that a lot.

TP But you started off talking about music. What do you mean? What kind of music translates into that?

SS Kanye West’s most recent record is the kind of mash-up I was talking about. It’s not exclusively hip-hop at all. It’s not preoccupied with an orthodoxy of hip-hop or rap. It’s borrowing from indie rock and folk and symphonic music. And then Kanye West has this kind of personality disorder where megalomania and egomania mix with this incredible self-deprecation and masochism.

TP Mh-hmm.

SS I hate to use Kanye as an example, because it’s a little bit crude compared to fiction, but hip-hop has always been about stealing and borrowing and sampling.

TP Yeah, these are techniques that have always been associated with hip-hop.

SS So maybe your novel is hip-hop.

TP But I have to say, I hardly listen to hip-hop. Probably one could say that about books likeManhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. Have you read it?

SS No.

TP That’s a book that foreshadowed hip-hop. This sounds strange, but it may be true. It’s a mash-up of stories and materials and recurring samples.

While writing Funeral for a Dog, I mostly listened to singer-songwriters, to people with guitars. I was trying to keep—or reach—a quality that is natural or handmade, so that the environment that I was describing would become graspable, you know? It’s interesting that you say that the book turned out to be a mash-up.

SS But the book doesn’t feel synthesized at all. The prose is very physical and carnal. It’s about the body.

TP That’s really important.

SS I think the formula itself is hip-hop, and the technique feels synthesized with the actual elements and characters themselves. I can see how you would be influenced more by acoustic music.

TP Your music was very important to the writing of Funeral for a Dog too. Looking at the playlists I had for each chapter, I find that your song “Pittsfield” is on almost every one of them. Or “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois.” Or “To Be Alone with You.” Or “Romulus.” Or “The Mistress Witch from McClure (or, The Mind That Knows Itself).” And many more. “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Or “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” I very much like and admire your storytelling—in addition to the various immediate qualities of the music.

SS Thanks! It’s good to hear that my music made it into your book. I’m wondering, do you actually write by hand or do you type?

TP I write in notebooks. I take notes and then, when I really write, I type, of course. My wife always says that I type like a hawk. I’m circling above the letters and when I find them I dive. I’m a pretty quick typist with four fingers. You studied creative writing as well, right?

SS I did, yeah. Years ago.

TP Was it a good or bad experience?

SS The program was good. I went to the New School and they had just started their MFA program for writers. We met at night. I had serious intentions of staying with it and writing a novel, but I got kind of distracted by music. (laughter)

TP It’s a good distraction. Are you writing sometimes?

SS Less and less. I used to keep a regular habit, but now I’m so out of that community that it’s hard for me to write consistently. I started back in again, but I find my writing not narrative anymore. I used to write just fiction. Now it feels more like observations, like journalism. And it’s just for myself.

TP You are in Hong Kong now but about to go on tour in Australia. You are together with friends all the time, not traveling all by yourself, right?

SS Yeah, there is quite a big entourage I move around with. It’s a group of about 20 people.

TP You know, aside from my next novel, I’m currently working on this project which is writing a book about professional basketball. So I’m traveling with a team right now, Germany’s best basketball team. I’m with them all the time; it’s 35 away games a season and 70 games all in all. It’s almost like being in a band. It is a weird band though, a professional basketball team.

SS How have they taken to you? I mean, are they accommodating or do they see you as the enemy because you might be revealing their inner secrets?

TP I’ve been with them since training camp in August. They don’t see me as an enemy. Actually, they don’t even see me at all anymore. I’m with them all the time, sitting in their locker room, taking lots of notes. I’m as invisible as a chair. They say everything they would say in any event. 20 men all together, coaches and players; the oldest is 60, and the youngest is 21. All these guys—it is really, really raw and quite terrible. But I do like it, I have to say. It’s just strange.

SS You’re on tour. It sounds fantastic.

Sufjan Stevens is a singer, multi-instrument musician, songwriter, and composer who began releasing music through his own label, Asthmatic Kitty, in 2000. He has received widespread attention for his albums, as well as his large-scale multimedia project The BQE.His most recent albums are the EP All Delighted People and The Age of Adz

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