Anthony Marais is a Composition professor at AAU, but he is also a musician and a writer. His first novel, which took him 10 years to write, is called The Cure, and you can borrow it from the AAU library. The following talk was about his novel and writing in general.
Where did the inspiration for writing The Cure come from?
My biggest inspiration came from other writers, from discovering Oscar Wilde, Thomas Mann, Dostoyevsky, and what became many others. Those people gave me some of the happiest days of my life. I was reading Mann when I started writing my novel, and I thought: “How do I repay him for this joy?” I figured the best way to say thank you to a writer is to continue the tradition of writing. You try to take the baton and run with it to the next guy or girl on the track.
What was the motivational moment for you to start the novel?
What got me writing was that three of my friends dropped out of university while getting their master’s degree. It disturbed me because they were good students and intelligent. From my perspective, they seemed to be better students than me. It intrigued me: What makes someone drop out of university? I mean some of the most talented, intelligent and creative people just don’t make it. Why? Perhaps the reason is ego—the basic antagonism between the arts and sciences. While the arts foster a cult of the ego with their emphasis on individual expression, the sciences tend to restrict the ego with their emphasis on form as a marker of academic ethos. This is the irony of my life, because I’m currently doing to my students what I tried so hard to break away from. Restricting egos! Academic writing entails tempering one’s individual voice to achieve an air of authority. But hopefully my students all know this is just for the class. Please, don’t let it damage you in real life! I love passion, and it scares me when I see people without passion for anything.
Did you have a mentor at the beginning of your writing career?
I started on my own, but early on I met a mentor—an American writer living in Frankfurt—a professional who had written many books and lived from his craft. I remember the first thing he told me about people writing novels: “Most don’t finish.” And I remember thinking: “Okay, I don’t care if my book is bad. I’m going to finish it anyway!” He was a great inspiration. He read my early drafts and very kindly marked them up with red ink. Young writers may not get it yet, but red ink is a gift!
10 years is a long time to write a book. How did the process of writing go? Did you put the novel aside and then return to it?
I started as an amateur and made a lot of mistakes at first. That’s why it took me 10 years to finish it. To be honest, I didn’t follow the rules I teach in class today. My book was written in the “Milos Forman” style: write as much as you can and then cut, cut, cut. What at one point had swelled to around 400 pages was eventually cut down to 236. It happened from my lack of experience. I “shot” too much “footage,” and later I was thinking: “How come nobody can finish reading it?” You see, it’s not easy to produce a book someone can read from cover to cover. That’s what makes me excited. Maybe it’s because of my Hollywood childhood, but I’m fascinated by storytelling. I wrote 50 pages at the beginning that constitute most of Part I (the book has 4 parts). Then I put it down. After about a year I got a new girlfriend who read those 50 pages, and then something nice happened. Having a reader energized me, and I decided to try to get back to it. Now I added an antagonist to the story, a Mephisto-like character named Herr Eberhard, and the plot took off! I started to mold the story around him, making sure to weave him into the first 50 pages, hiding him in a corner or lurking in the background. In one of the first scenes, he’s in a cafe laughing at Robert. The Cure should probably be read twice to catch most of these details. Well, this phase of writing the novel ate up the next nine years!
What does the name of the book mean?
I chose it for three reasons: first, to refer to a cure for an illness—in this case, my protagonist’s life crisis and his subsequent escape from all his responsibilities. And for Robert, death is the cure for escaping the stress of life—that’s the dark irony. The second meaning of the title came from the story’s setting: Wiesbaden, which in German is called a “Kurort”—a “health resort” or “spa town” where Europeans would come for a couple of weeks to “take a cure”—basically, drinking lots of mineral water and taking baths. The third meaning is meant to reflect the “generation X” side of the story and comes from a 1980s rock band called “The Cure” in which the lead singer’s name is Robert, too.
Tell about the main character of the story. Is there a connection between you and him?
My character Robert became a kind of shadow of myself, my nightmare me. He is trying to run away from all his life troubles. Robert’s problems are existential, the problems of a young person with a lot of freedom, problems of choice. I never described him physically, only internally, which was one of my literary tricks. I describe all the other characters except for him, hoping that my readers can project themselves onto him. However, I’m happy to say I’m not him! Robert drops out of university and Tony allowed himself to be humbled, jumping through all the hoops to finish his degree. Tony has less bravado than Robert—and is hopefully a little less crazy.
Did something interesting happen to you while writing the novel?
I had a bunch of really bizarre coincidences while writing the book. For instance, the name Bardo Eberhard is simply a composite of the names of two friends of mine: Bardo Bornheimer and Brent Eberhard. Well, years later, I was reading Carl Jung’s essays about death and rebirth, and learned that the Tibetan Book of the Dead is, in fact, called the “Bardo Thödol” and the 49 days of wandering in a state between death and life are called the “Bardo experience.” Go figure!
Why did you decide to finish The Cure with Robert’s death?
Robert is doing everything wrong and the character will be punished for that. I’m trying to get the reader to identify with my protagonist, but at the same time I’m a moralist—even if I like ambiguity. I definitely connected it to Kafka’s The Trial. Robert’s death is simply “meant to be”—“es muss sein,” as the Germans say. But for many years I didn’t have him die in the end; he just disappeared. Then something in me said, “No, everything is leading to his death!” It’s as if the story demanded it. So from that moment on, I really worked hard to allow the story to take that inevitable direction, but leave the reader surprised all the same. The reader should be shocked, but then quickly realize that it was obvious: he’s been drinking too much spa water, drinking magic potions, totally neglecting himself and not listening to any of the warnings people keep giving him. In fact, no more than 20 pages into the book, the character Jürgen explicitly tells Robert: “You will die”—and no reader ever picks that up! Well, I guess a few will now.
Did you discover something new about yourself while writing The Cure?
There’s surely a lot of me in The Cure that I’m not conscious of. I’ve certainly got issues with authority: I’m very cautious about cult leaders, gurus, strong personalities, leaders, fathers, mothers—you name it, I’m suspicious of it. The character Herr Eberhard is not the giver of answers; he is just plain scary! Perhaps this skepticism is a leftover from my punk rock youth.
How did writing change you?
Throwing myself into the creative world enabled me meet professional artists. Writing has changed my life. The amazing thing about writing a novel is that nobody tells you to do it; you just start doing it and then one fine day you notice that you’re calling yourself a writer. It’s weird, but there’s something great about that. For me, writing is reaching out to the people who inspire me. The Cure is saying: “Goodbye, my dear anthropology friends! Is there anyone else out there?” Real literature should be based on a belief in people, wanting to connect them. It’s the idea and the ideal of humanism. Writing a novel is pure idealism. I’m trying to connect cultures and bring people closer together through my books. On some level literature is a religion to me. After all, is religion not based on the book? And isn’t literature just a continuation of a great collective intellectual project that has been developing for the last 4,000 years?
How did it feel on the day of publishing of The Cure?
It’s a big kick. It’s great. It’s a massive relief, because writing a novel can take a ridiculously vast amount of time. It can take 10 years! And once it’s published, you finally get to share it with people—you get to give readings and sign books. My book is like a baby to me. Orson Welles said that all artists are women at heart. Well, if this is true, then I was pregnant for 10 years! And as soon as junior popped out of me, my whole life turned upside down: it was no longer about me; it was now about “the book.” I had given birth to this little thing that can’t walk. I’m still nursing it today. It’s really like a mother-and-child relationship: Baby comes first!
If you had a chance, would you change something in the novel?
Yes, totally! Once a book is published you can’t change it anymore. The game is over. Walt Disney confessed that he couldn’t watch his own movies because all he saw were the mistakes. And one of the reasons he built Disneyland was that finally he could undertake a project that could still be changed after opening day. But, alas, books are not like amusement parks; they’re like movies: once presented to the public, there’s no way back to the drawing board.
Would you make a movie based on The Cure?
I would love to! Wiesbaden is a photogenic city, and I would love to see that city put to music and given drama. Many scenes in the book function like scenes in a film: many chapters open with a feeling of a clapperboard and someone yelling “Action!” I could imagine the movie as a European production, because it’s not really an American story. The cast, crew, and director could all be European—all except one American: Robert.
As a teacher of Composition I and II could you tell what is the connection between academic and creative writing?
If I would teach a Creative Writing course, I would simply tell my students that everything we were doing in academic writing was working on the author’s voice. And what happens in creative writing is that we have to start adding other voices to the picture: the various characters who all need to speak with their own voices. So now we get to use slang, experiment with colloquialisms, be humorous, and even be sexy. It takes a lot of effort to make characters sound distinct from one another—and especially from your own voice. For instance, in my book I tried to make Robert sound more American than I perceive myself to be.
What is the best thing about writing?
There’s nothing like writing. It’s definitely the hardest art form. I’m convinced of that. I’ve watched so many people around me who wanted to do it, but they couldn’t—couldn’t “finish,” as my mentor said. The best thing I can say about writing is that it doesn’t go away. You can put it down and come back years later—and it’s there patiently waiting for you. It’s the greatest gift to yourself, because you end up with a psychological portrait of yourself at a specific moment in life. You suddenly can see yourself in a new kind of mirror. You get to know things about yourself that most people forget with time. With The Cure I captured myself at the age of 29—a strange year, indeed, for many of us. I’ll be 70 one day—Who knows what I’ll be like?— and I will be able to open a shoebox and pull out this 236-page mental photograph of myself at 29. I’m sure as I change this image will look stranger and stranger over the years. I started out as the young Robert and I’ll end up as the old Herr Eberhard. This is life.
What is writing to you?
Writing is a drug; it’s like heroin. It has all the negatives of addiction—and all the positives. You get an indescribable joy from creating. Like somebody injects a happy drug into you. Art can make me happy forever. Life is filled with stress: relationships break up, illness strikes, disasters happen, but at least I know I can always fall back on art. It’s really our most faithful friend (and it lives longer than dogs). On my worst days I can pick up a book or watch a movie or listen to music, and suddenly realize that I’m not alone—and so lucky to be alive.
What are you working on now?
Currently I’m translating The Cure into German, as well as editing it for a second edition. As my students can attest, I love cutting away redundant words and passages. In fact, just this past month I made a massive 6-page cut to the German version—and it felt great! I hope when we’re finished that the German version will be better than the English one—or at least shorter. I’m obsessed with cutting and have come to believe that somewhere in all the hacking, slicing and chopping is the “Holy Grail” of storytelling: that is, the secret trick that keeps readers gripped to a story. Translating is amazing. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig said it’s the best school for writers. So if you want to become a writer, just translate for 10 years and your brain will start working like a writer. Multilingualism is good—and I’d say many of our students at AAU are already on their way to becoming great writers!
Any more advice for beginning writers?
Just do it! And don’t worry if it’s bad. Keep doing it anyway. Remember that most writers don’t finish. Embrace your idealism and don’t give up! My strategy—for whatever it’s worth—is to stick to writing one book people can read rather than five unfinished books that nobody can read.
How do you see the future of the world of literature?
Great! I’m an optimist. Every generation produces writers, although from the historical present it can be hard to find the best among them. That’s why art appears to be better in the past than in the present. Because looking back into history we are no longer inundated by the 95% of bad movies, books and music that come out every day. Accordingly, the past looks rosier. But the 5% of artists who will make our world richer are there—as we speak. Nowadays they may be writers who create screenplays or poets who become rock stars. It’s all about the spirit, the idea that one can benefit others through words. I truly believe that as long as there are people there will be literature. And there will always be literature as long as we remain true to Plato’s three appeals of art: truth, beauty, and goodness.