Friday, July 24, 2015

Emma Stein: Into the Void

We have an unusual treat for fans of historical fiction today. Emma Stein’s Into the Void, set in 1835, brings us on a fascinating journey around the world. The eBook debuts next month, but it’s available for pre-order now for only 99¢.

Welcome to The Plain, Emma. Let’s get to know you a little. Where are you from?
I am from Denver, Colorado but now live, write, and translate in Kiel, which is between Hamburg and Copenhagen.
What sparked your interest in writing?
I was always interested in places I had never been and times I could never live in. While reading was a way for me to access them, writing was a way for me to make them my own. I can’t deny it was a lovely escape from a cutthroat high school and has helped me deal with life as a foreigner bogged down by bureaucracy in the meantime.
What components, in your opinion, make a great story?
I think the writing itself and the message the book is trying to express are more important than what actually happens. A friend recently advised me to return my copy of Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) by Thomas Mann because the narrator allegedly describes the interior of the sanatorium for several hundred pages. However, I’m looking forward to those pages because I know they will be full of beautiful passages and astute observations.
Do you set your books/stories in your hometown, or do you prefer more exotic locations?
That depends on your definition of hometown. If you mean Denver, Colorado—where I grew up—then no, but if you mean the different places I have lived (United State, Germany, France, Russia, Canada) and other places where I feel at home (Denmark, Holland, Austria), then yes. Into the Void, for example, is a journey through satires of the places I have lived; while my interpretation and satire pokes fun at the modern versions of these places, the book is set much earlier, around 1835.
You’re certainly well traveled. What inspired you to write Into the Void?
To be honest, I needed to vent about a couple things, so I sat down and wrote some rather poignant satirical letters about a certain selection of authorities and social customs making life as a foreigner rather difficult. The collection of letters grew over time, and late in 2013 I had the idea of turning them into a book based on a scholar’s voyage in search of utopia.
How did you come up with the title?
The original title was Letters from Abroad, but while apt, it sounded a bit flaccid. While studying at Queen’s, I came across a collection of essays called Ins Leere Gesprochen, which means "spoken into the void", and I thought that was a passing concept for this book. My main character, Horace, writes his letters and sends them across enormous distances, never knowing for sure whether they will arrive. He is thus literally writing into a void. What is more, though, his travels take him into unknown regions; Horace is investigating places people in his country know very little about, so he is also traveling into a void.
Was there much research involved?
There was a lot of research involved because most societies are based on at least one theory in Cultural Studies I found interesting as a grad student. Little did I know back in 2009-2010 I was researching not only for my essays and Master’s thesis but also for a historical fiction book.
Is there a message in your story you want readers to grasp?
I have always thought it is important not to judge what is different from what I have learned but to try to understand it and learn from it. That train of thought runs throughout Into the Void, as do my convictions that wealth needs to be more evenly distributed around the world and that we all need to rethink our consumption practices.
What do you like least about writing?
When I go back through my texts, I have to get rid of many "Germanisms" and "Dutchisms" these days and sometimes cannot find an adequate equivalent in English. In Into the Void, I used them to my benefit to satirize bureaucracy and its very complicated words and sentences, but often I find myself sitting in front of a sentence wondering something to the effect of "Now how can I write what I actually mean by it does to think at?"
A challenge indeed. Which authors do you feel have influenced your writing most?
Franz Kafka has been crucial for my written work—you’ll find the books even native German speakers put down lovingly displayed in my curio cabinet. Horace Walpole and his astute social observations were certainly at the root of my Horace in Into the Void, but his influence is really localized in that book and does not appear in other works. At least at the outset, Tim Burton was influential in my comics, but I have started to gear myself more towards the masterminds behind South Park.
If you could go back in time, what author would you most like to invite to share a chat and a bottle of wine?
Although I adore Kafka’s work, I think I would have to choose Horace Walpole, and of course we would have to share the bottle of wine in his magnificent castle Strawberry Hill. I would be sure to dress historically correctly and wear my English Rococo gown for the occasion.
What’s next for you? Can we look forward to a new story soon?
I am working on a book titled Unspeakables, but unfortunately it is a bit slow-going at the moment because the topic is very heavy, and after I have done my forty hours a week translating, I often feel I cannot give the characters the attention and respect they deserve. It is quite frustrating at times. However, the bread-and-butter job does not keep me from planning my blog (Viking Office Chronicles) and comics (Totally Glad I Studied History and Totally Glad I Moved to Germany). They are much lighter in nature and to some extent are inspired by the various jobs I am working and have worked. More information about them is going to available on my website, which will go live in the middle of August.
Name a few of your favorite non-writing activities.
Cycling rather fast and—I admit it—rather aggressively in the clothing I have designed and sewn. I would be very happy if I could afford a baby grand piano one of these days or bring my cello to Germany so I can start playing again. In the meantime, there’s nothing like plundering my friend’s collection of scores and following along while listening to other people play.
Sounds like you have plenty to keep you busy, Emma. Thank you for sharing a little of your world with us. And now, let’s take a peek at Into the Void.
* * * * *
The country of Anglina is teeming with social upheaval, and its officials have found an unlikely national hero in a philosopher and social activist named Horace. The Anglinian government has appointed the effeminate, irreverent, and stubborn scholar to undertake a journey around the world to learn the secret of other countries’ success. Unfortunately for Horace, most of the societies he visits turn out to be drastically different from what he expected, and he repeatedly sends scathing but witty reports about his travels and the people he encounters.

Horace is dedicated to serving his country and takes pride in his assignment, but as his journey progresses, he begins to suffer from isolation and repeated failures at integrating into different societies. Not only does he grapple with bureaucracy, language barriers, and foreign climates, he is also confronted with ghosts from his own past. Incarceration in one of his destinations unleashes waves of self-doubt and an identity crisis, but Horace perseveres in the name of Anglina and out of self-respect. His determination pays off: just as he has all but lost hope, Horace encounters a series of communes whose inhabitants welcome him into their ranks and open his eyes to more a liberal and egalitarian way of life.
* * * * *
Nearing LaHague
Between Anglina and Boasille

Dear Addie,

The tradesmen who have been kind enough to take me on as a bit of useless cargo on their voyage to Boasille are docking at their first port of call tomorrow. From what I have heard, there are some rather willing prostitutes in the city of LaHague who will do anything for a bottle of our good Anglinian gin. That would explain the contents of our cargo hold to some extent, I suppose. "Give’m a swig and they’ll return the favour fives times over...or under or sideways!" is how my cultivated shipmates put it.

If they offered postal services as well, I would have no qualms pocketing a little bottle of gin from the hold and slipping it into a painted woman’s bag, but I believe the poor dears are much better at transmitting syphilis than messages. But if LaHague is as large as my illustrious companions have suggested, I assume there will be a postal service somewhere along the docks. I am a bit reluctant to stray too far on my own, you see. I imagine the great unwashed on this ship have enjoyed pulling my leg this whole time, telling me horror stories about little "flippity-floppity fops" like myself who vanished as soon as they set foot outside the dock and shipyard area. "First their fineries evaporated into the air, then the powder in their hair. They looked like men then in the face, then disappeared without a trace."

Aside from chanting that primitive rhyme outside my cabin door at night and otherwise taunting me, the sailors have as little to do with me as possible. At the very sight of me, they spring effeminately to the side and lift imaginary skirts like grand ladies trying to avoid a muddy puddle, and they eye my rather modest cravatte as though it could spray a gale of deadly vapours at them any minute.

Even the captain is incapable of shaking my hand in a morning greeting without checking that his gloves are snugly insulating his fingers against the contagious disease of affectation I appear to be carrying.

In me, they all see a reflection of what they most fear becoming, or perhaps a reflection of what they already are, but refuse to acknowledge. When one of the unwashed fellows let loose a remark even you would find foul and loose, I retorted that he also must at least enjoy the company of men if he chose a profession where he hardly sees a woman the whole year round. You need not see my swollen left eye to gather that remark did not go over especially well.

I know I have only been away from Anglina for ten or eleven days now, and have really nothing to say with regards to my mission from the Council. Nonetheless, I am still sending you a report, so to speak, lest I become a sloth early on in my journey and fail to shake the persona. After all, I’ve seen no shortage of well-meaning persons appointed to positions or missions, only to fall asleep at the wheel in the lap of luxury.

No, I am by no means implying the Council’s manner of governing the country has anything at all to do with my present research on alternative social models. Every member of the Council is as responsible as the next, with the exception of Horace and Addie.

Speaking of which, I am aware that you and several of the other members waged bets on whether I would abandon this task within the first week—I assume you waged against me and acted out a scene of me forcing the captain to turn the ship around with your typical drunken gusto.

I hope your bet was smaller than your disappointment.

Due to the social isolation the circumstances have forced upon me, I have had quite a bit of time to reflect upon my undertaking in the name of Anglina. The distances I am going to cover seem daunting now that I have crossed the first leagues, and they have reminded me that developments in the transportation of goods and people has lagged considerably behind developments in the production of both.

And this is the easy part of my journey . . .
* * * * *
About Emma Stein:
Emma was born near Chicago in 1986 and has lived abroad since 2008. Her experiences in France, Canada, Germany, and Russia influence her work considerably. Theories from Cultural Studies and Sociology form another cornerstone of Emma’s work, and she enlivens what many people would consider dry texts with interpretations that are full of wit and unexpected spins on the order of things. Her penchant for pinpointing the foibles and follies of both herself and her fellows is a fine source for her satires, be they written or illustrated.

Emma has lived in Germany since 2011. She currently resides with her skittish cat in Kiel, where she continues to surprise the natives with the historically inspired clothing that she designs and wears.
* * * * *
Into the Void / eBook available for pre-order from

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