Working in a Vacuum – Lauren Oyler on the English-speaking Writing Community in Berlin

Lauren Oyler

I’m a Berliner. I have always known about the nightmareish lower marshes full of desperate poets hanging loose in late-night bars getting nothing done, slowly killing off the dream. I never wanted to become that way, because I’m a writer, and I really want to get my stuff done. When I tell people in Berlin that I’m a writer they mostly think it’s funny and give me that knowing look that says “oh, you’re an alcoholic”, and “like everybody else in Berlin”.

I met Lauren Oyler in June, when I volunteered a reading from my book at her night of readings with all-under-30 writers in Berlin, at Shakespeare & Sons on Warschauer Strasse, appropriately called”Berlin Under 30″. It was great to be there : everyone was my age. Just what recently I had been missing!

This bookshop event definitely had a piece of the classroom-like charm where everyone sits politely at their tables facing the front of the room, keeping quiet through the readings and sipping delicately on a glass of wine. It suddenly brought back to me this inimitable feeling of confidence and hope for the future that only young people can carry over quite so nonchalantly. Instantaneously I got why Lauren wanted to have these readings with only the super-new, beginning, budding writers on stage – and how great that at the moment, there’s a clutch of us bouncing around Berlin and enjoying the easy going lifestyle the city has to give. Cool! Magical thrill, truly, all great expectations floating around the air, and not a single sarcastic face… it felt really great. Aston Sam had his first ever reading that night, and what a reading.

Lauren Oyler was keeping it all fresh and together, and so I wondered, who is this lovely lady? I got a few very interesting virtual words out of her…

You just are in the middle of organizing an event for young writers in Berlin to do some readings at the English Book shop. How did you get into that?

I’ve been organizing the Berlin Under 30 readings at Shakespeare & Sons since last November, and they’ve gotten a lot of positive responses, as well as a few humorless people viciously accusing me of ageism, which I find so boring. (Just so we’re clear, I also organize other readings at Shakespeare that have nothing to do with age.) I’ve always liked doing readings, mostly because I like attention but also because I think it’s great to engage with writing in a different way. Writing in English but living in Germany, you generally do most of your networking/socializing/non-writing work online, and I at least really want to interact with actual humans occasionally; it’s good to get a break from drone-esque scrolling, which can be really isolating, and I already felt really isolated as an expat, etc. A lot of people I’d met at events and parties had asked me if I knew about writing groups or readings they could go to. I also knew (from experience) that it’s good to have something like a deadline to work towards, but that it can be hard to create those for yourself, particularly if you’re a young writer without a book contract or editorial contacts. It’s like working in a vacuum. I’m also friends with the owners of the bookstore, and I knew they were always looking to host events/readings, so I put it all together. Several writers have done their very first readings with us, which is really exciting, and I’m happy to be able to give people that opportunity.

You work with new literature and new books a lot. what’s that like?

It’s crazy that contemporary literature gets any kind of bad rap, but it does, and I kind of feel like I’m constantly arguing in favor of the legitimacy of contemporary writers to people who say things like, “I don’t read anything written after 1950.” What? That this often comes from people who are writers—or want to be writers—themselves is even more absurd: I don’t know why you would want to create something and not be aware of what other people similar to you are creating. But what’s really exciting to me about new books and writers is that you get to see how they think and change and respond to things, which you don’t get when literary history is laid out in front of you.

You know a thing or two about how harsh and cold the literary establishment can be to new writers sometimes. How do you feel about the ones who try to bypass it? Do you have any views on the pros and cons of traditional publishing, small press, indie or self-publishing, blogging a book, etc. — that you would like to share with writers?

Do I know a thing or two about the harsh literary establishment? I think it depends on what your goals are—if you want to make a living from writing, or be famous, which I think is a fair-enough goal, I think at some point you have to be aware of what you’re up against, what avenues are available to integrate writers into a part of the industry that pays, how to get people to know who you are, etc. Whether that will be a lot of people (relatively—I don’t really know what amount “a lot of people” would be, but I’ll leave it open to interpretation) depends on a lot of things. Small and independent presses are having a moment right now, and they offer writers a lot of freedom in terms of design, editorial control, etc. That said, I don’t think traditional publishers are necessarily evil; they reach readers beyond the community of “book people” that will seek out new or indie/small/weird presses with little (or relatively little) prompting from social media. While it’s great to have writers as readers, I’d rather have everyone as readers.

What’s your success secret?

photo is attached — photo credit should go to Anastasia Muner, anastasiamuner.com

I don’t know if I would call my situation “success,” but every vaguely achievement-esque thing I have I trace back to my fear of failure and ruthless competitive nature, plus the hours of writing practice I got as a teenager writing a since-deleted (very deleted) blog about my dissatisfying life/boyfriends. I guess you could also call it persistent dissatisfaction.

Why did you choose Berlin?

A boyfriend. I was here for a three-day visit when I was studying abroad in London in 2011 and I met a British guy, and we *fell in love*. (Which is a great story, but I’m probably saving it for something.) I had a year left of university, and after I finished, we had to devise a way to live in the same country. (Because I’m American, there aren’t a lot of places in Europe where I can roll up without a job and live legally; the German freelance visa is great.) Since I also didn’t want to have a full-time job—so I could write more—Berlin was a win-win: get to be with boyfriend, get to be an artist. More perks: 1) living in Europe is great, 2) Berlin’s cheap, 3) there are lots of artists and writers here, everyone understands your bohemian lifestyle, 4) you can drink in the street.

The next Berlin Under 30 is on August 1st at 8pm at Shakespeare and Sons at Warschauerstrasse 74.

Lauren Oyler contributes a weekly literature column to Dazed and Confused. Find Lauren Oyler at http://laurenoyler.com; find Lauren Oyler’s piece A Short Story about Identity in the Wales Arts Review’s Summer Fiction issue here: www.walesartsreview.org/a-short-story-about-identity

 

 

Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a 'recovering musician', he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.

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