The Interview | With Juli Zeh

Philosophical inquiries and answers to crime

Novelist Juli Zeh is a jurist and a human-rights scholar. Novelist Juli Zeh is a jurist and a human-rights scholar. (David Finck)
By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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Juli Zeh’s first novel “Eagles and Angels” won the German Book Prize among numerous other international awards and her latest novel, “In Free Fall,” is being published in 17 countries. The masterfully constructed story of an intense friendship between two physicists, a marriage, a kidnapping, and a murder, “In Free Fall” plunges the reader into a hyperreality that is as seductive as it is disturbing.

A human-rights scholar and jurist who described her travels in Bosnia in “Even Silence is a Sound,” Zeh is also the author of the novel “Gaming Instinct” among other works. She spoke from her home in Germany.

Q. Did the success of “Eagles and Angels” influence your approach to this novel? Was there pressure, for example, to make it popularly appealing?

A. I published three other books between “Eagles and Angels” and “In Free Fall.” By then I got used to the expectations of the public. Anyhow it always means some pressure to write a huge novel. I’ve been working on “In Free Fall” for three years, and I tried to do my very best to make it an intelligent and suspenseful novel.

Q. Did you intend to reinvent the crime novel?

A. Not really. I’m not that interested in questions of literary genre. As an author, I chose the form which seems to be best for the story I want to tell. I use elements of different literary genres if necessary. “In Free Fall” is such an example. It’s a crime story but also a love story and maybe even a philosophical book.

Q. Maybe even an existential novel?

A. It is partly that, yes, since it deals with existential questions. Especially through the main character, Schilf, who as a detective tries to solve the case while asking himself most important questions about the nature of being, the character of time, the meaning of death.

Q. Is Schilf the conscience of the novel?

A. You could say so. While I was writing the novel, I identified strongly with Schilf. He often thinks my thoughts and feels my emotions, although we are very different from the outside. He’s an old, sick man at the end of his life, and I’m female and young by comparison. You could say that he is sort of my brother-in-mind.

Q. The friendship between Oskar and Sebastian is also central. Is there a similarity here with Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”?

A. Sorry, I haven’t read “Brideshead Revisited.” My intentional reference is to Oscar Wilde — this is why Oskar is named Oskar. His friendship with Sebastian is one of the central themes of the story. Their peculiar relationship forms the basis of the criminal case and of everything that happens in the book.

Q. Do you refer occasionally to the 19th-century romantic tradition? I’m thinking of Sebastian longing for the south, “as if the south is a place one can reach,” which seems to echo Thomas Mann.

A. I hope I don’t sound stupid, but I have to say that these references most probably exist, but they weren’t consciously chosen by me. When I was about 16 years old I read only literature from the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. I’m sure that these reading experiences strongly influenced me because they helped me to form a literary taste. But I don’t sit down in front of my computer and tell myself, “Come on, let’s write a contemporary novel referring to the 19th century.” References of any kind may happen while I’m dealing with my characters, my story, and my language, without my even noticing.

Q. Do you see yourself as part of a German philosophical or literary tradition?

A. I don’t see myself as such, but probably I am. If you live and work amidst a tradition, you don’t necessarily feel it, because it’s not a decision to belong to such a thing — it happens automatically because you grow up within a certain culture.

Q. In this novel, are you asking the reader to reconsider the nature of reality?

A. Yes, I want to take the reader on an intellectual journey. The vehicle we’re driving is named “skepticism.”

Q. Can a novel of ideas be written today, without irony?

A. Of course it can. As long as mankind doesn’t lose its curiosity to think about the miracles of being, it will always be possible to deal with such questions and ideas in a literary way. Irony may be part of the game. “In Free Fall” to some extent is an ironic book, which does not mean that the contents are not serious.

Q. Did you have to educate yourself in physics?

A. Yes. I read books and essays and consulted a professor of physics to make sure that the mistakes I was bound to make were not too obvious.

Q. What is the next direction for you?

A. After “In Free Fall,” I wrote a novel named “Corpus Delicti.” The story takes place in the future although it’s not typical science fiction. It deals with a world in which public health has become not only a political issue but also the basis of the legitimacy of the state. People live in a “health dictatorship” under overall observation of the state. You might see parallels here with Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” The translation into English will be ready at the end of the year.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at