Germany, Superstition, and Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames with Author Stefan Kiesbye
“…The smell coming from the dead woman was very strong; something was sticking out of her belly. A boy muttered, ‘They have to find a new king.’ The others nodded in agreement. They couldn’t see the village behind them, not even the church tower….” —“Prologue,” Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames
In the prologue of Stefan Kiesbye’s newest novel, Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames, we are met with an atmosphere of death, mystery and occultism before we learn a single character’s name. Author of Next Door Lived a Girl (winner of the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award), Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, The Staked Plains (reviewed by SLUG in 2015) and now KFSF. Kiesbye himself is not wicked; he just flirts with wickedness. He takes the ground out from under the reader. He writes what goes on in the shadows. He sees the poison in our hearts. And KFSF chops, prods, cuts and burns deep—blood letting for a miracle.
Originally from Germany, Kiesbye was born on the Baltic Sea’s coast and moved to Berlin in the 1980s. In a post WWII Berlin, Kiesbye found an artistic center: “The allies and West Germany poured tons of money into Berlin to make it a showcase of the free world—there was always money for theatres and opera,” Kiesbye says. “The culture was super vibrant.” While in Berlin, Kiesbye picked up writing from a close friend, and though their paths later diverged, writing stuck. In ’89, as televisions flickered history and David Hasselhoff sang “Looking for Freedom,” Kiesbye found his home forever changed. “When the Berlin Wall came down there was no boundary anymore, I was in the middle of East Germany,” Kiesbye says. “It was after that I knew I wanted to leave.” 1996 saw Kiesbye depart Berlin in search of something different, new. “I came over to Buffalo, New York, on a scholarship with the academic exchange service,” Kiesbye says. “I started taking creative writing classes at University at Buffalo with Irving Feldman. I got completely hooked.” Kiesbye went on to get his creative writing MFA from the University of Michigan.
MFA in hand, teaching became a natural choice for Kiesbye beginning at Eastern New Mexico University. “Now I teach creative writing at Sonoma State University [in California].” Kiesbye says. It’s through teaching that Kiesbye is able to pass on his knowledge and help students begin to care more about their own writing. “It’s all about creating community—I love that aspect of the job,” Kiesbye says. And when he isn’t reading his student’s work, binge-watching Stranger Things with his wife, or running with his dogs—two Chinooks and a Shepherd/Bloodhound mix—he is writing.
KFSF opens with a group of teenagers stumbling upon a woman’s dead body. They alert the pastor, Mr. Cornelius, of the small German village, Strathleven. The pastor enlists the protagonist, Benno, to help him sweep the happenings under the rug as quickly as possible. But Benno—Strathleven’s newest resident, along with his wife Carolin and his miraculous stepson, Tim—becomes obsessed, and in trying to solve this woman’s death, begins unearthing Strathleven’s dark, mythical history and unraveling his own life. “There is a very sinister plot at the core of the novel, but at the same time, it is a meditation on what the hell adulthood is about and how we find our way through it,” Kiesbye says. Settling down with a wife and kid in a small village wasn’t exactly Benno’s plan. He lived in the bustling, artistically charged Berlin, working as a cab driver and journalist, feeling himself come alive with each new night, each new story. “How does someone who is in their mid-30s suddenly settle down?” asks Kiesbye. For Benno, “The way to adulthood is just as scary as the events in this small village.”
Though character, plot and the other fiction elements are important to Kiesbye, setting seems to hold a special place. “I’ve moved around quite a bit in my life, and when I come to a new place, I try and figure out what sort of place it is,” Kiesbye says. “More than anything, I think I am really interested in the atmosphere of places,” the subtleties that make any setting something more real. The settings of KFSF—shrouded wood, picturesque villages, bustling cities, and the unsettling nightscapes, equal parts glittering and menacing—are lush, captivating and stick with the reader long after the book is closed. It may seem obvious, but it is through the fluid workings of language that any setting truly comes to life.
Working both in German and English, Kiesbye’s handle on language is a unique one. Often, he writes the text first in English then later translates it into German. “What I like about going back and forth [between English and German] is that when I translate my texts, I can re-think the text a little bit or see it from another angle,” Kiesbye says. “Though it is tedious to translate a book you have already written, it is a translation into another rhythm, another language that gets its beauty from other aspects.” In contrast to his normal process, “KFSF is the only book that I wrote in German first,” Kiesbye says. Originally, KFSF was published in 2014 in German as Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht through Klett-Cotta Verlag and Tropen publishing houses. “I had the contract for the book and had that from the first 30 pages [in German] that I handed in to the publisher,” Kiesbye says. “And when they gave me the contract, I didn’t have enough time to write the book in English [then translate to German], I saw myself confronted with writing the whole book in German—oh my!” This rather surprising turn of events led Kiesbye on a language-journey, relearning to compose in German, a very different process than simply translating into German. “It was a fun experience because I got to discover so much of the language that I haven’t used.”
Of his English works, all except The Staked Plains feature a landscape and mood undeniably German. “All those three books [Next Door Lived a Girl; Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone; and KFSF] can only happen in Germany. This particular kind of gothic novel can only make sense in Germany,” Kiesbye says. “Next Door Lived a Girl and Your House is on Fire especially so, because they deal with the aftermath of the Second World War and how that impacted German life.” Loosely, both Next Door Lived a Girl and Your House is on Fire follow a group of children through the trials and tribulations of growing up in a newly rebuilt but ravaged Germany. Their many adventures and misadventures are tinged with violence, emotional detachment and superstition—features many of the children learned from their elders. Though Kiesbye was born and grew up long after the war, he saw and felt its reverberations throughout his youth in many aspects of his life. “My parents’ generation, who were small children during the Second World War, got to experience the displacement and the whole trauma of war: often rape, violence and poverty,” Kiesbye says. “They experienced it as kids then completely repressed it. The whole experience could never be uttered because Germany inflicted way more pain on others. It comes back now that people have depression, that people feel that something is wrong.” This repression perpetuating depression is something that Kiesbye suggests is still going on in Germany to this day, something he can’t help but be alarmed and inspired by.
Kiesbye says that both Next Door Lived a Girl and Your House is on Fire were texts that he had stored in him, waiting for the right time to come out. And while Next Door Lived a Girl dances hand in hand with stark realism, Your House is on Fire openly embraces the supernatural, another vestige of his childhood. “My mom was very superstitious, and what came with that was a very strong belief in the supernatural,” Kiesbye says. “Your House is on Fire was an answer to all the books I had read as a kid that dealt with legends and tales of the supernatural, and was a way to bring them together with what really happened in Germany—mixing the realms to make them indistinguishable.”
“KFSF is set in 1988,” says Kiesbye. “They [Benno, Carolin, and Tim] are leaving Berlin to escape The Wall and all that that means—though we know that in ’89 the wall comes down, and it’s an ironic move since the wall will soon become obsolete.” Kiesbye explains that for Benno and his family it is a time of transition and change filled with plenty of awkward missteps. The family’s growing pains—though not overtly connected in the novel—mirror that of Germany’s. “Germany is still muddling through the aftermath of the war even though they are now more prosperous, even though they want to leave it all behind, even though they want to put it all to rest. It is still very much with them.”
Following Kiesbye’s own exodus from Germany is The Staked Plains. After receiving his MFA, Kiesbye went on to teach at Eastern New Mexico University, and although his time there was brief, the atmosphere made a distinct impression on him. “When I lived in New Mexico, I was fascinated by the landscape and people there—The Staked Plains is a very crooked love-ode to the place,” Kiesbye says. “I was trying to capture the beauty and grandeur there but also capture what people are willing to do to get what they want.” The Staked Plains features an atmosphere so unlike that of the other novels, it is barren, more ghost town than haunted woods. The people are old, tire and hollow. There isn’t a breath of life left in the New Mexico wasteland. Yet, for all that the land lacks, it somehow still manages to be mysterious, alluring—perhaps if only because of Jenny. “The heroine, Jenny, is just the most beautiful person even though everything she does turns out horribly wrong,” Kiesbye says. “But, she is trying. She is going open-eyed into catastrophe. She is a stranger in this strange place trying to find her way.” Jenny is curious and in need of adventure and something of a foot-reader (read: palm reader). When Jenny finally gets bored of the simple existence her husband, Carl, has laid out for her, she begins looking for someone or something to hold her interest. What she discovers about herself and others, is something that can only exist in such a torrid landscape. “The beauty of it all—even though there is a lot of murder and mayhem—is the most important thing to me,” Kiesbye says.
When considering all of his works together, Kiesbye offers a tidy description, “What you get in my books is a unique mixture of the mundane, very gruesome and slightly supernatural. It’s not something I think you can get in a book any other way.” Yet, something that Kiesbye feels inclined to emphasize is that these stories, these works, can and perhaps do happen in the real world. “It is its own mix of reality that always comes out a little skewed. Reality, or what we have agreed upon to call reality, is nothing safe,” Kiesbye says. And in tandem to this skewed and violent reality comes an uneasy moral position, both for Kiesbye’s characters and us in the world.
Currently, Kiesbye is editing the debut book for Somona State University’s Volt Press. The work is to feature many established writers, creating something new from something they love: “They are taking on stories that inspired their own writing, paying homage to a writer or story.” It is a tantalizing project, something like a band doing a cover song, but with more liberties inherent to each part. Imagine giving a writer complete freedom to write or rewrite a story they love and know by heart. The possibilities are endless. Presently under the working title Cover Stories, the collection is set to come out next fall. “Right now, I’m very interested in how we make sense of our new technology, the way that we communicate. We are putting together this strange mosaic of communication and experience,” Kiesbye says. “I think I’d love to write about how we are moving into an entirely different realm of storytelling. We are witnessing a complete revolution in how we relate to one another.”
Though we await the next book to make its way from Kiesbye’s mind to our shelves, Forks, Knives, Scissors, Flames met the English-speaking world on October 26 through Panhandler Books. In the coming months, Kiesbye hopes to give a reading in Utah, though date, time and place have yet to be solidified. Rest assured, when Kiesbye makes his way into town, you’ll find me in the front row in rapt attention.
For more about Stefan Kiesbye and his works, English and German alike, visit StefanKiesbye.com.