Interview Karl-Heinz Witzko, April 2007

„Fantasy needs revolutions!“

German Fantasy author Karl-Heinz Witzko has built up a solid reputation writing for the pen and paper RPG „Das Schwarze Auge“ (the dark eye). With his latest novel „Die Kobolde“ (the goblins) he delivered a book that became a bestseller immediately after publishing. With Phantastik-Couch he talked about trends in German language fantasy, about established authors and promising newcomers, and the findings of serious research in goblin studies.

Phantastik-Couch.de: When did you discover Fantasy for yourself?

Karl-Heinz Witzko: That’s a story with several episodes. At university a friend of mine talked me into reading a novel I hadn’t herad of until then: The Lord of the Rings. With almost feverish eyes he said that I absolutely have to read it. And because he had borrowed his German copy to somebody else, I ended up with his five inch thick English pocket book which looked more like serious work than reading fun. That’s why I neglected it over a period of time, while I knew I had to give it back some day. I didn’t want to hurt my friend's feelings and concocted a clever plan: I would read the first 30 pages or so and then contritely confess to him that fairies and dwarves just aren’t speaking to me.

But I got hooked on the book, like millions of other readers. I used every free minute to read it, even after a boozy and jolly New Year’s Eve party. Maybe that’s the reason why I remember certain unusual parts of the book that nobody else has ever read.

After this experience T. H. White, Tanith Lee and Fred Saberhagen joined in, but that pretty much was it with Fantasy, because I’ve always been much more of a SF reader. Role playing games brought the next fit of Fantasy reading, but without New Year’s Eve experiences. When I started to write myself, I also looked at my colleague’s works.

Phantastik-Couch.de: What do you like best about this genre?

Karl-Heinz Witzko: Actually I sort of slipped into it because of Fantasy RPGs. In a way you learn that language and start speaking yourself. But it was brought forward by the fact that as a child I was read all the popular Greek and Roman myths, the Nibelungen saga, Dietrich von Bern, Wilhelm Hauff’s stories from the orient and Ivanhoe.

Phantastik-Couch.de: In German speaking countries, Fantasy has a much less established reputation than in the English speaking world What do you think are the reasons for that?

Karl-Heinz Witzko: I have to rely more or less on hearsay in order to answer this, which goes like this: Until recently many publishers didn’t really know what to do with Fantasy, it had an almost dingy reputation and the responsible editors had a hard time. This has changed to a great extent, these days I even meet people from publishing houses at RPG conventions, where they try to gather information about their target group.

On the other hand, of course, there weren’t any readers for German language Fantasy. Most people only read anglosaxon authors. In some online forums the predominant opinion still says that you cannot really expect to much from German speaking Fantasy authors.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Where’s the difference between German/Austrian/Swiss Fantasy and American/Britishh/Australian works?

Karl-Heinz Witzko: Let me answer this with a one.liner from my colleague Bernhard Hennen: „The Germans have lower translation costs.“

The general conception of Fantasy is an anglosaxon invention. With a longer genre experience, English as a worldwide lingua franca opening a much bigger market, there’s a globalizing effect. Everybody over here has read English writing authors and can name their favorites. It’s a totally different story when you look at non-English writers. It used to be like that with pop music, too. There may not be a big difference until a German speaking author decides to write about different things and themes than an American or British author. He or she could for instance turn to regional legends and myths. I would not expect an American author to write a Fantasy story that draws from the fairy tale of the Mermaid in the Blue Pot (a pool fed by a karst spring in German region Swabia, connected with many myths).

Phantastik-Couch.de: Which trend do you see in German language Fantasy?

Karl-Heinz Witzko: I do notice that many new authors have an RPG history as players or regarding the background of their first publication. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but Tolkien may have enjoyed RPGs if they would have been available at that time. The most obvious trend – and that’s no insider information – is towards novels about Fantasy peoples that were published in the aftermath of „The Orcs“, those are very successful. Time will tell whether that’s a blessing or a curse. Young German writing authors have a good chance of establishing themselves with this type of Fantasy. And there may be a possibility to familiarize a wider audience with this kind of literature. On the other hand there’s the risk of standardized taste: Fantasy is a four inch thick epic struggle of combat-ready peoples. That would be fatal, because Fantasy needs revolutions. At least as many as Science Fiction already had.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Who do you think is the most important German language author, who the most promising?

Karl-Heinz Witzko: I have to admit that for answering this, my overview of the scene is rather limited. It’s a question I would ask my fellow writers from the Tide World series: Thomas Finn, Bernhard Hennen and Hadmar Wieser – they know everybody.

Thomas might have said: „Do you know Wolfgang Hohlbein?“ – Yes, would have been my answer, we almost had lunch together – „Alright, then add Andreas Eschbach, Cornelia Funke, Kai Meyer or Frank Schätzing.“

But I can answer the question regarding the aspiring authors more easily. Over the last years many new writers have emerged, some already had some success, for some it may still take some time. I meet some of them at reading events; I even had lunch with some of them: Markus Heitz, Christoph Hardebusch, Heide Solveig Göttner, Monika Felten, and the aforementioned Thomas Finn and Bernhard Hennen. There are more, but at the moment I can’t come up with them.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Contrary to Hobbits and Elves, goblins are Tolkien creatures. Why have you chosen them as protagonists? What is special about those gnomes?

Karl-Heinz Witzko: That actually was the proposal of the editor I worked with when writing "Traumbeben (dream quake). At that time, all the cool creatures like Orcs, Elves, and Dwarves had been allocated, so she suggested using goblins. In the beginning I was a bit skeptical because I simply couldn’t imagine epic battles fought by warriors who can walk upright under a table. Well, ok, other people still wrote about that.

So, what’s so special about goblins? They’re just different. Even when in danger they have light-hearted approach towards life. Their history is smaller, it’s not about fateful days of a whole people, it’s about survival of small group of genuinely individual personalities in a world strange and incomprehensible to them.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Your style is very funny and witty, matching the character of goblins. Which scene in „Die Kobolde“ was most fun to write?

Karl-Heinz Witzko: Many. But I liked best writing the pseudo fairy tales that explain the origin of Riette’s name: Once upon a time there was a goblin girl…with very ominous friends.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Where do you take your ideas from? Cunning goblins you meet when walking the dog?

Karl-Heinz Witzko: Unfortunately not. It’s a lot of hard work, serious field studies and the willingness to see everything a little, well, pixilated. The field studies, for instance, included measuring the little daughter of friends of mine. The very interesting finding was that goblins only have a very limited time frame for their daily tasks because kids simply grow very fast and all of a sudden a goblin’s arms are too short for the job. It’s a matter of leverage, if you know what I mean.

The pixilated view is something completely different. The door in the book has its origins in old American gangster movies. I had this picture of four goblins in my mind who jump out of a black limo to rob a bank or something. You always need a getaway car and a driver, but in Fantasy you don’t have getaway cars. So I needed ersatz. I took the mentioned door which is car and driver at the same time – the door’s reactions and the way it gets treated by the others does take a leaf out of someone's book.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Goblins are deeply rooted in Germanic mythology, among others. Which kind of sources have you drawn on, old myths or the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm?

Karl-Heinz Witzko: Both. In the beginning I didn’t know very much about goblins and had to collect information about the varying images of goblins in European myths. There’s a very large group of pucks with astonishing members. But what connects them is their ill-naturedness and resentfulness, which I couldn’t use less. So I picked out their most distinctive characteristics and made my own goblin brew. The little people contributed their love of milk, the brownies added some craftsmanship, the changelings came from my home region, and the pranks can be found in many forms. And now all of that had to be explained and understood.

What is a good craftsman? Not just better than humans. The ability and practical use don’t necessarily belong together, that’s why goblins construct things of unknown use just to see whether they are able to that. Just like the old Greeks experimented with mathematics. And what about the pranks? They are not just silliness but a fundamental cultural trait. You play tricks on someone to greet him; it’s a sign of friendliness and esteem, an expression of good manners.

Then there are the mean pranks. They are not funny and belong to a behavior incomprehensible by the goblins. Those pranks are an expression of anarchy that really mixes up the orderly everyday life of a goblin. Or they would be, if goblin country wouldn’t be ruled by anarchy and chaos already.

The Grimms helped a lot when I had to describe the human world. I decided not to use a cloned Tolkien or RPG world with martial dwarves, martial elves and powerful mages, but rather use our world as a blueprint. No wizards, but witches and fairies instead. No coexistence of humans and non-humans, but uncertain knowledge on the human side: Some believe in goblins and gnomes, some think it’s just superstition.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Last question: What are your future writing plans? Maybe „The ship goblins“? Maritime Fantasy gains more and more friends.

Karl-Heinz Witzko: Seafaring goblins that tease the crew with invented languages are very attractive and not forgotten. But there’s someone who is really sick of living in the dark, eating slimy fish and dry mice. He’s dreaming of returning to his old place.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Thank you fort his interview, Mr. Witzko!

This interview was conducted by Verena Wolf and Frank Dudley; translation: Frank Dudley