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The Swiss Writer Tom Zai answers 11 Questions

I’m proud to introduce the Swiss writer Tom Zai in this "blog hop". I first met Tom on Twitter due to a tip of gifted children's book author Alice Gabathuler, who's a mutual friend. It was great to meet Tom IRL at the book launch of "Mord in Switzerland" in February 2013 in Herisau, Eastern Switzerland. Here, he's answered a few questions on his life as an author and his views in general. You can find my answers to his questions on

(And thank you, Tom, for providing the English translation yourself. Much appreciated!)

The most urgent question first, Tom. When will your book come out?

I'm glad to answer your questions. As an unknown writer, I'm all the more proud to have been invited to join in this blog-parade.
I'm working on two novels. The first one is going to be released in March 2014 and I'm editing the manuscript. The second one is meant to be the sequel. I'm on the first draft.

Why did you begin to write? Was there a specific event that spurred you on?

I'd wanted to be a writer even before I could read or write. My mother read Jim Knopf to us – simultaneously translated to us into Swiss-German. From that moment on,

stories, the more fantastic the better, have always been part of my life.
Then came a week when I was hiking in the Swiss National Park. I was thirty-six and for the first time away from my wife and my three young children. I was standing on a mountain crest when my fantasy began to play havoc and I had this novel in my mind – at least the beginning and the ending – a mystically dystopian vision about the loss of family, security and reality.
However, I wasn't a writer, then. I needed ten more years to jot down my vision and yet two more to understand that I had really become an author.

What genre do you write?

To easy way would be to say: I'm doing Cross-Over. It's more complicated, though. I call my first book (Eisenhut - Aconitum) a mystery-thriller. However, it's also a road movie in book form and a bit of Fantasy as well as contemporary literature of the whimsical kind, maybe even a dystopian novel.
My next two novels will be more of a thriller. Nevertheless, all of my books have a tendency to “breaking out”, to leaving the expected track. (In case they will break out successfully I will call them a breakthrough!)
Black humour is important for me. It helps to make an unbearable scene bearable or to change the point of view. Different ways of perception are always important in my stories and the resulting witty situations contrast with the deadly reality of the background.

Which do you find more challenging, the process of thinking up a story or the editing?

I think editing is more difficult. Plots are never a problem for me. I can see them like a film played in my head. Everything is kind of self-explanatory. I don't need to convince myself of the story details. That's why I tend to write rather fast. I carry myself to the final scene as fast as possible, as if I were reading a thrilling book.
Re-writing and editing are a necessary evil for me – a pain in the neck. Apart from that it really doesn't flatter my ego that craves perfection from the start.
On the other hand, I try to follow the metaphor of the jug with the stones, the pebbles, the sand and the water. In other words, I am getting more and more subtle when editing. I try to focus on the main structures in the first version, then get into more and more detail in the next ones.
When I'm writing the first draft, it can happen that I reach the state of “the flow”. Then, my brain switches into phonetic-mode sometimes. A day or two later, when reading over previous passages, I cannot believe what shocking blunders and adventurous spelling versions I've come up with! An insult to my ego.

Do you have a favourite among your books/stories and why?

My next book will be my favourite one. I guess this will always be the case. But then, I haven't had much opportunity to compare yet.

How do you fit writing into your daily life?

My regular job keeps me busy for 40 weeks a year. During the remaining weeks, I write intensively: Editing in the morning, then up to four hours of developing new texts. An extended nap in the afternoon followed by a phase of creative writing until night falls.

Should you ever consider changing genre, what would you like to write?

I could imagine writing pure crime novels. What deters me is my lack of knowledge about police procedures.
I'd like to write books for young people. I'm in awe of children's and YA writers because they are obliged to reach a new audience every three to four years.
One of my dreams is to be able to write like Nick Hornby or John Irving who write about everyday life in a such a whimsical or witty way and explore topics like marriage, getting older, youth, depression, betrayal, dementia and so on.
Writing film scripts seems also tempting.

Which of your senses is most likely to be involved when there’s a first spark of an idea?

For me it's the hearing. This might seem astonishing. However, I am an "audio-guy". While writing my newest novel, I always listened to Steven Wilson's progressive rock. As soon as I turned on the music, I was in the midst of the story. Furthermore, the protagonist is in a way haunted by sound, obsessed with noises. For me, the rhythm of the language is important. Dialogues work as in an audio drama.
I call another sense “cloud-shovelling” – in reference to commissioner Adamsberg from the Fred Vargas novel. I think that developing ideas is similar to natural growth. I picture a blanket of snow on a field. Underneath, everything is ready: tubers, seed, layers of dead plants. My conscious mind, though, cannot understand that yet. But my trust in spring, in life breaking through, is unlimited. Before going to sleep, I think intensively about the characters or scenes in the book I'm working on. In the morning, everything is settled. If not, I take counsel with my pillow once again.
Even though I seldom watch movies, I picture every scene of the book as if it were a film. To this, I write the script. That's why my books lend themselves so much to a screen adaption. ;-)) On those grounds, vision is also involved in my writing.

How important is reader feedback to you?

Reading and writing have a lot to do with perception. A book I read might have a blond protagonist. However, in my fantasy her hair is black with a touch of chestnut. I don't let the author interfere with my imagination in this matter.
That's why I'm very interested in getting in touch with my readers. To know which pictures and thoughts my texts provoke. I haven't published enough, though, to be in a position to talk about “my” readers.
When writing, I picture to do it for my model-reader, my “audience of one”. The one and only human being I'm slaving away for. I'm familiar enough with her biography (yes, female!) to know what I need to explain and what is clear. I'd really love to talk to that person about my next book (She doesn't know anything about her role and it might be good fun to watch her reaction if she discovered it).

How can readers contact you?

They can reach me on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and at all those readings I'm going to give. ;-)))

What’s your favourite book of all times?

That's not fair! Too many books, too many books important to me. Yet I need to decide, to choose the one book for the island:

The World According to Garp (John Irving)

I don't dare think about all those books I'd be obliged to leave behind. This brings us to Fahrenheit 451 and all those dystopian novels which mean so much to me. However, those are just a small part of what is me. My reading-biography is almost as important as my real CV and closely related to it. I could mention Jim Knopf, Krabat, 1984, Homo Faber, The Clown, The Dark Tower, Red Zora, Pitschi, The Stone and the Flute, How To Be Good, The Hitchhiker's Guide...  and many, many more.
In other words I'd rather take an e-reader to the island – and a solar-panel.

Well, thanks so much for giving us such an interesting insight into your work and your way of life. As mentioned before, your first novel will be published in spring 2014. We're looking forward to it and to going to your readings. The best of luck and success!