Timur Vermes: Why I wanted to write LOOK WHO'S BACK
For the first title to be featured in our Year of Adventurous Reading, Timur Vermes discusses his inspiration – and spending time with the Führer . . .
"It was pure coincidence: I was on holiday in Turkey and walked past a bookseller’s stand which had Hitler’s Second Book on display. I only knew about Mein Kampf, so I immediately assumed that this Second Book must be either a parody or a fake ‒ either way, my next thought was: 'I could write a Third Book'. You could say that my idea originated in ignorance: had I known that Hitler had written a second book I would probably have walked on.
There is of course an apparently endless amount of material, so it was important to decide which information I actually needed: I had to know how Hitler would have presented his character had he had the opportunity to write a book about himself. And in fact I already had a blueprint: Mein Kampf (My Struggle). At the same time, I needed sources that would show how Hitler spoke at the podium, how he argued. I looked to the Monologe aus dem Fuehrerhauptquartier for that. And to round things off, I read one or two very respectable biographies to compare my own impressions with those of other authors. I wanted to be sure I didn’t completely miss the mark.
The whole writing process took about six months, not long at all. In fact the plot seemed to construct itself. He wakes up on an abandoned plot of land, and at first he needs help etc. It was useful that I knew from quite early on how I wanted the book to end. I just needed to get from A to B, and as a vehicle I used this 'Hitler-logic' – from there it was all plain-sailing, and I don’t think that’s a bad sign.
During the process my wife would say: 'I really can’t stand having to listen to the Führer anymore!' I had been reading out passages from Mein Kampf, I thought they were just so wonderfully bizarre. But otherwise I didn’t talk about the project much, for two reasons: First, I was scared that someone else would get the idea ‒ I find it extraordinary that no-one has thought of it before! And secondly, I didn’t quite know how to convey to people a complete sense of what I was doing. Once I told a very close friend about my idea: Hitler wakes up in Berlin. And I could hear him straining to be polite as he thought 'Oh no! I hope he gets a proper job soon.' So I added: 'It’s really funny! It’s going to be great!' You realise straightaway that you sound even more desperate and you just give up.
The wonderful thing about democracy is that you can make jokes about Hitler, but you won’t find all that many jokes about Hitler in my book. What I found so compelling is that we’re not laughing about Hitler, we’re laughing with Hitler. At first it looks like it might be the other way round ‒ he’s still clumsy, confused ‒ but the more you get into the book, the less he appears as a joke. And that’s the frightening thing."
The son of a German mother and a Hungarian father who fled the country in 1956, Timur Vermes was born in Nuremberg in 1967. He studied history and politics and went on to become a journalist. He has written for the Abendzeitung and the Cologne Express and worked for various magazines. He has ghostwritten several books since 2007. Look Who's Back was his first novel.