Oliver Bottini and Jamie Bulloch discuss ZEN AND THE ART OF MURDER
We have just published Zen and the Art of Murder, the first of the Black Forest Investigations - a gripping new German crime series by Oliver Bottini. Here, he discusses the series with his translator Jamie Bulloch.
Jamie Bulloch: Oliver, although you’d previously published a non-fiction book on Zen Buddhism, Zen and the Art of Murder was your first work of fiction. Did you always set out to write a crime novel or did the idea come a bit later?
Oliver Bottini: In fact, it came a bit later, Jamie. I started writing when I was fourteen, but poems, short stories, plays, long novels about young people searching for their identity and so on. The idea for the genre came very spontaneously, when I was chatting in a bar to an editor who was also a friend (she died a couple of years later). We discussed what a crime novel about Zen Buddhism and murder might be like . . . She asked: Wouldn’t you like to write that novel? And I said I’d try!
JB: One feature of the novel ‒ in fact of all the six Louise Bonì books ‒ that struck me when I first read it is the very strong sense of place it creates. So it was quite a surprise to learn that you don’t come from the Black Forest area, or live there now. Could you tell us something about why you chose to locate your series there and what research you undertook before writing the books?
OB: Well, I was looking for a city close to the French border because Louise Bonì’s father should be from France, I knew Freiburg was a beautiful city with astonishing surroundings. Crimes in an idyllic setting ‒ good material for an author! I went there a couple of times before I started writing, and I’ve been back many times since, of course. I always try to get a sense of the atmosphere, the mood, the individuality of the places, villages and areas described in my books, and then convey these in a few words.
JB: Did you also spend time with the local police force? You seem to be well acquainted with the way the various police agencies work and interact with each other.
OB: Yes, I talked to several police officers, in Freiburg but also in small towns in the Black Forest. They were very friendly and open-minded and told me everything I needed to know. One of them even became a good friend of mine.
JB: In spite of the meticulous attention to detail when it comes to describing the workings of the police, I feel it would be wrong to describe Zen and the Art of Murder as purely a crime novel. It can also be seen as a psychological study of its chief protagonist, Chief Inspector Louise Bonì. We spend a large proportion of the book inside her head, while the main narrative, although in the third person, is chiefly recounted through her eyes. How important was it to you not to be restricted to a narrow genre in your writing?
OB: Well, for me it is a crime novel ‒ but also a novel about a very sensitive woman, whose profession is crime investigator. I was (and I am) very much interested in how Louise Bonì views the world she is part of. How she is affected by the suffering of the people involved in the cases, by their emotions. Louise is the centre of this novel, her mood gives the book its atmosphere. I wasn’t interested in writing “just another crime novel”; I wanted to write about a female crime investigator with her own personal problems, being confronted with the problems of our society ‒ and to see what happened.
JB: Was there any particular reason you chose to have a female protagonist, or did the idea just come naturally with the story?
OB: When I started thinking about the story ‒ this was some years ago now ‒ I realised that I knew many male protagonists as crime investigators, but very few female ones. So I thought it might be interesting for me to work with a female detective who has a modern take on gender issues, and lives and works in rather unconventional ways. We are all well acquainted with the “male” view on the world; it was, it still is time to explore, portray and appreciate the female view.
JB: It has just been announced that you’ve won a fifth German Crime Fiction award for your latest novel, Der Tod in den Stillen Winklen des Leben (“Death in the Quiet Corners of Life”) which is set in Romania and eastern Germany ‒ congratulations! What’s coming next? Will you begin another series, or will you continue to focus on stand-alone crime novels?
OB: Thank you! Well, I couldn’t give up Bonì, she is too important for me as a friend and family member. So my intention is to alternate between Bonì novels and stand-alones.
JB: Hurrah! That’s excellent news. Thank you very much, Oliver, for this interview!
OB: You’re welcome!