A miniature pink elephant, glowing in the dark, appears to a homeless ex-banker. This pretty much sums up the plot of Martin Suter's new book, "Elefant." Speaking to DW, he talks about his research and writing process.
DW: At a scientific convention more than 10 years ago, you found out that in the near future it may be possible to create miniature living versions of real animals in the lab - designer models in glowing colors. Why have you been preoccupied with this idea for such a long time?
Martin Suter: It's a fascinating picture, a fascinating idea - this small, pink elephant. The idea simply captivated me, the idea of such a leap forward. This wouldn't really be something for the scientific community, but more the luxury industry. We could exclusively produce luxury elephants - for the children of the Saudi princes, for example.
And why did you set your story in the world of the homeless?
It was a coincidence, as it so often is when I write my stories. The setting was inspired by my character. I needed a character, living in a cave, a cellar or a ruined house, who encounters a little pink elephant and thinks he's too drunk, that he has to stop drinking since he's seeing pink elephants. "Seeing pink elephants" is a euphemism for a drunken hallucination in the English language, similar to how German speakers "see white mice." And in my search for such a figure, I quickly settled on a homeless person.
For your book, you researched Zurich's homeless scene. How did you do that?
I discovered that the "Surprise" street newspaper (Eds.: sold by the homeless/formerly homeless) offers guided tours of Zurich's marginalized and homeless community, and I signed up for a tour. It was led by two "Surprise" vendors, one of whom was still homeless and another who lived in a shelter. And they took us through the places where they live, where they eat, where they get free clothes. There's even an animal clinic where they can go with their dogs. I was amazed at Zurich's strong social network. I ended up staying in touch with those two vendors, and they showed me more.
Did these encounters enrich you - apart from the information you used in your book?
It's a world I only knew very superficially, and now I know it a bit better. These people, for the most part, had normal jobs and then suffered a crisis - crashed, as they say. Many people crash and pick themselves up again, but there are those who can't do that. Often, it's as a result of relationship trouble, when a person suddenly thinks: I don't need to work anymore, I only have to look after myself, I don't need to earn as much and I can drink as much as I want, I can come home when I want. And this freedom can be very dangerous for people who are at risk.
In your books, you always describe the scenes very precisely, very vividly, almost like a screenplay. Do you think in terms of cinema while writing?
I like to build my stories with scenes. I enjoy that structure. I don't have large passages of inner monologues. In fact, when I've written a screenplay with exact descriptions, directors have been annoyed and said that's their job.
In every one of your books, your wife gets a special thanks. Does she have a particular influence on your work?
She has a great influence on the final version. She's my first reader. She has to judge the mood, the tension, whether the framework holds up. This is very difficult for me to judge. She critiques, and in most cases she's right. I never send a manuscript to my editor before giving it to my wife and taking her comments into consideration.
Zurich has now been home for you and your family for the last two years. Do you enjoy living there?
We lived in the countryside for 22 years, as well as in Ibiza and Guatemala. Now, in Zurich, we often go to the opera. My young daughter is an enthusiastic opera fan. These are things we missed, living out in the country for 20 years.
Martin Suter (68), a native of Switzerland, worked in the advertising industry before making the switch to writing. Today, he's a best-selling author, screenwriter, columnist and songwriter, and is Switzerland's most widely read author. "Elefant," his 14th novel, is released on January 18, 2017 in German.