In the Spotlight: Gabriele Kohlmeyer

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Gaby and I  have been working together for years over the phone. I get excited when I talk to Gaby about her writing practice because she actually does the work. It’s so gratifying to see how she is balancing the need to push herself with the need to trust herself.

Gaby used to write in German, and then translate her stories into English so I could read them. Eventually she began writing her drafts in English. I was concerned that she’d lose her startling metaphors when she made this change, but what happened instead was a subtle softening of language – the metaphors kept coming, but they felt more organic, more delightful, less “written.”

I love Gaby’s willingness to write about fear, confusion, loneliness, and sadness: always with compassion. And her dry humour, and the way it catches me when I’m least prepared for it. And her metaphors (note the banana shape in this piece)! The unpredictable way she writes her world simply delights me. I feel lucky to have read her stories as they’ve been written, and I’m so happy to share Gabriele with you now. 


Gabriele Kohlmeyer

Meet Gaby

Gabriele Kohlmeyer studied English and pedagogy and now works as a teacher of English and translation.


Handwriting or computer? 

Up until recently computer (the awkward mechanics of my left- handed writing were my excuse). Then, during a period where I struggled with my writing I gave handwriting another try. I bought a new notebook and pen and it worked! I produced some worthwhile handwritten scenes!


Page count or time count? 

Time count.


First drafts or revision?

Varies. At the moment: first drafts (the question is what I like more, right?)


Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

Writing solo, but always on the lookout for a mate.


Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

Earplugs!


Who are you reading these days for influence, and why?

  • Tobias Wolff, for seamlessness, humor, directness, and honesty

  • Michael Winter for directness, everyday poetry and dialogue

  • Julie Hecht for quirkiness and humor, for how she handles stereotypes (something I work on, too) and how she hits you with heartbreak when you thought you were reading comedy

  • Jeffrey Eugenides for genius, heart and metaphors


What's the best advice you would give a new writer?

In general: work with Sarah! Her mix of feeding your writer's soul and teaching you the skills necessary to write well is invaluable. It's all you can ask for and a hundred times more! For writers like me (perfectionist, anal, ambitious): write with love and always with love! Make writing time your playtime! Trust! This law of creativity is so wonderful: the more fun you have the better your writing! Isn't that amazing?


Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today.

I'm working on some memoir-style essays at the moment. The excerpt below is from a scene that is set in Hamburg/Germany where I used to live in the red-light district. The apartment I shared with a roommate bordered on a bordello. 


Excerpt by Gabriele Kohlmeyer

Our flat was on the first floor of a five-story apartment building. Oliver was the main tenant. I sublet the two rooms, which faced the back of another apartment building, even taller than ours. I was scared of the dark, so I hadn't put up any curtains or blinds. One night I awoke from a spotlight that was directed at my face. I didn't see where it came from exactly, but I knew it had to be from somewhere on a higher floor of the other apartment building. I pulled the blanket over my face and went back to sleep. On the following night I woke up again. From outside came the distant sounds of a party wrapping up: voices, laughter, the clinking of beer bottles. Then the spotlight appeared again. At first it shone unsteadily onto my blanket. Then it moved upwards. Once it had found my face it remained there, shaking ever so slightly.  Again, I pulled the blanket over my face and tried to get back to sleep.

The next day I went to the St. Pauli police station, just around the corner from where I lived.

“You should get yourself some curtains,” the policewoman said after I'd told her the story. “Translucent ones are usually enough to protect you from unwanted looks.”

Some months after this incident, I woke up in the early morning. It was summer, around four o'clock, and already beginning to get light. I opened my eyes and there were lights on my ceiling. They looked like lights from small search planes, spotlights with beams, blinking lights, but all rather small – four or five of those beams fit on my ceiling. I had no idea where they might be coming from. Definitely not from the other apartment building. There might have been a noise too, a constant humming, but I can't remember for sure.

I thought of Dawn, on Bowen Island. “Those are the most amazing formations,” Dawn had said. We were sitting on a bench, bent over one of Dawn's books. Our bikes lay beside us in the dirt. Tall luscious trees stood guard at our backs.

“See the design? And check out the size.”

There were aerial photographs of farmland. Swirls and circles of different sizes, in different arrangements, were pressed into the wheat.

“How could a human being do that?” Dawn said. “You'd need a huge lawnmower and the whole night. And even then: how would you manage those even lines? And none of the neighbors heard any noise.”

During her trip to Europe, Dawn went to a part of England with frequent crop circle sightings. She booked a helicopter tour that flew a special route for crop circle tourists. Dawn was scared of things, like me. I never understood why she was enthusiastic about crop circles. What made her think they were a good sign? I asked her once but I forgot what she said.

That morning, looking at those beams on my ceiling, my heart hammered in my chest.  In my head I repeated Hail Marys and Our Fathers to fight off evil powers.

Then I got up. It was a beautiful summer Sunday. I took my bike to the river Elbe and ran for an hour. Then I went to the Turkish store around the corner from where I lived. The young storeowner sat on a stool behind the cash register, his back relaxed into a banana shape. His hair stuck out from his head in a wild pompadour. It was thick and coarse, so it wouldn’t take much effort to style it like that. I wheeled my bike on the way home. It was only eleven, but the sun was already scorching the litter on the sidewalks - leftovers from last night's partying. I walked past the empty burger cartons, beer cans and cigarette stubs. I felt elated. I was all sweaty. There was money in my pockets. A plastic bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice, chocolate and some buns dangled in a bag around my handlebar. I hadn't been abducted. Who could ask for more? 


Discussion:

What remains with you after reading Gaby's work?

Can you articulate what's working in this excerpt - and more importantly, why it's working?

How is your own writing practice like Gaby's? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below.

And thank you, Gaby!


Should you write about darkness?
Go outside, you animal.

15 comments

Nikki Reklitis

What remains, for me: voices. The sound of many voices. The assailants, the pathologist, the water, the objects in the water, all have voices. And they speak in more than one language. And for me, the silence of the victim remains. What works: descriptions of the physical (the physical body, objects found, the descriptions of water and the surroundings where this took place) resonate with emotion. Reading the words that describe the physical conveyed the emotion of the event, to me. My writing practice is like Soraya's in that: I write by hand, listen to music, write "into" drafts as I revise them. My writing practice is different in that I am currently working out how to carve out time to write with a very young child and full time employment. I haven't figured it out to the extent that I would like to as yet. Thanks for sharing
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Beautiful work - haunting and visceral. Left me staring....like when the neck cranes to devour the leftovers of an accident you pass slowly on the freeway.
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Stephen D. Forman

I must say I'm confounded that you-- Sarah-- dislike poetry as a general rule. To my way of thinking, if the Short Story form is a crystallized and compressed version of the Novel, then Poetry is the black hole of such stars. In any event, I found Soraya Peerbye's excerpt above a stellar example of the poetry I enjoy (no pun intended, honestly). Her work is piercing, serrated. She writes concentrated sentences: a migraine of words. The subject matter is squeamish, bloody, waterlogged, yet her visions are alluring like a siren's call. Thank you for sharing with us, Steve
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Kimberley McGill

Soroya's ability to draw me into an grotesque event without feeling like I have to turn away and at the same time still retaining the horror of what happened. I felt as if I had opened a book of Greek or Roman mythology and began to read about the random wrath of a fickle god and the utter helplessness of mortals in the presence of that. Do our lives reflect those myths or do those myths reflect our lives? The "in-between place" symbolized by the line between water and shore became powerful for me. The liminal place between her living and her dieing, for the girl poised over her standing in-between not being a killer and being one, for the witnesses standing in-between being the witness to death or an opportunity to be a hero. Thank you for bringing this gorgeous writing to us.
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Mary Nicholson

The language in the piece made the unbearably cruel subject matter bearable, readable. What stayed with me is that I was able to bare witness through Soraya's words My writing practice, I would say, is very different from hers- outside of the fact that we both hand write. Her command on language is masterful- something I can only aspire to.
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Brooke (Books Distilled)

Beautiful. What remains with me is the way the language sounds like the river rushing by. I think one especially effective element is the distancing segments of the pathologist on the witness stand: we are both in the moment of the drowning, and seeing in through the detached eyes of a courtroom of observers. I'm working on a novel, and I find, like Soraya, that my work improves exponentially when I enter into it deeply for as many days in a row as life allows. Thank you for sharing Soraya's work with us!
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Beth Follett

These lines moved me: In the boy’s telling, she drowns face-up, so that she sees her assailant through a skin of water. Molten glass. Face blurred, but the hands clear. * A great achievement, to write such that a reader becomes the Other in the work. I felt myself below the waterline as distorted hands came through it toward me. The throat: its silence now the silence of oyster shell timelines. Deep silence. Hard as bone. I write by hand, I need deep quiet to write. Thank you.
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Jeanie Keogh

Dear Soraya, I feel like I was just bludgeoned by artistic brilliance. I love the way you heighten our senses as you describe a senseless killing. There is softness in the clinical descriptions, it's a delicatessen of haunting images: the teaspoon of sand in the throat, soft and boggy, seaweed clutched in the hand. I like how when metaphorically dismembering the victim, you also disembodied the reader. I'm also going to be obtuse and say that I dig how you made her mermaid-like. You (ocean)floored me with: The brain, delicate coral of self.
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Mary Nicholson

The first couple of lines remained with me- caught me by surprise! The flow of the piece works very well, the light touch on a heavy subject. What I find curious is the narrator's stance on what is happening in the scene- at first I think the narrator is irritated by the uncle, and then I think narrator must have been close the the uncle, because he lived with the narrator, and he/she is trying to find a partner for the uncle. Wonder how the narrator aligns himself/herself with the mother- recognizably one of those people who equates the relationships with animals to being the same as with humans. I write by hand also, haven't done much typing though.
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Stephen D. Forman

I had to laugh at the first couple of lines as well-- more so because Lana Pesch had just admitted trying to experiment with the male point-of-view! Is that what we sound like? "Well, I took a big dump today." Yup, gotta be a dude ; ) Apart from that, I loved the metaphorical idea of a woman so perfectly-sculpted she's at risk of being kidnapped, stabbed to death or proposed to. Thanks for sharing, Steve
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“It takes openness, and intimacy, for it to come about. True vulnerability. It takes the dropping of our usual preoccupations, obsessions, masks and predictable themes, and allowing receptivity to what is right in front of us to lead the way.” – Peter Levitt You got that part nailed Lana. Well done, thank you for sharing!
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What is with the profanity? I realize that some could be useful for the scene but this feels excessive, like Lara is showing off. Sarah uses profanity as well. I'm not trying to tear down their work, I admire their work. Yet this feels like it could be improved. Sorry, Lana.
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It is so wonderful to put a face to the woman who helped me change how I feel about writing. When I saw her mention of Tobias Wolff, I smiled. We spoke about him more than once, and because of her I bought his novel that I found in a second-hand shop. Because of her I refined my style. I came to understand that more than one draft is okay. I came to understand the inner critic, the importance of writing from love (I smiled when I read that, too! It's in my notes from every session!), and how to dive in my own text and ensure that nothing was missing. So much I didn't know and came to know through Gaby! My time with her was invaluable. Because of her I've got stories. I still don't really write by hand, though there was a time when I did. I went back to the computer because I broke my hand when I was a teen and writing makes it ache and I get impatient, which kills my creativity. I also don't do a page or time count. I find that as soon as I ascribe any quantifying measure, it turns into work. I never count words, pages, time, nor aspire to number of stories, books I read, etc. I just make time to do what I enjoy for as long as I can. First drafts are a bit easier now that I've worked with Gaby, but revision is still my favourite. I write solo for the most part, but have a writing group of three other women, all from Story is a State of Mind, whom I've come to love. I look forward to our workshopping together! The best advice I could give is twofold. One lesson I learned from Sarah, and the other from Gaby: when you write, pay attention to what interests you, tugs you forward, where your curiosity lies. From there the writing will come and it will be good; and writing is playing. It's okay if it's not perfect the first time. When it comes out of love, out of play, there is no need to worry it won't be good. Thank you, Sarah and Gaby, for being the best supports an aspiring writer could have.
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Beth Follett

The juxtaposition in the excerpt, of crop circles and the red light district, will stay with me for a long time. Such an unexpected turn. I'm thinking so hard now about what human beings can be motivated to create, whether by need or longing or beauty. The spotlight is harrowing, as is the character's restricted response. All she can do is pull the covers over her head: almost a child's powerlessness. The writing is quick, the turns are quick, and these elements seem to me to be really working.
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What stays with me is the suggestion of a slightly frenetic environment... the late night partying, the litter, and how none of this bothers the author. Quite the contrary, in fact; it seems to energize her, these signs of life. It's not clear if she ever installed curtains. I suspect not. Again, it's as though this peeping tommery is somehow accepted, that the real fear is not of people but of something unnameable. So enjoyed this. Thank you for posting!
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