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The Scarlet & Black

German writer-in-residence continues long tradition

Probably the only person in the gym listening to audio books of German novelist Thomas Mann, Kristoff Magnusson is the German Department’s writer-in-residence this spring. The Berlin-based author is the most recent in a string of German novelists, essayists, playwrights and screenwriters participating in the residence program dating back to 1988.

According to Sigmund Barber, Chair of the German Department, the program was originally created in order to expose Grinnell students to East German writers, who were otherwise closed off from the Western world.

“At that time,” Barber said, “there was very little contact that the West could have with writers from East Germany, so we wanted to give our students an opportunity to get that exposure. These were all East German writers that we had come. After the wall came down, that continued, but we’ve had writers and filmmakers from all over Germany since.”

The program was originally a collaboration between Grinnell and the University of Northern Iowa, who shared the writer between the two schools for half a semester each. However, when budgets at UNI were cut, Grinnell picked up the slack and took over the entire program.

After bringing in so many authors and filmmakers from Germany, Grinnell has even begun to pop up on the German literary scene as settings in the works of authors who have come here.

For German students who spend a lot of time studying German literature but are disconnected from the authors of the works, the program is especially interesting. “This is direct contact with an author,” Barber said. “Being able to talk about the creative process with someone who is doing that is marvelous. It’s great to have this contact with a living, working writer. Students have always responded very, very positively to that.”

The writer-in-residence program is also very unique. “No other undergraduate institution in this country has anything that has been as continuously consistent as this one has been,” Barber said.

Magnusson, the current writer, is involved with three different types of work: translating Icelandic works into German, writing plays and writing novels. “The plays are mostly comedies and the novels are a little more serious or epic,” Magnusson said. “They have a broader perspective, whereas the plays are mostly confined to one room and one situation. My latest novel is called ‘Das War Ich Nicht,’ which is based on that thing Bart Simpson always says when he’s accused him of something: ‘It wasn’t me.’”

This recent novel is a love story set among the backdrop of the financial industry. “I was very fortunate to have written that novel before the financial crisis hit,” said Magnusson. “That’s why it was rather successful.”

Magnusson is using his time at Grinnell to start a new novel after all the hectic action and travelling involved with the publication of “Das War Ich Nicht.”

“It’s good to mark this transition from being really busy and traveling a lot back to concentrating on writing, so this is the perfect time for me to come to Grinnell,” he said. “Basically, I had, say, 120 readings in the last year, and I was sleeping in a different bed every night. I really like not having to go places and having everything in a very convenient and friendly setting. Right here, first of all, I’m enjoying myself.”

The amenities that attracted many students to Grinnell also appealed to Magnusson.

“It’s so convenient at Grinnell,” added Magnusson. “You have the same card for everything, the same card to go to the gym, to go eat and then to go to the library. It’s sort of like an all-inclusive vacation for me.”

While all-inclusive, Grinnell is at least more of a working vacation for Magnusson. He is teaching a course on “Recent Trends in German Literature.” The texts are drawn from a mixture of recent bestsellers and influential novels in German and his personal favorite, which he says “have had a lot of influence behind the scenes.” His students have surpassed his expectations.

“I thought I was going to teach in English,” Magnusson said. “But everyone is so good in German that I teach in German. I was really surprised, because people are not afraid to speak, people speak well and are very interested, and I was just thrilled.”

Magnusson, along with last year’s writer-in-residence, Thomas Pletzinger, are giving a reading at 4:15 this afternoon in Burling. An English translation of Thomas Pletzinger’s novel “Funeral for a Dog” was published last month.

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