The last time Jan-Philipp Sendker was scheduled to visit Water Street Bookstore for an author event, he was running late. His reading and presentation were to start at 7 p.m., but he was stuck in traffic driving up from Boston.
He called event coordinator Stef Kiper Schmidt to let her know he might not make it in time.
“Stefanie said, ‘You get here when you get here.’ Nobody was nervous at all,” Sendker said via phone.
He ended up arriving on time anyway, and when he did, he met “some of the coolest people” he’d ever met.
“When I came in, she was like, ‘Oh, here he is!’ Like it was the most natural thing in the world. … They left a deep impression. It’s really a fantastic bookstore. … Afterward, we went out and had some beer and a little bit to eat. It was such a nice, warm evening afterward. … When I was thinking about my next tour, I told my publisher to please include Exeter!”
And so he visits the bookstore again Sunday, April 19, at 2 p.m. The German author, perhaps best known for his debut novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, will talk about Whispering Shadows, the first of a trilogy whose second book has already been released in Germany.
This text is a suspenseful thriller that follows a retired journalist in contemporary China attempting to crack a murder case, while at the same time trying to battle his own personal demons. Sendker says it’s full of love, lust, heartbreak, betrayal and mystery.
“I call it the emotion hook. I need something that hooks me into a story — some emotion. Longing, trust, betrayal. … And I really have to feel with the characters, every single one,” he said. “I did not plan to write a trilogy, funnily enough. But then I got so attached to the characters — and I am not making up stories here — that when I finished the book and wrote the last sentence, I started to cry because I had to let go.”
It’s a stray from Heartbeats and its sequel, A Well-Tempered Heart, which are both set in Burma. Whispering Shadows has a different kind of pace, with sentences that are a little shorter, “a little tougher.”
“Burma is more of a spiritual place. You could call it romantic, and I think the writing style reflected that. China is a tough, harsh place. I think the writing’s different. Then there’s the suspense angle, and it’s also a mystery,” Sendker said.
Senker worked as the American correspondent for a German publication, Stern, from 1990 until 1995 and was its Asian correspondent from 1995 to 1999. He also wrote Cracks in the Great Wall, a nonfiction book about China, published in 2000.
Sendker said he’s always felt a very strong pull to Asia, and while his experience there certainly helped in writing the book, so did his journalistic background. His years in the field taught him to put a location into words, how to conduct interviews and how to get people to talk. But there were also stories he couldn’t tell through that medium.
“As a journalist, there’s only so much you can cover. As a storyteller, you have more freedom and you can explain more,” Sendker said. “I always wanted to be a novelist. … And writing about China is a dream for a novelist because there’s so much grief, pain and anger in that country and in that society.”
Sendker writes all his books in his native tongue first. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats was published in Germany in 2002. He was determined to find an American publisher too.
“I always believed [The Art of Hearing Heartbeats] belonged in America. I wrote it in America; I lived in upstate New York, and it’s partly set in America. I just had this gut feeling it would find its readers there. It took me eight years and rejections from 20 agents and 20 different publishing houses,” Sendker said.
He ultimately found a translator himself, a graduate student named Kevin Wiliarty who did the first few chapters on spec.
“He sent me the first 30 pages of the novel in English. I had to look back at the original because I could not believe I could write that well. I said, ‘Wow. This sounds even better in English than in German!’” he said, laughing. “Then, just by chance, this wonderful woman in Cambridge got it and loved it and said she would publish it.”
Since its 2012 publication, it’s sold about 300,000 copies in the United States, with sales still going strong. Readers can expect more titles after this; next year, the Whispering Shadows sequel will be released in the States, and he also plans on writing a third Burma book. His stories are translated in 30 languages.
“I write about the human condition. The people in my books are Burmese and Chinese, but I think there are people from all over the world who can connect to them,” he said.
As seen in the April 16, 2015 issue of the Hippo.