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Friday, November 21, 2014

Influences from Michael Ende, German painters, and invisible dragons: Stefan Bolz reveals the inspiration behind his children's books

Today's guest author is quite special, as he was born and raised in Germany, and it wasn't until he came to the US that somebody told him he should really be writing. And I'm glad he followed the advice! Stefan Bolz is the author of The Fourth Sage and The Three Feathers, and yes, he writes in English, which is a huge relief, isn't it? ;-)

Please join me in welcoming Stefan to the blog!

EEG: You were born and raised in Germany: what brought you to the US and where you already reading books in English as a child or did you start when you moved to the US? And in particular, when did you start writing in English?

SB: I came to the States for the first time in 1996 for a three-month retreat in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. Most of what I knew about the U.S. was through movies and TV shows like Knight Rider (haha, I know) and The Cosby Show. I remember watching Twin Peaks in English with German subtitles a few years before I got here. The first time I set foot into a diner - it was the famous Roscoe Diner on route 17 about two hours north west of New York City - I thought, wow, this is just like on Twin Peaks. And the apple pie was just as delicious as Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks had promised. I met my now ex-wife during this retreat and moved here permanently in January of 1997. As you might now, there is something utterly liberating in condensing your life to two suitcases and a bicycle, even if you do it only once.

I never read anything in English besides textbooks for English class in school. Not sure when you started taking English in Italy but we have English as a main subject beginning with fifth grade. Also, about 98 percent of our music is exactly the same as in the U.S., so we all grew up on Blondie, AC/DC, and Rapper's Delight. That makes it a bit easier to learn the language as you basically listen to it all day. I knew every word of the lyrics to Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell when I was fifteen. And then, of course, you have those instances when you hear something in a song that is so completely different from what it actually says. Journey's "walking down the boulevard" becomes "hold on to the boulevard" which changes the whole thing into a very different experience, like being drunk in Vegas.

I started writing in English when I went to college here in the U.S. in 1998. One of my early writing teachers encouraged me to write. I was very surprised, as nobody had ever told me that in Germany. I love to read German literature and we went through all the classics in school - Schiller, Goethe, Hesse, and so on. I remember my dad reading to me at night from those tiny books that were available back then. I think Reader's Digest had published them. They weren't larger than two by three inches and the font was miniscule. But it had all the major classic poems in them. I think even though you can't take the language with you to another country, you can take the sense of rhythm, the imagery, and the feel for what sounds good and what doesn't, and that stays with you. At least it stayed with me.

I began to write more frequently around 1999. My first project started as a novel but turned very quickly into a screenplay because all I saw where camera angles. I love to read and have read a lot during my teens and twenties but my true passion is movies. I wrote four screenplays (one of them almost got optioned), then a good amount of poetry, essays, and shorts before I began and finished my first novel.

EEG: You have several books out now. Tell us a little bit about them.

SB: The Three Feathers, my first one, is a fable for adults and children. In it, Joshua, a young rooster, wakes up one morning with the realization that there must be more to life than the coop and, more importantly, that there must be more to himself than what he thinks he is. One day, he musters all his courage and flies out of the pen - and into an adventure that will change his life and the lives of everyone he meets. One reviewer said it was "Lord of the Rings with critters." I'm very honored! :-) I loved every minute of the writing process and very often felt like a kid in a candy store as I discovered where the story was going. I realized at one point that all of my subsequent books - the ones that are out already and the ones I have yet to write - all have but one goal: to bring the reader to The Three Feathers.

In the midst of writing that one, I began to think that this was not only an adventure story but also a spiritual journey. As I have been on a spiritual path for at least half my life, I thought it might be helpful for some readers to find out about the symbolism in the story and how they translate to our own quest for meaning in this world. I called the book The Dawning of the True Self, just because I believe that every spiritual journey, independent of its specific language and path, has as its goal to help us find who and what we are in truth. To give you an example, in The Three Feathers, Joshua and his companions enter a world called Hollow's Gate in which the laws of nature as they know them, are suspended. Time flows differently there, your friends become your foes, and danger lurks at every turn. I always felt that Hollow's Gate in The Three Feathers was not unlike our unconscious mind which we inadvertently come in contact with, once we are on a spiritual quest of some sorts. The Dawning of the True Self is a very personal book and I don't really push it very much because of that. Read at your own risk :-).

When I had finished writing The Three Feathers, I had a few more lines in my head but didn't know what to do with them. Eventually I wrote them down. That was basically what you can now find in the first paragraph of The Fourth Sage, a YA sci/fi fantasy thriller where a fifteen-year-old girl fights a ruthless corporation in a dystopian world. I loved writing this book even though there was not a single writing day where I wasn't overcome with doubt about my ability to go through with it. I'm sure you don't know at all what I'm talking about ;-)

The other book that is out already is a paranormal / dark fantasy novella called Dark World. This one is about an angel, hell bent (pardon the pun) on revenge after humans kill her daughter. It's about the notion that love can be covered over by all kinds of dark emotions and that if we give into hatred and rage, we forget the love that is underneath. The angel forgets her daughter's name in the process of taking revenge and because of that, she can't remember where she came from and who she is. I adapted Dark World from a screenplay I had written about ten years ago. It's dark and bloody and beautiful because it describes what happens if an otherwise pure being slips toward the darkness and how she can possibly be brought back before the world as we know it, ends with her.

In stark contrast to that one is Georgia and the Dragon, a children's book that is about to be published (December 2014). I had a real estate client who has a daughter named Georgia. My client posted a quote from her daughter on Facebook and I thought this might be the beginning of a really sweet story. The quote goes something like this: "Whenever I'm supposed to be napping, what I'm really doing is listening to my Dragon tell me about the time he learned how to fly." Georgia, in the story, is six years old and she and her invisible friend, Dragon (a dragon the size of a Labrador retriever), have many adventures together.

EEG: Oh, that is sweet indeed! Can't wait to read it! Since you are from Germany and you write YA, I have to ask you about one of my all time favorite children author: Michael Ende. Having read The Fourth Sage, I confess that I did find some of Ende's influences in the story, whether it was intentional or not on your part. Have you read Ende's books as a child?

SB: Guilty as charged. I LOVED Never Ending Story as a child. I remember the feeling of wanting to stay in the book rather than coming back out to reality. I think it would be a really cool exercise for us writers to go back into the stories we have written and see what the influences had been and where it all came from. I know that several items from Michael Ende's books made it into my stories. Most of it was unconscious though. For example, in The Three Feathers, there is a huge turtle. I'm pretty sure this came out of Never Ending Story. But then there is a scene in The Three Feathers where the companions are attacked by Hyenas. I had no clue how they had gotten into the story until this summer on a trip to Germany, when my sister handed me a book we had read as children. There was a drawing of a rooster attacking a hyena. That was amazing. I didn't even remember that book. But my subconscious evidently did. Ende wrote another very influential book, called Momo. In Momo, there are those gray men who live on borrowed time from regular people and Momo, a young child, has to get the time back from them.

Speaking about influences, you might know Hans-Werner Sahm. He is a German painter of surrealism. In most of his paintings, the natural laws as we know them, are suspended. They have always touched that part of me that longed to not be bound by the laws of nature. I remember as a child dreaming about swimming under water while being able to breathe, or fly. When I took writing classes, I had learned that story can be driven either by character or by plot. I think we should add location to that list. Sahm's paintings inspired me to let my mind go further and break the barriers of the plot/character principle. If you look at some of his scenes, you can get a sense of limitlessness and that, beyond what we think is real, there is another place we might want to explore. The Three Feathers is very heavily driven by those locations and the magic in the story comes, in part, from that.

EEG: Momo is my favorite of Ende's books! As a child, I wanted to be Momo. :-)

What are you currently working on?

SB: I'm working on a few secret projects right now. They are very exciting but I can't talk about them quite yet. Besides those, I have two projects going on. One is the sequel to The Fourth Sage, called The Fourth Sage - Revelations. After that, there is another one planned, called The Fourth Sage - Battle for Earth. You can guess what this one is about :-). Behind that in the line-up is a story called The Second Searcher which is actually the prequel to The Three Feathers. When it's all said and done (and written), I will hopefully have five books that are all part of the Circularity Saga, an interconnected series of books that span over a few thousands of years.

The other story I'm working on is called A Path Across Time. That one is based on the first screenplay I had written way back when. It's a love story. This, together with The Fourth Sage - Revelations - will come out next year. As you have read Fourth Sage, I should probably tell you one or two things from the book, right? When I was in my teens and early twenties and up until this day, I loved movies and stories where the main character had to learn his or her special skill. Luke Skywalker went through Jedi Training, Spiderman learned how to shoot spider webs and climb up buildings, the Karate Kid learned Kung Fu, and G.I. Jane became a Navy Seal. The Fourth Sage - Revelations is basically just that. Before the backdrop of an impending and massive Alien invasion on earth, Aries, Max, C.J.k and the others have to develop their latent skills to get ready for the battle for earth. I am SO excited about that book, especially because of all the locations, like Mongolia, the Arctic Circle, Malmoe in Sweden, a small island outside of Japan, the Max Planck Institute for Advance Physics in Germany, and so on. It'll be AWESOME! At least for me :-)

I'm very honored to also have given the opportunity to write the foreword to The Alien Chronicles, the next Anthology in The Future Chronicles. Produced by Samuel Peralta, it will come out in December. Last but not least, Georgia and the Dragon, the children's book I mentioned above, is coming out December 1st as paperback and for the kindle. I look forward to that one. It's a chapter book of bed-time stories about a six-year-old girl and her invisible friend, a dragon. I had lots of fun writing it.

EEG: I often joke that being bilingual, in my case, doesn't mean that I'm fluent in two languages, rather, that I can no longer speak either language perfectly. On the other hand, there's an enrichment that comes from not only being bilingual but being bicultural. In your case, how has this bilingual/bicultural growth enriched your stories?

SB: Basically, me being bilingual gives my editor a good time. I'm here to entertain, so why not him? Whether I go out on a limp instead of limb, drop the whale vs the veil, or write other hysterical nonsense that just basically sounds right to me and nobody else, I like to inundate my editor with challenging material. I really don't know why he agreed to work with me. David Antrobus, you're the best, my man!

I remember my sister-in-law who helped me with The Three Feathers, wrote numerous small notes trying to make me understand, for example, that water, not air, gushes and many other small errors that would have been really funny if left in the book. But I think I can draw a lot from my life in Germany and include that in my stories. I never went to college over there but learned my trade in a printing press manufacturing company. A kind of foreboding, perhaps? :-) I learned everything from electrical stuff to welding, pneumatic, any kind of metal work like forging, etc, wood working, and turnery. Not only is that such a helpful education to have for real life, it also helped me quite a bit with my writing. In The Fourth Sage, for example, Aries works in Electrical in the high rise she lives in. I know how her feet feel in her steel reinforced boots, how the weight of the tool belt is distributed, what metal dust or a solder iron smells like, etc. That makes for a rich writing - and hopefully reading - experience. On the other hand, I'm missing a lot of vocabulary that others have. I am in awe, by the way, of your writing, Elena. I have started Gene Card and I love how you use words. I could never do that, I think. Really cool. So, my one regret is that I wish I'd have a few thousand more words at my disposal without looking them up in the thesaurus each time.

EEG: Hahaha, how funny, I do stuff like that with idioms all the time! Though my favorite stories are about my kids translating literally from English to Italian. I'm saving the best ones to embarrass them on their wedding day. :-)

Anything else you would like to add?

SB: Please check out my YouTube channel. I am in the process of putting ALL my books on YouTube, read by yours truly. So, if you can stand my voice, The Three Feathers is already there in its entirety. Fourth Sage is getting there and Georgia and the Dragon will be part of a 'read aloud' series so kids can just listen to me rather than their parents while playing, etc.

EEG: I've heard your voice on Hank's podcast and it's a beautiful voice! Your German accent is really slight and unless one knows you're German, it is easily missed. Unlike, er, yours sincerely ... 

Thanks so much for chatting with us, Stefan!

To learn more about Stefan and his books, check out his author page on Amazon, or visit him on his blog/website and on his Facebook page.

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