The Language of Solitude by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Jan-Philipp Sendker

(Atria Books, May 2, 2017)
ISBN: 978-1476793672


Jan Philipp Sendeker Portrait

Jan-Philipp Sendker

Audio interviewAuthorlink Audio Interview with Jan-Philipp Sendker

 Audio Length: 15 minutes

An Amazon Book of the Month, Indie Next Pick, Target Book Club Pick, Costco Connection Book Buyer’s Pick, 2013 Indie Choice Honor Books of the Year, the novel launched Sendker’s critically-acclaimed international writing career.

Now, in his fourth novel, THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITUDE (37 INK / Atria Books; On-sale May 2nd, 2017; hardcover) Sendker takes readers into the shadowy world of modern day China and displays the same remarkable storytelling that awed in his unforgettable debut. In these pages,  ordinary people struggle to find justice, hope, and love under a ruthless Communist regime. 

In an AUDIO  conversation with Authorlink,  the author, journalist and foreign correspondent talks about his longtime fascination with Asia and the deep insecurity he sees in a people trapped by fear and a haunting past. 

In the novel, expat and journalist Paul Leibovitz reels from the death of his son, but is kept afloat by his relationship with girlfriend Christine Wu.  When Christine receives a letter from a brother she thought long-dead, summoning her to a small village near Shanghai, she and Paul leave Hong Kong for the Mainland.   While there, Paul discovers a chemical conglomerate’s pollution of a nearby water source has sickened the locals, including a relative of Christine’s, and Chinese officials have done nothing to stop it. Intimidated into silence by a corrupt political system that often conspires with big industry, the victims are too intimidated to even speak out, or turn against their own family members to save themselves. As Paul gets more swept up in the crisis, he faces an excruciating decision: return to his comfortable life in Hong Kong or endanger himself and others in his pursuit of justice.

THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITUDE is at once a page-turning work of suspense set against the backdrop of a corrupt China, and a beautifully drawn exploration into the risks and rewards of human connection and the complexity of love.  The influence of Sendker’s favorite writers—including some of literature’s most revered storytellers like Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arundhati Roy, Haruki Murakami, and Yu Hua—are evident in the novel’s pages. 

“Provocative…Vivid descriptions of the food, buildings, tropical climate, and landscapes transports readers to this country with its profoundly unique history and people. Beautifully translated, this new novel gives readers another vivid, fascinating, and haunting look at today’s China. Highly recommended.”

Library Journal, STARRED review 

Jan-Philip Sendker, born in Hamburg, was at different times, the American and Asian correspondent for Stern, a weekly news magazine published in Hamburg, Germany.  In 2000 he published Cracks in the Wall, a nonfiction book about China.  The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, his first novel, was an international bestseller.   He lives in Berlin with his family.

A conversation with JAN-PHILIPP SENDKER

Author of The Language of Solitude

(Atria / 37 Ink; On-sale May 2, 2017)

  1. You worked previously as the American and Asian correspondent for Stern. How has your journalism background informed your career as a novelist? 

It has in many ways. All my novels are set in Asia, but I am German. That means I have to do extensive research to get the characters, their cultural background, and all the details for the settings right. I lived in Hong Kong for four years and I go on at least two or three research trips for each of my novels. I learned how to research as a journalist. Listening to people and their stories. Watching people. Observing places. Equally important: As a journalist you have the privilege to see many different parts of a society. You talk to millionaires and the homeless, you meet people in distress or in triumph. Having had access to very different worlds helps me immensely when I create characters. 

  1. You’ve been praised as a “master storyteller,” and your mastery is evident in the pages of THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITUDE. The novel’s plot — laced with elements of romance, drama, and mystery, is beautifully woven.  Tell us a bit about your writing process and the development of this novel and these elements. 

When I start writing a novel I do not have a master plan. I have no clue what is going to happen. I need what I call emotional hooks that connect me to the central characters. In THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITUDE it is with the main character Paul and the pain he feels after the loss of his young son. With Christine, it is her anguish about the family secrets she discovers. With the Chinese family, it is their anger and fear when they are betrayed and lied to.

Those emotions are my starting points. I develop a rough outline of the story, start writing and do not know where this will take me. The story changes, the characters grow and I honestly do not know where it ends. If I knew it I probably would find it boring. What is the point of writing it down when I already know?

In terms of the plot I knew that I wanted to write about injustice and what price we are willing to pay when we fight for justice. And that question can rip a family apart because different family members might have different answers to this question. At the same time I wanted to broach the issue of environmental pollution in China because it is urgent in a way we in the West cannot imagine. 

  1. Like your previous novels, THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITUDE is set in Asia. What continues to draw you to the region as a backdrop for your novels? 

I think Asia is more than just a backdrop in my books. The countries, their culture and history, are integral parts of the novels’ fabric. Why Asia? I have a hard time answering this question. I am a very intuitive person and I just feel drawn to that part of the world. My Asian friends who believe in reincarnation think that I must have been Asian in a previous life. I am not so sure…

I guess it is the difference I find so appealing. The culture, the history, the religions, the values, the daily life and that is true whether I am in China, Japan, or Burma. Very little is familiar, even after more than twenty years traveling in the region. Every day is a challenge. Every day I am confronted with different attitudes towards life and death and the challenges in between. By watching and listening to people I learn much about them and at the same time about myself. I find that endlessly inspiring. I’m also drawn to the food, the climate, the sights and sounds. 

  1. In THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITUDE you write modern-day China as a place where — beyond the ultra-modern cityscapes, the wealth, and the guarded emotions — lies a deeply insecure country trapped by fear and a haunting past. Has this understanding of modern day China stemmed from personal experience? Tell us about how this depiction of the country was formed. 

I am very lucky because I have had the privilege to watch the rise of China firsthand. The first time I went to China was in the spring of 1995. I had just moved from New York to Hong Kong and became the Asia correspondent for Stern. Over the next four years I traveled there countless times to research my stories. I talked to hundreds of people from all areas of life, all parts of society. I spent time with newly unemployed factory workers, with private entrepreneurs, the nouveau rich, priest and prostitutes. I left Hong Kong in 1999 and have been back to China every year. For each novel I go back for at least two or three research trips.

When I travel there I see a society that is outwardly modernizing at a speed and with a radicalism that lacks historical precedent. When I first went there, it was a poverty-stricken nation; the cityscapes were dominated by bicycles and horse- and ox-drawn carts. Today, China has the largest car market in the world. It owns the most skyscrapers, the fastest trains, the largest shopping malls and the newest airports. And it is becoming an increasing contender to US leadership claims, both economically and geopolitically. At the same time, I see a country that is not en route to becoming a confident world power, but one that is in search of its soul, identity and place in the world. It is torn apart, full of doubt and overwhelmed by its own effort to jump straight from the 19th to the 21st century. I see a society in which contradictions are the only constant and which appears far more stable on the outside than it is on the inside. That’s what I try to describe in my novels. 

  1. Themes of THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITITUDE touch on government intimidation and political corruption. Readers can draw eerie parallels to the current political climate around the globe, particularly the fear of government intimidation and corruption in the US.   What messages can concerned citizens take away from the novel’s themes? 

That you have to stand up. That you have to fight for your rights AND the rights of others. Again and again. Do not look the other way when you see injustice. As the characters in my novel have to learn the hard way: Next time it might be you who suffers. The good news: In the USA and in most parts of Europe you can do it without having to fear that you will be locked up indefinitely without access to a lawyer. You won’t end up in a labor camp for years. You will not be tortured. Your family will not be persecuted. In China you take huge personal risks if you get involved in politics, we don’t. There are no excuses in the West.

  1. In THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITUDE, a powerful chemical conglomerate’s pollution of a water source is poisoning the locals. The novel’s main character, Paul Leibovitz, decides to get involved and defend the local citizens against the company and the corrupt government, which is doing nothing to stop the pollution, despite the many great personal risks.   Are you yourself an activist, political, environmental, or otherwise?  Does Paul’s experience draw from personal experience? 

Difficult question. You see, I am very lucky in many ways. I was born in West-Germany in 1960. I grew up in a country which, on one hand, became more and more prosperous economically, and, on the other, was a democratic and pluralistic society with an independent judiciary. There were lots of issues worth fighting for of course, but the fundamentals were settled. Like in America. I was involved but not as an activist, as a journalist. With Donald Trump and the rise of populist movements in Europe things are changing. In the last few months I have understood that democratic and liberal achievements I took for granted, can be taken away. We have to fight for them. Right now I am in the process of trying to find out how I can best participate in that struggle. Just as a writer with my novels? As an activist and a writer? I do not know yet. And having been to many countries with authoritarian governments or even military dictators I know what lies ahead of us if we do not stand up. I know this is a turning point. 

Q: Your debut novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats (2012) captivated readers, critics and booksellers alike, who called the novel “magical” (Huffington Post) “brilliant” (Shelf Awareness) and “epic” (Publishers Weekly).  It was selected as an Amazon Book of the Month, an Indie Next Pick, a Target Book Club Pick, Costco Connection Book Buyer’s Pick, a 2013 Indie Choice Honor Books of the Year.   Why do you think the novel struck a cord and resonated so deeply with millions of readers?

 Yes, who would have thought that a love story between a blind boy and a crippled girl in a small town in the mountains of Burma would move millions of people around the world, from Germany to Israel, the USA to Japan, Sweden to Taiwan. Why? Because the theme of the novel is what you call “the human condition.” The deep desire and longing in every single human being to love and to be loved. It tells a story of hope. And in a certain way it has an almost political dimension these days: There is so much hatred, intolerance and destruction around us and the story in my novel reminds us that there is a force in our human nature that is positive, constructive, and selfless and it can be stronger than any other. 

  1. Who are your favorite writers? How are their influences evident in the pages of THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITUDE? 

Good question. I adore the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard but his writing is in many ways the opposite of mine. One of my favorite novels is “The God of Small Things” by the Indian writer Arundhati Roy but again her style is very different. I appreciate the art of strong and powerful story telling, which you find in many novels by US writers, very much. But I could not point to a single one and his or her influence on THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITUDE.

  1. What projects are in the works?  What’s next for Jan-Philipp Sendker? 

 I finished the third installment of my China trilogy last year and I am in the middle of researching the third book in my Burma series. Obviously, I love to write more than one book about the same characters. My wife thinks it is because I have a hard time saying good bye or departing from people…which is true. I wrote the script for the movie “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats” and I am involved in the whole process of film- making which is more time consuming than I thought.

Editor’s Note: THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITUDE is available for pre-order at major retail outlets before its May 2 2017 release.