Julia Schoch is a successful author and translator and once studied German and Romance languages and literature at the University of Potsdam. She has received numerous awards for her work, including the Jury Prize at the Ingeborg Bachmann Competition and the André Gide Prize. This year saw the publication of her novel “Das Vorkommnis. Biographie einer Frau” (“The Incident. Biography of a Woman”). In a conversation with us, she talks about her time studying & teaching at the UP, why she decided against an academic career at the university, and what tips she would give today’s students.
Do you have fond memories of your time studying German and Romance languages and literature at the University of Potsdam? What do you remember in particular?
It was a time of anarchy. The fall of the Berlin Wall had just happened and everything was in the process of being rebuilt. Especially in Romance Studies, we were a wild bunch. At the beginning, there wasn't even an introductory course to the field. My French was at a high level, others were just starting to learn it, but had previously studied Russian and were switching. There were even lecturers from other departments who knew all about French history but didn’t speak a word of French. Nevertheless, we read Baudelaire in the original (smiles). I think the professors had a lot of fun with us. Anyway, most of us weren’t concerned with credit points or things like that.
Was there anything about your degree program that you appreciated in particular?
At the beginning, we were very few students. A comfortable situation. People were constantly rushing into the seminar because they were looking for participants for free study trips. Who wants to go to Chambéry, Paris or Avignon? We still have room for ten people. Ok, then one just went along! The seminars were chosen only according to interest, regardless of whether one was in the undergraduate or graduate program. Sometimes there were only two or three of us, often the whole thing took place in the lecturer’s office ... I remember wonderful seminars with Professor Harth, who built up Romance Studies in Potsdam, with Professor Asholt and Professor Ette. Through them, I became acquainted with contemporary French literature, which was not a given at a university. And there was the experience of being allowed to learn Romanian in private lessons, so to speak. Wonderful times.
After your studies, you stayed for a while as a staff member at the University of Potsdam, teaching French literature. What was it like for you to switch sides from student to lecturer?
As a student, I had more freedoms; as a lecturer, I had to deal more with regulations. That was not quite as stimulating for me. I also realized that I am too impatient to teach.
In 2003 you decided to work as a freelance author and translator. Why did you decide to become self-employed and not to pursue an academic career at university?
My time as a lecturer was important for me in that it made me aware of what I really wanted. It was then that I started writing seriously (whatever ‘seriously’ means). Instead of pushing forward with my dissertation, I worked on writing my story collection. And when that was finished, I was also finished with university, so to speak. To be honest, an ‘academic career’ didn’t seem that promising to me either. At least not any more secure or serious than a life devoted to writing. The constant hunt for project proposals, the constant temporary contracts - not a particularly exhilarating prospect. But the most important thing was that by now I was on my way somewhere else. I felt like teaching was keeping me from writing. Not just in terms of time. It’s just a different way of looking at the world, of perceiving it. You can’t analyze your own vision of the world at the same time. Anyway, I found the inner bouncing back and forth difficult. Moreover, my intention to write a doctoral thesis on Michel Houellebecq and to bring Peter Sloterdijk on board as my advisor was not comfortable for most people. Even today - almost a quarter of a century later - the two are considered charlatans in many academic circles. Be that as it may. I was faced with a choice, so to speak: I could become a scholar with a literary touch, or a writer who used her analytical eye for literary storytelling. I chose the latter.
Are experiences from the University of Potsdam included in your books?
In my new book, “Das Liebespaar des Jahrhunderts” (“Lovers of the Century”), which will be published in spring 2023, there are scenes I experienced as a student. And also a memory of my office and time as a lecturer.
You’ve lived in places such as Paris, Bucharest and Kaliningrad. Which of your times abroad has shaped you the most, and why?
They were all very different, but all have remained extremely intense in my memory. Drastic experiences, memories of hitchhiking through France, of terrible dwellings and grandiose drinking bouts in all three cities, people I think back on fondly. Paris was the most beautiful in that it was when I discovered the world at all. I was twenty, and I was in love. That’s all it takes.
Yet you always came back to Potsdam, and now you’ve lived here for quite a while. What do you like about the city?
The proximity to Berlin. But it’s also the force of habit. I stayed here because of my children. Here is the home base, so to speak, here are the grandparents. And of course the usual reasons: Water, parks, the many green spaces. For me as a cyclist, it’s an ideal place.
To what extent are you still in touch with your alma mater? Have there been occasions that brought you back to the University of Potsdam?
A few years ago I was a guest at a conference in Switzerland organized by Prof. Ette. It was about the topic of living together. It was nice because we both came together again from different directions, so to speak. It was then that we realized that the two sides, writing literature and writing about literature, do not have to be opposites. That's what it’s all about, I think. In addition, it is now unfortunately more and more often obituaries that make me think back to my time at the university.
Do you perhaps have some advice for today’s students at the University of Potsdam who would also like to make their way into writing?
Copy your favorite authors, study them by adapting them. The French author Marie N'Diaye, as she herself tells, had to write ten novels “in the style of” other authors (Balzac, Dostoevsky, etc.) before she found her very own. Don’t try to hide behind hard-heartedness or sentimentality. Write truthfully, with a certain humility toward all experience. Look at yourself as if you were already dead and looking at your century from a great height - what do you notice? Read. Read, especially bad books. Find out why you think they are bad. Ask yourself the question: for what reason do I want to read my name on a book cover? But you can also not follow this advice and still get where you want to go. I’m sure you can.
Thank you very much for this discussion, and we wish you all the best!
08. September 2022
Stadt- und Landesbibliothek "Literatur in Einfacher Sprache"
Vortrag und Lesung literarischer Texte in Einfacher Sprache
Start: 18 Uhr
19. September 2022
Im Dickicht von Geschichte und Erinnerung. Ein multimedialer Abend zusammen mit Anne Heinlein
Start: 19:30 Uhr
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