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Q&A: Charlotte Roche

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If you've heard anything about the German novel Wetlands, you've probably heard that it's grody. Despite not yet being released in the States (read the opening chapters here), it's already sold over a million copies worldwide, in no small part because of the buzz incited by the protagonist — an eighteen-year-old girl — eating her own boogers, pus, and menstrual blood; leaving used (homemade) tampons in hospital elevators; and describing in detail a penchant for sex during her monthlies or up the ass, giving her men the option of a "chocolate tip." (As Catherine Breillat, Melissa P., or Michel Houellebecq have shown, a good way to sell books in Europe is to be kinky, icky, or both.)

Then there's the frisson between the book's obscenity and the identity of its author: not a Bukowski-esque lowlife, but Charlotte Roche, a sprite-voiced thirty-year-old German TV personality. Part of the hubbub must come from the titillation of imagining a cute celebrity in such lurid HD.

Roche admits she tried to stretch the envelope of shock, and for those unfamiliar with Sade, she will probably succeed. Wetlands, predictably, has drawn a Mason/Dixon; one camp is outraged by its "filth" (but buying many copies), another thinks it a feminist manifesto (against the "purification" of women's bodies). In my opinion, both miss the fundamental humor underlying the book, and the fact that beneath all the poo and smegma there's a nice little story of a lonely, sad girl. As I discovered in talking to her, the most autobiographical elements of the story are emotional, not carnal, making it more than the mere provocation it may at first seem. — Jack Harrison

You have such a delightful accent.
Yes, everybody makes fun of me because of it.

My feelings about the book didn't seem that well represented in the press. To me it seemed playful, but people seem to be taking it very seriously.
I prefer people to say it's light and playful. Women tend to take it more seriously because it's about their bodies, all their hygiene pressure, etc. But my first German editor, one of the first men to read it, said that it's a "feel good" book.

If you read it in a very serious way, it's even more disgusting and difficult to cope with. But if from the beginning you try to see it in a light way, you can cope more easily with all the disgusting parts.

I don't think Nerve readers will feel the need to take it as a serious, serious political thing, because many of them already feel liberated the way Helen is liberated.
That's good. When people start calling it a feminist manifesto, then you can imagine women reading it in a very serious way, wondering, "What is she trying to tell us?" But writing the book for me was really funny, letting her go to all these forbidden places and do terrible things. It was great fun. I think the most disgusting parts are the funniest parts of the book.

That stuff is part of a literary tradition; I don't know if you intended it to be?
I don't read very much, but of course people told me it's like this or like that. There's been tons of literature about shit and farting and masturbating and bleeding; I just put it all together.

One senses that you feel a lot of kinship with Helen. If she were a relative, would you take her to parties?
People think because I wrote the book that I have no problem with anything, but it's not true. I'd be really embarrassed by Helen farting in public. Lots of things are in the book because I have problems with them. I wanted to be really honest about things I'm embarrassed about myself. But now people look at me in a completely different way, thinking, "You can't make that up. She must be like that!" I just think Helen is much cooler than I am. If I were Eminem, she'd be Slim Shady.

There's a lot of passing wisdom in the book, a lot of philosophical asides. Is there any philosophy in particular that you were especially happy to fit in?
To say God doesn't exist was great. I come from an atheist family; nobody is Christened. We live this life knowing God doesn't exist but we're in a Christian society, and I was raised that you're not allowed to tell Christians that God doesn't exist. You're not supposed to hurt religious people's feelings; it's a big taboo. You sit there killing yourself laughing when someone says they believe in God, but you're not allowed to say it. I spoke to a German film director a few weeks ago who said that in every good book there needs to be the statement that we don't go to Heaven.

It's a good thing that some people can use it as an anti-disinfecting manifesto if they choose to — that's a nice message — but I do think it takes away from the book as a story. The second half is less outrageous, and we get closer to Helen. I hope people don't lose the subtle emotions and interactions with her family amid all the hype about its shocking parts.
Readers aren't normally shocked it's only journalists. You can't really shock normal readers. It's not so special or so new that you can actually shock people.

It seems like the first half of the book has the agenda to provoke, to make political statements, and to shock, whereas the second half is more about her family and her feelings. Were you trying to get the first things out of the way so you could tell the story you wanted to tell?
It's really funny that you asked that. I've never been asked that, and I've done tons and tons of interviews. The first thing I had was all the ideas concerning smegma, menstruation, masturbation, all this smelly, slimy stuff, being creative with all the secret things. Then I needed a story. I needed somebody to do it, I needed a family, somebody to walk in and do things. So I just took my family, my real story with my parents. All the divorce stuff is completely real — you know, it's my first book. At first, the whole book was covered with the liquids stuff, but my editor told me to put all that at the beginning. Otherwise it would be too much.

What will your next book be on?
The only thing I can say is that I won't write anything on anal sex any more. It's so tiring talking to strangers all the time about anal sex; I just can't stand it any longer. You feel like a prostitute every day. It's terrible.

Read an excerpt of Wetlands here.