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The thriller read ‘round the world

Portrait of the German author Melanie Raabe
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Bestselling thriller author Melanie Raabe talks to us about her rise to international acclaim.

The fruits of Melanie Raabe’s imagination are enthralling thousands of thriller fans around the globe at this very moment. Her first novel “Die Falle” (“The Trap”), published in Germany by btb Verlag, was an instant success that brought the Cologne-based author overnight worldwide fame. In the wake of this engrossing thriller about a reclusive author seeking to uncover her sister’s alleged killer with the help of a novel, Raabe’s second book “Die Wahrheit” (“The Truth”) leapt straight onto German bestseller lists at the end of August, while the film rights to “The Trap” have been sold to Hollywood production company TriStar Pictures. Melanie Raabe doesn’t hide the fact that her unexpected success was actually the result of many years of hard work, grit and determination and a mountain of manuscripts that never made it to publication. Wherever the author goes, she absorbs moments and observations of everyday life that will later help to give her characters compelling, realistic traits and gripping backstories. We met her on one of her regular strolls through Cologne to chat about the literary scene, women’s networks and her journey to international success.

Pile of books by Melanie Raabe in different languages

For me, telling a story is less a matter of place and more about people, relationships, psychology and emotions. Melanie Raabe

Your book “The Trap” has been published in 21 countries so far. How many different language versions do you have on your shelves at home and how many of them can you read?

In addition to the German hardcover and paperback editions, I also have translations from Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, America, Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada at home. I’m still eagerly awaiting several other versions, such as those printed for the Turkish, Brazilian and Polish markets and I’m also incredibly excited to see what the South Korean cover of “The Trap” will look like. Unfortunately, aside from the English edition, the only other version I understand completely is the French translation, and I can just about follow the text in the Spanish and Italian versions.

You self-published your novel “Die Hässlichen” (“The Ugly Ones”) as an e-book prior to your breakthrough and now Hollywood has bought the film rights to its successor. Does this feel like every author’s dream or is everything moving too fast?

To be honest, it only feels like everything is moving quickly. I had already written four novels before “The Trap” but hadn’t managed to get any of them published. Although I never planned to self-publish, it was the only way to get my books read by anybody at that point. I wrote solidly for almost a decade before things began to move even slightly in the right direction. Everything went so slowly for me for so long; I felt like I was making no headway and would never break through. Of course, in hindsight it was a good thing that I had such a tough time for so long. I learned a lot during that time – and developed stamina. Grit.

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Do you generally see self-published books as an effective way for young authors to get a foot in the door of the literary world, or do you think this strategy only works in very specific circumstances?

It’s hard for me to judge that. In individual cases it seems to be possible to move from self-publishing to trade publishing, but that’s not the route I took. From the very beginning I worked with an agent who tried to connect me with a publishing house. Nothing happened for a long time, so eventually I published a book myself – at a certain point you just want your books to be read. Despite that, it was ultimately the text and my agent’s contacts that helped me make the breakthrough and certainly not the fact that I’d already started my own little project previously.

I wrote solidly for almost a decade before things began to move even slightly in the right direction. Melanie Raabe

Would you go through it all again, and if so, what would you do differently the second time around?

I think self-publishing is great. It’s incredibly empowering that practically anybody can publish a book nowadays and it encourages a huge amount of diversity. Many self-publishers do an incredibly professional job and sell a vast number of books, but to do that you not only have to be able to write but also have to be some kind of omnipotent genius with the desire to take care of all of the marketing and other organisation that goes with publishing a book.

Your book will soon be made into a Hollywood film. Are you finding it tough to relinquish control of your material? Who would be your preferred screenwriter?

Having to return to something I have already put behind me feels like a punishment. As an author I always try to keep continually developing in terms of both subject matter and style. My life doesn’t stand still, things are always changing, and that’s reflected in my writing. By the time I finish a novel there’s usually a new topic that interests me and that I’m keen to tackle in my writing which is why I’m extremely glad to be able to leave the screenplay for “The Trap” in the capable hands of others so that I am free to write new novels in the meantime. The writer hired by the studio, Phyllis Nagy, is currently working on the Hollywood adaptation. She has a fantastic creative mind. She worked on the screenplay for “Carol” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and was nominated for an Oscar for her work this year. She’s the ideal person for the job.

Both of your novels to date are set in Germany. What makes them so relevant for an international audience?

I have often been told by foreign editors that I’m a German author with an international style because my stories are so “big”. Universal themes – like love, loss, fear and how to overcome them – are actually much more interesting to me than regional references, for example. Although my debut novel “The Trap” is set at Lake Starnberg and my new book in Hamburg, you could easily transplant my stories to other settings without robbing them of their spirit. For me, telling a story is less a matter of place and more about people, relationships, psychology and emotions. Despite that, I do believe that my books are “German” books since, after all, I am German – I was born in East Germany, went to school in the Oberberg region, studied in the Ruhr Valley and now live in Cologne – somehow you can sense that from more than just the locations mentioned in my books.

The main characters in both “The Trap” and “The Truth” are female. Do women make better protagonists?

I think the most important thing is that good protagonists have many sides to their character. Gender is a secondary consideration for me. Having said that, I’ve had lots of fun with my female protagonists; I love creating finely drawn characters, getting them into trouble and letting them grow and become stronger.

What is your view of the German literary scene as a whole and the thriller scene in particular for female authors? How does it compare globally?

Female thriller writers are faring well both in Germany and internationally. Their success has been aided enormously in recent years by smash hits like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” or Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train”. I think the literary scene was predominantly male for a long time, but I get the feeling that’s slowly changing. Nevertheless, some of my esteemed colleagues who write gritty political thrillers are still occasionally told to consider adopting a male pseudonym. And when a young, attractive female writer sells lots of books, many still prefer to assume that it must have something to do with her appearance. This kind of thing happens time and again, which is obviously unacceptable. I personally feel very at home in the industry, and that’s also due in large part to the women around me – my publisher, the many other women I work with at the publishing house, and my fellow writers. Many of us interact with each other, we know each other, like each other, discuss things together and support each other. That’s my experience at least, and it’s absolutely wonderful.

Melanie Raabe's notebook

You run an interview blog on www.biographilia.com. Have any of your interviewees provided inspiration for characters in your novels?

I love talking to inspiring people and it’s a great pleasure to be able to share a few of these encounters with the world on my blog. As a matter of fact, several characters in my books do share certain traits with people I’ve met in real life, whether in interviews or simply in everyday life. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that stick with you and make a person interesting and unique. It’s certainly true that we writers draw inspiration from what we see, hear, read or perceive – particularly from those around us. Sometimes when writing I’ll think about the way a friend brushes the hair away from her face or the peculiar manner in which the old man who always stands outside the pub on the corner each evening holds his cigarette – and eventually it will end up in the text. But I don’t plan these things, and I only ever take small details.

How much of your own life can be found in your characters and how many elements from your stories find their way back into your daily life? Has writing about and describing the dark abysses of human nature altered your perception of the world?

The characters in my novels are made up of billions of little fragments I’ve collected in my life so far – whenever and wherever they occur. You can only draw from the things you have experienced. Although I’m constantly working on the story to some extent in the back of my mind when I’m writing a book, my stories don’t interfere with my life. I actually find the news much more shocking and disturbing than my bloodless, psychologically suspenseful books.

Many thanks for the fascinating interview and all the best with your new novel!