Thursday, March 27, 2014

John Niven in Munich

Niven & Nagel
Last week on Wednesday, March 19, Scottish writer John Niven came together with his German sidekick Nagel (writer and musician Thorsten Nagelschmidt) to Munich to read from his new book "Straight White Male" and I went to listen & laugh.

The connection between music and Niven is strong and that not only for his delightfully cynic bestselling novel "Kill Your Friends" about murderous A&R Manager Steven Stelfox (the movie adaption is being filmed as we speak) and other music related texts as well as his own short career in music biz, but also because Niven and Nagel behave so much more like a touring band than the average writers on a reading tour. It gave the event a special touch and even the audience looked slightly different from the regular literature crowd.

I got a taste of it right when I arrived about 40 minutes before the reading started. I settled down on the stairs up to the location (a small stage at the Volkstheater) because the room was not yet open. There were a few more people and after some short friendly chat they claimed that they have been waiting since 7 pm. OH HA - I realized I just entered my first literature qeue ever when John Niven and Nagel passed by for the soundcheck. Short before doors the now significantly bigger group of waiting people moved upstairs and started to get in position around the door. Rock 'n' Roll!  But I am too routined to be pushed back and when the doors finally opened I rushed inside and threw myself into a nice center stage first row seat. Little did I know this seat would bring me in slight trouble twice that night.

Next to me was a free seat and it turned out it belonged to a guy from the publishing company, who was standing now in front of the audience to make the introduction (good for me Niven and Nagel did not enter yet).  So publishing dude told us a bit about John Niven and his writing career before he said:  "John Niven is from Scotland - from Ayrshire (insert weird pronounciation) which is ... I think ... North or so of Glasgow." 
And god damn ... I am so so so so terrible with keeping my mouth shut, because then not exactly super loud but pretty good to hear in the tiny theater I said without thinking (obviously) "South West!"
Publishing guy looked at me, my seat neighbour looked at me, that lady down the row looked at me ....  But ... I mean, I may not know much about Scotland but for some - very music related -  reasons the one thing I really know is where Ayrshire is and it is NOT North of Glasgow. John Niven btw is from Irvine which is right West of Kilmarnock and North of Ayr at the coast.
After a slightly uncomfortable silent moment and a few more words the introduction was finished and Niven and Nagel entered the stage.

Before the actual reading was kicking off John Niven first apologized for not speaking German with introducing Nagel, who would do the German parts, and not even English but Scottish. He promised to speak slowly to help the audience dealing with his accent and so he did ... at least in the beginning. For me personally that accent is clearly a feature and no bug since I am quite used to it and I enjoyed it a lot.

Niven & Nagel used the following hour (short smoking break included) to make us meet Kennedy Marr (yes, named after Johnny Marr) the main character of Niven's new novel "Straight White Male".  Marr is of Irish descent but lives in Los Angeles. He used to be a successful author but he has not written a single line for his new novel in years, instead he enjoyed his Hollywood lifestyle and the decent amount of money he would make as a script doctor for big movie productions. All would be lovely if he would not have forgotten a nasty detail:  paying taxes
So Kennedy Marr is in trouble. He is deep in debts and either needs to face prison time, slow down his lifestyle and quickly write and release his next novel (he tends to look at prison) or .. find a source of money. He succeeds on option three when he scores a highly remunterated job - teaching "Creative Writing" at a prestigious English college. While the irony is not lost on him who had not written anything labeled "creative" for years, he takes his chance although he is not exactly keen on living so much closer to ex-wife and daughter in the UK and his dying mother in Ireland. But he has no choice and so he moves over the Atlantic ...

Niven and Nagel read selected scenes alternating in English and German. The highlights were clearly "the wanking scene" (read by Niven), which proofs just one more time that men are lousy multitaskers and a heavy party & sex scene including Marr and a young female movie star read by Nagel in German. As you can see here already ... just like a typical Niven book this one is again nothing for sensible souls. Marr is not the Patrick Bateman style bad guy like "Kill Your Friends" Steven Stelfox but he is sure no angel either and Niven is never talking around it. If you can take it - it's super funny. I loved it and I had to really laugh when Niven quoted his German translator (who from what I heard did a good job), who said about the challenge of translating a Niven novel: "John, you are writing things regular German people would not even think." He might be right.

Just a like a touring band Niven and Nagel were a smooth operating team supporting each others jokes and sharing a bottle of white wine as the evening went. I had a lot of fun, but sadly towards the end I got a bit confused over the rock concert character of the whole thing as it seems. There was a bit of an unclear situation about doing a little encore and / or the Q&A session which then started with the usual awkward silence before some people actually asked something. At some point the last question was called up and answered and I - in my first row center seat - made a move to get ready to give the much deserved applause, but stopped dead when nobody else did. 
The story was that I had not seen that a guy two chairs left of me had another question and just the same second I stopped my - now slightly awkward - move John Niven pointed at the guy and me and allowed the "Two more questions." He thought my move was me raising a hand for a question, too. 
Problem: I had no question, but just saying that was not really an option. So I gave the other guy the first go who then asked slightly off topic if the description of the music biz in "Kill Your Friends" was over the top or pretty much real. Answer for the ones of you wondering: Not exaggerating for the time described in the book, but pretty different now due to the totally changed situation in the music business.
Then Niven turned to me. I still had no question and said it was fine because he wanted to end the session already earlier anyway, but no chance. "COME ON" said the Scot like just Scots say it. There was no escape and so I pulled the only half way smart question I could think of and asked what he as a Scotsman would think about the referendum for the Scottish independence in fall. 

The first answer was just: "Oh." I think I might have been the first person on his reading tour who asked that. He took a deep breath and explained in as brief words as possible that life on "the day after" would just go on - without the horror scenarios of the NO campaigners even coming close to reality. He also explained that Scots would never elect a conservative government but have to deal with it as often as the rest of the country goes for it and would not want that anymore. He said for those reasons he is supporting the YES. (Note: This is not a exactly word for word what he said and just summarized in my very own words, but I tried to stay as close to his as I could from memory)

Phew ... I think I made it out of the awkward situation quite nicely and I felt at least good enough to queue up to get my books signed. I had brought my copies of "Kill Your Friends" and "Straight White Male".  First thing John Niven noticed was that my books were in English, but that is just my general habit. If I have the language skills to read a book in its original language I do that. The 2nd thing he noticed was my Biffy shirt although it just has really small "Biffy Clyro" written on it. He looked up and said: "Hm, Biffy fan, too?" Me: "Yes, very much." He then finished signing and shook my hand like he did with everybody but then did not say "Thanks for coming." like to all the others but: "MON THE BIFF!"

My jaw dropped a little before I grinned like kid under the Christmas tree and I of course shouted back: "MON THE BIFFY!"

I mean ... how cool is that???? MON THE NIVEN! 

Thanks for a really great night!

If you have not read "Kill Your Friends" go now and DO IT and if your are done just keep going with "Straight White Male" or any other John Niven book! 

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