Tell me about Alexander Oetker.
Well, I started off as a journalist, first working for Berliner Zeitung and then spending more than twenty years with RTL and n-tv. I already began working as a correspondent in France at 26, where I quickly became enthralled with the most beautiful country in the world and captured by the desire to write. Right after returning to Germany, I began my first crime novel, Retour. It was so much fun to discover that readers were really interested in what I wrote.
Then things went very quickly: the Luc Verlain series became a real success, that was followed by the Paris series around Commissaire Lacroix, so similar to the good old Maigret, Mittwochs am Meer, or Wednesdays at the Sea, my first romance novel, and my first guidebook, Gebrauchsanweisung für Bordeaux und die Atlantikküste (A User’s Guide to Bordeaux and the Atlantic Coast).
And then, one day I knocked on the door of another magazine, and since then I have been working as a restaurant critic, regular columnist, and France correspondent for Germany’s finest magazine when it comes to food, travel, and the good life: Der Feinschmecker.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, actually, it was my really my first real wish as a child to become a writer, right after fireman and astronaut. When I was six years old, I went to my room and wrote a short story entitled “Big Fish, Little Fish,” I can still remember it today. Unfortunately, we can’t find it, I’ve been looking for it for years now. My second aspiration was to become a lawyer, but I never would have survived law school, and then came journalism. I was finally able to write nice reports for the local edition of the Berliner Zeitung on my hometown. Alongside, I did a bit of writing for myself, sending a few things off to publishers, but the rejections just poured in. I still have the letters, one came from Piper-Verlag, with whom I now years later work so wonderfully. Then at 18, television, and the start of my life in France. Reporting about life and politics in Bordeaux, Paris, and Nice, I had to write a great deal, but it was only when I was back in Berlin that I really discovered that I wanted to try out writing once more. The result was my first crime novel, which later became Retour: it told the story of Luc Verlain.
My wife told me not to pack it away in a drawer. The very first agent took me on and the very first publisher the book was offered bought it. A year later, it made the bestseller list the first week after publication. So much has happened since then, it seems like a miracle. And it is for me, until today. Because so much came together, and a great deal of good luck, and I am grateful to so many people for that, my agent, my publishers, my editors and my readers.
How could I become a writer?
A good start would be to write something: insert a winking emoji here. But seriously: many people tell me they have a book in their heads but can’t bring themselves to write it down. Of course, a bit of self-doubt is a good thing. It’s better than going on a TV talent show and then singing out of key just because everyone always told you how good you could sing. In my case, for example, I struggled a very long time and thought, no, that’s not good enough to be pressed between two book covers. But my wife finally said, “Yes, that’s good enough!” And so I gave it a try.
You should, too. Just start writing, and give it to people to read, people from whom you can expect honest criticism. Take all the time you need. It doesn’t matter how long: I once wrote a book in just two weeks. But one took three years. There is no “right” length of time. When the manuscript is finished, send it to all the publishers you want if you like paying postage for nothing. The staff at publishing houses have so much to do; they get so many unsolicited manuscripts that they don’t have a chance to examine them all closely. That’s why you should start out by finding an agent. You’ll get rejections there, too. But agents are precisely intended to sort out the jewels among all the material out there, because they know what publishers want and need, what they will ultimately pay for. So, start writing, find an agent, find a publisher, see a book of yours for the first time in a bookstore, and that moment is really priceless.
What does your workday look like?
Well, some days fall out of the standard pattern, for example, when I’m on a reading tour or doing research for a new book. But ordinarily, the day starts quite early, as it does for all parents, since the kids need their breakfast and have to get to school or day-care. Then I make some coffee and sit down in the garden to work. First, a few emails to warm up, then I start working on my current book. Two or three hours, sometimes four, interrupted by a light lunch, 10,000 characters at least, sometimes I get to 30,000. In the afternoon I take a break in the hammock to think about how the book is developing and about its characters to prepare for the next day of writing. And then it’s back to school and kindergarten to get the kids: after writing, my head is clear, so that allows me to go all out while playing with the children.
Where do you live?
I was born in Berlin and spent my first few years there, later growing up in a village just outside the city. I moved to Paris at age 26 and only returned to Berlin five years later. Now I live with my family alternately in a small town in Brandenburg and in a small village on the French Atlantic coast. For research and reporting, I’m on the road a lot, usually in Paris, Cyprus, or all over southern Europe
What exactly do you love so much about France and southern Europe in general?
Savoire vivre, la dolce vita, the art of living. Everything is easier, simpler, warmer, and that’s not a cliché. The mood on a market square in France, the good products, the confusion of voices, everyone has time for a chat and to pick out just the right three yellow tomatoes. Or in Sardinia, there’s a small village where the old people sit on the wall and chat all afternoon. That’s all magic, because it makes life easier.