Award-winnning author Jörn Jacob Rohwer
Award-winnning author Jörn Jacob Rohwer is well-known for elegantly merging elements of literature
and journalism in his writings. Widely published since 1995, his lengthy profile conversations with luminaries
from the arts, science and society are best represented by his book of nearly 900 pages, “Die
Seismografie des Fragens” (Salis, Zurich, 2014 - currently in English translation.)
Rohwer was born in 1965 in Rendsburg, Germany, and graduated with distinction from UCL, London
University. He received numerous international fellowships and foundation grants, lectured and read
in Germany, Switzerland and the USA. His subsequent seventh book is intended to comprise a
collection of biographical essays. Besides writing, Rohwer works in arts communications and lives in
Your writing career is certainly impressive. What drew you to the genre of interviewing high-profile personalities?
I was born in a country bombed into ruins, bereaved of hope, faith, and integrity. What people once believed in had been either destroyed or deceived. Twenty years after World War II, Germany was hastily rebuilt. While the phantom of the past remained, truth was covered by concrete, guilt replaced by silence, shame filled with empty speech. Utopia had vanished. Void spread out instead of dreams and ideas.
What was left was music and poetry. My mother Hanna bestowed them upon me. My father was ruled by skepticism, even fear. I grew up being torn between the different mindsets, mental states, and world views of my parents. However, I was also well aware of my family history – a genealogy that reached back centuries. My ancestors, even my grandparents, had not been shaped by a dictatorship, but by the monarchy. And the present I grew up in was all about democracy! How did this happen, where did I come from, who were the people before me, and as for those around me: who was I to believe? As it turned out, the best way for me to get by in life was to listen carefully, raise questions, make up my mind, and figure out the traces of truth in whatever I would feel or hear or see. Traces are all you'll ever get.
This was what finally lead me to conduct high-profile conversations. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson “conversation is an art in which a man has all mankind for his competitors.” A conversation puts you and your counterpart to the test, bringing out the innermost thoughts, feelings, and fears so that ultimately a glimpse of the true person is revealed. What a challenge, even more so in the public sphere.
What should our readers know about your latest book, Steven D. Lavine: Failure is What It’s All About?
It is a tribute to a man (or, to use my favorite German idiom, a Mensch) who, while overcoming personal doubts and fear, devoted his life to leadership in the arts. He helped to establish diversity and equal opportunity for thousands of children and youths— be it through CAP, an educational program Steven founded, or as legendary president of the California Institute of the Arts (between 1988 and 2017), that hotspot of American creativity where students of all artistic disciplines are elevated to their profession. It is a book about a rather shy and humble, learned man who never considered his own story to be important, even though it exemplifies why failure can lead to excellence. And finally, this book is a manifestation of an unusual friendship and German-American relations.
Why did you choose Dr. Lavine as your subject?
One string of my ancestors is Danish, the other is American. Whereas Danish demeanor had always come across as rather familiar, American style seemed somewhat bigger than life to me. As a writer who explored the minds of artists and intellectuals in Europe, it was natural that at some point I would set out to learn more about the nature of Americans. I had already met people like Susan Sontag, Elliott Carter, or Arthur Miller in either Los Angeles or New York City when Steven became a friend. On an afternoon in Berlin over coffee, he expressed an interest in his ancestors from Eastern Europe. Vilnius in Lithuania, where they had originally come from, used to be the former center of European learned Jewry. Many of those who emigrated by the 1930s became luminaries in the United States. Theirs were the footsteps Steven had followed, even if indirectly. I decided that one day I would try to find out more about him and his story.
When he agreed to talk about himself, it challenged and encouraged me to evoke in him his most significant reflections and memories. Interestingly, men of Steven's rank are being honored for their professional merits quite frequently, but often overlooked as personalities. It's the acclaimed artists who take their seat in the front row when it comes to public acclaim, but much less so those who have facilitated their careers.
Tell us about the interviewing process and then the subsequent shaping and editing of the material.
As usual, I had started to prepare my project months ahead. Following extensive research, each of the hundreds of questions would be precisely formulated and set in a chronology. Like clockwork, everything I arranged was tailor-made to set Steven's mind in motion. All he needed to do was show up every morning and be himself. But then I realized that, in a way, here was the problem: If focusing on others has been the primary obligation for most of your life, then what is there for you to say about yourself? Where to begin, what is right or wrong, and what is important?
A few days after I had settled into my apartment in West Hollywood, the conversations were to begin. Coming from the Arts District, Steven had already squeezed through traffic for about an hour or so upon arriving at my place. He would ring the doorbell, salute me with the friendliest of smiles, walk in, and take a seat by the dining table where drinks and little snacks were held ready. Him on one end, me on the other, and the tape recorder between us was how we started around 10:30 in the morning. We usually worked into the late afternoon hours, interrupted by a lunch break, during which we walked to one of the cafés or restaurants nearby on La Brea. With each day he came to see me, Steven seemed more relaxed and relieved. Was it because he finally got in touch with himself, gave way to his memories, and shared them without restrictions? At some point, I think, he even started to enjoy my questions and our conversations, their length or complexity notwithstanding.
There were moments in which his mind seemed to drift far into the past, searching for a hint of truth or, perhaps, a moment of epiphany. Contemplating his mother, I could almost feel him yearning to reach out to her, his feelings ranging somewhere between love, gratitude, and grief. Given their emotional complexity, these recollections nearly overwhelmed him. Steven would start to speak, then pause, retry, continue and finally either change the subject or start all over again. Either way, I had plenty of notes ready to help him refocus and go back into the direction we initially had started to take.
About seventeen hours of our conversations were eventually recorded. Working on the manuscripts was quite complex. Turning them into a book took me almost two years. As writing is, to a great extent, about communicating with the prospective reader; an author needs to make sure that any thought of his transforms into sentences in a logical and comprehensible way. Writing a conversation is different than writing fiction or non-fiction, where an author creates, develops, and unveils a story or describes a string of facts or events. Writing a conversation means deconstructing any given statement and then reconstructing it to make full sense in a literary way. In the end, you create a whole new narrative. That's a lot of work if you need to go through several hundred pages.
How does writing about a living figure differ from writing about a historical figure?
Concluding my conversations with Hans Keilson (1909-2011), the centenarian looked at me with his wonderful, fine-lined face and said: “Thank you for granting me the chance to rethink my long and winding life. It's been truly magnificent because I now realize what it all means to me.” Keilson, who was born in Germany and fled to Amsterdam in 1937, had been a musician, a marathon runner, a published and accomplished writer, a medical doctor, and a psychoanalyst. Joining the resistance he helped hundreds of traumatized Dutch-Jewish children to get by while hidden underground from Nazi terror. Already in his seventies, Keilson completed his doctorate, then practiced as an analyst well into his nineties. You will hardly debate that no historical figure will ever bestow you with such human presence and vital company.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors who would like to write books similar to yours?
I have often felt, and I still feel, as if I had fallen out of space. That is quite a peculiar place to be. I adore human nature with an endless fascination and at the same time frequently feel alienated by the world around me — how could I advise anyone, least of all a prospective writer? But anyway, here are a few thoughts: Be true to yourself in whatever you do. Be compassionate with others. And if you are talented, show responsibility.
What’s next for you, Mr. Rohwer?
My collection of biographical conversations, originally published in Switzerland and giving word to luminaries such as David Hockney, Paloma Picasso, Leni Riefenstahl, Oliver Sacks, and Doris Lessing, is currently in English translation. I'd like this book to be published in the US and would be pleased to find a distinguished publisher there. As for my prospective writing, I feel that after thirty years of stepping into other people's lives and lending them my prose to come forward with what they feel and think, it is time to give way to someone who has been notoriously reclusive: Me.
You said, “Questions shape my world of thought – like a prism sharpening the view of the eye.” What is a question you wish to be asked?
There are countless questions I would like to be asked. Among them all, “How did you become who you are?” is probably the most important.
Walt Disney's vision for an art school located before the gates of Los Angeles became a reality: Opened 50 years ago, the California Institute of the Arts had long been in crisis, before Steven D. Lavine led it to financial prosperity and international acclaim. Today, CalArts is the cradle of many Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize winners, of Mellon and Guggenheim Fellows – a hotspot of American creativity.
In personal conversations with Jörn Jacob Rohwer, Lavine tells his life story for the first time, talking about cultural politics, philanthropy, the avant-garde and Los Angeles at the centre of his life. Spurred on by self-doubts and a desire to learn from failure, he proves to be a sensitive thinker, visionary and transatlantic mediator between the worlds of art, politics and education.