Dennis Mombauer’s short story “Three Expeditions” was featured in Three Crows Issue 6 and you can read it for free here. Our editor Alex Khlopenko talked with Dennis about his work and plans for the future.
Let’s get to know you – who is Dennis Mombauer?
Well, let’s see. I was born 35 years ago in Bonn and spend most of my life in the Bonn/Cologne area of Germany. For the last few years, I have been living in Sri Lanka and serve as Director: Research & Education for SLYCAN Trust, a non-profit organization working on climate change, adaptation, sustainable development, ecosystem conservation, and a number of related topics. Besides this, I occasionally publish non-fiction, for example a recent story on climate-induced migration in Earth Island Journal, and write a lot of (weird) fiction. Usually stories with a fantastic element, usually set in some sort of vast, borderless, every-changing city, usually with someone trying to buy or sell curious masks, and usually with a bunch of German-sounding words and labyrinths inside of people’s heads.
Tell us a bit about your story “Three Expeditions”.
Three strange expeditions embark at the same time to very different places. The mountain, the fountain, and the river all promise something, but soon, they begin to blur and their attributes shift as the expeditions approach their destinations. At the end, the three expeditions and their dreams become indistinguishable and blend together into a single, unachievable dream.
When you began to write this piece, did you plan to push the boundaries of how we write and read short stories?
“Yes” would be the short answer. This piece is part of a series of experimental narratives I did to expand the way I can put stories on (digital) paper. If there are multiple narratives, how can they be told simultaneously? How can I tell a non-linear or fragmented story (see my resulting piece “A Passage of Time”)? How can words mirror what is happening inside a story, for example through the increasing gaps in “Three Expeditions” as the protagonists begin to lose their memory, or the convergence of all three expeditions at the end? How can a text convey the sense of vast, indecipherable conspiracies that influence the world and fight each other behind the scenes? For my answer to the last question, please have a look at this (German) “Verschwï¿½rungsgarten” (Garden of Conspiracies).
One obvious inspiration for this undertaking was Mark Z. Danielewski’s fascinating “House of Leaves,” but really a lot of authors played a role in getting me there. For example my friend, colleague, and eminent strangeologist Daniel Ableev, or the classic works of Italo Calvino, Laurence Sterne, or Borges.
Did you make a plan beforehand? An outline? A sketch? Or did you play with it as you wrote it?
Oh, yes, absolutely. I had to make a plan. It was quite challenging to put this piece together, and I had to know well in advance what I was going to do, otherwise it would have quickly fallen apart. There are three separate stories, but I couldn’t write them separately because they constantly interconnect and exchange the main attributes of their destinations. I did a number of sketches and a flowchart (unfortunately all lost somewhere in between moving houses) to keep the elements straight in my head, then started writing in blocks that I laid out next to each other with different colors.
How should the reader approach it? Is there the right way to read it? Tell us about things the reader might not notice?
As far as interpretation goes, I leave that to the reader–the structure is meant to get the reader to follow the expeditions and get lost with them, which is further strengthened by the various languages used throughout the piece.
Why did you decide to include bits in various foreign languages?
As mentioned in my previous answer, I believe the different language underline the feeling of getting lost. In addition, I feel there is a lot of value in combining languages–in my upcoming novel, for example, there are a lot of German-esque neologisms that I include in an otherwise English text. A key concept for me in this regard is “acculturation,” which is often entangled, but not synonymous with imperialism, assimilation, and appropriation. Just like people, cultures and languages mix and adapt, and when they are in contact, they change. The expeditions move into territory that isn’t theirs, encounter other languages, and begin to change their own language as well.
Tell us a bit about your Novelle.wtf?
Die Novelle is on a bit of a hiatus at the moment, at least regarding the print issues. However, we do have an active website with tons of interviews, and we do intend to publish the next issue at some point in the future. The goal of Die Novelle was always to create a space for literature that is off the beaten path and dares to experiment with its form, its content, or both. In it, we had all kinds of things, from graphic novels to stories told in mathematical formulas, musical compositions, pictures, infographics, arts and crafts, instruction manuals, tests, chat windows, personality quizzes, postcards, travel diaries, sketches, crossword puzzles, paper model sheets, maps, and much more. A huge part of the appeal is also the brilliant layout done by Sarah Kassem-Ableev (if possible, you could include two sample images of the publication that I attach to this mail) as well as many interviews with more or less famous personalities from all walks of life. Many of the interviews can be found on the website, so please check them out.
What’s next for you?
In 2020, my first English novel will be published by the amazing Nightscape Press as a fully illustrated charitable novel, which means one third of all income will go to a charity working on autism. It’s about Mokun Ilhadem, a gravekeeper who hunts a stolen corpse through an endless clockwork city without streets. A working-class man with a network of tunnels in his head, he encounters glittering memory veins and petroglyphs, leerenleutes, spectral edentates, a broken palace, nine rivers of madness, whispers of oil and honey, oneiric architecture, soothsayers, a drowned oracle, and the Abandoned Factory that looms at the city’s still-beating heart.
Apart from this, I am working on three new novels–a grotesque German one about life and work in a theatre agency, a highly complex English urban weird tale, and a more traditional English fantasy novel–, searching for a publisher for two novellas finished last year, and trying to complete more short stories and experimental texts. I have also done an eight-part interactive fiction story called “Carnival Gods” which is currently being published by Echoic Mobile Press.
Thank you so much for the questions and the opportunity to be interviewed by you. I am extremely happy with Olivia Hofer’s translation of my story “Three Expeditions,” and it has been an honor to see it published in Three Crows Magazine. Best of luck with all your undertakings in the future, and stay safe and healthy during these complicated times!