Archive | May, 2013

WIPs Conversation: Joachim Frank on His Work in Progress

Joachim Frank

Joachim Frank is a German-born scientist and writer who moved in 1975 to Albany, New York and more recently (2008) relocated to New York City. He took writing classes with William Kennedy, Steven Millhauser, Eugene Garber, and Jayne Ann Philipps. His short stories, prose poems and poems have appeared in Lost and Found Times, The Agent, Inkblot, Heidelberg Review, Groundswell, Peer Glass, elimae, 3711 Atlantic, Cezanne’s Carrot, Brilliant, Eclectica, Offcourse, The Noneuclidean Cafe, Ghoti Magazine, Duck and Herring Co. Pocket Field Guide, Raving Dove, Hamilton Stone Review, Bartleby Snopes, Red Ochre Lit, StepAway Magazine, Black&White, and Litbomb. He also wrote three novels, including The Observatory featured here, all still unpublished.

Joachim, the “Downpour” of radioactive rain at the May Day celebration along the Rhine sets a sobering tone for what’s to come. What led you to set the prologue in the wake of Chernobyl and do elements of the Chernobyl disaster continue to resonate throughout The Observatory.

The prologue’s purpose in this novel is to set the stage in Germany, particularly Bonn, where all the action of the main story will take place. The May 1, 1986 event on the banks of the Rhine in Bonn very closely follows historical accounts. I chose it in order to have a plausible reason for the downhill spiral in the marital relationship between Arthur and Eva later on, which leads to their separation. In a way, a relationship is poisoned slowly, in the same way as radioactivity leads to deteriorating health and cancer in the long term. Chernobyl itself as a topic does not recur in the main story; however, its prominence in the prologue serves as an introduction to American readers telling them that the stage is set in post-war Europe with its complicated interconnectedness of East and West. Also, a reminder that Europe is in fact a small theater for events — a cloud coming from the Ukraine reaches Bonn in a few days, the same time as a cloud from coast to coast in the United States.

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Joachim Frank: Downpour (Prologue from The Observatory, a Novel in Progress)

May 1, 1986

The lilacs are in bloom; the air is pregnant with the sweetness of spring. It’s called Frühling here, in German literally a personification of earliness. We think of a young man dressed in a green skin-tight Medieval costume, jumping nimbly through the fields. This is Workers’ Day, a holiday in all of Europe, reserved for parades, solidarity, and consciousness-raising. Bonn has its first afternoon of sultriness in this season, and Arthur’s skin feels sticky.  He doesn’t exactly know what to do with himself, barred from his office by his wife Eva’s dictum that he must spend the day off with his family, “like normal people.”  But his five-year old daughter is at a birthday party for the rest of the afternoon, and Eva spends the day sitting on the balcony, sipping coffee and reading a book. She is expecting, and this is perhaps the reason she has this intense focus on family now. On a day like this, the apartment is oppressive; there is little air circulation. He makes an attempt to sit down at his desk and read his student’s Ph.D. thesis draft.  Christ! This guy can’t even write a single sentence right! Arthur’s shirt has turned damp. Seeking relief, he goes down into the courtyard.

“I’ll read a book, or something,” he says on his way out, loud enough so she can hear him, wherever she is in this spacious, spread-out apartment.

“Sure, see you later, Spatz.” Her cheerful voice comes back from the direction of the bathroom.

When he arrives downstairs, five floors below, he discovers he has forgotten his book. But there is nothing in the world that could force him to walk up again. Besides, more often than not, bringing a book along amounts to nothing but a good intention. As he enters the courtyard, the rabbit hutch emits wafts of intense odor from the droppings.  His daughter is too small to clean it out, but she has promised, with the seriousness of a five-year old, that she will “keep it clean forever” when she is old enough.  He sits down in the shade next to Prince Hirohito’s tree. It’s the tree the later-to-become Emperor Hirohito planted here sometime in the twenties when he was young. A swatch of skin on Arthur’s face itches intensely now; he rubs over it with his flat hand, then gropes with his fingers, and sure enough, he finds a single hair that had attached itself there. He takes his damp shirt off, and stretches out in the grass.  The coolness of the grass brings some relief. Wondering why grass doesn’t have the exact same temperature as everything else around, he dozes off.

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