Photo credit: Max Pitegoff
Calla Henkel is a writer, playwright, director, and artist who lives and works in Berlin. Her work with Max Pitegoff has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide, including the Whitney Museum of Art, and she currently operates a bar, performance space and film studio called TV in Berlin. Other People’s Clothes is her debut novel.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The idea of performance is central to Other People's Clothes and to your work as an artist. What made you want to explore it – especially from a cultural and social perspective – in the context of a novel?
I sat down to write the novel almost immediately after completing a year of writing plays at the Volksbühne theater, so yes, in many ways Other People’s Clothes was written in the echo of performance. And the book centers on the question of how we can (or can’t) own our own narratives which also links up with questions about self-representation and photography, which I deal with a lot in my artwork. Also in a trashy way, I wanted to think about the performance of what it meant to be American in Berlin; for instance the perversity of the character Hailey singing “Seasons of Love” from RENT in the Kantine of Volksbühne. In a ways it’s all very Cabaret-meets-Amanda-Knox, and unpacks what happens when performance and real life get blurred.
Other People's Clothes is a kind of era-defining coming-of-age thriller. Thrillers hold a special place among other literary genres and I’m curious to know how you decided to write one. How did the plot come to you and what, or who, inspired it?
I love thrillers. And I love the speed that comes with the genre, it’s like they generate this need to devour the story; to solve it, to understand it. I knew from the beginning I wanted the book to be a thriller and I knew I wanted it to be a vehicle for all of these questions in my art practice. In terms of plot, I, like the main characters, moved to Berlin on exchange in 2008 and moved into the apartment of a brilliant writer, (she was of course not watching me and my roommate), but we did read all her books and adored her writing. It was years later when I was thinking about the intensity of that time period that I started to transform the situation into pulp.
I love how present pop culture is in this novel, especially the examination of its wider impact through events like Britney Spears’ public downfall or the Amanda Knox case. What’s your relationship to pop culture?
I think celebrity culture is really interesting and I absolutely follow along. For the book I was particularly fixated on the blog-cum-tabloid era of the late 00’s and the way female celebrities were hunted and shamed. Back then there was this real insistence on the performance of innocence from women and I wanted the characters in the book to unpack what happens when this demanded innocence is impossible to perform.
Like your protagonists Hailey and Zoe, you moved to Berlin around a decade ago. How has the city changed you and your work?
The city has changed so much. When I got here in 2008 everyone told me I was too late. But I think there is a T-shirt that gets passed around from ex-pat to ex-pat that says You’re too late. And maybe it is too late. But I love Berlin, I mean parts have transformed into tech-friendly-gentrified-flat-white boringness, but it’s still possible to do weird things here. I run a bar in Schöneberg called TV, and it reminds me every night that the city is still electric.
Are you working on anything new right now (literary or not)?
I am working on a new book about a true-crime-podcast addicted woman named Esther, who drops out of the art world to study craft, and ends up making books in the mountains. Esther gets hired to make a bunch of scrapbooks for a very wealthy woman in NYC, and soon realizes the material she’s been sent isn’t just family photos but also financial documents. When the woman who hired her ends up dead, Esther drives herself insane trying to solve the murder.
Interview by our bookseller Iti Libe