Interview: Christiane Tann
We sat with Christiane Tann, author of Cornflakes this week. Join us as we talk about her move from Germany to London and how she struggled with the language barrier while learning how to live away from family, her interest in writing about guilt and how that manifests, and how she researched the 1920s for her book.
Read our review of her book here: Cornflakes by Christiane Tann
Christiane: Thank you for your time today.
CJ: You’re so very welcome! So why don’t you start by telling us about yourself?
Christiane: Where to start… I am 38 years old and moved from Germany to the UK about 12 years ago. I have always loved writing, and after having lived here for two or three years, I took a creative writing course – mainly to learn English. I rediscovered my love for writing and being creative and joined a regular writing meet up. In my day-to-day life, I work in hospitality. However, this is on hold because of the virus. I love traveling, and love to travel alone. I usually incorporate destinations I travel to in my writing, so I try to avoid too well-known attractions or tourist spots. Other than that, I am a completely boring person who likes to read, plays with her dog, and meets friends for brunch.
CJ: That doesn’t sound boring at all! So you’ve only been in the UK for 12 years. Did you learn English when you moved to the UK or had you started in Germany?
Christiane: I was learning English in school, but other than the basic and simple conversations, it was not much. My so-called English teacher only knew English from textbooks, and that was the quality of my education. I thought my English was not all too bad and only learned the difference when I moved here. I think I did not open my mouth for the first six months I lived in the UK because my language skills embarrassed me.
CJ: I can imagine the difficulties you must have had. Aside from the language barriers, were there any other cultural differences difficult for you at first?
Christiane: I would not say that I faced cultural differences per se. I was, however, moving from a tiny rural town to London, which seemed to be a completely different world. My background is a typical small town, middle-class one. In hindsight, I would say rather privileged. And suddenly I found myself in an apartment, sharing with people I never met before, living off minimum wage. Most of my friends were foreigners living in London, so we all bonded on shared experiences. It was tough for me at times, because during those years, I realized how often in the past I had relied on my parents to help me out whenever needed. In hindsight, I am grateful for all the experiences I had.
CJ: So your parents didn’t make the move with you?
CJ: I know how that is. But as scary as the move must have been for you, it seems to have been a good thing. Your book, Cornflakes, which I adored, is set in the US. Have you traveled to the places in your book?
Christiane: I went to Chicago for the first time in 2017 and did some “scene-checking” (followed by re-writing a lot of scenes) I was supposed to go to Indianapolis, but I could not fit it into the week.
When I was back in the UK, I found out that, other than Nascar and other car-related events, the Indy Motorway is also doing an annual Mini-Marathon. I had just started running at the time and made myself a challenge to go to Indianapolis in May 2019, run the half-marathon, and do my research.
It was probably the BEST idea I’ve ever had!!! Thanks to the AMAZING atmosphere and the fact that we ran across the racing track had me feeling (a little) like Lucky.
CJ: That sounds amazing. Since you brought him up, why don’t you tell us how Lucky came to be. What was your inspiration for his character and storyline?
Christiane: Lucky popped into my head one night. I don’t exactly remember the dream I had, but he was there, and I had to fire up my computer in the middle of the night, and wrote the “first scene” down. I had to put that in brackets because the character changed a lot since then, and the scene got erased fairly quickly. I wanted to write a character that was insecure, had a lot of baggage, and I wanted to find out what would happen to this person when thrown into the spotlight. How would they react? What would they do? How would it change them? You may have noticed, but I enjoy writing about guilt, and feeling guilty, and what this guilt does to you. I think Lucky and Nina are both a product of trying to learn to live with guilt and moving on from this… with more or less success.
CJ: Guilt is definitely a hard emotion to write. I think it really requires a lot of introspection and understanding how you as a person would react first before you can assign behaviors to a character, but you did such a wonderful job with that in all of your characters. You pulled me into the story with that.
Christiane: Thank you so much for saying this. It means a lot. It’s been something that I have had a vast interest in for a long time. I think – I have been in the shoes of both, in one way or another. My personal stories are not half as drastic as the ones in the novel, but there was a hard time in my life where I had to learn that I was not the guilty party, but the victim. I think this comes to play a lot in the story. But my interest in the subject of guilt started before that. I had spent a voluntary year working with disadvantaged teenagers. They came from violent backgrounds, had records, etc… and my job was to simply be there and listen – I was 19 at the time, so not much older than they and I think it deepened my understanding why people react/behave the way they do and put myself into their shoes.
CJ: It’s very difficult to do that. To just sit and bear witness to someone else’s pain. I think you translate that difficulty well in your story. You make your readers sit with your characters’ pain without giving them a way to fix it. So in that aspect, your story is hard to read. On the other hand, period pieces are tough to write, but I found the world you built to be flawless. Do you have an interest in that particular period, or was this just a case of Lucky popping into your head and bringing the time period with him?
Christiane: I have always been intrigued by the 1920s and in particular the cars at the time (you may have noticed). I would not say that I had a knowledge reaching farther than The Great Gatsby back then. The more research I put into it, the more intrigued I became. The wonderful thing about historical research is that you stumble across a lot of rather unknown tidbits that draw you further and further into this era. For example, the Freedom for Friendship charity I wrote about is based on facts I had stumbled across by sheer accident.
CJ: Was there ever a point in your writing where you included things that didn’t work for the story but were fascinating things from the time period?
Christiane: Yes, absolutely. One thing I found fascinating was the story of the Radium Girls. For those not familiar, this is the story of young working-class girls working in a clock dial factory. Their job was to paint watch dials with radium, to have them glow in the dark. They had been advised that radium wasn’t toxic. It did not take too long before the girls got very ill and soon the first one died. Once there was the realization that radium was the reason, it caused one of the biggest law-suits. From my understanding, this was the very first time in American history that workers won a law-suit against their company. Kate Moore did a wonderful job writing a novel called The Radium Girls, and I highly recommend it. I realized that by including the entire background of the Radium Girls, I could not do the story the same justice and removed most of it from my novel. There are still tidbits and hints here and there, and if you’re familiar with the events, you will spot them. There was also another character whose storyline did not fit in. But I don’t want to give too much away, as I am writing a novel about them.
CJ: I’ve had stories like that, where I find so much information I just want to do an info dump in the middle of the story. It’s so hard to decide if what you’re doing is essential to the story or needs to be left out. How did you decide to self-publish?
Christiane: When I started writing, I was 100% sure that I wanted to go down the traditional route. Mainly because I felt I needed an agent’s stamp of approval. It was only within the last year that I started thinking of alternative options. I had met many wonderful indie writers via Social Media and asked them about their experiences. I had started writing Cornflakes in February 2016, and over the 4 years it took me to write it I grew very, very protective of my mental property. I would have wanted no one to change any aspect of my novel, and my experience with agents was that they asked me to tone down Nina’s storyline. In all honesty – what you have read IS the toned down storyline. I did not want to make any more amends just to fit into a mainstream market.
CJ: I agree 100% with that thought. If you had done Nina’s story any less the book wouldn’t have been as good as it was. Do you have a release time frame for your current book?
Christiane: I am hoping to have this done within the next one or two years. It is tricky to be more precise, because I will need to do some on the scene research for this one, and international travel is currently difficult. I am only glad I got the New York part in before the world shut down, but two more locations are still on the to-do list.
CJ: That’s fantastic. I know, I for one am looking forward to it. Thank you so much for sitting and talking with me today. I had a lot of fun.
Christiane: Thank you so much for inviting me. I had a great time as well.
You can connect with Christiane via these avenues: