Alex Beer talks about writing historical fiction and her English language debut novel The Second Rider

Sandra Partanen
Posted on October 04, 2018, 2:47 pm
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The English-speaking world is finally welcomed into the award-winning literary universe of author Alex Beer. The invitation comes in the shape of The Second Rider, Beer’s English debut novel.

We find ourselves in a post World War I Vienna, where the grandiose Habsburg Empire is but a whisper of a ghost. The city is ravaged by poverty and crime, and its citizens are turning increasingly crooked as shadows creep out from street corners and gutters. War veteran Inspector August Emmerich is imminent to join the major crime unit, and when a corpse is discovered outside the city, he does not hesitate to take his chance. His adventures bring the reader closer and closer to the darkness that eats away at Vienna.

The Second Rider is the first novel in the series following August Emmerich, and has received exceptional praise for both historical accuracy and expertise execution. It is already popular in its German edition, and has received the Leo-Perutz-Price. The English release, translated by Tim Mohr, is coming up on October 2nd. You can read a full starred review of the novel over at Publishers Weekly.

For those of us who don’t know you yet – tell us a little about yourself! What did you do before you got published for the first time?

I studied Economics and Archeology (Pre- and Early History to be precise). After my graduation I moved to New York, where I worked in publishing (art and photography books). After signing the book deal for my first novel I relocated to Berlin, because life was more affordable there for a young writer. Nowadays I live in Vienna, but I have no idea for how much longer, as the idea of going back to New York crosses my mind with increasing frequency.

When, and why, did you start writing?

I’ve always loved a good story. As a child I read everything that I could get ahold of. Books, magazines, flyers, newspapers … I even read my grandmas TV Guide. When I got older I narrowed it down to (mainly) specialized literature, crime fiction and historical novels – I devoured tons of them, and I still do.

The idea of writing my own book came out of the blue. It felt very natural and somehow long overdue, like ”hell, why didn’t I think of this earlier?”

Tell us about The Second Rider. How did the idea sprout, and what were your inspirations?

For a while I wrote rather amusing stories (contemporary). They were fun and entertaining, but after the fourth book, I got really tired of the whole thing. I guess, I got more ambitious, wanted to do something more demanding, more noir, more up-market.

As I’ve always been a history buff, my literary agent suggested to try something historical. First I contemplated the Middle Ages, but then discovered Vienna in the aftermath of WWI, which I found more appealing. The grandeur of the Habsburg Empire is long gone, the disease-ridden city is rife with crime, prostitution and hunger. What setting could be more perfect for a crime story?

I get a lot of inspiration from reading old newspapers. Luckily the Austrian National Library has digitized all available Austrian papers and magazines, starting with the year 1568. You can have a look here, but it’s unfortunately only in German.

Photo: Ian Ehm

What can readers expect from The Second Rider?

They can expect the morbid and sinister atmosphere of Vienna in the aftermath of WWI, a cynical protagonist that has sharp and ragged edges and a captivating crime story.

The Second Rider is set in Vienna, post World War 1, and one of the most prominent praises for the novel I have heard is that it’s very believably portraying this place and time in history. What type of research did you conduct before writing the novel?

I kind of moved into the National Library. They are open Monday to Sunday from 9AM to 9PM. I was there. Everyday. All the time. I read newspapers, biographies and novels, studied maps, blueprints and manuscripts.

If you were to provide a soundtrack to the novel, what would be on it?

If a little anachronism is allowed, I’d go for Nick Caves’ Murder Ballads or maybe songs from Editors, Wye Oak, Interpol, Joy Divison, Depeche Mode … the sad and melodramatic stuff.

Did you write The Second Rider in English from the start, or did you initially start in German?

I wrote the book in German, my native language. It got translated into English by the fabulous Tim Mohr. That guy is just great. He has worked with Hunter S. Thompson and translated Alina Bronsky and Wolfgang Herrndorf – just to name a few. I was very excited when I heard that he took on the assignment.

Are you working on the second and/or third book in the series? How is it coming along?

The German edition of the second book has already been published, so now I’m working on the third, which will be out in May 2019. Everything is coming along really well, the reviews are great.

I’m also working on a new title that will come out in fall 2019. It is set in Nuremberg, in the year 1942 (in the midst of WWII). That story will be even more noir than the Emmerich ones.

Photo: Ian Ehm

What are your writing rituals and/or preferred place to write? Do you have any tips for other writers out there?

I love to write in libraries. The silence and restrictions there help me to focus. As I travel a lot, I had to learn to also work in hotels, planes, trains and airports.

The best tip for aspiring writers is: do it. Stop talking about that idea of yours. Stop dreaming about writing. Stop postponing. Stop waiting for the inspiration or the right moment to start (it ain’t gonna come). Stop listening to people who tell you that you can’t make it — f*** them. Just sit down and do it. Write.

Are you going to be hosting any readings outside of Vienna? If so, where can readers find you?

I’ll be at Frankfurt Book Fair and after that all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland. There will also be a reading in Brussels in December. I’d also love to go to the US and the UK (or any other English speaking country). Maybe, after the English edition is available on October 2nd, there will be some dates.

Your work has been published before, in German, Italian and Spanish, and so whereas this isn’t your first time getting published, do you find that the publishing process is different this time because it’s in English?

Being published, no matter what language, is exciting, but being published in English is beyond comparison. The whole world can now read my book – the word has for instance already spread to Sweden.

What can we expect from the rest of the series? Can you tell us just a sentence or two about what we might expect from the second and third book?

Emmerich will have to solve new crimes, whose motives will arise from the trials and tribulations of those times. He will have to deal with social Darwinism, women’s rights, war crimes, the black market and many other things. Also his private life will cause him a lot of trouble.

Alex Beer recommends:

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
This book is everything. It’s gripping, smart and shocking, and it has great language, multilayered characters and phantastic atmosphere.
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell
Wow, what a ride. This book is fast, fun and full of dark humour.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
An all time classic. Doesn’t get dull, no matter how often you read it.

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