Each week, the editors of Jenny Magazine sit down with either fellow literary magazine editors or past Jenny contributors for short interviews. This week’s interview is with Helga Schierloh, a past contributor of Jenny Magazine.
Describe your first publication. Where was it, when, and what was the piece about? How old were you at the time and how did it feel?
I visited the city of Berlin during the months after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and before Germany’s reunification in 1990, and then wrote a brief travel log about it. In March 1991 the article appeared in Michigan’s Birmingham Observer/Eccentric Newspapers. I felt finally validated as a writer and happy to share the historic events taking place in my home country. This was my first publishing success and it came much later in my life than I had originally anticipated. However, as a native German eager to write for the American market, I had to first polish my English language skills.
What inspired your piece in the Jenny?
The essay I sent to Jenny came straight from my own experience of not being with my dad when he succumbed to cancer. Writing “The Last Goodbye” became something of a catharsis for me. Unable to exchange a final hug and some kind parting words with someone I loved so much, I relied on my writing to relieve some of the pain and regrets that remained.
What got you into writing?
I have always been a dreamer. Growing up in a small village in southern Germany after World War II, I had very few material goods, but a lot of time and freedom to explore my little world. I spent days strolling through the woods or lying in the grass and observing my surroundings. One of my favorite pastimes was watching the sky — clouds forming into all kinds of creatures that shifted, battled, embraced, danced, and played games with each other. In those early days, I started writing poetry. Then, on my thirteenth birthday, my favorite aunt — who influenced me with her love for books and greatly encouraged my writing — gave me a diary, and I was hooked. I wrote and wrote and wrote — mostly about my life — and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. My diary also became my silent confidant, a wonderful reservoir into which to deposit the tumultuous thoughts and emotions of my teen years.
I first came to the United States in my twenties and eventually settled down here. As time went on, marriage, raising a family, plus getting a college education, literally took the wind out of my literary sails. Although I felt some inspiration here and there, I had neither much time nor energy for putting creative thoughts on paper. As much as I regret not writing more during those years, I take comfort in the fact that acquiring a degree in journalism and interacting with people in a variety of other activities contributed to improving my English language skills. In addition, I still remember fondly the creative writing professor who liked what he saw and encouraged me to stay with it.
What do you like writing the most? Is there a certain style you prefer?
Personal interest stories — and I will always write poetry because it provides me with a safe outlet for my deepest sentiments and some healing power for painful emotions.
In addition, my personal essays and memoirs have received favorable feedback in recent years and given my age, recording my own experiences also allows me to preserve a bit of family history for my children and grandchildren. So, at this point in time, I see writing personal interest stories as a win-win situation.
What are your influences? Who are your favorite writers?
I greatly admire two German writers: Friedrich von Schiller and Nobel prize winner Heinrich Boell, and I am devoted to the poetry of Joseph von Eichendorff of the later German romantic school.
Among my most memorable first exposures to American literature were the German translations of Pearl S. Buck and Mark Twain. As of today, I have become familiar with many others, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, J.D. Salinger etc. My reading tastes vary. I love the classics, but I like crime fiction as well. One of my favorites in that genre is novelist and screen writer Elmore Leonard. Not only did I know him personally, I had the pleasure of interviewing him for one of my writing assignments in college.
Last but not least, I absolutely adore William Faulkner. At first it was hard for me to work through some of his dialogs reflecting the speech pattern unique to the American South, but once I became better acquainted with it, I was absolutely fascinated. Allowing his characters to communicate in their own local tongue imbues them with a regional quality that really makes their world come alive.
What’s your proudest moment as an author?
When my young grandson — after listening to a multitude of my often wildly fantastic bedtime renderings — announced enthusiastically, “Oma, you tell the bestest stories.” Given the choice, he preferred my “spur-of-the-moment” storytelling over reading a book.
He also wished that my writing would be available in his grade school library. However, when he asked me if I was now famous, I had to humbly reassure him that at this point in time I was quite content with other people just reading my work.
How has your writing developed over time?
The marriage over, the kids grown, I finally reconnected with my life-long passion. I like to play with writing styles and genres. I have finished three novels and a fourth one is still waiting for some type of conclusion. I am hoping to eventually find a publisher for all of them.
As it is, most of my success so far came from shorter pieces, such as poetry and an assortment of personal essays and memoirs of my childhood. Maybe being the product of the challenging years after WWII in Europe adds a touch to experiences that — although not always easy at the time — make for some intriguing stories.
Are you currently working on anything?
I am currently transcribing the diaries of my early years. Since I tried to keep my girlish ruminations under lock and key, and many of those entries are not only in German, but also in shorthand, I am now coaxing some of my past out of hiding. I am almost finished with typing up a readable version — in German — and getting ready to translate it into English.
What’s your writing process?
I have always been a night owl and in spite of my current “ripe old age” that habit has not changed much. I am still the most productive after dark, when others sleep and the world is silent.
What are you currently reading?
After hearing about it for years, I have finally read A Tale of Two Cities — and I was simply mesmerized. In applying a strange mix of poetic renderings, precise descriptions, and psychological insights, Charles Dickens paints a gutwrenchingly captivating picture of the often cruel events of the French revolution and the people caught up in it.
Have you ever worked with a medium other than writing? Or collaborated with someone in another medium with your writing?
Not for publication! However, I have a degree in journalism/advertising and some of my class assignments required the creation of ad copy for TV, radio, and print publications — for scholastic purposes only! In addition, I worked for a while at an ad agency to fulfill my internship requirements.
Are you a past Jenny contributor or an editor at a literary magazine and interested in an interview? Send us an email.