By Layton Green
This month kicks off a new series for THE BIG THRILL—International Thrills—where authors Layton Green and Joanna Penn will span the globe covering thriller writers from around the world. We couldn’t think of a better way to start the series than with Layton’s excellent interview of international powerhouse Nele Neuhaus.
—The Managing Editors
Nele Neuhaus is one of Germany’s most popular crime writers. She is the author of the phenomenally successful Taunus crime series, which features police detectives Oliver von Bodenstein and Pia Kirchhoff. Set in the picturesque towns and villages of the Taunus, a mountainous area north of Frankfurt, the Taunus novels are psychological thrill rides that probe the dark side of human nature. The series has sold more than five million copies in Germany alone, reached readers in more than twenty countries, and gained acclaim as a highly successful television series.
Though she has had #1 bestsellers in Germany and elsewhere, Neuhaus is probably most famous in the United States for the fourth novel in the Taunus series, SNOW WHITE MUST DIE, which was nominated for a 2014 ITW Thriller Award. The sixth novel in the series, BAD WOLF, has also been translated into English, along with SWIMMING WITH SHARKS, a stand-alone Wall Street thriller.
First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to chat, and welcome. I know you’re from the Taunus region yourself; tell us a little bit more about your background.
I was born in Muenster/Westfalia and raised in Paderborn, but my family and I moved to the Taunus region when I was eleven years old because of my Dad’s job. I started writing stories at age five, before I learned how to write formally in school. Anyone who wanted to understand what I had written had to read it out loud, because I was only able to use phonetics.
One Christmas my parents bought me a yellow portable typewriter, which was the source of innumerable works: horse stories, love stories, screenplays, and many others. Some of them I kept, but most of them went into the rubbish bin. Toward the end of my schooling, I dreamed of being a writer, while my classmates signed apprenticeship contracts or enrolled at university. Everyone knows writing is an unprofitable art, and so I did what I had to do: I took on a job and made money. Inwardly, I was still convinced that one day my secret dream would come true. I wrote more and more for the drawer and usually without finding an ending for my story, but in that time I learned one thing: writing is, to a large extent, a craft that practice helps perfect.
After self-publishing and having my early work picked up by my publisher, Ullstein, my Taunus series has defied all prophecies of doom. SNOW WHITE MUST DIEwas released, and quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened which I would never have dared dream: the book made the bestseller lists, rising to No. 1 on Amazon and staying there for several months.
Everything has happened so fast, and if anyone had told me this was going to happen, I would not have believed him or her.
Why did you choose your homeland as the setting for the Taunus series?
Most people think it was a marketing decision, but that’s not true! I remember sitting at my desk one Sunday afternoon being very unhappy, because it was so hard for me to remember where my characters were driving around. I invented a fictional environment, but there were often more than three or four days when I couldn’t work on the manuscript, so I had to look everything up on my self-created maps. I had to recall the names of towns and places—it was annoying.
So this particular Sunday afternoon, I decided to switch the whole setting from a fictional to a real place. I knew there were a lot of crime stories set in the Allgäu, the Eifel, Munich, Hamburg, or somewhere else—but there was nothing in the Taunus area, close to Frankfurt. It took me a few minutes using the “search and replace” function of my software, and the Taunus series was born! Work was much easier then, and I love to use real places. Looking back, it was the best decision I’ve ever made because that was exactly the reason why my first readers wanted to read my books. They adored finding their homeland in a book and couldn’t wait for the next one. Maybe my homeland isn’t as spectacular as New York or Paris, but there are many different people living between Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and the international airport, and we have extreme social differences for such a small area. On the one hand, the big city of Frankfurt, and on the other hand—only fifteen kilometers away—small and rural towns like Altenhain, with inhabitants that have stuck together for generations. For me it is the perfect setting for my crime stories, and I guess that readers appreciate finding a real background in a book.
You got your start self-publishing in Germany, and you did it “old school”—hand-selling to readers and bookstores. Clearly it worked out pretty well for you, but tell us a little bit about that experience. Any humorous anecdotes before the fame?
In the beginning, I somehow managed to finish a one-thousand-page manuscript about an investment banker in New York. The story required copious research, and in the late nineties, the Internet was not as informative as it is today. I had to read tons of books. Several revisions later SWIMMING WITH SHARKS was finished, and I was looking for a publisher. I encountered what happens with probably every would-be author: the responses I got were polite, pre-printed rejection letters. Nobody explained the reasons for their rejections and I started questioning myself and the quality of my work.
At the end of 2004, I read about the magic words “book on demand”—the opportunity to self-publish your own book. After collecting some information, I knew this is it! You are the architect of your own fortune—try it! I precisely calculated my risk and published my first edition of SWIMMING WITH SHARKS with a print run of 500 copies and a retail price of EUR 16.90 for 600 pages. I knew it was a risky investment for a completely unknown author, but I organized a book launch and invited all my friends. After a few days, the first print run was sold out, and I ordered new books. I invested a lot of energy into the marketing and often had to overcome my inhibitions. Canvassing bookstores door to door, creating my own website, giving readings in front of two listeners, approaching the press. A laborious and exhausting path leading to the desired result. But finally, my books got to the readers and that is where they belong.
Then these readers asked for more, and the first Taunus thriller, AN UNPOPULAR WOMAN, was born. Again, I did all the work on my own. I chose a photo for my cover, I wrote the jacket copy, I proof-read the text. This time, I ordered 1,000 copies which were delivered on pallets and parked in our garage, but booksellers discovered my Taunus crime thrillers and started ordering. I wrote shipping notes and invoices, I delivered the books all by myself, and I took the books ordered through Amazon to the post office.
The second Taunus crime thriller, FRIENDS TILL DEATH, had a first print run of 5,000 copies. From its first edition (November 2006) until the date Ullstein picked it up, 10,000 copies were sold.
My writing career underwent an important and wonderful change when an editor of the prestigious publishing house Ullstein contacted me in January 2008. She had read “Mordsfreunde” (FRIENDS TILL DEATH) and taken it with her to Berlin, and wanted to take over its publication. I pondered . . . for about a second. My energy reserves had come to an end. I lacked time and money for large-scale advertising, I lacked the necessary distribution channels, and I preferred using my time for writing. Shortly afterward, I submitted a draft for a new Taunus crime thriller, and got a contract. It was a completely new and great experience to work with an experienced editor. It clearly improved my books. In the summer of 2009, THE ICE QUEEN (to be published in English in January 2015) was published. It came as a surprise to all of us that the book went immediately onto the Spiegel bestseller list. My dream had come true: I’d actually become a writer!
As for anecdotes, there are definitely a lot—funny and sad ones, but I only tell the funny ones. For example, the old man who was not very amused about finding out his house was the house of a suspected murderer with a scruffy garden—only because I didn’t check the street numbers in my hometown. And on my very first visit to the Forensic Medical facility in Frankfurt, I asked the chief medical examiner how a dead body would look after lying three days outside in a hot summer. He looked at me and said, thoughtfully: “I am sorry, but I do not have something like that downstairs at the moment, it is wintertime you know . . . ”
In your own words, I’d love for you to introduce your main series to U.S. readers. What type of reader will love the Taunus crime thrillers, and why?
I think that readers who prefer unexpected plot twists and unpredictable endings rather than floods of blood, brain mass, and crazy serial killers will like my books. Also, they should like character-driven plots with a lot of characters and a lot of twists and turns! My books are indeed quite easy to read, but you should not underestimate the complexity of the stories!
Readers who appreciate learning more about the private lives and personal development of the main characters will also hopefully like my books.
I also make sure that the reader never knows more than the investigator; that is important for me. A lot of readers tell me that they feel extremely familiar with my characters—and that’s exactly what I try to achieve.
SNOW WHITE MUST DIE was a worldwide phenomenon. What a great title! Snow White, of course, was a German fairy tale long before it came to Disney. I’ve read the novel myself, and must concur with the masses—it was fantastic. Why do you think that book resonated so well with readers?
I guess at first it was the title. Everybody knows Snow White and people wanted to know why she had to die. The title was my idea on a rainy afternoon. The working title was ‘Hexenjagd’ (translation: WITCHHUNT), but that is the German title of Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, so we had to find something else.
The second reason was the story itself. A young man comes back to his hometown after serving a ten-year sentence in jail for murdering two girls. The locals want him to leave because there are a lot of hidden secrets in the small village that people want to keep hidden.
I am telling a story about jealousy, envy, and hate that could take place anywhere in the world, because those are human characteristics. Fear of discovery and loss of reputation is something almost everybody understands. The characters are not sick psychopaths. Instead, they seem frighteningly familiar to the reader and that brings the story very close. The idea that this could happen to my neighbor and to me is what I believe is fascinating to readers.
Did the success of SNOW WHITE MUST DIE change the trajectory of your career?
It absolutely did! Almost overnight booksellers and publishers knew my name, it was my breakthrough and I still can’t believe how fast it happened! My publisher didn’t make any efforts about promotion or marketing. I was a simple midlist-author and they expected about 15,000 copies to be sold. From one day to the next the book went to #1 in the Amazon ranking—and it remained there from June 2010 until December. It was the highest-selling book in Germany on Amazon in 2010.
Newspapers called me “The Shooting Star” and the “New Queen of Crime.” I was invited to the most popular talk shows in Germany, and my name was everywhere. I was suspicious, and kept thinking it would be a one-hit wonder. My publisher offered me a new contract for three more books (with much better conditions than before), and from then on I knew I was not dreaming, but rather experiencing the fulfillment of my biggest dream ever!
You say that your characters are “frighteningly familiar” and I think everyone would agree that you are quite adept at using archetypal character types that seem to resonate with readers. Does this characterization come naturally to you?
Yes, it does. I love watching people. For over twenty-five years I have had the opportunity to deal with people from all different social strata. In my ex-husband’s company, on horseshows, in my hometown. I like talking and listening to people, and I must seem trustworthy, because a lot of people have told me very private things. When I am sitting at my desk inventing new characters for a plot, I am able to retrieve all those memories so it is easy to create a fictional person: the Turkish salesgirl in a bakery, the money-grubbing riding teacher, the megalomaniac entrepreneur who thinks he is untouchable, the women in the village who shop, and so on. I know what they think and feel, how they act and react and see the world and other people. And yes, I can see them right in front of me as if they were flesh and blood (perhaps that is the reason why I was kind of disappointed when I first saw the cast of the films). Inventing characters is one of the most exciting things in my job.
Speaking of horseshows, I understand you love horses, and have two other bestselling series: “Elena—A Life For Horses” and the YA-series “Charlotte’s Dream Horse.” Have you found it tough to publish in such disparate genres?
Fortunately it was easy, because I was already successful with my crime stories and I had no problem finding a publisher. The third Elena novel made it onto the Spiegel bestseller hardcover charts, which was an enormous success. I am very happy about having the chance to write for young readers. I love writing something completely different. The YA books are a kind of “heart thing” for me, and my characters go through many things that I experienced myself. They are not autobiographical, but Elena and Charlotte are young girls, crazy about horses—just like me thirty years ago. And I guess that’s what makes the books so lively. For me it is a great recovery after working on a crime story for a year and a half, because I need only a few weeks and it is just fun to write for hundreds and thousands of enthusiastic young girls who send me tons of letters and email and ask for more books in the guestbook of my website.
What are you reading right now? Who are some of your favorite authors?
I am a fast reader and I love reading books (mostly thrillers and crime stories) from very different authors. Right now I am reading THE CIRCLE by Dave Eggers and I just finished the fifth part of the Jussi Adler Olsen series. I consumed all the Jack Reacher books from Lee Child in two months and I like the Roy Grace series from Peter James, but there are a lot more, like Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George, Kathy Reichs, Hakan Nesser, Stieg Larsson, Ken Follett, Karen Slaughter, Simon Beckett, Fred Vargas, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Dick Francis, and some of my German colleagues like Elisabeth Herrmann and Inge Löhnig. I also adored reading the Harry Potter books and the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer (yes, I am still a girl sometimes). In my bookshelf you’ll also find books from authors like Gillian Flynn, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Littel, Donna Tartt, Joel Dicker, E. L. Doctorow, and many, many more.
You write some pretty dark thrillers. Do you ever become unnerved by your own writing?
I am a very positive and optimistic person, so I never get depressed while working on dark themes like murder, hate, child abuse, revenge, or something like that. I learned how to keep my distance from cruel things, and I am able to dissociate between my work and my “real” life. My characters have never followed me into my dreams.
I have met so many people in my life, and I know a lot about the hidden dark sides of human beings. It fascinates me to invent a story about somebody who is completely normal, unless he happens to be in a situation he cannot deal with anymore. In my real life, three of my closer acquaintances were murdered, and these experiences left their marks on me. They were all killed by average guys you would never have thought about being a murderer, and that’s what my books reflect: the dark side of human beings.
What do you like to do when not writing?
The most important thing for me is spending as much time as possible with my fiancé Matthias. Fortunately, he shares my passion for horses. I love being with my horses (I own two former show-jumping horses, thirty-three and twenty-eight years old, and two quarter horses). I also love long rides in the wonderful Taunus woods. I love reading and cooking, watching movies, meeting friends, travelling (I didn’t travel for about twenty-three years because my ex-husband was married to his company) and visiting foreign countries. I adore Italian and French food, seafood and champagne. My old dog “Shelby,” a sixteen year-old Jack Russell, always accompanies us. I love being with my family and with my friends.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
Of course I do. My advice is read, read, read. And write—again and again. Writing books is a craft and you can only improve your writing skills when you’re training them. Don’t dream about the bestseller lists. Try to find your own style, don’t copy somebody else. Be patient. Don’t give your manuscript to close friends for proofreading, but to your enemies—they will be honest.
Be self-critical. Think about whether your plot is really interesting for a larger audience. Revise your manuscript as often as possible—it will become better and better.
What would you like your legacy as a writer to be?
My books do not have a “message.” I want to entertain my readers. The greatest praise readers give me is when they tell me they forgot about their household, their family, or they missed their train station while reading one of my books. I would be happy with people keeping my name in mind for hours of exciting entertainment.
What can tell us about your upcoming release? Any other projects you have planned?
In June my very first novel (titled “Sommer der Wahrheit” or SUMMER OF TRUTH) was published in Germany under my maiden name Nele Löwenberg, because I wanted to make it clear that this is not a Pia Kirchhoff/Oliver von Bodenstein crime story. The novel made it to #4 in the Bestseller Charts and sold over 150,000 copies within six weeks. That’s why I am going to write a sequel.
In October, the seventh installment of the Taunus crime series will be released in Germany. THE LIVING AND THE DEAD is again situated in the Taunus region, and I am very happy that numerous foreign rights have already sold, including the United States.
At the moment, I am working on the fourth novel in the YA-series “Elena—A life for horses” (it’s really hard to find a good title for a “pony book”). In between, I am collaborating with the screenwriter on the script of BAD WOLF, which should be filmed next year. And there is always work with my Nele Neuhaus Foundation. So I won’t get bored, ever.