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Peter Behrens: ‘The only thing making me write is all I don’t know’

Peter Behrens is the author of the short-story collections Night Driving and Travelling Light, as well as two previous novels, The O'Briens and The Law of Dreams, which won the Governor-General's Literary Award for Fiction in 2006. His latest novel, Carry Me, was just published by House of Anansi Press. Originally from Montreal, Behrens currently lives in Boston, where he is a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Why did you write your new book?

When my father was dying, he kept trying to get out of his bed and get his suitcase so he could get on the last train heading west out of Germany in 1939. This was 50 years later, in a room in the palliative-care ward of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, but he was back at the Hauptbahnhof at Frankfurt, late August, 1939, trying to escape Germany a few hours before war started and the frontiers closed. That scene was the grain of sand that started this novel. Not that I'm claiming the novel is a pearl.

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What's the best advice you've ever received?

The best advice I ever received was "never give up," because writing novels always seems impossible and the only thing that gets me through the hard parts is just … getting through the hard parts. Persisting. Not letting all I don't know, don't understand, and am secretly afraid of, stop me. Just keep going. Writing books is about encountering head-on what I don't know, not laying out for the reader all my wisdom. I don't do wisdom, I don't have enough to share. It's the mystery that pulls me on as a writer, not plot mystery, but mystery of life. Why do people marry? Why do they say those things? Why do they retreat alone to tower rooms in the Pierre and grimly drink themselves insensible with only the bottle of whisky for company? What did they mean when they said that? And the worst advice I ever got was, "Don't start writing a novel until you know where it ends." To me, that would have meant no novels. The only thing making me write is all I don't know. Including the ending.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

Becky Sharp, Vanity Fair.

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time-travel?

Time-travel, of course. I'm already invisible. I want to go back to Munich, 1923, and do something fatal to that Austrian with the mustache.

Which books have you reread most in your life?

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Every five years or so, I find myself rereading all 12 novels of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time sequence. Of course it is really one big, fat novel. Some parts are better than others. I don't think Powell was much good at handling the Sixties, for example – not the way he handled the Twenties. But it's the book that stays with me. The characters of Widmerpool and Stringham and Nick, our narrator. Maybe this is cheating but there's a book of poetry I have been reading for 30 years – Larry Levis's Winter Stars, because Levis uses the language the way I would like to use it, but I'm never that good. My favourite short story is Larry Levis's poem My Story in a Late Style of Fire. What he does there has inspired all my fiction.

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