German storyteller Ivar Leon Menger has written and directed award-winning short films and advertisements before creating epic radio plays as a show runner with Audible. His debut novel, What Mother Won’t Tell Me, has now been released in the United States for the first time. Literary critic and scholar Thomas Scholz has covered Menger’s work for more than a decade. Talking about What Mother Won’t Tell Me, they discuss the appeal of villains and antagonists, how a thriller can resemble a fairy tale, and why Ivar Leon Menger chose writing his second novel over directing his own movie.
Thomas Scholz: Ivar, your first novel is being released this week in the USA, and in Germany, your third novel is coming out this year. You’ve just signed a contract for a short story. So, you’re busy writing. What do you find appealing about the old-fashioned medium of text?
Ivar Leon Menger: That’s a difficult question. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories since I was a child, usually scary stories to friends who stayed over at my place. It’s appealing to tell stories. And I’m quite free in text. But what I like about books is that I write pure text, you read it, and immediately your imagination kicks in.
TS: The scary element is something that runs through all your stories.
IVM: Yes, indeed. The dark side has actually intrigued me since my childhood. I started laying Tarot cards at ten years old, played with Ouija boards at twelve. I always wanted to know what’s on the other side, what happens after death, if ghosts exist. Even in James Bond movies, the villain always interested me more than Bond. In the end, I was always sad when James Bond managed to save the world in the last seven seconds because I wanted to know what would happen if the villain implemented his plan. But that’s never shown.
TS: So, without revealing too much about What Mother Won’t Tell Me – are we much closer to evil throughout the text than we initially believe?
IVM: Actually, this is the fundamental motif in all my stories. It’s something I only realized very, very late. They are always cat-and-mouse games. The protagonists don’t even realize that they have been trapped right from the start. This is a common thread that runs through all my stories. That there is actually no way out from the beginning.
TS: We’ve been talking about “all your stories” the whole time, even though your first novels are just now being published. However, you didn’t start your career as an author with novels, but have told stories in many other mediums. You’ve directed and written films, you’ve written and produced radio plays, but originally your career started in advertising.
IVM: I studied graphic design and after graduating, I actually wanted to make films. But my father said he wouldn’t finance a second degree and that I should start working. But I was determined to get into filmmaking. That’s when I knew: Okay, I’ve learned about visuals, but I need to learn about writing.
So, I applied at the German office of “Ted Bates,” an American advertising agency, and worked as a copywriter there for five years. I wrote a lot of dialogues for commercials and radio spots. During this time, I made my first short film. I was lucky that it won the award for best German short film at the Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale) right away. After that, I quit and spent five years making commercials and short films.
TS: What kind of short film did you make?
IVM: Formally, they were actually all chamber plays. The first short film, for example, takes place in an apartment and revolves around a phone call. Someone gets a call in the evening from a supposed suicidal person. The protagonist tries to dissuade him from committing suicide, until at the end he finds out that his interlocutor has just killed someone and therefore doesn’t want to live anymore. In the end, the twist is that the murderer simply hit the redial button on the phone. It turns out that the murder victim is the protagonist’s girlfriend.
TS: You’ve written and directed films, where many authors actually want to go, but then you switched to radio plays.
IVM: Because I realized that making films takes a very long time. With Audible, I had the opportunity to produce my series ideas and stories faster, with a large cast of great voice actors. I had music, I had sound effects. I could do everything like in a film—except for the visual part—and managed to write and direct three seasons of ten hours each in three years. I couldn’t make a series for Netflix that quickly.
TS: Why did you switch from film and radio plays to novels?
IVM: In a book, I can describe images. I can delve into the characters, describe their feelings. I can describe what they smell and see. Film can’t convey internal motivation as well or as directly as a book.
TS: Was there a specific reason for this transition?
IVM: The switch to literature was triggered by the pandemic. I was supposed to write a feature film for Netflix. Then the lockdown came, and filming stopped. But I still had the idea for the screenplay. So, I told myself: “Now I’ll write a book for the first time.” Because I never thought I could write a novel before. Writing dialogue was no problem for me. I’ve done it for years for advertising and film. But novels are a whole different form of writing. I then wrote one page every day. Because it took me about six hours for one page.
But after a year, I had 365 pages. And that’s how the first book was created. And then everything took its course. My debut, What Mother Won’t Tell Me, was sought after by five major publishers in Germany. There was a bidding war. I could choose which publisher to go with. It was a very, very fortunate coincidence and I ended up with dtv, one of Germany’s most renowned publishing houses.
TS: And now your thriller is being published in the US. In the beginning of your novel writing, when you invested so much time per page, did you feel that you were getting closer to the material and your characters?
IVM: Absolutely, because I only wrote one page a day. I dealt intensively with the material and thus ideas for the next pages came to me. I only had the final twist in mind, nothing else. Then I write like Stephen King, just letting it flow. But I have to admit, from the third act on, I plot every chapter to make sure I can lead up to the climax.
TS: Many elements in your thriller are reminiscent of fairy tales. Was that planned, or did it evolve organically?
IVM: It actually evolved organically. The setting with father, mother, and two children on a lonely island in the middle of a lake surrounded by woods triggered it. Perhaps it awakened those quintessentially German tales in me, like those of the Brothers Grimm. On the other side of the lake, you have the proverbial big bad wolves. Only while writing did I realize that Juno, the protagonist, lives very analogously on the island. Then I thought: “She reads from an old fairy tale book.” From there, I gradually developed the parallels of my story to traditional fairy tales. In Germany, my book is now being read as literature in several schools. The students compare my fairy tale-themed thriller with the classic Grimm’s fairy tales. It’s not a young adult book, though.
TS: But it has a teenage protagonist. Was it a challenge for you to write from the perspective of this teenager?
IVM: The novel is written in the first person, and it’s always said to be very difficult for beginners because you put so much of yourself into the character. But what could be more distant to me than a 16-year-old girl? Therefore, I could really slip into a role while writing. It was easier than if I had written a detective in his late forties, similar to me. Then probably a lot of myself would have flowed into the character.
TS: The film rights for What Mother Won’t Tell Me have already been sold?
IVM: Currently, we’re developing an eight-episode miniseries with a team of screenwriters. It’s very exciting because each episode is told from the perspective of a different island resident.
TS: You could write the screenplay yourself.
IVM: I am too close to the material. I was actually asked if I wanted to write the book as a feature film and direct it myself. But I feel so comfortable as a writer that I’d rather put a creative team on it and give them complete freedom to make a good film, or a good series out of my book. I don’t need a one-to-one adaptation of my novel. My favorite example is Stephen King’s “The Shining,” which he did not like in Stanley Kubrick’s version at all. But I love it. I see Kubrick’s and King’s “The Shining” as two different works. I don’t need a one-to-one adaptation of a book. The book already exists.
TS: Your first novel is now being released in the USA. The third one is being released this year in Germany. I know you’re already working on the fourth, and at the same time, you’re working on the short story. Will you stay absolutely loyal to literature now, or might you return to another medium at some point?
IVM: My desire is to stay very loyal to literature for now because I feel comfortable here.
TS: You’ve had the fortune of working with editors twice. Once with the German and now with the American. How do the two experiences compare?
IVM: They are very similar. The collaboration with the editors at Poisoned Pen Press was excellent. They engaged deeply with my material and adapted it to the American book market. That was exceptional. I didn’t have that experience with other countries it was also translated into, like France, Czech Republic, Greece, and many more, where my manuscript was simply translated, and the finished book was sent to me.
This additional work has paid off. My translator is from Great Britain, so the British translation had to be transferred into American English.
TS: That must have also involved preserving the mix of thriller and fairy tale—no easy feat. Is your second novel also a mix?
IVM: Actually, no. It’s set in Berlin, in the big city. From the lonely island in the forest, I move to the bustling metropolis of Berlin. The story is about a young actress being stalked. When a murder occurs, the police don’t believe her. So she decides to slip into the most dangerous role of her life, that of the lover of the stalker, to prove his guilt. So a completely different theme. And the third novel, which is coming out this summer in Germany, is set again in a small village. There, 13-year-old boys have been disappearing for several years. A former detective reopens the case and tries to solve the disappearance of the children privately.
TS: I’m curious in which languages this novel will be published. For now, I wish you all the best for your debut in the USA.
IVM: Thank you! I’m excited for this new chapter!