Is it true that, as the saying goes, every book has its own destiny? If so, the wondrous life of The Art of Hearing Heartbeats began on a hot and steamy afternoon in Southeast Asia in the spring of 1995. I arrived in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, for the first time and was overwhelmed. I spent almost three weeks traveling around the country. The people were so friendly, patient, open, curious, and gentle in their manners—like I hadn’t seen before. They faced all the challenges of their lives, and there were and are many, with great patience and a sense of humor. In other words: They kept their dignity despite all the hardship. That made a deep and lasting impression on me. It was a trip that changed my life.
I have been back many times since and it became clear to me that this mysterious and magical country had to be the setting for my first novel. During my research for the book I visited an astrologist—the Burmese are very superstitious. I gave him the time, date, and location of my birth and asked him if my first novel would be a success. He did his complicated calculation and smiled. I shall not worry. It will be. A big one.
When the hardcover edition of the book came out in Germany, I was thrilled and full of high expectations. I was sure that 60,000 copies would be sold. At least. They sold 6,000. I was utterly disappointed. My publisher was happy though. Not a bad number for a debut novel, all things considered. An unknown author. A strange setting. No reviews. No advertising. But what about the astrologist, I was asking myself?
Almost two years later, the paperback edition came out. Again there were no reviews and no marketing campaign. And then something miraculous happened: People started to read the book. They loved it and spread the word. Independent booksellers recommended it to their customers. I got letters from readers telling me that never had a book moved them as much as The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. I got letters from booksellers telling me how much they and their customers like the book—no matter whether they were young or old, male, female, well-read or just an occasional reader. Some would come in and get ten copies at a time for all their friends.
Within the first year of the paperback, they went back to press three times and the numbers kept growing. The big bookstores started to notice because people kept coming in and asking for it. Soon the first 50,000 were sold. Within twelve months they sold almost 100,000 copies, and altogether more than 300,000 copies were sold in Germany alone and the number still keeps growing.
Germany is my native country but I have lived in New York for more than eight years and right from the beginning I had the dream that the book should be published in the USA. The people at Random House Germany laughed at me. Many authors have this dream, they said. But for me it was more than a dream. I was absolutely convinced without the shadow of a doubt that the book belonged there. It was written in New York. It is partly set there. One of the main characters is American. The culture clash a young lawyer from Manhattan experiences when she travels to a remote town in Burma is part of the story.
I learned that without a good translation nobody in the U.S. publishing world would even look at the book. So I did some research and got the contacts of some of the known and well-established German-to-English translators. They were all busy. Eventually I found a young and very gifted translator and paid him myself. One year later, I had a good translation but no contacts. I flew to New York to find an agent. Again, people smiled at me. The U.S. market is difficult. Translations don’t sell. Nobody knows you. A love story between two teenagers—one blind, the other crippled—in a remote village in Myanmar? Get out of here…
One agent was brave enough to take me on. She sold the book to Italy, where it became a major bestseller. The Netherlands. Japan. Spain. Serbia. Croatia. Israel. But not in the U.S. Almost twenty publishing houses rejected it. Translations don’t sell. An unknown author. A love story between… In the end the agency gave up. Was I about to be reminded that not every dream comes true no matter how hard you try? May be it was time to let go. Still, I couldn’t.
One night a good friend of mine and I had dinner at my home. He had just come back from Boston. There he had met, through a mutual friend, the publisher of Other Press—a small but successful and very respected house. Maybe I should send the manuscript to her. He would put us in touch. A few days later, I e-mailed The Art of Hearing Heartbeats to Judith Gurewich. It was an early weekend morning when I got her reply. My wife and the kids were still sleeping. I didn’t have high expectations. I knew the words of the rejection letters by heart. I read her mail once. Twice. A third time. Then I woke up my wife.