Two of the main characters in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, Tin Win and Mi Mi, have disabilities that allow them to see the world from a unique perspective. Do you think this contributes to the intensity of their connection and the strength of their relationship?
Yes and no. I did a lot of research for the book not only in Myanmar but also about blindness. I read books written by blind people about how they experience the world, what they sense and feel and hear. I learned that when you lack one sense, the others will become much more sensitive. While writing the book I tried to put myself in their shoes, so to speak. After the book came out, readers on blogs and internet forums discussed the question of whether I was blind or not since the writing was so convincing.
I once received a wonderful letter from a young man with a physical disability who saw not only his own pain and suffering reflected in the book but also a way to overcome it.
But Tin Win’s and Mi Mi’s disabilities are not a precondition for their love. Their emotions are simply human and as a reader you don’t have to have a physical disability to feel with them.
The book opens with a father abandoning his family to return to his first love. Do you think that the bond of romantic love is ultimately stronger than the familial one? Or are the two incomparable?
I think the two are incomparable but they do not exclude each other! Love has so many different faces that our imagination is not prepared to see them all. U Ba, one of the main characters in the book, explains it well, I think: “We see only what we already know. We project our own capacities—for good as well as evil—onto the other person. Then we acknowledge as love primarily those things that correspond to our own image thereof. We wish to be loved as we ourselves would love. Any other way makes us uncomfortable. We respond with doubt and suspicion. We misinterpret the signs. We do not understand the language. We accuse. We assert that the other person does not love us. But perhaps he merely loves us in some idiosyncratic way that we fail to recognize.”
When her father leaves, Julia feels a desperate need to discover what happened to him, flying to Burma with no plan and very little information. Why do you think it is so hard to accept that our parents have their own private histories and identities outside of their parental roles?
Good question. I have three children of my own now. I learned so much about my own parents by being a parent myself. We have images of our parents and of our kids in our mind. Our children grow up, change, become more and more independent, and we have to let them go. But I understand now that it works both ways. Our children also have images of us and they also have to let go and learn and accept that we had a life before they were born—that there are layers of our personality they don’t know. This can be a long, difficult, and sometimes painful process. Julia goes through it and takes us with her.
What led you to set the novel The Art of Hearing Heartbeats in Myanmar (formerly Burma)? Did you already have a personal connection to that country?
Yes, a very deep one. The first time I traveled to Myanmar was in May 1995. I was the Asia correspondent for Stern magazine and on assignment. I will never forget the day I arrived there. I had never been to a place so remote from everything I knew. At the airport, in the capital, everything was broken: the bus, which was supposed to take us to the terminal, the air conditioning in the terminal, the conveyor belt at the baggage claim. There were almost no cars on the streets, everybody was walking. Nowhere did I see advertising. The few buses that were in service were packed with passengers. I could see right away how hard life was there. I was so confused that I asked my driver on our way from the airport to the hotel if there was a McDonald’s in town. He thought hard. Eventually he turned around and asked, “Is the guy Scottish?” He had no clue what I was asking about.
I spent almost three weeks in Myanmar and traveled around the country. The people were so friendly, patient, open, curious, and gentle in their manners—like I hadn’t seen before. I talked to a number of them and it became obvious how much they were suffering from the brutal and incompetent military junta that was and still is ruling the country. Many of them were scared. Still, they faced all the challenges of their lives, and there were and are many, with great patience, a sense of humor, and a deeply rooted belief that there will be justice—if not in this life, at least in their next one. In other words: They kept their dignity despite all the hardship. That made a deep and lasting impression on me. Since then I have been back many times.
Is it true that this book is partially inspired by an incident involving your son? Could you share your personal story with us?
At the time, we were living in upstate New York. My son, who was a little more than two years old, and I were playing on the lawn. At one point his head rested on my chest. All of a sudden he said he was hearing a strange sound inside me. Boom-boom-boom. I told him it was my heart he was hearing, and since we had played some wild games and I was out of breath, my heartbeat was fast and loud. He was fascinated by it. “I hear your heartbeat. I hear your heartbeat.” For some time it became one of his favorite games: hearing daddy’s heartbeat. And the novelist in me started to think . . . What if someone could hear people’s heartbeats from a distance all the time? What if all hearts sound different? What if our hearts sound different depending on the mood we are in, like our voices. And here we are, in the middle of a novel.
This book has become an international best seller. What about it do you think draws readers in? Why do so many people connect to Tin Win and Mi Mi’s story?
That is a question I ask myself a lot. As a foreign correspondent for a major German magazine I had the privilege to travel the world. I went to many different countries, learned about their cultures and values. As a reporter I was in places that couldn’t be more different: a slum in Haiti, a billionaire’s villa in Las Vegas, a poor farmer’s hut in a remote Chinese province, a brothel in Japan, or the house of a small village chief in Myanmar. The differences were obvious but I was even more fascinated by how much we have in common. I met a lot of people with whom, on the surface, I didn’t share anything with—not their language, history, culture, living standard, or color of skin. Nevertheless I felt a deep connection, a common emotional ground. Simply put: If our life as humans shall have meaning, we need to love and need to be loved no matter where we live. That’s what my book is all about.
How is it that so many readers from so many different cultures feel touched by a love story between two teenagers—one blind, the other crippled—in a remote village in Myanmar? Because there are universal stories about the human condition that know no boundaries, that connect us all. It seems this is one of them.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats touches on the themes of mysticism and spirituality, like the works of Paulo Coelho and Yann Martel. Were they an inspiration to you? If not, were there other writers or works that you drew from?
No, they were no inspiration to me even though some readers compared my book to some of Coelho’s work.
I read a lot of American and English authors because I admire their craft of storytelling and I find writers from other cultures very inspirational. I adore Arundhati Roy and her novel The God of Small Things. I read everything by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. I really like some of the books by the Chinese writer Yu Hua. When I was younger I read a lot of literature from Latin America like Isabel Allende or Gabriel García Márquez. For whatever reason I have always had a hard time with German literature. The two German-speaking authors I liked the most as a young man were from Switzerland and Austria: Max Frisch and Thomas Bernhard.
I believe the mysticism and spirituality in the book come very naturally from the setting. The people in Myanmar are devout Buddhists and at the same time very, very superstitious. Astrology is extremely important to them. They don’t always subscribe to our rather rational Western way of thinking. As one of my characters puts it: “Not all truths are explicable. And not all explicable things are true.” Their lives, their thinking is interwoven with spirituality in a way I haven’t seen in any other country, except maybe India. It has been part of their history, part of their culture for thousands of years. I learned a lot from them.
What projects are you currently working on?
Almost ten years after the original came out, I am writing a sequel to The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. I realized that I have so much more to tell about Julia, U Ba, and Myanmar, that I needed to continue their story.
In addition, over the last six years, I have been working on a trilogy set in China. I covered China as a foreign correspondent and I am fascinated by it. Its economic power, its political clout, and its culture have become very important and its influence will only increase. At the same time we know so little about China. The first two novels have been published in Germany and other European countries, and the third one is in the works.