Interview: Sandra Frey
Imagine our surprise when we were approached by someone writing a thesis on John Bellairs. Excellent! Surprise escalated into bewilderment when we discovered it was being proposed by someone living in Germany! Wie wäre es damit? Sandra Frey lives and works in Heidelberg and last year studied translation for English and Italian with her Bellairsian thesis her final project. She currently works for a translation agency and, in between that and her other hobbies, has graciously answered some questions about her project and provides us in the states with a European perspective on the books.
You first wrote to us back in May 2011 that you were writing a thesis about John Bellairs. How did John Bellairs suddenly become a popular thesis topic in south-west Germany 20 years after his death?
The thesis was part of my final exams for the Master’s degree in translation. I hadn’t heard about John Bellairs before I talked to my professor about a topic for my thesis. He is interested in all kinds of people from the Midwest, although I don’t know how he heard about John Bellairs. He gave me four or five names and I did a bit of research on all of them. John Bellairs seemed to be the most interesting and since I love to read (mostly historical novels or fantasy), I decided to dedicate my thesis to him.
You asked us a number of questions on Bellairs fandom over the years, so your thesis apparently covers a lot more than just who John was and what he wrote. How long did it take you to put it together and when will be it published?
It basically comprises three parts: his life, his novels, and his legacy. I started by writing about his origins, including a family tree, and then of course a biography. In the chapter about his works I covered his early writings, the three series of children’s books as well as the translations, the illustrations, and the movie adaptions. The last part is about the way he was and is honored by his hometowns and his fans.
I accepted the topic after the summer semester of 2010 and started reading some of the books in English that I was able to borrow. I also bought the German books (on ebay, you don’t find them in bookstores anymore). The actual research and writing process began in March 2011 and it took me about six month to complete everything.
I didn’t really have any major problems, just the normal difficulties (not enough or to much information for a specific chapter…). The most difficult chapter to write was the family tree, because I found many inconsistencies in names and dates. But once I realized that I can go back that far (in theory back to about 1048), I just had to continue.
At the moment it looks like it won’t be published. I didn’t have enough time to solve all the copyright problems and also I never heard back from my professor.
Tell us what you thought about John’s books? Any favorite book or character?
The first novel I read was The Mansion in the Mist. As I said before, I never heard of John Bellairs before my thesis so I hadn’t read any of his books. I couldn’t get a copy of all his books but I tried to read as many as possible. I didn’t get any of those completely written by Brad Strickland, but I read some of the novels that he finished. I really liked The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn and The Ghost in the Mirror. My favorite character is Mrs. Zimmermann, not just because of her connections to Germany, but because of her character.
I like fantasy stories and I think Bellairs’ books are not just for kids. The stories are well written and can be quite spooky at times. Right now I can’t think of a character I don’t like and that’s also important for me.
John’s work was released in Germany - Das Haus das ticket was released back in 1977 and the publishing house Heyne released a number of the Lewis Barnavelt books in the 2000s (Das Geheimnis der Zauberuhr) – but how popular is (or was) John’s work overseas? Heyne told us John’s books were not as popular as they had planned hence why they stopped their series. Do you have hopes your thesis will prompt some new appreciation?
His books were published in some countries in Europe (e.g. Germany, France, Italy, Poland, etc.), but I don’t think any of these countries published all of them. Mostly they picked just one or two of the series. It seems that they were not too popular back then, since the publishing houses stopped publishing more books (at least here in Germany). Today you don’t find his works in bookstores anymore, at least not here.
The Treasure of the Alpheus Winterborn is the only book of the Anthony Monday series that is available in German (Der Schatz des Mr. Winterborn). It was published in 1982 by Franckh (now Kosmos), a different publishing house than the rest of the books.
Since my thesis is not available to the public and may never be, I don’t think it will change anything. Today there are so many fantasy stories available in bookstores, I think even if it would be re-released, it would just be one of many. Since the stories are rather short, they might be overlooked by the great public.
Are there any major differences between the English and German editions of the books? I think I read where Lewis once becomes Luis? Anything else?
You’re right, Lewis became Luis in Germany (and Kevin in France), while all of the other characters kept their names. Apart from that, there aren’t any major changes concerning names or places mentioned. The German editions don’t include any pictures apart from the vignettes at the beginning of each chapter.
Knowing John’s love of history and trivia, what’s one place or thing in Heidelberg that you think John would have enjoyed?
I’ve lived and studied directly in Heidelberg. It is a very old city with historic buildings, small streets, and of course the famous castle. I think there are many stories around the castle or other old parts of the city that would have been interesting to John and maybe might have become part of one of his stories. There is for example the “Studentenkarzer”, a kind of prison for unruly students back from the 16th to the 20th century. You can visit the building today and see that almost the entire walls are covered with pictures and writings of the students that were locked up there.