Author Michael Theurillat
He is one of the most famous crime writers in Switzerland and yet his own life is full of suspense. Michael Theurillat, 52 years old, is one of those people who are not afraid of making a new start, who not only think about change, but make it happen.
Thirteen years ago, he ended his successful career in finance at the Swiss banking giant UBS to start work as an author. His first book, he says, gave him a feeling of release. In a world where humility has long been a marketing term and where honesty is punished as naivety, the Basel-born writer shakes things up with his crime novels. The cornucopia of life, from which he creates, and the abysses of human beings are what inspire him.
Theurillat picks topics that are current and highly political and makes them more accessible, his novels are about entanglements, intrigues, lies and corruption. His protagonist, Commissar Eschenbach, is a real character. Uncomplicated, punished by strokes of fate, but never giving up hope.
The author Maria Christina Gabriel met the writer in the midst of the turbulent banking quarter of Zurich to talk about insights, perspectives and not losing the overview.
Mr. Theurillat, how is it that your life changed so radically? Did you just wake up one morning wanting to do something else?
Goethe said, “Two men live, alas! in my heart” and that started when I was a child. My father was a strict businessman and very successful, my mother was a literary scholar and I grew up in a world between earning money and spending money. Those were two very extreme poles. And somehow I manage to do the same today. It is the interplay of the left and right sides of the brain.
Do you still remember what you wanted to be as a child?
At first, I wanted to be an actor, then a rock star. I am now experiencing the same thing again with my son, with whom I share a great passion for music.
And yet, you chose a rather classic path…
Maybe it has something to do with growing up with different interests and talents. Achievement and discipline were not my thing. After qualifying for university, thanks to my father being so strict, I started studying. It was an ill-equipped path, something like mountain hiking but wearing loafers when a storm comes up. Somehow I always happened to meet people in my life who opened doors for me. That is how I ended up doing financial market research during my studies. Later it was a friendship with a professor who got me a job in a bank. There were always people around who motivated and inspired me.
Looking back, what was your time in the field of finance like?
I spent 18 years working in finance and could be very enterprising during that time. It was not like what it is today, where everything is dictated to you – there was truly a spirit of optimism! What was apparent about the dot.com bubble in the early 2000s came close to the euphoria in the financial world during the late 80s and beginning oft he 90s. Back then, too, things fortunately started picking up pretty fast. Completely unplanned, I stumbled upward onto the next step of the ladder. I was really very lucky, everything could have turned out completely differently.
And that is what happened eventually. Just how did the radical change come about?
When I turned 40, I was at a point where things were becoming more and more political and the height of the fall was significantly higher. Then there was a big merge between the Union Bank of Switzerland and the Swiss Bank Corporation; I was lucky again to be on the right side, knowing the right people… We also had a child, which came as a complete surprise. And suddenly, I saw the first sign of my own ageing. The great issues of life came to the fore. I had never thought of my own death before. When I took a look around at the group of 70-year-olds who impress me, many were artists, musicians, entrepreneurs…people who were not forced to grow up in the field in which I found myself in right now. Then I began to search for solutions … I decided to take a sabbatical.
How long did the retrospection take until you made the decision?
It was perhaps a year or so of constant questioning. And then it slowly dawned on me that if I continued doing the same thing, I would no longer be good at what I was doing. Looking back today, and from a psychological point of view, it was certainly the fear of failure, of being laid off, no longer being of use. I think I left the party at just the right time.
When did you start writing?
I have been writing ever since I was a child. Short stories, lots of songs, cabaret, humor, poetry… One night during my sabbatical, I started writing a short story of crime fiction and by page 100, I thought, wow, that could be a novel. I googled and found out that it was a pretty hopeless undertaking. I started a plan – I can thank my past life for that – and sent the book as a neat little package to around ten well-known literary agents. I had resigned myself to a three-month waiting period, but three days later I had already started getting phone calls and mails.
Would you say that you were born under a lucky star?
Yes, that is right.
What inspires you about crime fiction?
The crime novel has very good elements. It is a disciplined costume, that has proven itself over the centuries. If you look at the Greeks and their dramas, at Shakespeare’s royal dramas – those are all crime thrillers . I think that a crime has something very solidifying about it. Something tragic. All great stories have that. You do not have to explain to anyone what a crime novel is. And it is surprising what you can pack into this crime thriller format. Consequently, my crime stories are social novels, in which a crime does not happen completely by coincidence.
What do you think of the current developments regarding WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden?
I am very happy about it. The forcing open of the truth – that has something to it. A big topic of my novels is, what really happens, what is visible and what is invisible. As Bertolt Brecht would say, “For the ones are in the darkness, and the others are in the light …” A shadow play is presented with many motives and in the background, the strings are being pulled. Everything is now being slowly forced open, is very important, from a social point of view. Interestingly – and this is something very cynical – this forcing open comes from a lack of loyalty. By their behaviour, the great and powerful have gambled away loyalty. And that can be found everywhere. The stolen bank details in Switzerland – that would have been unimaginable in the earlier years. But institutions that give you the feeling of how replaceable I am every day, like I am the smallest part in the wheel practically… When this feeling of being replaceable comes, then loyalty leaves. People can only take very small doses of humiliation. These are the two elements as far as I see. As a trend, certainly very positive and purifying.
Would you say that the ego of people today has grown too big?
Yes, that has something to it. And I would put it in an even bigger, historical context: In the past, during the times of the Egyptians and Greeks, people still lived in harmony with the gods. Then there was the extended family. Families got smaller, no longer being all-embracing. And now even the small families are breaking up. Everything is crumbling up into its individual pieces. That also contains something good – along the lines of ‛I am responsible for myself.’ It is no longer the father, no longer my family or the kingdom, not even the good Lord. The “I” in my self is starting to emancipate itself. It starts by defining your own values. That is the trend, at least in the Western world. And I find that pretty good.
That certainly calls for some self-reflection.
Yes, exactly. This “I am responsible” requires that and also a humbling experience.
What was the most important step in your personal process?
The strength, the assertiveness and confidence to develop myself through my own doing and to no longer be defined by the praise and recognition of others. That is a privilege of freedom, once you have understood that.
Could you say that was a spiritual wake-up call that you had back then?
Absolutely. Not like the ego program, but as an insight.
Do you collect ideas for your books primarily in your head or do you write up lists?
There is a time when I am between novels in which I just live my life. I don’t write down anything, I just think. Long drives are great for that. And then I count on this information coming back to me when I need it. That has always worked out so far
Where do you write your crime novels?
I have a small office close to Zurich that no one really knows about, where I am not disturbed. Only my wife knows the telephone number. And there I live like a hermit.
Do you find writing to be more of a mental or a physical process?
Both. I am pretty exhausted after five or six hours of writing, dripping with sweat and drained. A friend of mine who works with hypnosis, always says to me, “We’ll manage that you aren’t so wiped out.” (Laughs out loud) To be able to get up at the end feeling light, that would be something.
And your sight defects? Do you take those as a physical handicap?
On the contrary. That is an important bodily reaction. The realisation that, with growing age, you do not have to see things so sharply.
You collect spectacles. How many models do you have?
About 18 or 20, I don’t know exactly.
And do you have a rimless model?
What is it that you like about rimless spectacles?
The lightness! These days I really like those totally light models, but I also like to play with eyewear, the diversity, so to say.
Are you short-sighted or far-sighted?
I don’t know… One of those nice mixes combined with astigmatism. I see better close up. That must mean that I am senior short-sighted?! (laughs out loud).
In Winter 2014, the new crime novel by Michael Theurillat is expected to be published by Ullstein Verlag (www.ullsteinbuchverlage.de).