Ten months ago I was approached by a German publishing house, Cornelsen. Cornelsen make education books, primarily for the German market. They wanted me to work for them.
In Germany, there are many vocational schools where teenagers can go to learn a trade. At these schools, English is taught as an optional subject. Last year, the German government decided to change the law and make English mandatory, which means that from this year on, every student at a vocational school will have to learn English, which means that every student at a vocational school will need an English text book, which means that whichever publisher can get their textbook into the schools will make a lot of money. Cornelsen asked me, along with several other writers, to write the text book.
Normally it takes a year and a half to two years to get a textbook ready for publication. This one, however, needed to be done in five months. In November I was given a table of contents and told to choose my pages and to begin work. Two months later the company flew me to Mannheim to discuss the work I and the other writers had so far done. It was my first business trip and I was excited and nervous. I wore my best clothes because I was not sure who would be there and I wanted to make a good impression. I even bought a new pair of shoes and got a haircut (I hate getting my hair cut).
When I arrived in Mannheim, which is a very fine city in the south of Germany, I met up with the editors and advisors, and discovered that while I was dressed to impress, everybody else was dressed to be as warm and as comfortable as possible. I felt overdressed. Furthermore, the new shoes I had bought were a half size too big and after the first day I had blisters on my heels; when I walked, shivering from the January cold in my ill-equipped business attire, it was with a half-limp, half-slide as I tried to minimize the pain in my heels, giving the impression, though I hid it well, of a subtle, well-dressed, well-coiffured Quazimodo.
The meeting lasted eight hours and was almost exclusively in German. My German is good, not perfect but adequate for most purposes, but eight hours of German was too much for me and by the end I was exhausted. Even the senior editor, who was an American and whose German was much better than mine, was struggling. Being tired in a foreign language is a strange thing. It is like seeing a person on the other side of the room, blinking, and then seeing that same person standing beside you. You miss certain key pieces of information which can make whole sections of a conversation unintelligible. Therefore, after the meeting, the senior editor and I did the only thing we could for our poor, tired brains. We went to a bar and got drunk.
As exhausting as the meeting was, it was very useful. Back in Wroclaw I had a whole notebook full of notes, changes to make and new things to add. Some of the things I had written were great, they said, and some of them stank. The one thing everybody liked were the dialogues I had written. I was pleased – realistic dialogue is very important to me and it is not easy to do. Since these were simple listening exercises for students with a very basic understanding of English, I had to curb my desires to add complex plot twists and subtle character motivations. One scene I had to rewrite from scratch when I realised that the only suitable outcome for the scene was for both characters to end up in bed. I was disappointed. While I would be happy to learn a foreign language with erotic literature, the German government has other views on the subject. At one point I tried to insert a spy plot into the book, but the story was too complicated and my editor cut it. It would have broken my heart if he had not said that if we make a more advanced version of the book, the plot could go in there.
The book, titled Job Basics A2, was published in July and you can buy it here. Be warned, most of it is in German.