For entry number sixteen of our Beneath the Needle Q&A series, we're joined by Dennis Mombauer; author, creative and climate expert who has been kind enough to provide insight into all forms of his work, as well as the fantastic Flash Fiction contribution The Fourth Fundamental Force.
Dennis Mombauer currently lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he works on climate change and as a writer of speculative fiction, textual experiments, and poetry. He is Director: Research & Knowledge Management at SLYCAN Trust, a Sri Lankan non-profit think tank that focuses on climate change, adaptation, resilience, sustainable development, and related topics. Dennis is also co-publisher of a German magazine for experimental fiction, Die Novelle – Magazine for Experimentalism, and has published fiction and non-fiction in various magazines and anthologies. His first English novel, The Fertile Clay, is scheduled to be published by Nightscape Press in 2021.
So, Dennis - The Fourth Fundamental Force evokes themes that you have a particular focus and passion for. As an expert within your field, could you share some insight into your speculative fiction and how your day-to-day influences your output?
In terms of inspiration, I think working on climate change sometimes feels as if I am dealing with vast, invisible forces beyond comprehension. Of course, the science of climate change is clear, but the impacts are so far-ranging and complex that they are difficult to grasp, and the scale makes it hard to not feel helpless about them. This backdrop of incomprehensible forces and losses that we can’t fully comprehend translates into my stories, even if they take place on a much smaller scale. In The Fourth Fundamental Force, there are things missing in the city, but the children in the story are not even aware that this is the case. I fear that we might soon have similar experiences in the real world: there will be things lost due to climate change that future generations will have a hard time imagining as normal.
Being embedded within a non-profit that has such an honourable focus, do you think, internationally, climate change is getting the attention it deserves? Does your current position in Sri Lanka - a location unfortunately all too familiar with the dangers of climate change - attest to this at all vs. your time abroad in Europe, where folk are arguably less-exposed to its direct consequences?
As (for example) the recent floods in Germany have shown, even places that were considered safe can suddenly experience severe climate-related impacts. My family lives in the Ahr valley, one of the areas worst affected by the floods, and though they are thankfully all alive and well, some have experienced serious losses and damages as their houses got flooded or destroyed. On a global level, I think climate change is receiving increasing attention thanks to the tireless work of many individuals and organizations, but there is still a long way to go in terms of perceptions, understanding, and, most importantly, action. Already, the world has squandered too much time, and emissions continue to rise while people suffer gravely. In Sri Lanka, climate change is very apparent, for example in the agriculture sector, but there are no safe spaces anymore, and every country in the world will be affected by physical or socioeconomic impacts to some degree.
Could you share with us a little about your upcoming novel, The Fertile Clay, and what themes you explore within its narrative? Will it feature surrealist elements ala The House of the Dark Whale?
Thank you for this question! Yes, The Fertile Clay definitely features some highly surreal and weird elements, for example in the setting, which is an immense, endless city without streets, without administration, where people aren’t part of any larger community beyond their immediate neighbourhoods. The main character is a working man, a mortuarian in charge of an entire graveyard, who is quite content to limit his company only to the dead and his spectral helpers. His life gets disrupted when one of the corpses goes missing and the mortuarian suddenly turns from a cog in a well-oiled machine to sand in the gears. He searches for his corpse, he flees, he plummets, he begins to meet other people, explore the city, try to understand what has happened to him. Regarding themes, I guess it’s again about vast, invisible, incomprehensible forces (the city, its mysterious augurs, and the titular clay) and their impact on the human level, as well as an attempt to understand and come to terms with these forces and the individual’s role in (and contribution to) them.
"Regarding themes, I guess it’s again about vast, invisible, incomprehensible forces... and their impact on the human level."
For those unaware, you are a co-publisher of Die Novelle – Magazine for Experimentalism, which features flash fiction and incredible, surrealist artwork. What is a memorable experience of yours working on such, and is it something you’d like to adapt for international readers, considering your familiarity with translation work?
Die Novelle was/is a very interesting experiment in itself, and it does actually have mixed language entries in the print issues as well as the homepage, which can be found here: http://novelle.wtf/. I think one great thing we have done is the many “interviewtfs,” which feature really unusual questions being posed to a number of writers, artists, musicians, or other personalities. In some cases, this doesn’t connect at all and falls a bit flat: but in others, it sparks an amazing process where an interview almost turns into a short story or a work of art. Another memorable thing is the many different forms in which we received entries, for example stories in the form of graphics, crossword puzzles, mathematical formulas, labyrinths, reports, homework assignments etc., pushing the boundaries of the literary form and experimenting with ways to go beyond them.
Outside of literature, what are some of your other favourite speculative fiction works, whether cinema, theatre or TV?
Oh, definitely too many to count, especially in this golden age of quality movies and television. I don’t want to talk about the obvious classics (although I would like to mention Apocalypse Now, one of the movies that impressed me most when I first saw it, and also the German theatre “adaptation” Die lächerliche Finsternis), but here are, in no particular order, some more or less recent works I enjoyed watching or which stayed with me: True Detective Season 1, The Haunting of Hill House, Chernobyl, The North Water, Channel Zero, Peaky Blinders, Holy Motors, Lion, Drive, The Look of Silence, The Babadook, There Will Be Blood, A Separation, Dunkirk, The Wind Rises.
Returning to The Fourth Fundamental Force, you mention that it is somewhat based on a dream or memory. Could you build on this, and is this something you often find yourself crafting fiction from?
Probably most of my stories have some elements that come from dreams mixed up with memories, often manifested in the setting and sense of place, but sometimes also when it comes to characters or plot. In the case of The Fourth Fundamental Force, it is definitely the city itself and its mood that I reconstructed from a series of (not too pleasant) dreams. As I see it, dreams are a way to process real life and add a sense of alienation that works well for my stories. It grounds them to a certain degree but makes them surreal and weird enough to say something more than just holding up a mirror to reality.
In the future, what can our readers expect from you? Do you have an upcoming project or two you’re excited to showcase?
There are several projects I am working on, and some things that are already slated for publication. On the one hand, there is The House of Drought, a haunted house cli-fi novella set in Sri Lanka across different time periods, which will be published next year by Stelliform Press, something I am very excited about! On the other hand, my second novel is nearing completion, the most complex and complicated work I have attempted so far. It is set in a fictional “Eurasian” city with twelve POV characters across three seasons and several key themes and plot lines. It combines experiences from my life in Germany with experiences from my life in Sri Lanka to blend together in a sprawling, vivid metropolis and set against a backdrop of climate change, with some supernatural or surreal elements thrown in for good measure. There are other projects as well, including a German novel and another English novel project, but I will leave it at this for the moment – more to follow at a later point!
In three words or less - what can our readers expect from The Fourth Fundamental Force?
Weird city childhood.