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Alumna: Novelist Lena Gorelik

“It was a very intense phase”

München, 03/16/2015

Ten years ago, novelist Lena Gorelik registered for the first Honors Master’s Program in East European Studies given at LMU. The decision was dictated by her writing interests – and would have a lasting impact on her work.

Lena Gorelik (Photo: Anja Burkel)

Lena Gorelik was an unusually imaginative child: “I used to make up lots of things,” she says. “When I was late for school, it was never because I had overslept. It was because I had been kidnapped by aliens or because I had had to keep an eye on my seven siblings – who were of course fictitious.” In the intimate setting of the literary Café Lentner in Haidhausen, between the bookshelves and the velvet-covered couch, she contentedly sips her cappuccino. “In those days,” she remarks, “my tendency to invent situations and stories must have struck people as rather peculiar – I was even sent to the school psychologist. In retrospect, however, my choice of career seems quite natural and logical to me, because I had always enjoyed inhabiting worlds that had little to do with everyday reality.”

Since then, Gorelik (33) has published several books, which have won her critical acclaim and literary prizes. When she was growing up she wrote primarily to please herself. “I always had the urge to write, while at the same time wondering who else would want to read what I wrote.” But she began to show her stories to some of her friends. Soon she was writing for the school magazine, and then for the local paper – “following the well-trodden route”. She went on to study at the German School of Journalism in Munich, and her first book, Meine weißen Nächte (“My White Nights”), was published shortly before she graduated. “By then I had the impression that I spent had all my life doing nothing but writing,” she says.

A big, international family
“But I felt the need to take a closer look at things that interested me particularly before I really got down to work as a professional author. It was at this point that she became aware of the new Honors Master’s course in Eastern European Studies at LMU, and its content and structure immediately appealed to her. “That’s it, I thought. I was instantly hooked. The international dimension, the range of topics covered, the small study groups ... it all felt just right.” Her application was accepted, and she chose the History of Eastern and Southeastern Europe as her major subject, with Political Science and Economics as subsidiary courses.

She remembers the 2-year course as having been a “tremendously intense” experience. “There were 22 of us in the class, and many of us came from Eastern Europe.” Lena Gorelik herself was born in St. Petersburg. “Seven or eight countries were represented, but we formed an extended family and the director of the course was like a mother to us,” she says. In some of the seminars there were only five students. “And that meant that one couldn‘t just sit there. Everyone had to contribute to the discussion.” A three-week study tour took the whole group to various parts of Eastern Europe. “One was fully immersed in this whole cosmos, which was at once challenging and enriching for us all, both intellectually and interculturally. And yet, spite of the selective recruitment process and the ‘elite’ tag, there was nothing like the competitive pressure that I had experienced at the School of Journalism,” she says, “perhaps because we all had different goals. Some wanted to go into business, some had their sights set on an academic career, others wanted to work abroad, and then there was me …”

“One is always open to attack …”
Lena Gorelik still maintains close contacts with several of her former fellow-students, including the godmothers of her two sons. And the course has also had an impact on her writing career: “I picked up an immense amount of knowledge during the course, which I can draw upon in all sorts of contexts. For instance, my last novel, Die Listensammlerin (“The Collector of Lists”), is partly set in the time of Stalin, and I was able to utilize elements of what I had learned about that period. Indeed, when she is writing, she often consults some of her old textbooks and notes from the course to check up on facts. “One is always open to attack when one writes about things that one hasn’t personally experienced,” Gorelik says. “The novel I’m working on now is set during the civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s – and here too I can call upon what I learned from the course at LMU.” Without this background knowledge, she says, she would not have chosen such a subject. “I would never take it upon myself to describe what a person placed in such an exceptional situation might feel, if I had no idea of what it was like.” But one of her best friends – also one of her colleagues on the course – comes from the territory of the former Yugoslavia. “And I know that she will check and correct every page of the book that is set there.” Ajb

Born in 1981, Lena Gorelik and her Russian-Jewish family emigrated to Germany in 1992 as so-called “Kontingentflüchtlinge” (“allotment refugees”, who are automatically granted residence permits on arrival). She studied Journalism at LMU and at the German School of Journalism in Munich, and returned to LMU to take the 2-year Honors Master’s course in East European Studies. Lena Gorelik’s journalism has appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and been broadcast on Deutschlandradio and Bavarian Radio. Her first novel “My White Nights” was published in 2004 and was widely praised; her second, entitled “Wedding in Jerusalem” came out in 2007 and was longlisted for the German Book Prize. The novel “Dear Mischa …” and the non-fiction volume “Your German is Really Good” followed. Her previous novels won her the Ernst Hoferichter Prize and the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize for Young Authors awarded by the city of Bad Homburg, and her latest novel “The Collector of Lists”, which was issued last September, received the Ravensburger Foundation’s Book Prize. Gorelik lives in Munich.