At just nineteen, Helene Hegemann has experienced the full volatility of fame. She was crowned “Wunderkind of Bohemia” for her novel Axolotl Roadkill, a sex and drugs-infused depiction of the German club scene, but later became the “most hated girl in Germany” after it was revealed that she borrowed ideas and characterizations from fellow fiction friends in the blogosphere. She is currently ensconced at Villa Aurora, the residence of former exiled writer Lion Feuctwanger that now serves as a Los Angeles retreat for international artists.
Hegemann presented selections from her debut novel Axolotl Roadkill to a packed audience of Los Feliz literati at Skylight Books in Wednesday night. The daughter of a theater director, Hegemann staged her own reading with a mix of self-deprecating humor, ambiguous apology and a dash of naivete.
“Before I came here I thought I would feel in exile because there was a big scandal about my book,” she told LA Weekly. “It was five weeks of total press excess not only against the book, but against me personally. As a teenager, it was really hard to read two pages against me every day. It was great to get out Germany. I consider this my exchange year because and I never had one since I never went to school,” Hegemann told the audience at Skylight.
“I became the most hated girl in Germany,” she added. “But maybe that's not a bad thing.”
Hegemann's entrée into the world of fiction writing at 13 followed her mother's death, and she found herself blogging about characters and situations mirroring the confusion of that loss.
“For me it started with the language. I liked the language of the older kids. I read their bogs and I thought, oh my god the way they use language is so complicated and uncomplicated at the same time. It was more like really dumb poetry and about putting words together that sound good together,” Hegemann told the LA Weekly.
“I wrote sixty pages on my blog, and I started Googling for literary agents and I really didn't expect to hear back, since they rarely look at their email or open attachments.”
Yet this wired child of the Berlin club scene had her finger on the pulse of a “culture where adults refuse to grow up and children attempt to navigate adolescence alongside grown-ups whose concept of life is that they don't want to be responsible.”
Ullstein Verlag bought rights to Axotl Roadkill, which went into third edition just weeks after being published.
Her novel and screenplay Torpedo both chronicle a post-adolescent woman exploring an adult world where the remaining parent is both benign and neglectful.
Hegemann's reputation in Germany was tarnished last year as series of bloggers and literary critics noticed parallels between her work and passages from digitally published stories and online posts of other young Berlin writers.
The “expose” of Hegemann's plagiarism became part of a German news-cycle that also ensnared Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg. After it was found that he lifted the work of others in his graduate thesis, he was dubbed Karl Theodor “zu Googleberg”, stripped of his doctorate from The University of Bayreuth and forced to step down from his post.
Hegemann found herself justifying how she included and modified the narratives and descriptions of her peers in addition to being drawn into numerous high-minded debates about intertextuality and appropriation in the arts.
Her publisher rushed to pay off the copied author and Hegemann became characterized as an inauthentic and dangerous literary phenomenon.
There are three pages in Axotl Roadkill which the author acknowledges she “re-worked sentences” from the web novel Strobo by Adrian — a Berlin writer also chronicling the city's dance club scene.
“I took thirteen sentences from an internet blog and let a certain person in my book say these sentences. They were were always marked as not my own sentences. But this was a situation where journalists could say- she's just a dumb teenager who wanted to have the fame of some heroin addicted party guy.”
“No one ever really wrote about how many sentences there were and they always said it was the whole book. The discussion about plagiarism is important but it has nothing to do with my work.”
Axotl Roadkill is a diary of a Berlin teenager who's culturally literate and emotionally crippled. The language is exasperatingly au currant with the discourse of social science, art criticism and literary theory, deployed humorously alongside a descriptive storehouse of fashion, music, and drug references.
The novel's protagonist is the 16-year-old Mifti, sharp enough to spot the sources of her friends artistic and attitudinal posing.
In one vignette set in a techno club, Mifti is talking to her HIV-positive photographer friend Ophelia who is posing as a color-blind fashion photographer “forced” to work in black and white due to her illness.
Mifti susses out the story right away as derived from an interview with Warhol protegee David LaChapelle. “When you ask Ophelia where she gets her inspiration from, things usually get very abstract.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hegemann's L.A. project is a screenplay about a teenage girl in trouble. A genre combination of adolescent noir and social horror, it deals with the murder case of Mary Flora Bell, who killed two children when she was only eleven years old.
Hegemann told the Weekly that (for now) she's done with long form fiction and sticking to screenwriting. “Novels are kind of autistic-to sit all by yourself and it's just your opinion. I think it is unimportant just to say your own opinion and use your own way of seeing life. What is great about a screen play is that you know that some actors will come and voice the lines in a way they see it. Different ideas come together and this is where art starts.”
The London publisher Constable is bringing out Axotl Roadkill this month. It can be ordered now on Amazon UK or you can wait a year for the U.S. translation.