Readers tend to be forever asking “Is this true or not?” in novels like The Magician (or The Master). How did you deal with this?

Facts are the scaffolding and they are necessary. If I say in my novel that Thomas Mann was in Munich in a given month or year, then he was. If I say that he had six children, then he did. But then everything in between the facts is illusion. But I need the facts for the illusion to work. I could have invented a name for a novelist or for the main character, but since I call him Thomas Mann, then I have a duty to stick to the outline facts. But most of the novel then happens in private space, the domestic realm, and my task is to immerse the reader sufficiently in this so the reader ceases to wonder: is this true or not?

In terms of motives and style, what are the similarities and the differences between The Magician and The Master?

Henry James led a comfortable life, uninterrupted by war. Thomas Mann’s life was changed utterly by the First World War and the rise of Hitler. With James, I could work with memory and flashback and use a shorter time period. His was a private life. With Mann, I needed to include a much longer time-span—essentially the length of his life—so that events, large public events, seem to happen in real time. While James almost lived outside history, Mann did not.

Mann’s diaries are an essential element of your novel. What kind of a person do they reveal? And why did he ask to have his papers opened 20 years after his death?

Thomas Mann wanted to be known. That is why he wrote in the first place. But he also wanted or needed to conceal. Fiction is never honest or straightforward, but neither are diaries. The figure in the diary is more homoerotic and more uneasy than the man who appeared in public. But the diaries themselves are sketchy and fragmented. I think we see more of Mann in some of the stories he wrote and in Buddenbrooks and maybe Doctor Faustus.

If Death in Venice were published now in our contemporary context, what do you think the press and coverage would be like?

When Mann wrote the story, the boy’s beauty and allure could be read as symbolic. That would not happen now. What is interesting is that Death in Venice was written soon after Mann’s own trip to Venice with his wife Katia and his brother in 1911. He was there when Gustav Mahler died, which explains why Aschenbach in the story seems to look like Gustav Mahler. Katia Mann later wrote that there was a boy on the beach at the Lido who was beautiful and Mann could not stop looking at him. So, being a writer, Mann set about dramatizing that experience. When he published the story, no one seemed to mind. But things have changed.

As the protagonist of your novel, T. Mann barely changes. His ideas about the uniqueness of the German soul change, of course, but then most things remain the same. There is always this “moral cloud” around him and his personality reveals all manner of complexities. Are the best literary heroes always the complex ones?

Thomas Mann’s politics changed some times between 1917 and 1921. He moved from being a monarchist to being a democrat. And thereafter his support for democracy became more intense. So his political thinking is not stable. But as a man he hardly changed at all. He worked every morning. He was more interested in his domestic life than his social life. In some ways he was complex; in other ways, he was simple.

Mann is a hero destined or even doomed to observe. He barely speaks and is always watching when he enters a room. What was the idea behind that? Is this his way of learning to imagine himself?

Everyone else in my novel talks a great deal—his mother, his wife, his brother, his children. He watches. He is not a noisy man. And yes he became a kind of ghost in his own house, and perhaps even in his own life. I was interested in what energy this might release in a novel—a protagonist who is oddly present and absent at the same time.

Mann’s engages in erotic encounters in a lot of scenes, but never full sexual intercourse. There is an entire discourse on how difficult it is to portray sex in literature. Do you have a theory about writing sex?

Yes, I do! No metaphors, no similes, no fancy writing. And sometimes, nothing graphic at all. Mann’s sex life often took place in his dreams or was enacted in his gaze.

It seems that Katia is another character you loved. Does Katia support her husband and her children in their diverse sexualities? Near the end, there’s the episode where she arranges a long lunch served by a waiter Mann desired.

Katia came from a high bohemian family in Munich. Her grandmother was one of the most famous German feminists of the age. Her twin brother was homosexual. She was one of the first German women to study science in a university. She was a most intelligent and tolerant person. Complex sexuality would not have surprised her. But this is not a simple story: the Manns had six children. But it can be said that he never once paid attention to another woman.

Did you like Visconti’s reading in Death in Venice? Some would say the book is more unsettling and complex than Visconti’s depiction, which focuses on Aschenbach’s gaze on Tadzio.

The film was such a shock at the time! But I find it almost unwatchable now because of the slow, ponderous, portentous style. I have also developed an allergy to the Adagio of Mahler’s Fifth because of the film. I like earlier Visconti films like Rocco and his Brothers.

Which was the first book by Mann that you read, and what impression did it make?

The first book I read by him was The Magic Mountain. I read it over the Christmas holidays in 1973 when I was eighteen. I was thrilled by the debates and arguments and loved the erotic undercurrents and the way society worked in the sanatorium. I especially loved the gramophone scene and the x-ray scene. And then I was also riveted by Buddenbrooks and Doctor Faustus.

You don’t, of course, judge Mann by contemporary standards; that would be slippery. Where do you stand on the revision of books by Roald Dahl or even Agatha Christie?

I think we need new translations of Thomas Mann’s book in every generation. But no one needs to re-write them.

When young Thomas was taken to the seaside, he “would approach the waves, edging himself in, afraid of the cold and then letting the water embrace him”. Is that a leitmotif for his approach to life as well?

It is a small piece of autobiography. Every summer (or what passes for summer in Ireland), we would spend time at the beach. The sea was always cold, but every day we were expected to go swimming. Getting down into cold water was a memorable part of my life and the lives of those around me. I gave this experience to Thomas Mann.

As a novelist, can you sympathize to a point with Mann’s unfaltering faith in language, even when his world was collapsing?

What was he meant to do? He was one of those writers who always had a novel, a story or an essay to work on. So, no matter what was happening, he tended to work. This might seem cold or strange, but to him it was natural.

At the end of the novel, we are left with death and the pursuit of beauty. These are the essential motifs of the Mitteleuropean novel, of Mann and his modernist contemporaries. What did you like to give as a hint?

Yes, death and the pursuit of beauty. What else is there?