Jan-Philipp Sendker, born in Hamburg in 1960, was the American correspondent for Stern from 1990 to 1995 and its Asian correspondent from 1995 to 1999. Here, he talks about how he got the idea to writeThe Art of Hearing Heartbeats, his first novel.
It was a warm and sunny summer day in upstate New York when the idea found me for the first time. My family and I were living in an old farmhouse, and my son, who was about two years old, and I were playing on the lawn. At one point his head rested on my chest. He said he could hear a strange sound inside me. Boom-boom-boom. I told him it was my heart he was hearing. Since we had been playing some wild games and I was out of breath, my heartbeat was fast and loud. He was fascinated by it. “I hear your heartbeat!” he marveled. It became one of his favorite games, hearing Daddy’s heartbeat. He soon learned that my heart had different sounds: slow when he woke me up in the morning, wild like a running horse when we played. And the novelist in me started to think . . . What if someone could hear people’s heartbeats from a distance? What if all hearts sound different? What if our heartbeats sound different depending on the mood we are in, like our voices? And here we are, in the middle of a novel.
The second time the idea found me was on a trip to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. I knew that it had to be the setting for my first novel. It is a mysterious and magical country where people are so friendly, patient, open, curious, and gentle in their manners. I saw that they faced the many challenges in their lives with great patience and a sense of humor; they kept their dignity in spite of hardship. That made a deep and lasting impression on me.
The Burmese are very superstitious and spiritual. They believe in the power of astrology and in all kinds of ghosts. They are convinced that not all truths are explicable—and that not all explicable things are true. They would not be surprised by someone who had mastered the art of hearing heartbeats.