Calla Henkel’s first novel, Other People’s Clothes, received rave reviews in Europe and the United States
Her hilariously hilarious/mystery/art-meditating film, about two young American women studying in the dark nightlife of Berlin, was described as “a whirlwind of spiral comedy, murder, friendship… a plot-driven thriller dressed in a shiny jumpsuit” in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. In the United States, she won enthusiastic reviews from Kirkus (“Live Prose”) and Publishers Weekly (“Henkel stars in a well-watched satirical portrait of the artist”).
There is a youthful party atmosphere and a black sense of humor in this Minnesota-born writer’s novel which she says reflects the mood in Berlin when she moved there in 2008, a year before her novel was put out.
“When I got to Berlin I loved it,” she recalled in an interview with Zoom from the bar/performance space she owns in that city.
“There was unbridled energy, a lot of space and parties and weird and strange performance things. I was interested in that. The darkness in the city felt like you were in a theater when something was going on. There was a lot of magic in the dark, finding all these bottom rails or the underground world It was pitch black, but there was all that brightness that was very different from New York City. There was a roughness in the city. People had studios everywhere.”
Henkel’s biography says she’s from Minneapolis, but readers may not know that she is a second-generation artist and her parents are prominent both locally and nationally.
“A story begets a story,” says her mother, Debra Fraser.
Frasier is an award-winning author/illustrator and sculptor among his books, On the Day You Were Born, inspired by the birth of Calla. This classic is 30 years old and has sold over a million copies. She is also the recipient of the Minnesota Book Award for her children’s book Out of the Ocean.
Frasier remembers that her book “Miss Alaineus: A Vocabulary Disaster” got its title when a young Kala thought of the word. MixIt’s a person’s name.
Calla’s father, James Henkel, is a photographer and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota. He has shown his work in the Twin Cities and around the world, including a 2021 exhibition of 30 years of his work at Light Work Photography and the Digital Media Center in Syracuse, New York
“I didn’t know if I could write a novel because I came from an artistic background,” Kala said. “I knew my mother wrote notes on ‘the day you were born’ while she was lying in the hospital waiting for my arrival.”
Then she adds amusement, “I knew the kid in the book was me and sometimes it was a little awkward at one point.”
Debra Fraser is also the founder of the famous Children’s Alphabet Forest at the Minnesota State Fair, where Cala ran the photo booth during her first year in 2010.
“Calla has done a great job getting through the bush, and getting more families to come,” recalls Frasier, who made an official title at Alphabet Forest — Director of Communications — for Calla.
Henkel graduated from South High School in Minneapolis and is now 33 years old, a widely published art writer, playwright, director and artist.
She and her business partner, Max Pettigov, met when they were undergraduates at The Cooper Union, a small New York-based university that specializes in engineering, architecture, and fine arts. Their artwork has been shown in museums and galleries around the world. They have shown plays at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York and the New Theatre, an experimental storefront space they founded and programmed in Berlin from 2013 to 2015 to showcase artists, writers, and musicians.
Henkel spoke about her book and her career while sitting in a bar called TV in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. When the venue does not function as a bar, it is converted into a TV studio and performance space. It is currently used to film “Paradise”, a seven-part television series.
The bar also hosts “Dam Nights” where Calla shows put on quirky shows and evenings.
Take art seriously
Henkel’s childhood was shaped by time spent with friends of her artist parents in Minnesota, including photographer JoAnn Verburg and her poet husband Jim Moore and Patricia Kirkpatrick, who edited On the Day You Born.
She knew people of all disciplines, including David Golds, a photographer and longtime Minnesota College of Art and Design professor, and his wife, Sheryl Mosley, the retired coordinator of the Walker Films division, as well as Margaret Stein, an author of Medium novels. who was an early reader of Others’ Clothes and painter/sculptor John Snyder.
Fraser credits Cala’s commitment to the arts with her exposure to “the entire burgeoning artistic community of Minneapolis and St. Paul that provided a rich soup of readings, exhibitions, murals, films, Labor Day parades, theater performances, and quirky characters that fed a child growing up in Twin City in 1988-2006”.
Being the daughter of artistic parents had blissful benefits for Kala. She was only 4 years old, when she had her own art studio with a full supply basket at the family home on Barton Street in Prospect Park in Minneapolis. She was busy there while her parents were pursuing their own business.
“I thought this was life and everyone had a studio,” Cala recalls. “It gave me the work ethic to take creative endeavors seriously. I didn’t study writing, but my mother took it so seriously that it always made me feel like I could do anything. Now I look at my parents’ stuff and they read everything I write. It’s a beautiful relationship.”
Debra Frazier claims nothing in her daughter’s novel, of which she was her first editor for the basics. In acknowledgments from Calla, she thanks her mother for “never (rejecting) having to go to Staples to print the latest copy” of the manuscript that was transported between Germany and North Carolina via DHL courier service. (Frazer and Henkel moved to Asheville, North Carolina, in 2016 after having a heart attack that ended his years in snow shoveling.)
A night in Berlin
Henkel, whose artistic writing has appeared in numerous publications, says her novel stemmed from the need to experiment with a different form.
“I’ve been writing plays for a year in Berlin, all about the political situation in the theatre, and I’m tired of writing about things on one piece of land,” she said. “I wanted to write something that everyone could read. I’ve always loved thrillers. There’s a pace to them, like a pop song. You jump wherever you are, and maybe pick one to read on a plane. I wanted to write something that my mom, her friends and my friends could read.”
“Other People’s Clothes” closely parallels some of Calla’s experiences in Berlin.
In the story, Zoe Beech and Hailey Mader are art students in an academic year abroad, but their school doesn’t have many classrooms, so they have plenty of time to get ready for the party.
In bleak Berlin, they immerse themselves in the city’s nighttime scene, dressed in vintage clothes for drug-and-alcoholic parties in exclusive clubs where hundreds of ex-kids from many countries line up to let them in. To find a pre-World War II high-ceilinged apartment with a red sofa and coal-heated rooms, as Cala did in real life.
The owner of the house, Beatrice, is a strange woman writing riddles in the kettle.
Hailey, who believed that “popular culture is what matters”, craves fame these days before social media. She wants to be “Warholesque,” a reference to artist Andy Warhol and his eccentric entourage who have been making news of the club scene in the United States.
The problem was that Zoe and Hailey couldn’t break into the upscale nightlife of Berlin, always teetering on the edges. (This mirrors Cala’s life in Berlin with her roommate. They “were not very interesting,” she recalls, cooking a lot of pasta and “we bemoan the state of our lives in bustling pubs.”)
When the girls of the novel feel comfortable at home, Zoe thinks the landlady is spying on them so she can put it in her next book. They hear noises at night and their things move. In an attempt to turn the tables on the clerk, the roommates start a private club in the apartment, gaining fame that will make them look dazzling in a woman’s imagination and not losers with boring lives.
The club is a huge success, but things go wrong and someone ends up dying.
Hailey knows how to control her image through her friendship with magazine photographers but Zoe, who tells the story, isn’t sure who she is. This title of the novel two meanings. In a conversation about old clothes, a wealthy woman curses Zoe’s nannies for saying that she “doesn’t wear other people’s clothes.” But Zoe does. She always exchanged clothes with her childhood friend, Ivy, who was murdered. She does the same with Hailey.
“Zoe wasn’t happy. She was looking for things that would set her free – her friendship or what turned out to be a lover.” Hankel said. “A lot of Zoe is about not having the confidence to know who you are and trying to find yourself in other people.”
Was her love for her best friend’s clothes a harbinger of her growing awareness that she’s attracted to women?
He also tells that Zoe’s artistic specialty is collages, moving pieces of paper around to make a whole, just as she herself is scattered in pieces.
Henkel aimed for a fast-paced book, but said there were also “bigger and harder” questions related to art and theater, such as performance, identity and photography, that she had been thinking about and was able to put into this “digestible form”. “
Some of the fun in “other people’s clothes” comes from Henkel’s use of language. Her mother says this is partly because Kala had dyslexia as a child.
“We worked so hard on the writing because Kala always came from behind,” Fraser recalls. “She had a weird way of using adjectives, sometimes inappropriately, and we decided to work with her. Looking back, it was a wise decision because that’s how she uses adjectives in her book.”
Now that Kala has one novel in the world, she says there will be more. A measure of its success is that the film and television rights to “Other People’s Clothes” were chosen by Mark Gordon Pictures (“Grey’s Anatomy”).
“Writing is so much fun, and now I just can’t stop,” Kala says. “The next one is set in North Carolina where a woman gets a job in the scrapbooking of a wealthy woman’s life. There is a mystery in the scrapbook. It is an exciting mystery.”
- what: Calla Henkel offers almost “other people’s clothes”
- when: 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 1, courtesy of Magers & Quinn
- Registration required: eventbrite.com/e/235922168557
- Publisher / Price: Doubleday ($28)