A writer—and publisher of Germany’s Hanser Verlag—finds productive chaos in Turin, Italy, where he sets The Executor: A Comedy in Letters.

Your narrator has to manage the competing interests fighting over a famous novelist’s estate, including his unpublished magnum opus. Are your roles as publisher and writer similarly at odds?

There is a conflict, and that is the conflict of time. I’ve spent 30 years running Hanser Verlag—which publishes everyone from Colson Whitehead to Milan Kundera. We’re a independent, midsized publisher: 50 people working in a house next to where Thomas Mann used to live in Munich. We publish 200 books a year, and I’m an old-fashioned publisher. I read all the books that I publish and I edit a lot of them myself, especially the big novels from Germany. If there’s no free time, I can’t write.

The book’s dead novelist had minimized distractions to almost nothing by entering the university. Why don’t you?

I have taught here and there as a visiting professor, but only for certain months. Now I’m too old. In this country, the professor belongs to the state. And when you are over 55, you will never get a job in a university, with the exception of course of an honorary post. But on honor only you can’t live.

A lot of the asides in the book are about fending off people who are coming at the narrator. So where do you put your sympathies in your own struggle for time?

I love books, and I love the authors who are writing them. And I love to talk to the authors, so I know that they are stealing pieces of my life, and at the same time, they enrich it. To get a balance between these two atmospheres, that of talking to writers, and that of working as one, is sometimes very difficult. And a little bit of this difficulty should be in the book.

There’s also a lot of uncertainty and disarray as the characters pursue their own, various ends.

Part of that has to do with where they are. The book has been published in Italy, and there it’s called Una Comedia Turinese, or A Turin Comedy, which is also the German title. The book is set there because Turin for us is the Prussian city of Italy, full of Napoleon’s spirit—order, order, order. Italy for most northern Europeans means disorder, chaos, etc. But where there is a lot of order, there is growing disorder. Turin is the place where Nietzsche went mad and embraced a horse. Pavese killed himself in Turin, as did Primo Levi, 40 years after the Holocaust. Turin produces order and in the shadow of the order it makes chaos.