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Text JF. Pierets Photo Courtesy of Rea Theodore
I am, I am, I am superman
And I know what’s happening.
I am, I am, I am superman
And I can do anything.
— R.E.M., Superman
The boy glows as if he has swallowed a jar of lightning bugs or a fistful of sparklers.
At first, I think it’s the light bouncing off the stainless steel counters of the ice cream parlor.
Upon closer inspection, I see it’s him.
He looks to be about 8 or 9, stocky like a short stack of 2×2 Lego bricks, with freshly scrubbed pink cheeks and white-blonde hair.
The word “ethereal” gets stuck in my head, and I can almost feel it melt on my tongue slow and sweet like strands of strawberry cotton candy.
The boy is with an old woman, who I assume is his grandmother. There appears to be an invisible string linking them together that rests slack at most times but tightens when she asks him what flavor of ice cream he wants or taps him on the shoulder when it’s time to go.
After I purchase a half gallon of cherry vanilla, I follow them out of the store and wait as they make their way through the front doors.
She looks over her shoulder and sees she’s holding me up.
“Sorry,” she says.
“Not a problem,” I say.
“I didn’t see him,” she says to the boy.
“Her,” he corrects.
He’s like a mini superhero with the ability to see things as they are.
“Oh, whatever,” she says. She doesn’t give me a second glance.
Whatever, I repeat in my head.
Out in the parking lot, her gray hair sparkles in the sunlight like slivers of tinsel.
I think she’s a superhero, too.
Extract from Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender by Rae Theodore.
Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender is creative nonfiction that takes an unflinching but humorous look at living as a butch woman in a pink/blue, boy-girl, M/F world. A perfect read for anyone who has ever felt different, especially those who have found themselves living in the gender margins without a rule book.
This is your first book. Why did you start writing?
I’m the caretaker at home and I had to do something for myself. Something that had nothing to do with my wife, my three teenage kids and the cats. So I started to write stories, just one at the time but before I knew it turned into a book. I found out I like telling stories about my childhood.
It’s all autobiographical?
At first I labeled it creative non-fiction, but they are true stories with some artistic liberties taken here and there. For some reason I’m drawn to memoir. It resonates with me. It’s almost like a puzzle and I think of it as a little time capsule or a little time machine. You try to put yourself back there whether it was a year ago or twenty years ago and remember what it was like and what you felt, what you saw. That appeals to me very much, trying to recreate those moments.
It’s a very personal genre.
It is. And lot of these things I never told anyone about because I found them very shameful or painful. Having an opportunity to write them down and having people read them and validate the experiences really helped me. Even if people may not have gone through the same type of thing, everybody has felt different at times or felt shame. In the book I learned to accept myself. This is whom I am and I’m not going to change.
The book has been out for a month now. How are the reviews?
So far the reviews have been very good. There are not a lot of books out there about butch women. You don’t see them in mainstream literature, you don’t even see them in the LGBT literature that much. I heard from readers who have gone through similar things. They say it’s very powerful and affirming to see themselves in the book. For example; just going to the bathroom can be a challenge for butch women.
Is it a book for gay people?
Not necessarily. Even if you are not gay you can read this book and probably feel similar feelings. Everybody dealt with confusion at one point in their lives. People often see more similarities than differences and that can be something that unites.
What’s the main message you like to get out there?
The story references to superheroes in some small way, so I like that message of being your own superhero. Live your life however you see fit and whatever your definition of normal is. For me that’s the big message. Be yourself. And I found that most people don’t care. They don’t care if you are gay or butch or whatever. As long as you treat people with respect and kindness. I live in a very small and conservative town and people are very welcoming. I’m aware that other people can have different experiences but just be who you are and people will accept you for that.
Did it change you personally, writing this book?
Writing the book has given me a little more confidence but you have to keep in mind that I’m in my late ‘40’s so a lot of the things in the book happened 30-some years ago. I’ve gone through a lot of growth since then and I don’t care so much what people think. When you’re in your 20’s your whole world is about whether people like you or not but a good thing about getting older is that you care less about that.
So no insecurities anymore?
I still have them, to a degree. For me, getting dressed up is wearing a pair of men’s trousers, a button down shirt and a bow- or a necktie. Sometimes and in some situations I still can’t help but wonder if that’s ok. I’m a woman who wears men’s clothing and once in a while I still have to remind myself that it’s ok.
I look at this book as a stepping-stone to the next one. I have some sequel chapters that I’ve written out and are floating in my head somewhere but I’m going to do some public speaking as well. I’m going into the local highschool to talk to the gay-straight alliance there and I also got the opportunity to go into a local company and do a presentation for their gay and lesbian organization. I never did anything like that but I’m trying to keep myself open to all the possibilities and opportunities. Find out what resonates with me. Maybe I’m good at it and I will be able to spread my message a little further, who knows.
You’re speaking at a high school. Do you think it’s important to talk to kids?
Definitely. We didn’t have that kind of exposure when I was a teenager. I grew up in a town where people weren’t Out. I didn’t know any gay people, I didn’t have family members who were gay and there weren’t gays and lesbians on television. My life may have turned out differently if I had been around gay people. If the possibility existed. So it might be a powerful thing to go and speak at schools and meet young people.
What would you say to a 16 year old butch girl who reads this article?
I would say be true to yourself. Don’t change for somebody else and keep the swagger! That’s the best part of being butch. The swagger.
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Text JF. Pierets
I was 20 when I read Nude Men and I instantly got hooked on the surreal imagination of this New York based writer. 21 years and 3 novels later there is The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, and Filipacchi hasn’t lost an inch of her wit and dreamlike tale telling. On the contrary, her latest novel is a genuine work of originality and creativity. Needless to say I was thrilled to talk to her. A conversation about beauty, feminism and our shared fascination in the dictionary method.
Your readers are forced to be patient. It’s been 10 years between Love Creeps and your new book The Unfortunate Importance Of Beauty. Why did it take you so long?
It’s indeed a long time, but first of all, I take a long time with all my novels. Much longer than I would like to. Each time, I think it’s going to be faster next time, but then, well, it isn’t. Also, each novel is longer than the last. Not the finished product, but my first drafts, which this time around was almost twice as long as the final version. It’s like writing two novels. And the third thing is that I had some health problems I had to deal with. Life problems that got in the way.
The Unfortunate Importance Of Beauty wasn’t supposed to be a book about beauty?
I noticed a pattern in my life; things I wrote about, things that were completely invented, would sometimes come true. So I thought (but only half-seriously) that I’d better be careful and maybe only write about good things, in case they happen later. Turns out, I didn’t stick to that for long, luckily for the reader. In the beginning I thought it was going to be a book about a group of artistic friends. I intended to give each character a story of equal weight. But as I was creating my characters, there was one detail, one characteristic, I bestowed on my main character just for the fun of it: great beauty. I half-jokingly thought, “You never know, it might rub off on me a little.” Her great beauty was meant to be a small, unimportant detail, and I didn’t expect it to grow into one of the main themes of the novel. But it did. It wasn’t something I planned because in general I’m really not that interested in how people look.
“Maybe if I’m lucky it will rub off”. How important is beauty to you?
I meant that in a joking way because beauty is not that important to me. At all! And that’s one thing I find a little disturbing about some of the interviews and articles that have been published about me. Due to the fact that my novel is about beauty, that’s naturally the main thing I’m asked about in interviews. And when I read those interviews later, I feel that I come off as being really preoccupied by beauty, when the truth is actually the opposite. If you compare me to anyone you know, really anyone, you will notice that I seem to care less about how I look than almost anyone. I dress like a dork, I never shop for clothes, I wear sweatpants all the time and I haven’t worn make-up in two decades. But some of the readers of the media coverage have sent me e-mails saying things like, “You look fine! You’re quite pretty! So stop worrying about it, ok?!” It’s very nice of them, but I wish they realized that I probably give less thought to my appearance than they do to theirs.
Hearing you describe the way you look almost sounds like a statement.
It’s more laziness. I used to wear makeup in my 20’s and I couldn’t understand how a woman could not wear make-up because I thought women looked so much better with it. But then suddenly I had to start wearing glasses. And I thought; what’s the point? Glasses ruin the whole effect anyway. So at that point I stopped wearing makeup and that’s basically it. It wasn’t a statement. It was more like a giving up. And eventually my taste changed and I started thinking women looked better without makeup anyway. Despite not caring much about my own appearance, I am interested in the role beauty plays in our society and in human relationships—the unfortunate importance it has in those areas. But there are also plenty of other topics I’m interested in. In fact, there are topics in this book that I’m more interested in than the beauty aspect. For example the whole creativity topic. Trying to achieve excellence in your art, the feeling that you’re almost reaching something supernatural. I love that idea.
What do you do when you don’t write?
Usually I’m trying to get myself to write. I have trouble with discipline so I’m always trying to think of new ways to trick myself into doing more writing. But if you’re asking about other activities, then I must say that I love to ski, so usually in the winter we go skiing. I like to travel, I love interesting conversations with people. I take long walks every day while listening to audiobooks or just thinking about how to get myself to write more. Sometimes I do my daily walk with a friend and we catch up on each other’s lives. That’s about it.
You are using all different kinds of methods to get yourself to write. Do you start your imagination by putting limits on yourself?
I don’t know if it can be called a limit. It’s rather something that forces you to think in a different direction. When I wrote Love Creeps, I became really addicted to what I call “the dictionary method.” I was using it constantly. For every new twist in the story I got inspiration from random words in the dictionary. I actually became worried and was wondering if I was ever going to be able to write without using this dictionary method. So I decided not to allow myself to use it for my next novel. Just to see how it turned out. For The Unfortunate Importance Of Beauty, I didn’t use it once, and to my relief that was ok. I was less an addict than I thought I was. Even though I think my strong point as a writer is my imagination, I did notice that when I used the dictionary method, it seems to trigger new and sometimes even more unusual ideas. Even when I thought I had come up with every possible option for a certain scene, really gone over every possibility, still when I picked a word randomly out of the dictionary it generated new and interesting ideas I’m convinced I wouldn’t have thought of without that method.
You also had a method where you were only eating when writing?
Well, I used that method for only about a minute and then I gave it up, so it didn’t work out very well.
Does life influence your writing?
I think it does. When I wrote Love Creeps, I’d gone through some pretty bad relationships and hadn’t been very lucky in love, so I put all of that in the book. Not the specific experiences, because I almost never write anything autobiographical, but all my pessimism about love went into the book.
Why not write autobiographically? Is it too personal or are you afraid to jinx your life?
I think I don’t find it interesting enough. My recent New Yorker essay, ‘The Looks You’re Born With and the Looks You’re Given’, is the first really autobiographical thing I have ever written. I must say that I have discovered that it’s so much easier and faster to write nonfiction (or autobiographical fiction) because most of the material is already there and doesn’t need to be invented. But I think I will always prefer to make things up in my fiction because I enjoy inventing, creating something entirely new, from scratch, that did not already exist in some form in my life. I like startling myself by coming up with ideas I find original.
What’s your experience regarding being a woman in literature?
I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve heard it said by someone in the literary world that publishers are far less willing to publish long novels by women than long novels by men. Do you know the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts? Every year they count the numbers of men vs. women whose books were reviewed in various publications. The numbers are very depressing. Far more men get reviewed than women, and “the count” helps to bring attention to this unfairness which is based on sexism and subconscious gender-bias. It’s important that men and women get reviewed with equal frequency because when women don’t get reviewed as often or as prominently as men, it creates a whole chain reaction that results in far fewer women than men going down in history and being remembered for achievements that are actually of equal worth to men’s.
I recently read Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World, in which she describes the Goldberg Study, which was a real study done in 1968: “Women students evaluated an identical essay more poorly when a female name was attached to it than when a male name was attached.” The same results were found when the study was repeated in 1983. When a female book reviewer compiles and publishes her list of her 10 favorite books of the year, and 9 out of 10 of the books on that list happen to be written by men, I hope she asks herself whether she might not be experiencing some degree of subconscious prejudice against female authors. (And this, of course, applies equally to male reviewers.)
We are all very sexist toward women, even those of us who think we’re not. We can’t help it, because we’ve been conditioned from our earliest days. I consider myself a feminist, and yet I see sexism in myself often. Sexism probably can’t ever be completely eradicated, due to biological factors such as differences in physical strength and temperament, but it can be lessened, starting, for example, with paying attention to what kinds of messages we send out in children’s books. Both men and women are prejudiced against women. And it’s essential that we fight it, not only in others but in ourselves.
So you’re a feminist?
Have you ever done anything to help the feminist cause?
A little bit. Do you know about the Wikipedia thing I was involved in?
No, I guess I missed that.
In April 2013 I wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times because I noticed that on Wikipedia, female novelists were being taken out of the category called ‘American Novelists’, and being put in a sub-category called ‘American Women Novelists’. So only the men were being left in the general category. I was really shocked, and felt this was a truly unacceptable situation that should not be tolerated for one second longer. So I decided to write about it even though I knew I’d be putting myself at risk. My Op-Ed, called ‘Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists’, caused a huge uproar. Wikipedia came under a lot of criticism, and not just from the U.S. media, but from media in other countries too. As a result, I experienced what is known as “revenge editing”: hostile Wikipedia editors pounced on the Wikipedia biography about me and started diminishing it and taking information out of it, until they were stopped by Wikipedia administrators. Thankfully, the page was not only restored but then also much improved by non-hostile Wikipedia editors. The most vicious of the attackers didn’t stop at ‘revenge editing’—he also spread horrific lies about me, until he was unmasked in the media and his lies were exposed. The whole experience was incredibly stressful and upsetting. That’s the kind of thing that can happen when you speak up against sexism.
This Wikipedia debacle drew more attention to the fact that female artists and writers have been neglected not only in the art and literary worlds, but also on Wikipedia. On average, the Wikipedia biographies of female artists and writers are less developed than those of their male counterparts, and also, a female artist or writer is less likely to have a Wikipedia biography than is a male artist/writer of equal accomplishment and notability. Several of the articles written about my Op-Ed stated that it increased awareness of the problem of sexism on Wikipedia. People started doing Edit-a-thons, which consist of a lot of women (and men who support them) getting together in various places, sitting with their laptops and editing Wikipedia together, improving the entries on women. One such edit-a-thon happened at The Museum of Modern Art recently. I stopped by to check it out and found it uplifting. Another little thing I do as a feminist is sometimes tweet about VIDA. I try to support and encourage them.
A lot of people are afraid of getting their careers damaged when they speak up.
Even though I believe that most female writers consider themselves feminists, they often feel they have to be careful about speaking up publicly because if they speak up too much, it can turn against them. And they are probably right, sadly. I know many successful female writers who are feminists and they privately rant and rave about the depressing VIDA numbers and other injustices such as the sexism on Wikipedia, and yet they don’t want to speak up or write about it publicly because they don’t want to be seen as complaining. They are afraid of the repercussions on their careers. I am not immune to those fears. I have spoken up a bit, now and then, but I too have my limits. I don’t say as much as I would like to, for fear of the repercussions. And I greatly admire female authors who do speak up more than I have, who do complain, because they are putting themselves and their careers at risk while helping all female authors.
Do you find it important what people think of you?
Yes, I care about what people think of me and of my work. I assume most writers do. I love it when people like my work, but then again, what writer doesn’t? I’m not one of those writers who can say they’ve always written, from their earliest days. I never had an urge to write stories until I was forced to do so at the age of 13. In school there was a class in which you had to write one short story every week. That’s when I discovered I had this talent, that I was better at this than at anything else I had done in my life—at least based on the reactions of teachers in school and of other adults who read my work. Their reactions gave me such a high, that’s when I decided to become a writer. Before that, starting at the age of eight, I loved reading novels and I greatly admired anyone who could write a whole novel because I thought that must be the most difficult thing in the world. I never thought I could, or would, do it myself, nor did I have any urge to even try. But nevertheless I was very imaginative. I made up a lot of stories for my brother. I just never wrote them down.
What’s your number one reason to write?
To be happy. Many things about it make me happy. When I come up with ideas I really like, I find that very exciting. And part of what makes it exciting is imagining how people will react to them, whether they will like them or not. I don’t write fiction only for myself. And if anyone claims that they are only writing for themselves, I suspect they are probably deluding themselves. So I’m writing to be happy. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and a sense of satisfaction, unmatched by anything else. And it makes me feel appreciated. I like the idea that people will enjoy my work and I always hope that I bring people pleasure.
The Unfortunate Importance Of Beauty is published by W. W. Norton & Company (February 16, 2015).
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Text JF. Pierets Photos Johan van Walsem
Gay&Night Magazine started off in 1997 as a one-time special during Amsterdam Gay Pride. It soon however became so popular that it evolved into a monthly glossy. Distributed for free at almost all gay meeting spots in Belgium and the Netherlands, it serves as a light-hearted guide to the gay community. Editor-in-Chief Martijn Tulp and vice editor-in-chief Martijn Kamphorst took place on our Skype sofa and we promptly nominated them as funniest Dutchmen we know. Do we have to remind you that all good things come in twos?
You just celebrated your 200th issue. That’s quite an accomplishment nowadays.
MK Isn’t it?! Martijn [Tulp – ed.] joined the club when they where about to hit issue 100. My contribution came a bit later and asked for some shenanigans; when I applied for the position they told me they already had someone named Martijn and it would be too confusing to hire another one. The next day I wrote a letter signed Henk and got invited immediately.
MT Happy ever since.
What was it like, to start at issue 100?
MT It was a good thing because the magazine still had a lot of room for improvement. Still has, now I come to think about it, yet that’s called evolution. Needless to say we still have to keep our audience attentive and inspired. The magazine is a service to the gay community, so if we at some point start to notice that people are losing interest, we’ll have to close the shop. It’s great work but hard work, and still some people ask me what’s my job besides being involved in the magazine.
You feature articles from bisexuality and women with beards, to interviews with RuPaul’s drag queens and bears. Where do you keep your balance?
MK We try to maintain a balance by featuring topics that address a variety of readers. Having said that, it’s impossible to please everyone in one issue. Sometimes our focus will be on gender or bears, and in another issue you will find more content that’s interesting for lesbian readers or clubbers.
MT Not all issues are for everyone, but by offering a wide-ranging series of articles, we’re trying to make sure everyone feels tempted to pick it up at some point. We do focus on the entire LGBT scene, but most of our readers are gay males. Sometimes it’s quite hard to serve a shattered target group, but then again it teaches you how to make choices. An attitude that most of the time leads to quality.
Are we talking about an intuitive magazine?
MT For about 90%, yet we’re trying to cover all groups to the best of our abilities.
MK And that’s obviously not always in the same way. The great thing is that as a free magazine, we feel we have the opportunity to also cover niche subjects. Of course there will always be readers who aren’t happy with certain coverage, but then again, we luckily don’t rely on paying subscribers.
MT The magazine is distributed via the gay hotspots but is also available on mainstream locations, so we can afford to be a bit teasing, a bit more experimental towards a wider audience.
As a person, in what way are you both the ‘actual’ magazine?
MT Well, the fact that there isn’t much about sports and fitness probably says a great deal about the editors. On the other hand, however, there is plenty about music, which is my point of interest… and about food! I always want to publish something about how to bake a cake! You always color the things you write or feature and we do try to keep a certain amount of distance between our personal self and the magazine. That said, you can’t avoid being dragged into it with your own preferences, and many things we write about are things that catch our attention. I myself am single so I’m active on dating sites, especially on apps for bears. When I read about pandas, polar bears, etc., I was triggered to do some research on those different denominations within the gay scene, and it turned into an article.
MK I for example wrote a feature on how Asian boys are treated within the gay scene. I was out clubbing with a bunch of friends and overheard some rather hurtful remarks about those boys. That’s when the reporter in me awakens and starts asking questions. In the beginning it was merely out of personal interest, but after a while I realized that this topic might be more than suitable for an article in our magazine.
MT A quite hefty one if you ask me, on how Thai and Chinese boys are looking for each other’s company, because they can’t find any connection outside their circle.
MK And let me tell you, I didn’t have to beg for stories. A simple ‘how are you?’, and the words came running out.
Do you consider yourselves in an educational position?
MT We’re a magazine that’s not scared to face problems. So when we hear about a topic like those Thai kids, we feel obliged to write about it. To us, it’s important to keep on looking at the big picture to remain a very accessible magazine.
MK In a positive way!
MT Indeed, and that is something we actively work on. Even when a certain subject might be considered being too niche, there are still a large amount of people who would love the fact that you’re writing about that certain phenomenon, without considering it a sensational subject. We try to treat every topic as ‘mainstream’. Same with politics. We often write about changes in the LGBT legislation and focus on making the articles very accessible for those without any political background knowledge.
MK For us it’s very important to also cover the more or less ‘heavy’ subjects with a more social approach, for example by interviewing a couple of members from a movement. I think that’s our responsibility as a magazine, to feature the more committed content next to an article on, for example, gay tourism in Tel Aviv. By doing that, we aim for readers who normally won’t immerse into the subject matter. Not by simplifying, but by making it more accessible.
Can you give an example?
MT The first thing we did when the shit hit the fan in Russia, was not making a list of what politically went wrong over there, but we looked for someone who lived there. Someone who experienced the terror by seeing his friends bashed for no particular reason. We wanted to hear the voices on the street. Sometimes – and I’m talking about the Netherlands and Flanders – we are quite easy-going about coming out of the closet or having the same human rights.
MK By telling the story of an actual person, you make the subject matter more real and in your face. Because these are the sort of things that can also happen to you.
How important is it to keep on printing a magazine like Gay&Night?
MT I’d like to keep on printing as long as possible. The way people react to printed media has gone through a lot of changes. Even newspapers experience a difficult time, because you can read everything right away on the Internet. Nevertheless it’s still very enjoyable to sit on the couch with a printed version of whatever you want to read.
MK And besides the fact that you can hold it and it ‘smells good’, you don’t have to stick to a limit of 500 words in order to not lose one’s attention.
MT Our magazine can be found in bars, clubs, saunas, restaurants and lunchrooms, so that’s a very interesting place to gain visibility. If we, as publishers, keep on succeeding in making the magazine interesting for our audience, I think we will be able to keep on printing!
I hear a lot of evolution since issue 100.
MK When you see our series of covers, you’ll notice that we started getting more and more experimental. It starts with a parade of men…
MT Cute men, if I may add.
MK …and all of a sudden we have a picture of an older lesbian woman [he’s referring to Glee-actress Jane Lynch – ed.]. In 2013 we expanded with a Flemish edition, so now we have two covers to think about. Or better yet; to play with.
MT And don’t forget that not only the tone, but also the lay-out of the magazine changed. In May 2011 we started working with our new art-director Jeroen de Rooij – we couldn’t find a third ‘Martijn’ suitable for the position. One of the compliments we hear most often is that the magazine looks too good to be free. Needless to say that makes us very proud, but credit where credit is due; design-wise, all praise goes to Jeroen.
And yet the magazine is still for free.
MK Always has, always will be. Well, I definitely hope so.
MT We know a lot of people who carry our magazine in their hearts. We work very closely with our advertisers and also the festivals and events featured in Gay&Night. They help us keep it vivid and alive. Not only gay magazines, but a lot of magazines in general recently ceased their printed editions. We are one of the few gay magazines left in the Netherlands and we try to handle that position with care. It’s what’s gained us a lot of trust from our audience throughout the years.
MK This for example entails treating our interviewees with the utmost respect and always letting them check our version of their words before we go to press.
MT We also offer cheap subscriptions for people who don’t visit gay places that often.
Text Nora van Craen
Bart Moeyaert is internationally famous for his work as a poet, a writer, a translator, a lecturer and a screen writer. He once mentioned on television (on ‘Reyers Late’) that society is often overwhelming, that one is alone with one’s thoughts about that, and that it is not always useful to keep on smiling all the time, pretending one is invincibly strong. I could not agree more. Hearing just one of Bart’s quotes was enough to make me realize that he has ‘a certain something’; something that makes him read between the lines of a story. That is why I was not satisfied with simply looking at his Wikipedia page to find out who he is and what he does. I wanted to experience the essence of his inner reality, a reality located in between the lines of Antwerp’s dazzling energy. So, on a sunny, yet rainy Tuesday in sunny, yet rainy May, I managed to meet him in person at the Grand Café in Antwerp. The result of that meeting was an A to Z about Bart Moeyaert, in which I will share with you some of the finest moments of our meeting, some of his unforgettable quotes and some important facts about his life.
Astrid Lindgren, a Swedish author best known for Pippi Longstocking, is one of the significant writers that influenced Bart. He even calls Lindgren one of his grandmothers. He cherishes Aidan Chambers’ ‘Dance on my Grave’; a comforting novel about two boys experiencing deep friendship which blossomed into love. This book inspired him to scrutinize his personality and his story telling methods. Bart lives in Antwerp. He was the official poet of this vivid city in 2006 and 2007. ‘Africa Behind the Fence’ (1995) was his first picture book for children. The illustrations were created by Anna Höglund.
He was born in Bruges, Belgium, on the 9th of June, 1964. As the 7th son in the family, King Baudouin by tradition became his godfather. In our conversation I mentioned the fact that the number ‘7’ regularly appears in his stories. Interestingly, this fact was new to him. “Blood, sweat and tears are fantastic, so are ugliness and shortcomings,” Bart says when it comes to the difficulties of writing. “Unfortunately, most of us are raised to think that blood, sweat and tears are to be avoided because they are unpleasant.”
Bart is i.a. known for his children’s books. The fact that people expect that children always get a message or a lesson from a story makes him nervous. “That is not the way one ought to deal with children. They are not adults yet, there is still plenty for them to learn, but in the meantime adults should not think about them as if they were ignorant or naïve. They can deal with a lot more than adults tend to think. Think deeply about how you were yourself when you were eight, and you will realize how you dealt with adult matters.”
With ‘Duet with False Notes’ Bart made his début. He was just 19 years old when he wrote this autobiographical novel. This book emerged from the diary he kept when he was 14 and 15 years old. While reading Bart’s stories, I noticed some sort of distance to the facts, of what has taken place in between two pages. Bart says he would not call this distance. Instead, he believes reality is not primarily constituted by the objective facts of the environment, but by impressions and by one’s thoughts between the lines. He escorts the reader around the covert mind of the main character of the story.
Together with illustrator Wolf Erlbruch and the Dutch Blazers Ensemble Bart is writing a trilogy: ‘The Creation’, ‘The Paradise’ and ‘The Heaven’. ‘The Heaven’ is to be published in 2014. In this trilogy a story meets music in a most harmonious way. Not only did he read the Bible to do a background study for ‘The Paradise’, he also made use of gardening manuals to understand why, for example, a tree loses its leaves. The story is very sensual: Eve does not resemble the biblical Eve, she has more of a ‘Lillith’ appearance.
Bart wants to be free: he does not want to label people or things, nor does he want his own work to be labeled. When he wrote his début, he never intended for it to be read by young people in particular. He never even thought he was going to become a children’s book author! It was his first publisher who told him an author’s image is important, his being the image of a children’s writer. It took a while before he realized he himself had to determine his writing style and path. “When I am writing a book, I might think the story will probably be read by, say, 7-year-olds, but that’s it. I only know the story I am going to tell and I have some thoughts about the shape or format.”
Graz (2009) is a story about Herman Eichler, a pharmacist living in Graz, Austria. One day, a young woman has an accident in front of Herman’s pharmacy. This crucial moment in Herman’s life started off a deep thought process about the man he really is. Is he a homosexual, for example? Bart wrote the largest part of this story while staying at Graz to give lectures. ‘Graz’ was written for the Antwerp theatre group ‘STAN’. Bart was nominated for Gaypersonality of 2011.
In 2011 Bart was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for the 4th time.
‘Iemands lief’ (‘Someone’s Lover’) is Bart’s version of ‘l’Histoire du Soldat’ (Stravinsky, Ramuz), written for a narrative performance with top violinist Janine Jansen. It portrays how a soldier cannot resume his normal life because the war has changed him too much. In a similar manner, Bart was so harshly transformed by being a city’s official poet that he could never return to 2005 (see M). “Feeling this sledge hammer blow made this book so much more important to me.”
During his stay in Japan, one of the countries where he has been giving lectures, Bart experienced an astonishing moment in a huge store: “In the middle of the computers department I felt euphoric: Japanese was written all over the place and I could not read anything of it and nobody knew my language. In my bag I carried a book which I was able to read, but the funny thing was that it was a Dutch translation of one of Coetzee’s books. This interwovenness of languages and the realization that I am constituted by languages, which I do not mind at all, made me euphorically happy.”
The Boekenleeuw 2013 award goes to Bart’s ‘Knock Knock, Who’s There?’ (‘Wie klopt daar?’). This is his 6th Boekenleeuw; he also won one for ‘Kiss Me’, ’Bare Hands’, ‘Its Love We Don’t Understand’, ‘The Creation’ and ‘The Milky Way’.
Bart is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp. The title of one of Bart’s books is ‘It’s Love We Don’t Understand.’ What he does understand of love is that we are raised to think that the concept of ‘man-woman-child’ and ‘house-garden-dog’ is our target, while the reality is totally different. More interesting than what he himself understands of love is the question why we decide to be with someone after that one spark, he says. Why do we make this choice so quickly, while there might be many other people in the world whom we may be compatible with? When Bart met his boyfriend, he made it clear that there are multiple loves in his life: his love for him and his love for writing. The one cannot live without the other.
Bart married Robin Steins in 2006. During Bart’s career as the official poet of Antwerp, it was not easy for him to see eye to eye with the world and its constantly reproducing misery. He wrote a poem, ‘Woman and Child’, about the tragic racist murders by Hans Van Themsche in 2006 and read it out loud at Luna’s funeral, the murdered child. I ask him if he thinks that such a ‘blackened heart’ (‘zwartgeblakerd hart’, used in his poem ‘Lighthouse’) is useful to an artist. To Bart, an artist lives multiple lives: he sees many more things from many more perspectives and tries to describe everything to himself in order to digest it. He sees things he cannot cope with and it gets under his skin, forming that blackened heart. Through writing, a poet can digest his misery.
“Now is the moment in which we live. You can only finish the writings you are writing now,” Bart says to me. We were talking about how important ‘trying to be as good as possible’ was to the family he was raised in. I wanted to know how it felt to him, now that he has achieved the status of a successful writer. According to him, ‘At which mountain top would I like to arrive?’ is the most harmful, paralyzing thought to every newbie in writing. Bart did not commence his writing career thinking ‘How am I going to carve this out?’ or ‘How am I going to do this perfectly?’.New York is where he would like to be now if I were able to teleport people. Last year, he stayed there at a writer’s residence to work on his new book.
In 2006 he narrated the story of Olek in the musical theatre production ‘Olek Shot a Bear’ with the ‘Flemish Radio Orchestra’.
Together with Elisabeth Broekaert, he published ‘Let’s Stick Together’, a photo book with eight of his poems about love. In 2001 the poem ‘Small’ appeared on the side wall of the theatre house HETPALEIS (Meistraat, Antwerp). Broekaert witnessed some weddings with her camera. She took photos and watched the love that had just clinched in its own way.
Most of his books were published by Querido. ‘The 27 Questions Interview’ provides you with non-trivial questions and witty facts about Bart.
Many meaningful concepts return in his stories and poetry. For example, he often writes about lighthouses. “In Antwerp, I find the image of a lighthouse important. It is a beacon to know there’s something over there. You can avoid it, but you can also approach it. A lighthouse says: ‘come here’. If you do not want this, then tear down the lighthouse. So if Antwerp wants to be a port city, there has to be a lighthouse. ‘Come here’: you are meant to live with it whether you like it or not.”
Bart decided not to have children because of the society we live in. He knows that he himself is capable of dealing with insensitive remarks about homosexuality, but one can never know if a child would be able to do the same.
This year he celebrates his thirtieth anniversary as a writer. Congrats, Bart! The only diary Bart isn’t fumbling with is his tumblr. Visit bartmoeyaert.tumblr.com or read his tweets at twitter.com/bartmoeyaert.
Many of his poems carry just one word as a title, like for example ‘Lighthouse’ and ‘Choose’. ‘U’ (‘you’) probably has the shortest title of them all.
Michiel Verberne was the pseudomym he used at the age of 14. When one of his poems got published in a children’s newspaper, De Stipkrant, nobody believed it was his.
‘Plint’, a publishing company which gives poetry a creative twist, has made a window poem of the playful rhyme ‘Once More’ (‘Weer eens’). Window poems are printed in white on transparent plastic and can be stuck to a window. On Bart’s website (www.bartmoeyaert.com) you can find a contest section posing a different question every once in a while. The winner gets one of his works for free!
“It is important to write for yourself. You should not try to please others by writing. I am not saying that you have to write as if you were the only one to read it, but you write a poem to yourself without considering person X or Y’s preferences. This implies that you allow yourself to be astonished. One has to make peace with one’s way of proceeding.”
Bart lives at a stone’s throw from the Antwerp Zoo. In collaboration with the Antwerp Zoo and the city project ‘O Dierbaar Antwerpen’, the Royal Film Archive compiled a unique anthology depicting rarely seen footage of a bygone age. The first images date from the 1910s. Among others, Bart Moeyaert wrote some reflections on those images.
Text JF. Pierets Photos Rudy Thewis
Jonathan Kemp won two awards and was shortlisted twice for his debut London Triptych. Gay bookstore Het Verschil in Antwerp, asked to interview the British author for a live audience due to the Dutch translation of his novel, Olie op doek. A conversation about history, gay writers and a fascination for language and sex.
In London Triptych you tell three stories. There’s the rent boy Jack Rose in the London of the 1890s, of the 1950’s with painter Colin Read and male escort David, living in the London of the 1990s. The three stories explore the subculture and underworld of male prostitution. You seem to know quite a lot about the subject matter?
I did a lot of research in one way or another, and I was very interested in giving a voice to the voiceless. Male prostitution is a minority within the society of prostitution. Most of the historical focus has always been on female prostitution so they’re like a minority within a minority. As a writer you’re always trying to find a perspective that has not been tackled before and this seemed like a really interesting angle.
London Triptych started out as a short story called ‘Pornocracy’, which told the tale of Jack Rose, one of the boys who testified against Oscar Wilde in 1895. Is Jack historically correct?
Jack starts to work as a telegram boy and then he got involved in prostitution through this man called Alfred Taylor. Taylor really existed and supplied boys to Wilde so there are elements of truth from what I had gathered on research. If it weren’t for the fact that Wilde had been arrested and in prison, it would be even harder to find material on the subject matter. Ironically, given the negative outcome for Wilde, that kind of stamped it in the history books in a way that it wouldn’t have been otherwise. The transcripts of the trial have been very useful. Jack himself is an invention. He’s a mixture of a lot of different boys Wilde played with – he called them Panthers. Their danger appealed to him, their lack of gentility. He was a well-educated, upper middle class man so he liked their roughness, this spontaneity that he didn’t find in his immediate circle.
You seem like a big Wilde fan.
I have loved Oscar Wilde ever since I was a teenager. As I got older and came out myself, I got more interested in gay history. Wilde almost became this figurehead. The idea that he established in many ways, the parameters, the identity that was to go on in the 20th century. The concept that he is almost the prototype of the modern homosexual. He gives it a shape, a voice and a way of being. That was always fascinating to me. I often think the work is overshadowed by his life but I find him an incredible wordsmith. The poetry and ideas in his books have always appealed to me.
Your love of Wilde, the fact that London Triptych is populated by rent boys, models, aristocrats, artists and gangsters,… are you a little nostalgic?
I must say that Jack became my favorite character, that was my favorite piece to write, What appealed to Wilde in these boys is what appealed to me when I got under Jack’s skin. There must have been many Jacks in London at that time and the more I read about queer history, the more I became interested in trying to represent that minority voice.
The minority voice stays but times are changing.
Jack could go to prison for what he was doing, but David, the male escort in the 1990s, is free because of the change in the law in 1967. It’s sort of a history of gay liberation and the humanitarian progress during the century.
The book is filled with sex but it remains sexy instead of becoming a dirty story. It’s a thin line between what your write and pornography.
I’m fascinated by the way that language expresses human experience. Pornography is the most straight forward way sex can be represented. It has a very specific aim and that is to turn you on. There’s nothing wrong with that but it felt a bit limiting to me. I’ve always been attracted to writers like Jean Genet, who wrote about sex in a much more poetic way. For me it was essential to the book that sex had to appear but not in a sort of bashful way. The most interesting thing is often ‘what goes where and who does what to whom’, so I wanted to find much more different metaphors and to describe the emotions rather than the mechanics.
When I read the book if felt like all 3 characters were imprisoned. Because of love. Is that so or is it just my imagination?
As much as sex was an important aspect, love was also. When it became clear to me that this was going to be a novel about prostitution, I wanted to write three love stories. Love coming from the least likely places for example. They are very tragic love stories and I wanted to overturn the cliché of the hard-bitten prostitute who is incapable of love. So love and that trajectory of love is very important.
You ran a theatre company in the 90’s. Why did you switch from that to writing novels?
Writing theater plays was actually a diversion from writing prose. I have always written novels. The first one I wrote was when I was about 17. But I didn’t really pursue it very hard. Every writer gets rejected by publishers but when I got the letters I gave up quite quickly, thinking it was no good. At that time I was living with an actor who wanted to do his own plays so I thought ‘how hard can it be?’ We started of with monologues, it was a one-man show, and after a while I added more characters and got more confident with each play we did. When the company disbanded because there wasn’t enough money in theatre – even less than in books – I went back to writing prose. So London Triptych was the first novel I wrote after the excursion into the theatre.
Your second book is called Twentysix. It’s not a novel nor is it a collection of short stories. I wrote down: ‘Poems about sexual encounters between men. One of every letter of the alphabet’. It’s completely different from London Triptych
It is, but I think it picks up on some of the themes of London Triptych. When I was writing about London and its sexuality, I was trying to gain some originality or poetry in the descriptions. I wrote Twentysix almost immediately after the novel was finished. At first I just wrote down these short episodes, these short encounters. I was exploring language and post structuralism, reading Derrida, Bataille, and wanted to experiment. Midway through the book I considered what to do because I could go on writing about these sexual encounters and publish this huge volume, so I had to put a limit to that. 26 seemed like a slim manageable number.
I read on the net that you once said; ‘I think sometimes being gay has led me to broader horizons than it otherwise would be.’
I think straight comes with a script. You are aware of the life trajectory you’re expected to follow. The model you’re expected to conform to. You’re going to get married, have children, a mortgage. I’m not saying that all people do – and I know straight people who forge a different path – but I think that, when you don’t have that script at hand, you create new possibilities. You kind of invent a way of being. And there is a sort of courage that comes from having to live outside that mainstream model. There’s a security in that model that is not available to you.
It’s a different way of being in the world. You have to be more original in the things you are going to be or going to do. Just that slightly greater edge of invention.In London Triptych, David describes playing a game when he was a child, standing on a train track, with all his friends. The game was called ‘chicken’ and was about who could stand there the longest. David always won. This unanticipated courage, that was me. I knew from the beginning that staying where I grew up would kill me. Spiritually.
Being gay is as much about character as having a sexual drive?
Whether moving to London had to do with my sexuality, I don’t know, maybe that was a force of character that made me invent and explore. I do think it had to do with the sexual exploration and with courage, I find it hard to separate the two.
Some gay writers don’t want to be referred to as being ‘a gay writer’. Because they are also a white writer, a male or female writer, an American writer,… Yet you don’t mind being in that category.
I don’t. You can call me a black writer if you want to. I can understand why people are against it but then I think; ‘you are gay and you write, so why not’. I feel that it can work negatively because maybe straight readers wouldn’t go for a gay book. While gay readers will rush to it, but nevertheless will also read lots of straight books. So I understand why that label can feel restricted but I don’t mind. I love to write for gay people. It matters to represent these lives in books. People identify with what they read so why not write for gays. I can imagine that some straight people might find a book like Twentysix quite alien but then again, parts of their lives are alien to me. I’m not trying to write for everyone, I’m trying to write for people who can find something in my work. If a straight reader has an open mind, well go ahead. When I came out, exploring my own sexuality, I discovered there was a whole history of gay men writing. That was great! To know that now, after centuries, you have bookshops filled with gay writers is just fantastic. Its history is very short compared with the history of literature, but to discover people like Genet, Vidal or Capote who were exploring and experimenting was a revelation. By putting a label on it, it allows gay readers to find those books. Because if you are confronted with this huge mountain of literature as a gay man or a gay woman, you are going to want to find the books that speak to you because we are all looking for books that give us alternatives. The alternative to see the world from a different consciousness. So I think if you are looking for gay books and there is a big sign where to look, I don’t mind. I find it very useful. It saves you a lot of time. It’s all about things you want to share.
You are not afraid to exclude readers?
Those kind of closed minds are not the kind of people you want to speak to anyway. I can’t say that I’m never going to read a book by a straight person because they have nothing to say to me. Then you will be missing out so much of the things I’ve read and enjoyed.
You are working on a third book.
Yes, and it’s almost finished. My first two books are very related because I was fascinated about sex and language. My new novel is something completely different. The main character in All There Is + All There Is Not, is a 65 year old woman who lives on a narrowboat in North West London. One day she’s out shopping and she sees the spitting image of her first husband who died 40 years previously. She thinks she’s going mad. She keeps on seeing him and it turns out that he’s not a ghost, not a figment of her imagination but a gay man with a striking resemblance, like people often do. He becomes a portal to her. And like Alice she’s tumbling through a portal to an entirely different life and culture.
Sounds great! Looking forward already.
And last but not least. What’s your most flamboyant future dream?
I would love London Triptych to be made into a TV series. A British 3-part TV drama.
And if you were asked to play one of the characters? Who would you choose?
Oscar, of course.
Text & photos JF. Pierets
We meet Michael Cunningham in Brussels where he is invited as an Artist in Residence by literary organisation Het Beschrijf. Coffee, Belgian chocolates and a conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours.
And, how’s Brussels?
For my purposes now Brussels’s perfect. Alive and tame enough to be the perfect backdrop for a reclusive month of work. I’m not reclusive by nature so it’s a good thing because in NYC I go out more than I should. By the way, are there some great gay bars you know of?
Coming to my next question: I heard you less mind being called a gay writer these days. What happened?
I may be overly optimistic but I feel like that’s happening less and less in the States. Nowadays it’s only at certain occasions that I’m presented as a gay writer. I even get invited to real writer things. I’m on the shelves with all the rest of the writers. My audience is all over the place and I can only conclude – certainly when it comes to literature – we’re moving out of that categorisation. We’re moving into a world in which the books are just the books. But that’s been my experience. When I started out it was much more so. I’ve actually seen it change. When my first novel came out I got invited to either gay panels or as the gay voice in straight panels. That’s not happening anymore. And it’s complicated because on one hand I don’t want anyone to be able to imagine that I am covering up my sexuality in any way. As a matter of fact, I probably make it very clear that I’m not covering it up. So far that sometimes it feels like an invasion of privacy. So on one hand I’m going to be public about it and on the other hand, the fact that I’m a gay writer is only one thing about me. I’m also a white writer, an American writer and a male writer and all those things matter. Again – and this might be absurdly optimistic – but it seems like often a sort of invisible or semi visible cohort of the writing population has to get so to speak poled out of the limelight, so as to move on to the ‘just another writer’ period. There were a lot of African American writers for a long time and less so now. A new book by an African American writer is simply received as a new book. But there may be a period in which any group that has been ignored, has to be shoved down everybody’s throats so it can become normal after a while.
But you did feel a certain pressure from the queer community.
I think one of the tricky things about the fact that there finally is a significant body of queer literature is that books by and about gay people are like books by any kind of person. It isn’t just about that this is not how novels work, that’s not a novel you want to read and less so now, but I did feel a certain pressure from the queer community to write about happy queers who are doing fine. But then I never wanted to read a book about any happy people who are doing fine. That’s not what novels are about. That’s why we love Anna Karenina, I just can’t name a significant book about happy people for whom everything turns out fine. You really cannot aim your queer expectations in those directions or we just end up with crappy books that don’t feel true. There are many ways to spread a social message but a novel is a human message. It’s about the difficulty of being human. And the complexity of being human. And it almost always involves real striving and conflict. And I think our queer novelists have to keep that in mind and present gay characters that are not stereotyped but also not impossible paragons. Those are two ways of making gay people inhuman. People are sexually complex and I think that has not really been adequately portrayed in a lot of fiction. In part because for a long time you couldn’t write about it at all. And now that we are more able to write about our characters sexuality, I certainly find a lot of it a little too simple. Certainly by 2011 queer lives were so various that the appellations straight, gay, bisexual and transgender as categories– even if we keep expanding the list – just prove inadequate. And those are things I want to write about.
There’s always one word that comes to mind when I think about the way your write and that’s ‘effortless’.
It takes a great deal of effort to make it look effortless. But that’s pretty much my aim. Don’t be dull and give something back to the people who buy your books. I’m thinking of my readers as people with no time to waste.
You write a lot about beauty. Seems quite important in your everyday life.
I’m a whore for beauty. And yes, it’s always a little autobiographical. The kind of novelist you are inevitably reflects the kind of person you are. And I love all kinds of beauty, not just the standard issued beauty, but more the unorthodox ones like a Lucian Freud painting or Leigh Bowery. But yes I am as a man, and therefore as a writer, interested in beauty. But not in the 18 year old girl on the cover of Vogue. Not the obvious. We’re so bombarded with a particular verified kind of official beauty that is actually presented by 001% of the whole population. My last book Nighthawks contains my first and last technically officially beautiful character. It had to be for the story to work. But all my other books and all the books I plan for the future involve love and sex between people who are not 22 and perfectly formed. I’m really adamant about that. I’m very much about the particular idiosyncratic beauty of my characters that are not hired by Calvin Klein for the next underwear campaign. First and foremost you have to write what you feel most passionate about. I suppose when I was one of those guys whose idea of the ultimate manifestation of human beauty was a Calvin Klein underwear model, I would write about those guys. But I’m not especially interested in that sort of Prozac obvious beauty. I’m interested in the more subtle and magical kinds of beauty that isn’t on billboards.
Does it have anything to do with aging?
No, I’ve always felt this way. For one thing, I’m sceptical about the modification of beauty because if we are sufficiently convinced that only that 22 year old Ukrainian girl on the cover of Vogue is beautiful and we would spend a billion dollars looking as much as possible like that person. It’s economic. Since I was young I didn’t like that, I don’t buy that. It’s like we’re being hoodwinked. I feel like underneath that singularly beautiful young person is someone’s desire for us to buy a 200 dollar jar of moisturiser and I don’t like that. But people love the illusion that they can stay young forever.
It would be disingenuous to say that I don’t care, but staying young forever is not in fact an option and there are times when I imagine going back in time and saying to myself at 25: “you should have more fun, lap it up, be less worried. You are 25. This is even better than you know.” But whenever I think about that I see myself sitting next to it at 58, saying the same thing. I’ve always had certain political and cultural convictions and part of me says: fuck people who say sex at 59 is over. For men and women. Women get it much worse. And if anybody is going to change that it’s going to be the people who are getting older. By not lying about your age, by looking good without desperately wanting to be 30. You know, I wish Madonna would age better. I think she’s misusing her power by continuing to insist she’s 37. So let’s focus on Julie Christie. She had no work done and looks amazing.
Talking about Hollywood, you are into movies since The Hours.
Yes, and I never have to pursue anybody. They just call me. Unfortunately, most movies I wrote didn’t make it to the screen but that’s how it works. You initiate many more products than the ones that do end up on the screen. The big companies are always very nervous that it’s not commercial enough. Sometimes that breaks my heart. For example I was doing the Dusty Springfield story with Nicole Kidman for a big movie company. Turned out they had not really done their research. During the meeting I did say she was a lesbian and they didn’t expect us to change that, but I had no idea they where unaware of the fact she took a pound of cocaine a day and flushed it away with a quarter of vodka. She was in and out of rehab, hallucinated and got beaten up by her girlfriends. Seemed that the studio wanted a singing leprechaun. They thought lesbian is edgy enough, let’s leave it to that. A happy preppy Dusty with just that little thing about her, didn’t quite cover the story because both Nicole and I wanted to do the real thing. It’s a pity, but that’s the way things go in the movie business. They only care about if it makes a hundred million dollars. Even the involvement of Kidman doesn’t make a difference. The whole star-thing is breaking down in Hollywood. It’s a kind of shift in Zeitgeist that nobody understands. A big star is no guarantee anymore for a box-office hit. All I can think about is that the audience has had enough of shitty movies that accidentally have a star in it.
What about the stardom that comes with winning a prestigious prize?
Winning the Pulitzer Prize made writing less fun. I pretty much gotten over that too much expectations-thing but in the beginning I thought: “fuck, what I am going to do now?” It was frustrating but also very freeing to write books that nobody paid attention to. And it turns out both the good news and the bad news is that people are going to pay a lot more attention now. And yes, it freaked me out at first but then after a while I thought: “what if you would just get over a streak of good fortune that other people would kill for. What if you’d just get the fuck over it and go on.” But it is still in the back of my mind. Whatever your stature is in the world as a writer or any other kind of artist, you have to maintain a certain kind of recklessness. A certain kind of disregard for how a book will go over, a certain willingness to write in a different way that may not please the people who loved The Hours so much. And I have to hold on to that. And it can be a little more work to hold on to it when another book has been so successful. And you have to remind yourself: “it’s fine! Do not write that book again.” Sometimes I would love to be one of those people who are truly indifferent to public opinion. I can convince myself I’m indifferent to public opinion but there’s something in many of us that -once you’ve gotten prizes and were on best seller lists – makes us want that again and you have to slap yourself sometimes and say: “you may never get that again”. So you have to cultivate as much of indifference to that as you can. Be grateful for the fact it happened once.
Is there an amount of luck involved?
Any artist who’s successful has to acknowledge that there is some luck involved. I’m really good at what I do, I’ve worked really hard for a long time and as it turned out the world was interested in this short book about three women. No-one expected that, nobody looked at that book and said: I smell a hit. Especially me because I always wrote what I wanted and every time I told myself: “I promise, after this one I’m going to write my bestseller.” There aren’t that many good writers in the world. I’m a very good writer and I’m one of the few who are successful. And yes, there are other writers who are really good but didn’t get a break. Who didn’t write the right book at the right time. Something just didn’t happen, their number didn’t come up yet. Mine did. Working hard and being good at what you do doesn’t necessarily lead to celebrity and success. You never know. And publishers have not figured out how to guarantee success for a book.
But you don’t have the feeling you’ve already written THE book, the headlight of you career?
I feel like every book is a little better than the last one. I think that’s how it’s supposed to work. That you spend your life learning how to write novels by writing them and you die still learning how to write a novel. Ideally you live a long productive life in which each book increases your powers slightly and you are better able to summon complex emotions, you’re better able to render a scene, you know what’s too much, what’s too little. But almost inevitably the world picks one book out of the continuant – saying this is THE book. There’s this famous curse of the Nobel Prize meaning that you are fucked forever.
But it does give you that immortal glance.
Immortality is such a dead end because no-one knows and if we could summon a well-read person from 100 years ago and show that person a list of the books from his or her time to us now, I think there would be some pretty surprising titles. Like Virginia Woolf in her time, she had some recognition but she was no Hugh Walpole. He was the Don Delilo of those days. Nobody knows him now. You see, everybody gets forgotten. There’s a tiny, tiny fraction of people who are actually remembered just through their work.
One more thing about The Hours. Laura Brown, one of your characters, is abandoning her child which is considered being one of the last taboos. Do you have some taboos yourself?
My only taboo as a writer is stereotypes. I couldn’t write about a woman whose husband beat her up because she kind of deserves it. I wouldn’t write about a gay man who arranges flowers and hasn’t got a thought in his head except getting laid and going to a party. Even though I think that man exists. But you’re right, an ambivalent mother is just one of the last taboos and I can’t tell you how many women came up to me after reading The Hours and said: “that was my life and I never read about it before. Thank you for finally writing about a mother who actually has some mixed feelings about her child.” Because there are more than you think.
Leaves us nothing but to ask about your Big Dreams for the future.
At the risk of sounding insipid, I would love more of what I already got. I do work I really care about. I guess if I would pray, I prayed for continuance rather than some kind of big change. I think that’s an indication of living the life you want. If you hope for enormous changes maybe you should be making them, maybe you should be out there doing something about that. But I like my life, I feel challenged, engaged by my work and I have great friends. But if you would ask me to choose one thing, than I would love to be able to.. well… come three times in a row.
Thanks to Het Beschrijf for arranging this meeting.
Thanks to Passa Porta bookshop – Brussels for letting us use their basement.