600 Strangers: Book Tour Encounters
-Reported By Jeffrey F. Barken–
When I published the first edition of my book, This Year in Jerusalem, I printed 600 copies. During the final print inspection, I watched sheets of paper be fed and carried by conveyor belt through the various processes of a room sized press. Stacking up on the opposite side were the olive green, matted, front and back covers that I had designed, ready to be folded around the pages of my book. As excited as I was to see my work printed, I was also nervous. In the instant that I pressed print, I committed myself to meeting 600 strangers.
Five months later, I’m shocked to discover that I’ve already met over 300 people. On my travels through Europe and Israel, I’ve encountered students, fellow writers and travelers, professors, hostel workers, soldiers, and families. Many have told me they think we were “meant to meet.” When this happens, I always think back to the scene at the printer’s, where I first committed to this course.
The best part about having sold so many books is that many people are keeping in touch and providing feedback. Beyond my love of words and storytelling, this was always my reason to write. I was curious whom I’d meet through the act of publishing and eager for the exchange of ideas that only books can prompt. When I ran into Dutch Author, Anouk Kemper on her last day in Tel Aviv, therefore, I knew we’d have a lot to discuss.
Anouk’s debut novel, De Almeerse Rioolmoorden, (the Eventful Year of Hans and Lilly Mulder) tells the story of Hans Mulder and his adopted daughter Lilly. Hans is a journalist writing about the ‘Sewer Murders’ in his hometown Almere, near Amsterdam. When Hans finds out that his daughter has something to do with the killings, a bizarre cat and mouse game between these two people, who will always be connected to each other, whether they like it or not, ensues.
Not speaking Dutch, I was disappointed that Anouk and I couldn’t trade books. She, however, took a copy of mine and promised to send me some more information about her writing upon her return to Holland. Anouk devoured This Year in Jerusalem on the plane, and we were soon trading stories about the writing life in our respective countries and our personal ambitions as novelists. The following interview sheds light on Anouk’s writing process, some of the great untranslated literature that English audiences are missing out on, as well as an insider’s perspective of the publishing industry in Holland:
Interview With Anouk Kemper
Jeff: “De Almeerse Rioolmoorden was nominated for a prize and has received a lot of attention in Holland. Where did you find the inspiration to begin the project?”
Anouk: “First of all, in my hometown. I live in Amsterdam now, but I grew up in Almere. A new, modern and very boring place 25 kilometers from Amsterdam. I was also very inspired by films like American Beauty and The Omen. In the first film Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a 40 year old man who is having a bit of a midlife crisis. I really like his cynical sense of humor. Lester was a big inspiration for my main character, Hans Mulder. The Omen was also inspiring, because it’s about two parents who raise a kid that is not their own. You never know what kind of person you let into your house and the same is true for Hans when he adopts Lilly from Vietnam. Later on he starts to realize that there is something very, very dark about her nature.”
Jeff: “Can you translate the title and first line of your book for English audiences?”
Anouk: “It’s hard to translate literally, because I don’t know how the translate ‘Almeerse’. I think it must be something like:
“The Almerian Sewer Murders.” And The first line is: ‘That is why I hate obituaries so much.'”
Jeff: “Can you describe some of the principal characters in your book? How do their mannerisms, faults and quirks help advance the plot and add texture to the narrative?”
Anouk: “Hans Mulder is a journalist of 56 years old. He lives in Almere with his very succesfull wife, she is an anchorwoman for the national television. Hans is cynical, sceptic and has accepted the fact that his life is pretty insignificant. His daughter Lilly is 23, lives in Amsterdam with her way older, criminal boxer boyfriend. She is completely egocentric, inscrutable and a sociopath. I’ve told the story from both their perspective, alternately. So the first chapter is from Hans’ view, second from Lilly’s, third is Hans again, and so on. This alternation worked as a puzzle, that came more and more together after each chapter. It also made it possible to use two different tones of voices.”
Jeff: “At what point in the writing process did you realize you knew how the book would end?”
Anouk: “I already knew how it would end before I started writing. For me the ending was inevitable. It had to happen like that.”
Jeff: “How long did the book take to write?”
Anouk:I finished the first draft within 4 months. It took another two months before it was finally done.
Jeff: “What was the most challenging aspect of writing your first book?”
Anouk: “Finishing it. I worked on a lot of stories, but I was never able to finish them. I just lost my motivation after 10 pages. Also, I didn’t have enough to tell. Who does in his/her teenage years?”
Anouk: “Yes. It got a lot of attention. I gave a lot of interviews, was invited to a lot of events and everybody was constantly asking me about the book. It felt like a thunderstorm, so it took me some months before I could really enjoy everything that had happened.”
Jeff: “How has your worldview, and your writing process changed now that you have begun writing a second novel?”
Anouk: “I have a less romantic view on writing and publishing. It’s a business, an industry and people want to make money out of it. When I was working on my first book, I wanted everything to go fast. I didn’t really feel like taking a bit more time to think about what I wrote. Now that I’m already published I feel less time pressure. I realized it’s ok to work on a book for over a year. And I finally ‘discovered’ my own style. It was there already, but now it truly feels like I have a ferm grip on it.”
Jeff: “In what ways are you experimenting? Did you feel like you needed to make safer choices in your first book?”
Anouk: “In my first book there was lot’s of stuff going on, lot’s of crazy stuff: weird people, drastic plot lines, etc. It was all a bit over the top. According to the publisher it was a bit like a Tarantino film. Now I am writing a much ‘smaller’ story, way more true to life. I don’t feel like I have to lean on the plot that much anymore, because my writing in itself got better.”
Jeff: “Please tell us about the literary community in Holland. How accessible are writers to their audiences? (What role does social media play in terms of generating book talk?)”
Anouk: “Writers are pretty accessible, I think. Especially in Amsterdam there are a lot of literary events, where writers and readers can meet each other. Social media are important in the sense that they announce the events, of course. Also, readers can easily contact writers, who use Facebook and Twitter as their personal mouthpiece.”
Jeff: “What is the process like to publish a book in Holland? (editors, agents, publishing houses etc.)”
Anouk: “It’s all about knowing people. I once wrote an article about young writers and one of the people I interviewed, told me that only one out of a 1000 comes in through the front door. All the others got in by knowing people that know people. If you want to be published, you have to go out and network. That’s also what happens at the literary events. It’s not only a place for the ‘normal audience’, a lot of editors go there as well.”
Jeff: “How do you get your book translated?”
Anouk: “A Dutch book only gets translated if it was a bestseller in the Netherlands. Like The Dinner by Herman Koch, Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda and The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch.”
Jeff: “What does the term “break out book” mean in Holland? Do most Dutch writers dream of having their work translated?”
Jeff: “Movie rights? What books get made into movies in Holland and should we be on the look out for a great foreign film?”
Anouk: “Again: bestsellers get a film adaption. Well, some.. not all of them. At the moment The Dinner by Herman Koch is made into a movie. Cate Blanchett is the director, so that is really cool! Be on the look out for that…”
Jeff: “What types of characters are you most attracted to in your writing? And who are your influences as an author? Is there a time in Dutch literary history for which you’re nostalgic?”
Anouk: “Although I am 27 and a girl, I find it way easier to write about middle aged men. I think they can be tragic in a comical way, it’s a starting point I like to work with. The whole tragic-comic thing does not work the same with women or younger people. Not for me, anyway. Maybe that’s why I like Paul Auster and Michel Houellebecq so much. They are the masters of writing about this type of men. Another big inspiration is Bret Easton Ellis. His work shows that your main character doesn’t have to be trustworthy as a narrator. I also like Chaim Potok a lot, I always feel immediately attached to his characters. I like his calm way of telling stories.”
“A time in Dutch literary history for which I’m nostalgic? Hmm, not really. I have to admit that I mostly read American writers. I don’t know why exactly. The other week I promised myself to start reading some great Dutch writers, such as Gerard Reve, Willem Frederik Hermans and Simon Carmiggelt. It starts to be a bit shamefull that I haven’t yet…”
To read more about Anouk Kemper, visit http://www.overdose.am