Question and Answer with Gerbrand Bakker, author of The Detour (published in paperback by Vintage on 7 March 2013 at £7.99)
Bakker’s magnificent novel tells the story of a Dutch university lecturer who rents a farmhouse in rural Wales. We learn that she has fled scandal in Holland after having an affair with a student. As this slow tale unfolds, we see that our protagonist – who calls herself Emilie – may be adrift, but she hasn’t come to Wales to start afresh. She is in Wales to mark time until whatever is coming comes. This beautiful novel is a beguiling meditation on love, loneliness, landscape, the passing of time and the flicker of hope, excellently translated from Bakker’s native Dutch language into English by David Colmer.
With The Detour released in paperback this week, Jim Morphy exchanged emails with Gerbrand about, amongst other things, the poet Emily Dickinson, wisteria and log burners.
Jim Morphy: Hello Gerbrand. We’re Wales Arts Review, so let’s start with Wales. Why did you choose Snowdonia as the setting for The Detour?
Gerbrand Bakker: Because I’ve been there quite a number of times. In fact, I have the strange habit of wanting to climb Snowdon once a year. The land there feels old, ancient, mysterious. I always wanted to use it for ‘something’ and sometime in 2009 Emily Dickinson, a woman (and a feeling) and North-Wales came together in my head.
JM: I’m not sure if you’ve read Jim Perrin’s new non-fiction book Snowdon. In it, he says that Snowdon is the British mainland’s finest mountain and waxes lyrical about the literature and folklore that surrounds it. Care to discuss the mountain itself? It seems key to your novel.
GB: I believe I agree with Jim Perrin, whose book I’ve not read. It is one of the most beautiful mountains I know, and I’ve seen and climbed a lot, in the Alps, Dolomites and even the Jebl Toubkal in Morocco, which is 4167 metres high. There is a little film on the internet, where I was interviewed on the flanks of the mountain (we wanted to go all the way up but the camera was too heavy). It’s here (in Dutch of course…)
JM: The spirit of Emily Dickinson hovers over The Detour. What should we read into your choice of Emily Dickinson here? For one, are you a particular fan of hers?
GB: The whole book started with this poem, ‘A Country Burial’. I’ve known this poem for a long, long time but I never really understood it. Sometimes, during readings, I say/joke that the whole book is written in order to try and understand the poem. But there is truth in that. On the other hand, when I started to read more Dickinson and especially the Habegger biography on Dickinson, I found out that she also made quite a few rambling poems, and Habegger almost put me off her altogether, which is horrible because she can’t do anything against that any more of course. That’s why I made Emilie in the novel throw the biography into the dustbin…
JM: At the Hay Festival, you described The Detour as ‘a thriller that’s not a thriller’. Was this flippancy or not?! To what degree are you aware of genre conventions when you write?
GB: I am aware of nothing when I write. Then I simply write and enjoy it. Afterwards my publisher reads it and he has to tell me what the theme of the book is. I don’t know, nor care, but it is helpful if one does interviews when a new book comes out. I learn a lot from my readers, they tell me what my books are about. But, to be honest, I also forget what they say or discover, I think because it doesn’t really add anything to the book (which has already been written) or to future books. I always say that a publisher should try to keep his author as dumb, naive and not-in-the-know as possible. That is – for me at least – the best way to write something fresh, maybe unique, and in a way as ‘honest’ as possible.
JM: You have a background in landscape gardening, how does this impact on your writing, and the writing of The Detour in particular?
GB: Maybe. I do remember toning down whilst writing. After a while I thought: wait a minute, this woman is from a big city, she can’t know all the names of these trees or shrubs. That for instance made me change wisteria in ‘creeper’. So sometimes my landscape gardening gets in the way of writing.
JM: You’ve spoken warmly about the work of the book’s translator, David Colmer, so let’s talk about translation. For one thing, do you consider the Dutch-language version and the English-language version of The Detour to be the same book?
GB: Ah, that’s a difficult one. The English version for me is more special because it makes me realise that I am somebody like Ian McEwan or Iris Murdoch. I always read English and American writers in the original language, and I’ve always done so. So to have a book of myself translated in this – for me – very literary language is wonderful! There was a huge problem though: the book in Dutch is a way of translating things, literally and figuratively speaking. It begins with the motto (the Dickinson poem) and ends with the Dutch translation of the main character. I panicked one night and mailed David: ‘This book cannot be translated into English!’ But he – as always – kept his calm and said: ‘Leave it to me, I’m the translator.’ There were also quite a few language quirks, which he had to do something with. And again: I think he did a wonderful job.
JM: It’s a little coarse to talk about money, but let’s try. You won literature’s most lucrative prize (the €100,000 IMPAC Award) for your debut novel, The Twin. What did winning this prize, and the prize-money, mean for you as a writer?
GB: I bought a house in The Eifel, Germany. I’m renovating it at the moment and there is going to be a wonderful ‘writing-room’ in it, which can only be accessed via a stairway on the outside of the house. There is going to be a log burner in it, as the whole house is heated with log burners. That is what happened in the end with the IMPAC money. I did (not yet) buy a carthorse with it. It also gave me the opportunity to NOT write for a while. I’ve not been inclined to write for a couple of years now, and the money partly enables me to do this. I did not buy a house in North Wales because that would have been too far: I will keep that part of the world special by going there once or twice a year.
JM: What writing influences would you say you have? And who are your favourite writers?, which might be a similar, or an entirely different, question.
GB: I do quite like the sparse writers. I don’t like writers who write in metaphors and stuff because that distracts me from the reading, and the story. They usually are people who want to be a writer, instead of people who write books. Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, and here in Holland J.J. Voskuil and Elschot.
JM: Can you tell us what you’re working on now? Is there a new book upcoming?
GB: I haven’t written for three years almost now. And I’m not nervous about it…
JM: At Hay you quoted Per Petterson saying something like ‘A writer can never be wiser than the book he has written’. I’ll finish this interview about your book by asking: how do you feel answering questions about your book?
GB: This is the exact quote. And I agree more and more. More and more I don’t know what to say about my own work. So when I do a reading here in Holland I usually tell a lot of anecdotes about funny things that happen in the literary world, or during readings, or I talk about the film that has been made of The Twin. I am more an entertainer now than a writer. And maybe nice for you to know: one also wants to make a movie of The Detour, which will most probably be filmed in North Wales.