Interview – 17th June, 2014

"There are not many places left on earth where you can be alone"

Interview with Toine Heijmans

Interview–17th June, 2014


Interview with Toine Heijmans

Dutch writer-journalist Toine Heijmans was the guest of Café Amsterdam Festival in Budapest. Orsolya Réthelyi talked to the writer about his first novel, "On the Sea," that has been awarded the prestigious French prize, Prix Médicis étranger.

Toine Heijmans is a Dutch journalist on the staff of the daily Volkskrant. After publishing several non-fiction books, especially on immigration and asylum policy, he started to write novels. He has two novels to date, Op zee (2011) and Pristina (2014).

Toine, I would like to talk with you about your first novel, Op zee, around three word pairs. The first of these is SEA AND LAND. As the title of your book also suggests, the sea is where your novel is set, but it is also very important as a metaphor. Furthermore, you place your book firmly in the rich Dutch literary tradition of sea voyages. You use several intertextual references to sea and travel literature, the poetry of Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, for instance, and a children’s classic by Paul Biegel, not to mention Moby Dick by Herman Melville (though the latter is not a Dutch book, but a classic of sea fiction). First of all, I would like to ask you about your personal relationship with the sea, and also about the significance of sea voyages as a literary tradition.

I think the sea is basically the opposite of the land. To me it is a way of escaping from the world. I have a small sailing boat close to my house in Amsterdam, and I go sailing whenever I feel that life is too busy. I even work on the boat and write my books there. It gives me the idea that I can flee, and go away, whenever I want. So that is what the sea means to me: a place where you can be alone, or with your daughter – if you so choose. In the literary tradition it is also something similar, I believe. You mention Slauerhoff, a very famous Dutch poet. He was always between land and sea. When he was on land he wanted to be on sea, when he was on the sea he wanted to be on land. That is a powerful emotion I share with him, but also – I think – also with the wider literary tradition.

Do you think your novel travels well? Your book has been translated into German, Danish, Hungarian, and French. The French translation even won a prestigious literary prize, the Prix Médicis étranger. Has it been translated into any other languages?

It is now being translated in Egypt and in Turkey.

You mention Slauerhoff and Paul Biegel, and quote from them, and you also refer to Melville. Hungarian readers know Moby Dick, they may have read it, but Slauerhoff and Biegel have not been translated into our language, the readers know nothing about them. How do you think Op zee works in languages and cultures that do not have this kind of sea tradition, or do not have the culture of direct emotional contact with the sea? Do you think your novel is universal enough to make it work in these countries?

Yes, I think you can understand it even in countries without a sea; everybody can respond to the concept of being away from everything. There are not many places left on earth where you can be alone. This is difficult even on the North Sea because of the oil-platforms and tankers. When you are on the ocean you are on your own, and you have to do everything yourself. You are disconnected from the world with nobody there to help. If anything goes wrong, you have to think, and solve all the problems yourself; I think everybody understands that. When I first thought of the book, three years ago, I was in a desert. I was there with my young daughter; she was about six at the time. We were walking alone in the desert and she ran ahead, disappearing behind the huge sand dunes. She was having fun, but it made me anxious every time I lost sight of her. This gave me the idea of writing a book about a disappearing child. Later I thought of transferring the story onto water, because I know more about the sea than about the desert, but it could have been the desert.

My second dichotomy is between CHILD AND ADULT, or child and parent, depending on the relationship one wishes to highlight. There are two questions I would like to ask you in relation to this theme, the first of these refers to formal aspects of Op zee. The first time I had the Hungarian version of your novel in my hands it struck me how much like a children’s book it is. This is mostly because of the illustrations, but also because there is a kind a dialogue between text and illustration. This is something you often see in modern children’s books, but is not a very common feature of books for adults. The layout and cover add to this effect. Nevertheless, it is definitely a book written for adults and is marketed as an adult book, resulting in a kind of tension between form and content. In addition, the text of an actual child, your daughter, is integrated into the book. How much of these were your choices, and what do you think of this crossover children-adult form?

While I was writing this novel my daughter came to me one day, sat at my desk and said she wanted to write something as well. She was eight at the time and simply wrote a story of her own. At the time I was trying to write in children’s language, which I thought was fairly impossible when you are 41. So when she showed me what she had written, I saw it was perfect and just copy-pasted it into my book. She’s very proud of it, of course. Every time she says: “Look at page 92, that’s my text!”

You mean you asked her to write?

No, it was her own idea. She asked me what I was writing, so I told her I was writing a story about a father and daughter going to sea, all by themselves. And she decided that she was going to write as well. That is how children are, they just copy their fathers. With the illustrations the story is a bit different. Now I like them very much, but it was the idea of my editor. I did not like the idea at first, because I thought it would change my novel into a children’s book, but he thought we should first find an illustrator and try. When I saw the illustrations I was so amazed by how they were drawn, and how they felt. It turned out to be a great combination. Then I was really pleased. Look, these are the lighthouses on the north coast of the Netherlands. When I saw this image I thought it was drawn by somebody who knows how it is to be sailing in a storm, north of the Frisian Islands in a small boat. You are caught in the light and you can see the light, but you are really alone. So then I met Jenna Arts, the artist, who made the pictures. I thought she would be an old lady, who has sailed a lot, but actually she was a girl of 19, who had never set foot on a boat before. It was really a magical moment when I met her and she showed me the illustrations, and I decided to go along with it. Op zee is also a small book so it was good for the publisher to have some more pages, to make it bigger.

What did the readers think of this form, what kind of reactions did you get?

I got very good reactions. In most countries they wanted to publish the book with the illustrations, with the exception of France. There they did not want to have the pictures, because they do not consider a book literature when there are illustrations in it. I told them that in the 19th century every book had illustrations, but they just didn’t like it. Now this book won two prizes in France. Still, without the illustrations it is just not the real book for me anymore. I am very happy that the book includes the illustrations.

And Egypt, or Turkey? The visual culture in these lands is very different.

I am not sure; I hope they will do it.

So this is how child and adult appear on the formal level. But on the content level as well the central tension is between daughter and father, parent and child, and also between being an adult and being a child. The reference to the children’s book, De kleine kapitein by Paul Biegel seems very significant in your book. The father in your book reads Biegel's book to his daughter on the boat, and the mother reads it to her daughter on shore. The Little Captain also seems to be a prefiguration of the protagonist, Donald, who has not really been able to grow up. De kleine kapitein, besides being an adventure story, is also a book that narrates growing up. There seems to be a symbolic relationship between Donald and the Little Captain. What struck me – and I’m trying very hard to phrase my question vaguely enough not to give a spoiler here – is how the mental picture of the daughter on the boat seems to work as a reference point. When Donald navigates his path through the sea he needs maps and charts to define his coordinates. In the same way he seems to need the image of the daughter to define himself as a grown-up, as a father, as somebody responsible for his own deeds.

There are simply people who do not want to grow up, and maybe I am one of these people, I do not know. I am now 45 and I think that everyone who reaches a certain age and a level when you have everything, you start asking yourself: what is life for and what is left for me? You also start thinking back, to your childhood. I just heard the discussion with Douwe Draaisma here at Café Amsterdam about remembering, and he also said that you mostly remember things about when you were young. That is the tension in Donald, he does not want to continue the life he has. He has everything, a good job, a nice house, a nice wife and daughter, but he wants more, or perhaps less. In any case he wants to get out of the system. That's why it is good to have this child, this young girl next to him, who still has her complete life ahead of her. He looks at her and thinks about himself. He is really trapped, though he has a good job. That is what I don’t like about jobs these days. I have lots of friends who work with companies where they all live by spreadsheets and targets. I work at a newspaper so I am lucky to have lots of freedom, but there is not much freedom left today for originality and free thinking.

But what freedom is there left for originality and free thinking on the sea? Every ten minutes you have to chart your path, you have to stay awake and watch out for ships, you cannot go off course. Isn’t there a contradiction in this wish for freedom? Does one really experience freedom at sea?

No, that is exactly the mistake Donald makes, but there are lots of people who make the same mistake. They want to go out and have an adventure, but an adventure involves a very complex system of rules, which you have to adapt to. When I am sailing alone I must constantly control the weather, and if everything is in order, so the freedom is minimal. But this is the romantic view on adventures. I have written quite a lot about mountaineering and there you see the same thing. When you talk to really big mountaineers it turns out that they live by spreadsheets and rules, they are not free at all. They are glad when they are back down, then they are free.  I like the way this subject appears in the book.

It is a very good subject and it also leads us on very neatly to my third dichotomy, which is MYTH AND REALISM. You work with a strong mythic tradition. I have already mentioned a couple of traditions you place yourself into, the adventure story, the sea voyage, and children’s literature. You also use biblical names, with which you also hitch on to a kind of mythical thinking. The name of Donald’s boat is Ishmael. Obviously this is a reference to the name of the fictional narrator in Moby Dick, the only guy who survives the whale hunt, and also somebody who does not find his place, an outcast and a wanderer. But Ishmael is also the firstborn son of Abraham, born out of wedlock to Hagar, the slave, and not to his wife, Sarah. The biblical Ishmael is also an outcast; he is chased away into the desert with his mother, where he nearly dies, but later becomes the mythical forefather of Islam. How and why do you apply mythical frames? In my interpretation, if you hitch your story to myth, on the one hand, it gives you an enormous response from your public, because myth is something that the readers recognise on a deep level. On the other, mythical thinking may lead the author to go into a certain direction and end up in commonplaces, where the originality is lost.

Yes, well, if I knew how the writing of books exactly works it would be a lot easier to do. I do like old stories and myths, but this book is really a realistic book. When you read this book you are on the boat, you can hear the waves, and see the colour of the sea. I like to put a layer over this realism, which makes it difficult or estranging. This guy Donald is also strange, and so is his daughter, so I like to play with these effects. But it is not that I decide, while writing, to put the myth of Ishmael into my story. It started out with the name. Moby Dick is such an important novel to me that I wanted to make a reference to honour it. Then you start thinking of the name and taking it further, and soon it becomes a story in itself, which is what writing is about. Otherwise your analysis is perfect. I like to play around with these allusions. The name of Donald is also a reference. There is a great story about a British sailor who sailed alone in the first sailing race around the world. He was called Donald Crowhurst. He went mad and got lost at sea. It is such a great story and that is also in this book. I like to take these stories and integrate them.

Yes, these are the two mottoes of your book: “There is no reason for harmful…” and then the sentence breaks off. This is the last sentence from the logbook of Donald Crowhurst, written in 1969. Your second motto quotes his son, Simon Crowhurst in 2006, from an interview in The Times: “he was the architect of his own downfall. He tried to do something, which went disastrously wrong.” You start with these two mottoes, immediately giving the reader a sense of foreboding and suspense, causing one to wonder about whose perspective we will read in the book, and whether this endeavour will go disastrously wrong, or it will end with some kind of a happy end. Would you call this a happy end? Some people say that modern literature cannot have a happy end, and still be called literature.

I am very fond of happy endings in books. I do not know if this is a happy end, but it is not something “which went disastrously wrong”. In the first version it ended really horribly. He crashed into the harbour and it was all over, but then I thought: no, I don’t like this. So now it is in between, you can read whatever you want as a reader. There was a television film made out of the book in the Netherlands and there I had the same discussion with the director and the scriptwriter about the ending. They chose a different ending, more gruesome, darker. I like that too, but on the whole I am a fan of books that end well, I do not like too open endings. In my new book I did that as well, and some people do not agree, but it is my book so I think I am free to do that.

You also play with perspective, which is an important structuring element of your book. You tell the story from the perspective of Donald, the protagonist, and suddenly you switch the perspective and the last three chapters are written from the point of view of his wife. In the first chapters Donald is a kind of hero, he is somebody who will conquer the elements, he will conquer himself and the world, and he will be successful. But after the turn he is suddenly a loser, and in some ways ridiculous. He is still lovable in some ways, but he is being made fun of. Was this painful? Is it difficult to make your protagonist ridiculous?

No, it was not difficult because I knew from the start what Donald was like. The first half of the book is a kind of illusion for the reader, but I was aware of the fact that he was different. When you reread the book you see some signs pointing to this end. I enjoyed writing it. It was fun to think how I will trick the reader again and again. The protagonist did become a bit of a friend in the process, he still is a friend of mine. Donald is not me, but he is close. I was a bit sad when I ended the story like this, but I think it is the best for him, I think he is having a good life now.

How did your daughter react to the book?

My daughter is eleven now and she did not start reading this book till recently. It was very exciting for me because she reads a lot. She just read the Diary of Anne Frank for instance. She read Op zee for the first time just about six months ago. I was really anxious, but she told me: yeah, it’s a good book.

That is definitely a great compliment, especially if it comes from your own child. I share her opinion, and think that this is a very good note to end on. Thank you very much for this discussion, Toine!

Orsolya Réthelyi


Subscribe to our mailing list