WHY I WRITE
In my case it would be better to ask why I tell stories. Quite simply because I’m a storyteller. I can’t imagine a life without telling stories. And it’s not something I began at a certain moment and so will be able to stop again one day. As a six-year-old I was allowed to use my mother’s plastic typewriter and was finally able to type out the stories that I made up. In the summer of my fifteenth birthday I wrote a novel. My mother said: Go and see a friend. For goodness’ sake go for a bike ride. But I sat in the garden writing, with my feet on a heap of newly mown grass. My world, I decided, this is my world and nobody else is allowed in until every house is built, every character is alive and everything has happened that has to happen. Afterwards the text on the thick writing pad turned out to be virtually illegible, because I had written in pencil and very small.
As the years went by, the desire to be published grew. That spurred me on to write more and better. One annoying discovery was that I couldn’t earn a living from writing stories. So I went into journalism and for a while that kept me reasonably satisfied. I could tell stories here too, the difference being that they had to correspond with reality. I eschewed dry journalism and politics – I was too much of a romantic for that. I wrote about murderers, princesses, weirdos, poison in cosmetics and other fascinating things. The word ‘fascinating’ is very important to me. I couldn’t get interested in a story that doesn’t fascinate me. Writing requires discipline, getting up early and sticking at it until you’ve finished your quota of words for the day. To be able to make that effort, day after day, and with a novel year after year, I must have a story that drives me on, so that I can’t help putting it down on paper.
For ten years I wrote travel reportages, which was marvellous. But one fine day – I was in a hotel in Las Vegas with flu, and was due to leave for China a week after getting home – travel stories suddenly lost their fascination. I stopped there and then (the love of travel has recently returned, but it is no longer as intense.) I cancelled my trip to China and once I got home spent more time with my wonderful son and daughter. Suddenly I’d had enough of journalism and I wanted to return to my first love, fiction, which had been tugging plaintively at my sleeve all those years.
Since I’ve devoted myself to fiction, I spend a couple of hours a day in a kind of parallel universe. It’s just that I know the magic formula and can always come back. In the years when I was writing my (published) début, Grammar of an Obsession, life was giving me a very tough time, but I always had Dolf’s shop in the hall of the home and Miss Olga’s bedroom with the grammophone and the jazz records, where I was welcome. Later, when happiness came back into my life, I continued to cherish my world down the rabbit hole. I wandered with Charlotte (Brontë) through the streets of nineteenth-century Brussels; peered through the misted-over windows of Madame Heger’s boarding school, and was kept awake by the booming bells of St Paul’s Cathedral.
My husband Paul and I are just back from a splendid summer trip. We did research for my new book and stayed first in Munich, where we drank cold beer in the Englischer Garten, and then in Switzerland, where we walked up the Bürgenstock through an alpine meadow full of cows with bells on. I’m happy.
And yet: in the morning, while the normal world is asleep, I return to my wonderland. My hands are on the keys and I am welcomed like an old friend. My characters are sitting at breakfast and I have my chair at the table. They know me, I know them, or think I know them, since they keep surprising me. The subtle scent of lily-of-the-valley that lingers around her, the arrogance in his voice, the hesitant steps with which the child with the plaits enters the breakfast room. The smell of Darjeeling tea, spiced gingerbread studded with pearls of sugar, soft cheese and honey. The tall windows with curtains patterned with fern prints, looking out onto the garden with its pink hydrangeas and rose bushes that have almost finished flowering. It is sometimes said that my style is filmic. I don’t really understand how I could write differently. This is not a backdrop, this is where I live.
(translated by Paul Vincent)