There’s a lot riding on the tour which is why it was so wonderful that more than a hundred people turned out for the event in Birmingham. Success! In Liverpool, at the Epstein Theatre, in spite of our High Impact PR blitzing (we’ve been actively Tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, sending hundreds of press releases for months!), our audience was disappointingly small – but as Rosie said, perfectly formed.
The Epstein Theatre was stunning and the conversations between Rosie and the authors were diverse and fascinating. Here we are with six successful, very professional but also very pleasant authors and it got me thinking, not just about success, which we tend to focus on, but about that other thing along the way - failure.
Graphic novelist Judith Vanistendael, who comes across as a quiet and sensitive woman, an observer, has noticed how the British make much more noise about success than Belgians do. ‘Everything here is “the best”,’ she says, ‘I find it quite hard to cope with. We really aren’t used to it.’
It’s true that a lot of superlatives are thrown around here, and it’s the nature of the tour to aim for high impact, of course. ‘We are more discreet about it, that’s all,’ she tells me.
It strikes me when I listen to them that the Belgians as well as the Dutch aren’t always keen to stick their heads up over the parapet.
Judith didn’t have an easy start to her career. At eighteen she went to the HDK art school in Berlin but soon discovered she didn’t fit in. ‘The others were much older, twenty-five or twenty-six, they were into constructionist art and large-scale abstract painting. I like much smaller things, attention to detail’. After eight months she got thrown out, decided she was no good at art, and went to university. She was good at her subject, Ethnic Art, but didn’t feel at home and ended up spending three years after graduation going from job to job.
‘It was my boyfriend who forced me to go out and train as a graphic novelist. There was a college really close to our house which has a famous course for that. I loved it right away.’ Things went uphill from there, her graduation project became her first book, Dance by the Light of the Moon. ‘I was lucky. From that moment on I never had to fight for attention. Female graphic novelists writing on autobiographical themes were fashionable. I didn’t even know it, I was just doing my own thing.’
The theme of this debut graphic novel was her relationship with a Togolese asylum seeker, ‘a relationship that really failed big-time,’ she adds. She was able to use the experience to produce something really beautiful.
On the train to Sheffield I sit with Herman Koch and Peter Terrin, two writers at the peak of their careers. Koch made it big with his international bestseller, The Dinner; the US edition is coming out next month and a film is in production so the sky’s the limit right now. Terrin just won the AKO prize with Post Mortem and his previous novel The Guard has sold in 16 territories; today comes news of an Arabic translation. It is also being filmed.
Neither writer is really interested in success. Terrin’s characters are always striving for something, Michel and Harry in The Guard are desperate for promotion and that’s the driving force of the novel. The novel Koch is working on right now features a writer at the end of his life, less famous than he once was, this is much more interesting, he says.
The conversation turns to something they have in common: a disappointment about the way Dutch and Flemish critics dismiss novels with an obvious plot. They have both had scathing comments about their work being too dominated by plot. ‘It’s like they suspect you of having written a thriller if you have a plot,’ Peter says, ‘Yet it’s an instrument like any other.’ ‘There’s such scorn about plot, journalists often just give away the ending, like it doesn’t matter to the reader,’ Herman adds. ‘If you have a plot, they assume you can’t have paid any attention to style.’
It’s a criticism completely absent from the reception of their foreign editions and an interesting reflection on Dutch literary culture.
Success comes with its own baggage: negative criticism, the duty to promote one’s work and travel and perform. But it also means the companionship of other writers on tour and conversations like this.
Failure? Striving for something more, the dynamism that makes for plot.