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A crash course in Dutch literature

11 September 2013

From Friday 6 September until Tuesday 10 September, the annual Amsterdam Fellowship for International Publishers took place for the sixth time. Ten representatives from internationally renowned publishing houses visited Amsterdam at the invitation of the Dutch Foundation for Literature and Jacqueline Smit, publisher at Orlando Publishers, in order to learn more about Dutch literature and publishing. Alexis Washam, senior editor at the Crown Publishing Group and Hogarth, reported for Boekblad about the people she met, the conversations she had and ‘an epic downpour’.

What a beautiful day to arrive in Amsterdam! Though I have visited this city twice before, both times it was winter, and I must say that today, the sunshine, warm breeze, and green trees lining the sparkling canals, have transformed the place into something completely new to me.

I took an overnight flight from New York, which took its inevitable toll, and spent the early hours of the morning watching the locals cheerfully head off to work, while I, bleary eyed and rumpled, struggled to buy myself a train ticket from Schiphol to Centraal Station. We New Yorkers might pride ourselves on our street smarts, but let me tell you, when operating on a scant hour’s sleep it’s quite possible for one of us (namely, me) to be utterly undone by a finicky credit card machine.

But all that is behind me now, as I am hotel-ed and showered and caffeinated, wandering the streets and battling waves of jet lag while I await the arrival of the rest of my international colleagues. The program begins tomorrow, with a visit to the Dutch Foundation for Literature, and I am eager to discover what Jacqueline and Bas have in store for us there and beyond. Thus far, if only via email, they have been the perfect hosts!

As for this afternoon, I am currently seated in The English Bookshop in the Jordaan (us publishing folk can only last so long in a foreign city before tracking down a bookstore) and I am most impressed by the store’s book club reviews of titles that line their shelves. They sound like a discerning and lively bunch of readers.

I decided to buy a copy of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (shh, don’t tell any of my American friends that I haven’t read this one yet). The book club gave it high marks, saying ‘if you are up for a challenge, this one is a must’. I can’t resist a provocation like that, so never let it be said that I am one to back down. Speaking of which, this week’s schedule looks pretty packed, so I’d better prepare myself for more Dutch literary adventures to come. Until tomorrow!

Day 1, 6 September 2013: Literary publishing in The Netherlands

Today the fellowship officially begins. It has been a pleasure to meet my colleagues from around the world, and talk with them about literature, the publishing business, and other important topics, like reality television (Project Runway!).

What I love about these international events is that we all get the opportunity to understand the book business from new perspectives. For instance, we heard a great presentation from Gijs Schunselaar from the CNBP, where he explained how publishers, booksellers, librarians, and authors all come together to promote the ‘Book Week’ novel – a brand new work of fiction by a beloved writer which is given away for free! I had a brief vision of Americans doing the same thing, but I quickly understood that we would never be so civilized and – um – nice to each other.

I especially enjoyed Victor Schiferli’s presentation about contemporary Dutch literature. In the US, translated fiction is not easy to publish, so I wasn’t sure how much knowledge I would be able to take home with me. But then he said something that really resonated with me – and something that I think makes instinctive sense to all publishers. As a member of the Dutch Foundation for Literature, he is often asked ‘why would people (from another country) want to read a Dutch book?’ And Victor’s reply is, ‘People aren’t looking to read a Dutch book. They want to read a good book.’ True. And the truth is that Dutch writers write some damn good books. And good books will win hearts all over the world, no matter what language they’re originally written in.

Later in the evening we had a cocktail hour and dinner at Ambo Anthos, whose offices are so beautiful that I am tempted to leave Random House and sit on the stairs outside their door until Chris Herschdorfer offers me a job. But I still have my dignity, so I resisted the impulse, but enjoyed meeting the lovely editors who work there, and discovering that even if its raining on the canal at one moment, the sun might come out again in no time at all.

I am still afraid of riding a bicycle in this city, but I signed up to do it on Sunday anyway. Stay tuned. I hope I’ll be alive to tell the tale.

Amsterdam Fellows at Ambo Anthos Publishers. Photo: Victor Schiferli.

Day 2, 7 September 2013: An introduction into Dutch culture

Our second day of the fellowship was filled with local culture. We visited the Rijksmuseum, where our wonderful hosts from Luitingh-Sijthoff had arranged for a tour guide, who gave us an insider’s perspective on the Dutch masters - his art history background revealed a lot of secrets behind the images in the paintings. I had no idea that birds, cats and girls playing flutes had so many hidden messages begin them (hint: most of them are about sex). I could have spent many more hours with him showing me around the museum, but he had other people to entertain, so while my colleagues went off to a boat tour of the canals I spent a bit longer wandering around and looking at more recent art (the covers of the art journal Wendingen, from the 1920s, were particularly cool. Follow me on Instagram to see some of them).

I managed to fit in a bit of work before our afternoon engagement (the submissions never stop coming in, even when I am in Amsterdam), then met my colleagues after their canal tour was finished. I had been on a tour like that before, when I was visiting the city for the first time. I must admit, though, that I was younger then, and I had visited one of Amsterdam’s finer coffee shops (it was my first time here, so I felt obligated to do it), and I fell asleep on the boat and missed a bit of the architecture. It happens.

Next we had a lovely picnic in Vondelpark, hosted by De Geus. It was a pleasure to enjoy the weather and meet fellow fiction editors, comparing the nature of our work in different countries. One of the most stressful aspects of my job at home is ending up in a “beauty contest” with another editor who wants the same book that I do, and when an author chooses one editor over another it always feels personal. It was nice to hear that Dutch editors face the same situation. In this case, the contest had a happy ending, as Onno Wessling’s first novel is being published by De Geus in October. It sounds wonderful, and I look forward to reading it when the English translation becomes available.

Our evening was the most fun I’ve had yet. We had dinner at Barbara den Ouden’s beautiful apartment in south Amsterdam, and she and her boyfriend Jeff (a fellow American!) were gracious and wonderful hosts. They served crab as an appetizer, which was an excellent icebreaker, and Bas prepared the most delicious meal I have eaten in a long time. I would go into more detail, but now I am due to attend another dinner which I’m sure will be great too.

Stay tuned, and I’ll have more to say tomorrow…

Amsterdam Fellows diner at Barbara den Ouden. Photo: Victor Schiferli.

Day 3, 8 September 2013: Sunday

Sunday was a more relaxed day for the fellows. I did have the chance to go cycling, and I am happy to report that I did not fall over or embarrass myself too much. My Italian colleague who came along with me is much more accustomed to the culture - he rides a bike to work every day. I on the other hand am a bit terrified of bicycles and I never ride them in New York. But I felt it would be wrong to come to this city for the third time and not at least try it. So it was a short ride but a successful one.

After experiencing Bas’ delectable tagine on Saturday night, I wasn’t sure I would ever eat again because I thought nothing would taste so good, but happily the fellows reconvened for dinner at a delicious Italian restaurant called Firma Pekelharing, where I indulged in four courses and was happy to meet (by coincidence! Amsterdam is a small town) the original editor of Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which I published in the US earlier this year. Four of Herman’s publishers are on this trip - me, Sherif from Egypt, Esra from Turkey, and Alexander from Portugal - and Herman was kind enough to meet with us all for a drink on Monday afternoon.

But back to the dinner I had on Sunday - although the day I arrived here was beautiful, I think I’ve been experiencing a bit more of Amsterdam’s typical weather in the days since. When we left the restaurant on Sunday night, a few friends and I got caught in an epic downpour on the way back to the hotel. And since we are all foreigners, of course none of us had an umbrella. Suffice it to say that this was a couple of days ago, and my dress is still drying. But it’s ok with me, as I’ve just come from the terribly hot, humid and miserable world that is Manhattan in August, so a bit of cool air and rain was welcome. While taking a moment to dry off, my British colleague beat me at two games of pool. I gave it my best shot, but alas, I’m just not very good. Ok, so this doesn’t have much to do with books or the publishing industry, but wait until I check in tomorrow - our next two days were packed with book talk, and I learned quite a lot.

Amsterdam Fellows group photo. Photo: Victor Schiferli.

Day 4, 9 September 2013:

Monday and Tuesday were the true working days of the fellowship. I was looking forward to seeing the offices of other publishers, and hearing more about the business of publishing from a Dutch perspective. At this point, the fellows have gotten to know each other a bit better, and as a result I have filed away some fun facts about publishing around the world.

For instance, my colleague from Iceland, Sif, explained that even though their population is only about 300,000, they have the highest concentration of readers in the world. This is good news for Sif, who works for Iceland’s largest publishing house, which was founded by her father, includes an imprint founded by her grandfather, and currently employs her brothers, sister-in-law, aunt, and many more family members. If you’re interested in working in publishing in Reykjavik, I recommend you get in touch with Sif to find out if she has a single cousin you could marry. It sounds like that kind of an operation up there.

Seriously though,

it’s fascinating to hear about the differences between the book markets in different countries, comparing reading habits, technology, the industry structure, etc. Fellowships like this one offer an extended opportunity to get to know what’s happening in the international marketplace, on a more personal level than might happen at book fairs.

A few of the publishers we visited on Monday also included some of their authors in presentations, which was a treat. I was quite moved by all three of the writers who spoke about their work at De Bezige Bij (whose offices rival those of Ambo|Anthos, I must admit… I’m starting to realize that beautiful architecture and welcoming work environments are part of the package in Dutch publishing).

Walter van der Berg, Stefan Hertmans and A.F.Th. van der Heijden all made wonderful presentations of their novels, and I hope they’ll travel to the English language market. (Hint to the fellowship organizers: maybe if you let me stay longer on my next visit I will learn a bit of Dutch, so I won’t have to wait so long for sample translations! Just a thought.)

Later in the evening we attended a lovely dinner hosted by De Arbeiderspers/A.W. Bruna, featuring Indonesian cuisine, which I understand is quite a common thing in Amsterdam. Their authors did a lovely job of presenting as well, and luckily at the end of the evening, the rain wasn’t quite so severe and we had a lovely walk back to the hotel. After such an intensive day (we also visited Meulenhoff Boekerij, Podium and Querido) I wasn’t sure I’d be able to absorb any more information. But I’m determined to try. And there’s still one more day to go!

Day 5, 10 September 2013:

Tuesday, the final day of the fellowship, felt like it lasted for about five years. Perhaps that’s because I was so reluctant to let this experience end – to say farewell to my new best friends, and to leave the canals and the rain behind (yes, even the rain). It could also be that the schedule was so busy that I am shocked my vocal chords have not completely given up on me at this point – not that I’m complaining! It makes sense that there’s only a few days available to meet as many people as possible, so we really needed to make use of the time we had. Also, I’m fairly sure that the work that is waiting for me at home in New York is mounting exponentially, so I couldn’t afford to be away for longer – much as I wanted to.

Our day began at yet another beautiful building, home of De Harmonie, whose publisher, Jaco Groot, told us some fabulous stories that made the golden days of publishing sound so appealing. I think I was born too late. He told us about how he discovered Ian McEwan (one of my favorite authors) by reading one of his first short stories in a magazine in 1974, calling him up and offering to publish the collection in Dutch. He has been McEwan’s publisher ever since, and it’s so gratifying to know that long term author-publisher relationships can still exist like this. They also publish some great graphic books, and I loved seeing their authors’ artwork displayed throughout the building.

Next, we were treated to a presentation by the Flemish Literature Foundation, who happily provided us with a few traditional Flemish treats to accompany our afternoon meetings. Beer, cheese and chocolate (and of course coffee) gave us the fuel to keep going through an onslaught of meetings with rights directors. But the directors themselves were uniformly lovely, and I have a lot of catching up to do on contemporary Dutch writers – I think I’m most interested in reading Walter van den Berg, Peter Buwalda, and Britta Böhler when I get home (for the record, I have already read Herman Koch, Tommy Wieringa, Nescio and Gerbrand Bakker). If I am missing any major Dutch authors, which I’m sure that I am, I hope you’ll let me know.

Following the meetings, we ended the program with a delightful cocktail hour at Uitgeverij Cossee, a publishing house that I’ve admired since I was a young assistant, since I’ve always known that they publish another of my favorite writers, J.M. Coetzee. They introduced us to a few of their authors as well, including Britta, whose book sounds beautiful (in his presentation, Christoph said “if you’re invited to a dinner party, and want to prove your strength as an intellectual, you’ll bring a copy of De beslissing as a gift.” I was already intrigued, but that remark sold me). Eva and Christoph also sent us off with a toast of jenever, which was strong but delicious. I may or may not have purchased a bottle at the airport on the way home.

And then, finally, our farewell dinner. That also means that this is my farewell blog! It’s been an incredible experience, filled with friends that I hope I’ll keep for life – friends from Germany, Portugal, Egypt, France, Italy, Iceland and more… friends that are probably relieved that I didn’t tell you too much about what we got up to in the moments between our meetings. I’m so grateful to Bas, Jacqueline, Victor and Barbara at the Dutch Foundation for giving us this opportunity, and it was a sad moment when I stepped off the airplane into an absurdly hot day in New York. I miss the city of Amsterdam and I even miss the rain, but most of all I miss the people.

Thanks for indulging in this blog with me, and I hope anyone who reads it who comes to New York will look me up and come say hello! I’m sorry to say that the Random House buildings are nowhere near a canal, but I hope I can provide good company to make up for it.

Heel hartelijk bedankt!

Alle liefs,

Alexis

See also:

  • Boekblad
  • Amsterdam Fellowship on Facebook
  • Column by publisher Joost Nijsen on the Amsterdam Fellowship (Dutch)

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And the truth is that Dutch writers write some damn good books.

Writer

Alexis Washam

Alexis Washam is senior editor at Crown publishers and the Hogarth imprint (New York), who published the US edition of The Dinner by Herman Koch. She is one of the ten participants in the 6th Amsterdam Fellowship for International Publishers. During her visit she wrote a blog on her experiences for the Dutch booktrade magazine and website, Boekblad.

See all weblogs by Alexis Washam