European Short Story Network: Your book Problemski Hotel is a series of linked short stories set in an asylum seeker centre. Frank O’Connor said the short story form is suited to writing about ‘submerged populations’ – is this something you aim to do in your work?
Dimitri Verhulst: Well for a start, I never think about writing in a ‘short story’ way. I’m not sure it exists. I write novels made up of lots of short stories, which means you can read them separately, but there is a link between them, and all these stories fit together in the same book; they belong together. But they do have the construction, separately, of short stories – they can be read as single stories.
I learned writing by reading, and one of my great inspirations was a certain Roger van de Velde, who must be unknown outside of Belgium – he’s unknown inside of Belgium these days – but he made these books of several little chapters; they weren’t called short stories, they weren’t called novels, they just happened. These were little stories that perfectly fit together. When I got more professional literary aspirations, my first goal was to get published in a literary magazine, and it makes no sense to get something published when you can’t taste the whole story. There must be a beginning and an end, you must have the complete dish.
The Room Next Door was your first book.
The editor put on the cover ‘short stories’. I was 26 years old and I had at the time the same sickness as many literary critics, namely that I didn’t take myself seriously because it wasn’t a novel. I thought I wrote a novel and he said, ‘No, these are short stories.’ So in a way I was sad about it, and indeed, you don’t get too many reviews when you’re publishing short stories – I would’ve had many more reviews if it was called a novel. But there were some critics who said, ‘Why are these called short stories? This is a novel.’
Why do I mention all this? Because we have to get rid of the idea that the short story has nothing to do with a novel. My most known book (in English, the title is The Misfortunates) – you can read them separately or together.
Could you tell us about your influences – particularly in terms of this episodic structure – aside from van der Velde?
I could mention Marquez, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Michon, Louis Paul Boon. He’s my personal little god. He’s dead. Even in music you will find some examples, new things to learn.
Do you see yourself as writing from a Belgian tradition?
No, literature is one world, for me. I recognise my emotions, situations I’ve been through, in the work of a Japanese writer or an African writer. That’s the use of literature. Somehow, with our pens, we’re in search of what makes mankind. There are no frontiers any more, even in time. I could recognise myself as a nineteen year-old boy in Hamlet. That’s a great idea; that Shakespeare, in the 17th century, wrote something in which a young man in the twentieth century can recognise himself. I don’t think you have this with all the arts. I adore the idea that you can cross all kinds of edges and frontiers.
Talking of frontiers, Belgium’s a country divided by language, in some respects. It’s a political issue. To what extent is the language you write in part of your identity (or people try to make it your identity)?
Well, I could say the same as Fernando Pessoa, who said, ‘My country is not Portugal, it is Portuguese.’ And maybe I can consider the Dutch language as my country. It’s the language I’m sad in, I’m happy in, I dream in. So it’s quite logical that it’s also the language I write in. I live in the French-speaking part (although I was born in the Dutch-speaking part), and all my books are edited in another country. I have to go to Amsterdam to see my publisher. The same thing happens with Walloon writers from the South of Belgium. Their books are published in Paris, so in a way, Belgium has a certain editing poverty. That’s great, in a way – I’m not crying about it – because it means I have to think about literature as a greater thing; I just can’t write about this little spectrum, or my own little village. It has to be strong enough to pass at least one frontier. I already have one other country to reach with my words.
Does this prevent parochialism in your writing? So you’re always writing outwards? For example, it’s sometimes said that writers in England aren’t writing to England, but to London.
Maybe when the book is finished I have to think this way, but when I’m writing, I’m writing inwards. I’m the first one I have to touch, the first one who has to be convinced it’s a good book. It has nothing to do with my neighbour or my wife. I have to be very honest with myself. And later on, well… I’m an artist in the morning, and in the afternoon, I’m a salesman – I have to sell the book to the world.
Your books are widely translated – in more than twenty languages – the latest is published by Portobello books in English. You obviously speak and read great English…
I don’t, you’re being too kind now…
…so you have access to the translation. How does the process feel to you? Do you feel you’re relinquishing some ownership of the work when it’s in a translator’s hands?
It depends. I can only check some languages. I can check it in French, and in English, and German. I’m not able to check the Japanese version. Nowadays I’m getting translated into Chinese. That makes me very happy in one way, and in other way that makes me feel… not strong enough. What do I mean? Over there, I notice I don’t have the character for being a very great writer, because the Chinese censor my books.
Yeah, and I can’t check it, but I know it’s going to happen. So what a really great writer would have done is not sign a contract with a Chinese publisher, but I did because, well, I’m proud, and I found it great to be translated and read on the other side of the world. If I was a great writer, I would have said no.
So if the options are not getting published, or getting published in a censored version, which should one choose?
Not at all is the best thing to do. On the other hand, what we’re seeing is many authors in Russia – from the old Communist era – are getting retranslated. So they already had one foot in [the canon of] literature, and since Communism fell, they’re getting a new, uncensored translation. Another foot.
A question about your style, and something in particular that I’ve enjoyed in your stories: they’re very direct, and yet subtle. You seem to follow Horace’s edict of ‘in media res’ – they hit the ground running, at pace. The reader joins the story when everything’s already happening; there’s no preamble. They’re about incredibly serious things – for example infanticide – and yet there’s still subtlety and humour there. Can you speak a little bit about your style, in this respect?
The style depends on the book you’re writing. I don’t write the same book each time, so the style might vary depending on what I’m writing. When writing about asylum-seekers, I knew no one would be interested in another sad story about strangers looking for happiness, sitting in a truck or container and dying there, because these are the images we see every day on television. I know people easily become immune to images and stories. So you have to… well, not shock them, because shock is too easy, too adolescent, in a way. But I love using humour as a way to cry. Humour is not just meant for laughing; it’s meant to open our eyes. The best jokes have something that hurts in them. I did the same with The Misfortunates. Of course it’s a sad story about someone’s youth – mine – but, well, getting humour in it is the best way to open people’s eyes. At least, that’s a strategy in some of my books; not all of them, of course; that would be boring.
Can I ask about your background? You’ve spoken and written about the time you spent in borstal. In the UK, there’s a perception – and it may still be true – that writers tend to come from a certain background: if not privileged, then comfortable; that there’s a problem with social mobility in the literary world. What was your journey from a difficult background to becoming a writer? Did you go to university, or were you outside the system?
I went to university, but I didn’t finish. For two reasons: one is I was too stupid; the other is, I didn’t have the time to study. I didn’t have parents, so I had to have a job to pay for my studies. So I was working thirty-eight hours each week in a factory. And of course I had to drink and dance and make love – I was eighteen years old – I had to be young at the same time. I could manage this for two years. But it was too hard, so I quit university.
I feel a certain responsibility. I’m very thankful for my place in the history of mankind, particularly in Belgium, because I realise that I belong to the first generation of poor people – who were meant to remain poor the rest of their lives – who can write a book. My father went to school until the age of fourteen years old. When I was born, there was a system to educate children, because the government had money for it – a very good social system – so the day I lost my parents I was in borstal. In the eighties and nineties it was very different to how it is now. I was in borstal with girls who were raped by their father or their uncle, with youth criminals, orphans, and it was all one package, one little family. But at least we didn’t have to sleep under a bridge. We could finish our studies up to the age of eighteen. So I can read and write. That’s a gift from the government. In many countries in the world, when you’re poor and without parents at fourteen or twelve, you’re lost. You’re lost to the future. So in a way I’m very thankful that I can be the voice of that generation, of that part of our society, who are also human beings with thoughts and ideas.
And did these experiences – the social dynamic of all the different kids – feed into Problemski Hotel?
It did, very much. Problemski Hotel is a weird book, because the book I never wrote, and I have to write, to die as a… not as a happy man, but maybe as a satisfied man… the book I want to write is about my borstal time. Because it’s a hidden place in our society. I remember that people were scared of me. Adults were scared of me, as a fifteen year-old boy, when I went from school, because they thought he’s from borstal, he must really be a criminal, that’s a real asshole.
When I had little girlfriends, their parents said, ‘Don’t come home with that borstal guy – I want you to get rid of him immediately.’ I heard these things all my youth. No one knows what’s going on there. But it’s a normal life. You can hear Mozart there, and you can hear the Spice Girls there. You can read books there, or do whatever. But because it’s hidden, people are afraid of it. So there is a reason for telling this. There is a certain need for these kind of stories.
Unfortunately, I gave the structure of these stories away with Problemski Hotel – I would’ve told them the same way as I did in that book. And that’s a pain in the ass for me, because I don’t have an alternative way – I’m still thinking about it. But it’s not the only book I have to write, and hopefully I have some years to go, so I don’t panic. I’ve always heard that writers are at their best between fifty and sixty, so that’s what I’m hoping for.
What’s next for you? What are you working on?
Several things. I finished some lyrics this week for a pop group. I’ve been writing some poems, and I’m busy with a novel about – I’m afraid I’m going to tell you too much – but it’s about elderly people. I’m always busy. I’m always writing. I’m always into some project – it’s like breathing for me. You have small children who make drawings with no notion that it’s art. Well, as a child I was always making stories, with no notion that it was literature. It was my way of amusing myself, and that’s what I’m still doing.