Writing Across Two Cultures
An Interview with Philibert Schogt
by Bryan R. Monte
Philibert Schogt (b. 1960) is the author of four novels – De wilde getallen/The Wild Numbers, 1998/2000, Daalder/Daalder’s Chocolates 2002/2005, De vrouw van de filosoof (The Philosopher’s Wife), 2005, and Beste reiziger, (Dear Traveller), 2009. On 24 April 2011, he was interviewed in his Amsterdam flat where he answered questions about his background, his novels, and his craft as a writer. Schogt was born in the Netherlands, raised in Canada from the age of four by his émigré parents, and returned to the Netherlands when he was 18 to study philosophy and mathematics at the University of Amsterdam.
Bryan Monte: I’d like to discuss your novels today especially the first two, The Wild Numbers and Daalder’s Chocolates in more depth because they are available in English, and some of their relevant biographical, historical and thematic aspects. I’ve noticed that all of your novels seem to have quirky protagonists such as Isaac Swift, the middle-aged mathematician struggling to make a breakthrough and Joop Daadler, a Dutch émigré chocolatier, struggling to make a business out of his passion in a run-down shop on Toronto’s St. Clair Avenue. Both of these characters and the other protagonists seem unique and a bit socially disconnected. My first question is: Where do your characters come from? Are they from your own experience or do you manufacture them?
Philibert Schogt: I manufacture them mostly. Some people think they recognize themselves in my characters, but I think they are flattering themselves. I leave friends alone, although I’ll sometimes isolate some of their traits, jumble them up and paste them together again to form new figures. Along with my own character traits, of course. People in the periphery of my life have sometimes reappeared in my books — people I feel I really wouldn’t be offending or people who I don’t mind offending. For instance, I was once treated rather badly by a medical specialist, so I introduced a thoroughly disagreeable figure with the same specialization in one of my novels. A sweet but relatively harmless form of revenge.
BM: So in other words, Vera Samson (the protagonist in De vrouw van de filosoof), is someone you created. Max Vermeer (the protagonist in Beste reiziger), is someone you’ve never met.
PS: That’s right. You mentioned Vera Samson from De vrouw van de filosoof. Of course I studied philosophy, so a lot of our friends thought: “Oh, no, that must be Astrid, Philibert’s wife. He’s writing about her.” But we kept telling everyone that the character of Vera resembled me more than Astrid.
BM: So staying with this question about where your characters come from, your characters, Isaac Swift, the mathematician, in The Wild Numbers, the chocolatier, Joop Daalder, in Daalder’s Chocolates seem to live more into their own little worlds than that they interact socially with other people. Did you consciously set out to discuss the theme of social disconnection in these novels?
PS: Yes, both Isaac Swift’s passion for numbers and Joop Daalder’s passion for chocolate come at a price. It alienates them from their surroundings.
BM: And would you say that as a writer, you are more interested in individuals and their pursuits than relationships?
PS: Yes, that’s a good point. I think I’m primarily interested in individuals and how they cope with life. Of course, their dealings with other people form a part of that. But I don’t think a love affair or some other relationship will ever be the main focus.
BM: Moving on to the protagonists in your last two novels, in De vrouw van de filosoof, Vera Samson finds that her ex-boyfriend, whom she has supported financially and emotionally for many years, has written a philosophical tome in which he ridicules her as the “siren of mediocrity.” Then, there is Max Vermeer, the narrator in Beste reiziger, a happy-go-lucky travel writer who is constantly tricking his readers by stealing his information from other guides, but whose outlook on life changes when he falls in love with a co-worker, only to end up getting a taste of his own medicine. Betrayal seems to be a central theme in both novels.
PS: Betrayal certainly plays a prominent role in De vrouw van de filosoof. But in Beste reiziger…. Yes, you’re right. That never occurred to me before.
BM: Why did you choose betrayal as a theme?
PS: Things are not what they seem, people are not who they say they are or who we expect them to be, and, on top of everything else, our mind is constantly playing tricks on itself. These are all aspects of a kind of irony that permeates our existence, and for me as a writer, an endless source of inspiration. I think betrayal is one of the most hurtful ways of being confronted with this irony, but at the same time, from a literary point of view, one of the most interesting and dramatic.
BM: Let’s continue with an overview of your writing career, what other works – short stories, poems, essays, and plays — have you written?
PS: Before starting my first novel, I spent years writing short stories. I was hoping to get them published at some point, but just didn’t know who to send them to, so they ended up lying on my desk and disappearing into a drawer after a while. I didn’t write them for nothing, though. In retrospect, they helped me to develop my style.
BM: What period would that be then?
PS: Back in the ‘80s, even in high school in the ‘70s. That’s when I first considered that maybe I wanted to be a writer.
BM: So we know when you began writing, but how or what motivated you to write? What was your initial catalyst?
PS: As soon as I was able to write, when I was six, one of the first things I started to do was to write stories. I always had fantasy worlds as a child. When I was eight I began this huge sprawling – you could almost call it a novel – about monsters and werewolves and two boys getting into all sorts of adventures and trouble. My interest in writing began to fade away when I was about ten. I think you can compare it to the way young children are great at drawing pictures. Their style is very spontaneous and full of energy until at around ten their drawings seem to freeze, becoming more realistic and static. Sadly, the next step is that they stop drawing altogether. Something similar seemed to be happening to my writing. I simply lost interest and normal schoolwork took up most of my time.
BM: Is that when you started attending high school?
PS: Yes. But then, when I was 16 and going through a particularly rough period of teenage angst and Weltschmerz, our English teacher asked us to write a short story. It was like a return to a lost love. I was amazed at how much I could express through writing. And it was comforting as well.
BM: What were your literary and philosophical influences later on when you continued to write? How did your university studies provide inspiration for your novels because there’s a lot of discussion of different philosophical theories in your novels?
PS: Actually, philosophy was something that I tried to avoid at first. I felt there was a lot to be said for the adage – Show, don’t tell – and philosophy does quite the opposite, starting from the general whereas fiction starts from the specific. If there are any ideas or deeper messages to be conveyed in fiction, it’s usually better to let them shine through the narrative rather than overtly mentioning them. I’m often annoyed by philosophical passages in novels. They detract from the story, and more often than not, the reasoning is fuzzy or even nonsensical. Why doesn’t the writer leave the philosophy to the philosophers and get on with the story? Of course, it wasn’t quite as black and white as I was making it out to be. Bit by bit, philosophy has crept back into my writing – obviously I didn’t study it for nothing. But I always try to present it in a form that doesn’t weigh down the story and that readers will hopefully find enjoyable.
BM: So who were your favourite philosophers?
PS: I liked Plato, not only because of his ideas, but also because of the beautiful form in which he presented them: the Socratic dialogue. A lot of philosophers are awful writers, even though some of their ideas might be worthwhile. There are some notable exceptions. Nietzsche was a brilliant philosopher as well as a wonderful writer. He really inspired me – as did Wittgenstein, for his pursuit of clarity in language.
BM: How much did growing up in Canada as the son of Dutch immigrants influence your writing?
PS: Why I’d almost consider it to be the story of my life, being an immigrant in a faraway country and then returning to the home country again as another kind of immigrant. It’s a recurring theme in my writing as well. Joop Daalder is a European emigrating to North America and being confronted with a difference in culture. And Johan Butler, the main character in the novel I’m currently working on, is a Dutch-Canadian who moved from North America to Holland.
BM: So do you see yourself as a person writing about and living in two different cultures then?
PS: Well, in some of my books, certainly. But in my first novel, The Wild Numbers, it was an issue that I tried to circumvent. The story is situated in an unnamed town….
BM: …that looks like Toronto from the description of the flashing lights on the television mast….
PS: ….which was inspired by Toronto’s famous CN Tower, yes. But the size of the math department in my novel suggests a smaller university town, perhaps somewhere in the US. Because mathematical truths are eternal, transcending time and place, I felt that the location of the story was irrelevant. I wanted it to be as unspecified and neutral as possible.
BM: Well, I know when you wrote: “We receive funding for each student who comes here from the government,” that’s definitely Canada not the US.
PS: Well, I’ll have to leave that out in a later edition.
BM: Being an educator here in the Netherlands and knowing that my college receives money for every student sitting in my class, I’m sensitive to that. But I don’t think most of your readers….
PS: ….would pick that up. No.
BM: But as an academic, I do enjoy many of the things you write about in academia. So, to go back to the question about living in two cultures, has the North American/Canadian influence diminished as you have become re-acculturated in The Netherlands? Your last two novels are set in Northern Europe and have only been published in Dutch.
PS: That’s an interesting point. There are various answers to that question, I suppose. It’s true that The Philosopher’s Wife has a very, very Dutch setting, which might have been a problem when my agent tried to get it translated, although the theme itself, I feel, is trans-cultural. But certainly I’ve become more and more Dutch the longer I’ve lived here. My English has become a bit rusty. When I hear myself on tape, I wince at the Dutch accent that I’ve developed. But usually it takes only a week or two back in Canada to get my English back into shape.
BM: Are you a Dutch or a Canadian citizen or both?
PS: I only have a Dutch passport. My sisters managed to get dual citizenship, but the rules keep changing and somehow I was unlucky or I wasn’t alert enough when a window of opportunity presented itself. It would have been nice. I certainly feel like a dual citizen, without officially being one.
BM: But this duality must give you an advantage, a unique perspective, since you’re able to live in two different cultures and speak the language and understand what’s going on.
PS: I try to nurture my Canadian background to keep a little distance from Dutch society. Keeping distance is a good thing for a writer to do. So it’s definitely been an advantage.
BM: Tell me, how did your first novel, The Wild Numbers, come to be published?
PS: Well, that’s a long story. I started out writing it in English, though I already was living here in Amsterdam. But then I was faced with the problem: whom do I send this to? I didn’t know anybody in the Dutch literary scene who could help me, and I didn’t have any connections in North American or in England. So the finished manuscript ended up lying in a drawer for quite some time. Until I heard that a friend of mine from high school, Douglas Cooper, had published a first novel, Amnesia. The next time I was in Toronto I contacted him. He was more than willing to read my manuscript and really liked it, so he showed it to his agent in New York. I spent months waiting for a reply, and when it did come, it was: “Great story, but it needs a subplot.” More human interest was what he meant, fearing that the main theme of the novel, mathematics, would scare off too many readers. Obediently, I set about trying to weave more human interest into the story, only to find I was weakening rather than strengthening it. After a number of attempts, I boldly decided that the literary agent was wrong and that the story was fine the way it was. Unfortunately, this meant that my manuscript went back to lying in my drawer.
Meanwhile, my ex-girlfriend here in Amsterdam invited me to a launch of her first book of poetry. How painful. Here was my ex, about to celebrate her first literary success, while my unpublished manuscript was rotting away in a drawer. At first I didn’t even want to go. But I decided to be strong and went to her launch at the Arbeiderspers. My ex and her family were genuinely happy to see me, and I was genuinely happy for her success. Then, out of the blue, an attractive young woman came up to me and started a conversation. What brought me here, and did I do any writing of my own? Well, actually I did. I ended up telling her the whole story of my manuscript, my writer friend in Canada and his agent in New York. As it turned out, she was one of the Arbeiderspers’s editors, and the next thing I knew, she was asking me to submit my manuscript. There I was, in the middle of my ex-girlfriend’s launch, with no expectations whatsoever, and here was this beautiful woman inviting me to submit my manuscript. It’s a kind of Cinderella story with me in the role of Cinderella.
Anyway, a few weeks later, the editor called me to say that she liked the story and that the Arbeiderspers was prepared to publish it. There was only one hitch: I had to translate it into Dutch first.
BM: So it first appeared in Dutch as De wilde getallen?
PS: Yes. So although I had already finished the English version by the end of 1993, because I left it lying around for so long and then had to translate it into Dutch, it wasn’t published until 1998. But the good thing was, I still had the English manuscript as well, which the Arbeiderspers and their foreign rights agent could show to other literary publishers. What usually happens is that they only have a sample translation of a Dutch novel, just the first chapter and a plot synopsis, and most foreign publishers don’t want to buy a book on that basis. But here was a complete manuscript, in English. That really helped to sell The Wild Numbers to various other countries.
BM: That takes us back to living in two different cultures at the same time, too, because you were fully able to write a novel in two different languages without having to use a translator. You did it yourself.
PS: Did I ever. It was a gruelling, three-months work. One of the problems when translating your own work is that you have to keep stopping yourself from editing at the same time.
BM: And making it better in the next edition.
PS: I did sneak in a few changes, I must admit, and omitted a few of the editorial changes the Arbeiderspers wanted me to make when I translated the novel from English to Dutch.
BM: So the book was very fluid then, from its inception in English to how it was translated into Dutch and finally to how it became another manuscript in English again. So, it wasn’t static; it changed.
BM: Now, there was something else related to The Wild Numbers which I found very interesting. What was going on in the math world at the time of the publication of The Wild Numbers that paralleled the plot? What was the situation and how was that similar to the situation in your book?
PS: That is a funny story. My original plan was to write a novel about a mathematician struggling with his midlife crisis, who then comes up with a solution to the most famous, unsolved mathematical problem of the time: Fermat’s Last Theorem. A friend of mine, who is a mathematician, thought it was a bad idea. Only the very brightest minds would ever dare tackle that problem, making my main character appear like a crackpot. At first, I was devastated. ‘There goes my idea for a novel,’ I thought. But then I remembered I was a fiction writer, and that I was free to make up a math problem of my own. This would help me get around my friend’s objection as well as save me from doing a lot of painstaking research on an existing math problem.
As it turned out, there was one further reason that my friend deserves my eternal gratitude. While I was working on The Wild Numbers, out in the real world, a mathematician managed to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem; an incredible coincidence. If I had stuck to my original plan, my novel would have become dated even before being published.
BM: So his advice was very helpful then, and that’s the parallel. It tells me that you were really tapping into the Zeitgeist if you’re able think of something for your novel that was actually being proved during the time you were writing. Do you think that maybe there was something subconscious on your part, having studied mathematics in the past, that some part of your brain knew this might happen?
PS: Possibly. Still it’s a pretty uncanny coincidence. It could easily have taken another 10, 50 or even 100 years for Fermat’s Last Theorem to be proved, given the complexity of the reasoning involved.
BM: Moving on to another topic, how would you describe your writing style in general? Do you have one style you’ve used for all four novels or do you have different styles?
PS: Of course the style varies depending on the theme and the main character and on whether it’s first person or third person, but I do think there are a number of features common to all my novels. Clarity is one thing I always strive for. I like to be clear and concise – to keep things simple and to avoid literary frills. I also strive for a certain light-footedness, even when dealing with serious topics. I don’t want to appear heavy-handed. That’s what I don’t like about a lot of philosophical passages in novels: they are too heavy and serious.
BM: Now one thing I observed in Daalder’s Chocolates is what I would call a type of commuter chapter that I think (E. M.) Forster used in his novel, Maurice. A chapter that you can read in 20 or 25 minutes before it’s time to disembark at the next station. Now, did you consciously write these chapters that way?
PS: Oh, yes, definitely. Joop Daalder is a chocolate maker, so I wanted to make the chapters bite-sized, like little chocolates. That was the idea.
BM: Because that’s very different than how you wrote about things in The Wild Numbers. And then when you look at De vrouw van de filosoof, you alternate your narration from chapter to chapter from present to past tense. So was that also conscious, the alternation of the narrative tenses each chapter?
PS: Yes, now that you mention it. It was.
BM: And your use of the five senses – especially the gustatory – I felt was very well done in Daalder’s Chocolates. Did you work at that consciously also?
PS: In Daalder’s Chocolates the senses play a prominent role, in sharp contrast to The Wild Numbers. I kept the style in that novel as stark and as austere as possible because of the theme. Mathematics is a pure and abstract world, so I kept the sensory details to an absolute minimum. And when they do occur, they really jump out at you. Maybe I wrote Daalder’s Chocolates in response to The Wild Numbers. After the abstract world of mathematics, it was time for the sensory world of chocolate making. It was almost like opening a door and letting all the senses back in.
BM: How would you describe your writing process, your ritual or your scheme? When do you write, how often do you write, and for how long?
PS: Painful questions.
I try to write every day, at least five days a week. I like to start early in the morning when I’ve made everybody’s sandwiches and the kids are off to school. Mornings are my best time to work. Usually, after about four hours, I’ll begin to go around in circles in my head. A few hours later, I’ll decide that whatever I have achieved that day isn’t really worth much and that maybe the whole idea for the novel is pure garbage: a sure sign it’s time to do the groceries and prepare dinner. The next morning, when I’ve reread what I did the previous day, I’ll think: ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad after all,’ and I’ll pick up the thread again. That’s basically the rhythm of my daily writing.
BM: So basically, you’ve got about four good hours in the morning.
PS: If I’m lucky. As for the remaining hours, I might as well be doing something else.
BM: How difficult is it to begin something new? For example, how long did it take you to start any one of these novels, to get the main idea?
PS: People often say that the second novel is the most difficult one to write, and this certainly applied to me. The period following the publication of The Wild Numbers was like an emotional rollercoaster: good reviews, bad reviews, and excruciating silences in between, along with various potential foreign rights deals that either did or didn’t materialize. I couldn’t find the peace of mind needed to come up with a new plan. Since then I’ve made it a point to work on at least some sort of an idea, no matter how rudimentary, during the quiet months between the final editing of a manuscript and the publication of the novel, so that when all hell breaks loose (or not enough hell breaks loose), I’ll have something to fall back on.
BM: And how do you start then?
PS: I start out by taking notes, endless notes, of all the miscellaneous images, half-baked themes and ideas for characters that are floating around in my brain. Most of them are completely useless. But there will always be a few that refuse to be silenced and keep nagging at me for attention. These surviving bits and pieces form the basis for the next novel. It might be a character, or a location, perhaps. The idea for Daalder’s Chocolates, for instance, started out with an image of a Canadian lake. That had to be in the book for some reason.
BM: And funnily enough, it comes in towards the end.
PS: While many of the other elements that I started out with disappeared completely. Originally the main character was an art conservator with two sons, and there was going to be a fight over the inheritance.
BM: So you don’t plot everything out in your novels ahead of time – Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc.
PS: Well, I do make a framework. And I spend a lot of time on that. It often takes me about a year of arranging and rearranging all the components before the framework is strong enough to allow me to start on page one and to know what I’m doing.
BM: How much do you need to revise once you’ve written a chapter?
PS: Endlessly, endlessly, endlessly.
BM: So there’s never a time when you’re feeling directly connected one day and you write a chapter down and then you just say: “Oh, I’ll just take a comma out or put one in here” and that’s it.
PS: No, no, no, no. If only.
BM: So what you start with as a first draft is very different than what your final draft looks like?
BM: And what do revise the most?
PS: Right down to the minutest details; words especially. The plot line … well, of course it’s all interrelated, but the plotline is usually OK after a while.
BM: But what are some of these minutest details you’re talking about? What would be a good example of that?
PS: I don’t know if I can come up with a concrete example. But writers are always talking about getting the voice of a novel right, and that can depend on such tiny, tiny details. Such and such a character will never say such and such a thing in such and such a way. To get the character, the shape of the character just right, and get his use of language just right, takes me forever. And there are a lot of darlings to kill along the way.
BM: What are some of these darlings that you kill then?
PS: Often they’re metaphors. When I spend hours refining an image, but it still won’t fit into the narrative, that’s usually a sign that I’m dealing with a darling.
BM: Changing the topic a bit, why have your last two novels only been published in Dutch?
PS: Actually, The Philosopher’s Wife was translated into Italian. But apart from that, my last two novels have not been picked up by the international market. It’s a good question. The financial crisis is one reason. Publishers are not as willing to buy foreign authors as they were about ten years ago. The German market for Dutch literature fell apart even before that, which was too bad, because Daalder’s Chocolates had done really well there. In North America, on the other hand, Daalder didn’t do nearly as well as The Wild Numbers, so that made it difficult to sell my third novel there. Also, as I think you mentioned, the setting of De vrouw van de filosoof might be too typically Amsterdam.
BM: Actually I think you mentioned that, but yes, it is very Amsterdam and very Dutch also, with the characters going out to the dunes by Zandvoort or Bloemendaal.
PS: Then again, that need not be an issue – a distinctly local flavour can also spark the interest of foreign readers, so it’s hard to tell. As for Beste reiziger, my agent was saying that the book is not the problem, but the times. Publishers are looking for spectacle, blood, gore, that sort of stuff. There’s not enough of that in Beste reiziger.
BM: So you’re in the typical dilemma of not enough car crashes and homicides in your novels then?
PS: Actually, the main characters in Beste reiziger drive past a pretty good car crash. But I guess that wasn’t enough.
BM: What are you working on at this moment?
PS: A pretty ambitious project. I am writing two novels, one in English and one in Dutch, featuring the same theme, the same problems, the same characters, but viewed from a slightly different perspective.
BM: And how far along are you with this new project?
PS: That’s hard to say. In my head, quite far, I’d like to think. But on paper I have yet to produce a satisfactory first chapter, in both the English and the Dutch versions. It’s taking me forever, as usual.
BM: Could you tell me a little bit about the theme or the setting of this new novel?
PS: The main character is a literary translator, English to Dutch. He’s 67 years old and quietly settling into a happy retirement when he gets one final assignment: the translation of a highly controversial American novel. Of course, this is when the trouble begins.
BM: It’s sound like a very interesting project, especially if it’s written in two different languages and from two different perspectives. It sounds like something my readers would definitely be interested in reading, people who are able to read books in Dutch and in English and who are aware of Dutch and English cultures.
PS: Yes, people who can read both languages will be at an advantage. But who knows, maybe some day both versions might be translated into the other language.
BM: So there would be four texts instead of two. That’s sounds very interesting and unique. I’m looking forward to reading it. Thank you for your time and good luck.