An Interview with Mylène Dressler
How was writing this novel different than writing your first?
I think I can best describe it by saying that writing a first novel feels
like drawing a map to a place you've never seen but are longing to get to, while
writing a second is like standing with that beautiful map in your handsonly
it doesn't describe the new country you're in. All the experience of having made
that first mapof writinggoes with
you, of course, all the gained knowledge of structure and form and character.
But with each new work, the way "through" has to be found all over
again. When I began writing The Deadwood Beetle, for example, I had to
discover almost everything about its setting and characters; I didn't even know,
at first, that the book's narrator, Tristan Martens, would be a specialist in
insects. And this as it turned out exactly mirrored the process I went through
writing my first book: one of beginning with only a voice in my head and the
barest outline of an idea, and then having to thrash my way through.
What research did this novel require? Did it require any, or with some
knowledge of basic historical facts, did the story simply emerge?
Parts of the story emerged from my basic understanding of the Second World
War, of postwar life in Europe and Americaeven of things
like the forms and rituals common to universities. But The Deadwood Beetle
also grew out of very specific research, undertaken while I wrote and thought
about the book, into such widely-spaced matters as the diversity and complexity
of the insect world, cycles of stories associated with the legend of Tristan and
Isolde, and the record of captures, trials, and punishments meted out to Nazi
What inspired this novel?
Many things. Curiosity about writing entirely from the perspective of a
seventy-year-old man, for one. The desire to write on a familiar theme, and a
familiar subject, but while peering out from a little-known corner of history
and memory. Also a story I once heard, about a child who hid under a table, and
scratched something innocent into the wood. But what, I thought, if what was
written there hadn't been so innocent? What if instead it had been something
terrible? Or worse, something ambiguous?
Your first novel, The Medusa Tree, dealt with Dutch-Indonesian
history. In The Deadwood Beetle, you re-visit Dutch history. Why did you
return to this region and its past?
I was born in The Hague, and though I emigrated with my family to America
when I was very young, the Netherlands was still a natural starting place for me
when I began to imagine myself as a writer. There are also things that I find
absolutely fascinating about Hollandthis tiny nation that
has taken to the sea and for centuries launched its people in all directions
around the globe. I suppose I like to think of myself as only one of its recent
emissaries. And then, too, it may be that my novels tend to span and return to
different continents because of my own family's particular history of wandering
Do you consider yourself an ethnic writer? What do you think of such
labels and categories?
I think of myself as a world writerwhich is to say I
think of myself as a writer, period. I don't feel particularly constrained by
geographic, ethnic, or racial boundaries. The label "ethnic writing"
unfortunately doesn't signify very well, to my mind, some of the things it's
trying so hard to signifynamely, the work of someone
attempting to bring a particular racial or cultural experience into focus, an
experience that in the past may have been neglected or ignored or misunderstood.
The problem is, once we attach a label like "ethnic" to certain
contributions to literature, that work somehow ends up getting cut offand
sometimes cuts itself offfrom the very dialogue it's meant
to enlarge and enrich. Categories of this sort can also throw up the most
frustrating barriers: are only writers of a certain ethnicity
"allowed" to write about that ethnicity? I don't believe so. In fact,
I tend to see what writers dowhich is basically rise in
the morning and try to remember other people are living on the planet, and then
try to imagine what life might be like for themas only a
formal extension of our common human project, what we do when we're at our best.
The responsibility inherent in that project is first to imagine, then to take
steps to find out and understand.
You have lived in Texas for roughly 15 years, and your third novel is set
in the South. Can you give us a sense of what your new book is about and how,
aside from setting, it is different from your first two books? Why did you
choose to write about the South now?
I've traveled a great deal, and all over the world, but for the last fifteen
years the South has been the place I've most often come back to, and that I've
come to think of as "home," although I've never quite lost the feeling
of being a transplant here. Ultimately of course it's as important to imagine
the people in your own backyard as it is to consider the plight of an aging
European beetle expert in New York City. My new book looks at the lives of
several characters, of different backgrounds and races, all thrown together in a
small southern town. It's a departure from my first two books not just in
setting, but in compression: the story takes place in just a few days, and
everything that we can know about and imagine for these characters has to be
made clear under the strain of a ticking clock.
You obviously pay a great deal of attention to craft. What is your
process? What writers do you consider as your teachers?
My process is to stare at the computer until a decent sentence occurs to meand
then to stare at that sentence until I understand some of its implications and
possibilitiesand then, based on that, to write another
sentence. It's very improvisational, which I like because it makes the act of
writing, which is so sedentary, seem daring, as though I'm not in a chair at all
but dangling from a cliff or a limb. The "craft" comes from being
distressed by any sentence that simply lies there on the page, doing nothing
worth swinging out for. The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham used to
describe this kind of feeling among artists as one of "divine
dissatisfaction." My first teachers weren't just writers but artists of all
kinds; I still derive tremendous inspiration from dancing and painting, when I'm
not being mesmerized, that is, by people like Edith Wharton, Gabriel Garcia
Marquez, William Faulkner, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, or Penelope
Do you view a book as part of a dialoguewith
readers? With the larger literary world?
Though it sounds selfish, first a book is a dialogue with myself. If I can't
hold my own attention, if the characters I have created and the human problems
I'm sorting through aren't valuable to me, as a reader, it seems unlikely
they'll be of interest to any other reader. Once my story is well underway I can
feel myself beginning to imagine how it might join in conversation with the rest
of the world, and at that point I also tend to remember why it is I write:
because there are questions I want to askWhat is
forgiveness? How do we understand responsibility? Where can we be at home with
consequence?that I no longer want to be alone in asking or
trying to answer.
You tackle subjects we've read about in other novels, but you always seem
to tackle them from a unique perspective. In The Medusa Tree, you tell
the story of the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies during WWII, but
from the perspective of an elderly lesbian couple. In The Deadwood Beetle,
you revisit WWII, but your main character is the son, now an old man, of minor
Nazi sympathizers. What is it about difference that interests you? Are identity,
assimilation, difference, and acceptance themes that will recur in your fiction
in the future?
Yes, I think so. So many good stories have already been told that, for me, as
a writer, the question really isn't one of trying to come up with some
as-yet-unheard-of plot or idea, but rather to think about the way stories
interact and illuminate each other, and also how they sometimes shade or shadow
one anothercertain corners of experience, in this way, get
folded under the overlap. Finding those corners and bringing them to light
doesn't just allow a writer to tell a "different" story but changes
the way we think about the stories we already know. Crafting characters who are
hearing themselves speak or perhaps be heard for the very first time helps me to
think about how essential storytelling is to our sense of self and difference,
but also about the way it brings us into contact withbinds
us tothe rest of the world. It isn't until Tristan has
told his story in The Deadwood Beetle that he realizes being discovered
as distinct doesn't have to mean being isolated. For me, that last image in the
bookof light shining from under a closed doorwaysays
volumes about how, yes, of course, we all live in private rooms of experience;
but we still send signals streaming outward.