An Interview with Renate Dorrenstein
This is your first novel to be published by a mainstream American press.
Why do you think it is A Heart of Stone that has launched your debut in this
country? Is it representative of your work? Are there plans to translate your
earlier books into English?
Maybe the appeal of A Heart of Stone is the fact that it deals with a very ancient and profound fear that we all subconsciously know of: the fear of being annihilated by our own mother. Most of my work somehow touches on "collective fears," so in that respect this book is indeed representative of my writing. It is also representative in that part of the narration is told by a young girl. I love children's voices in literature and their views on the world as well. There are children in most of my novels. They were there in the earlier books and undoubtedly they'll be there in work yet to come. So there is no burning necessity to translate earlier work, though my most recent novel, Without Mercy, is being translated now and I'm very excited that it will be published in the United States.
Could you discuss the germination of A Heart of Stone? How did you conceive of the story? What compelled you to write it?
In 1997 Holland was shocked by a wave of incidents of domestic violence in which parentsfor various reasonsfirst killed their children and then committed suicide. The most famous case was that of a dentist's family that had lost a small child. The parents simply couldn't manage to veer back after he died. They just wanted one thing: to be reunited with him, and that, of course, could only be achieved through dying themselves. But since they had two other children, these would also have to be killed in order to keep the family intact. What moved me most about this tragedy was that these people brought about so much grief and yet they didn't have any evil intentions at all. You could even argue that they acted out of sheer love, albeit a twisted kind of love. Secondly, this incident confronted me with the limitless power that parents have over their own children; it's possible for them to create a veritable concentration camp behind their own front door. And thirdly, I was intrigued by how you can have a perfectly well-functioning family in one instant and in the next all hell turns loose. You could say I wrote A Heart of Stone basically in order to explore the underpinnings of these scary family dynamics.
Names and naming are centrally important to the novel. Is the relationship between name and essence, or word and reality, a philosophical problem that is especially intriguing for you?
I think we can only fully comprehend things that we are able to name. When I think back to the earliest humans, who had yet to define a tree as a tree or night as night or thunder as thunder, my mind more or less collapses: how terrified they must have been all the time! Language is our most basic tool for understanding our world. When writing this book I thought it would be appropriate that Ellen, who so desperately wants to understand what's going on, has an obsession with "the correct names" for things. And how absolutely right she is, for if there had been a proper name for her mother's affliction at the time it occurred, it would have been recognized and the whole tragedy would have never happened.
The novel's allusions to 1960s American culture are balanced by frequent references to classical Greek and Roman literature. To what extent did you want readers to see the story of the van Bemmel family in terms of Greek tragedy? Do you have a special interest in American pop culture?
I can only answer that when you're writing, a whole lot of things happen more or less by themselves. You're not always consciously aware of why you suddenly use certain elements or combinations of elements. They just seem to pop up, and if you leave them alone they'll work small miracles, in their quiet way. I just liked the Americana, and the early Greeks and Romans crept in naturally, since Ellen is just starting at a fancy prep school.
Why did you choose to structure the narrative in overlays of past and present?
The structure of the book mirrors Ellen's awe and unwillingness to think about the past for too long a stretch of time.
Did you do a great deal of research into postpartum depression and psychosis for the novel? Is A Heart of Stone closely or loosely based on an actual case?
I was a journalist twenty-five years ago when in Holland postpartum depression suddenly was "discovered." I wrote several pieces on it at the time and interviewed women who suffered from it. For A Heart of Stone I only had to update my knowledge a bit.
Have American audiences responded differently to A Heart of Stone than Dutch audiences?
The main difference was that the Dutch audience had already known my work for a long time when A Heart of Stone appeared. I found it very refreshing not to meet with fixed opinions about my novels when the book came out in the U.S. It was almost as if I'd been given a chance to start all over again, completely afresh. Another difference was that the Americans appeared to be rather intrigued about the fact that A Heart of Stone was translated from the Dutch. They kept asking me why I didn't write it in English in the first place. But that would have been impossible for me. I am a native Dutch speaker and my repertoire in English is limited. Otherwise, the response to the novel has been quite the same in Holland, the U.S., Italy, Finland, Sweden, England, and France. Apparently the theme of the book is a universal one, even more so than I realized when I was writing it. A Heart of Stone is about to appear in Japan, too, and I'm very curious how the Japanese audience will react.
What contemporary American writers do you read and admire? What other Dutch writers should Americans watch for?
I'm a passionate lover of all literature in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Not just the Americans, but British and Canadian and Irish writers as well. Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World is an exceptionally powerful book, or anything from Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, and Ian McEwan. Iris Murdoch is one of my great influences, but so are Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, and T. Coraghessan Boyle, not to mention Shirley Jackson. What they have in common is that they are all great storytellers. Dutch literature tends to be less lively, exciting, and bold: a good plot is not a necessary ingredient in our literature, for instance. But of course there are many fine Dutch writers, too. I'm a fan of Thomas Roosenboom and of Manon Uphoff, and their work definitely deserves to be translated into English.
Do you have any special writing rituals or routines? What are you working on now?
Oh, yes, do I have rituals! Once I put on the same sweater, day after day, for over eighteen months (without ever washing it, obviously), before I started work. I only had to smell that sweater and right away I could effortlessly pick up where I'd left off the day before. The same often goes for music. Once you've completed a page or two successfully to the tunes of a certain CD, you think it's the music that is really doing the job and you don't dare to change it, not for months. For the novel that I am at work on right now I seem to require a special cup that was given to me by a special child: I drink both my coffee and my tea from this particular cup or else I fear a mishap will befall my book. It's all nonsense, or maybe not. Anything that helps you to continue, page after page, is allowed.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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