How to pronounce Mylene Dressler: Mee-lan (like Milan, the city)
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 collaborators.
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 and reclaiming.
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 Fitzgerald.
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.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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