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Interview with longlisted author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and translator Michele Hutchison

Interview with longlisted author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and translator Michele Hutchison

We speak to Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, author of longlisted book The Discomfort of Evening about the challenges and delights of​ semi auto-biographical writing, how they stayed motivated throughout the process and the differences between writing poetry and a novel. We also speak with translator Michele Hutchison about the poetic style of the novel and the pressures of translating other people's work.

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It’s a great honour to be nominated for the wonderful International Booker Prize. In the first place because it means my book is being embraced outside of the Netherlands too – it’s an accolade for your work whatever else. And secondly because the nomination isn’t only for the writer, but also for the translator. We sometimes forget to mention them but without Michele Hutchison I wouldn’t have been on this longlist. She managed to replicate the language, the poetry in the book, and that was not easy. She left the novel intact, and only the best translators can do that. In addition, it’s also an honour to feature on this list as a Dutch person, since only two Dutch writers have been nominated before and they are two great heroes of mine: Tommy Wieringa and Harry Mulisch. Not to mention the foreign writers who have been nominated in the past and whom I greatly admire, such as Philip Roth, Alice Munro and Lydia Davis.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book The Discomfort of Evening?

The book is the story of a Reformed farming family affected by the death of a child. Matthies goes ice skating two days before Christmas and never returns. Through the eyes of the main character Jas, who lives in the no man's land between childhood and adulthood, we see how the family members deal with the loss in their own way. The mum and dad are completely paralyzed with grief and can’t see how Jas and her sister Hanna and her brother Obbe are slowly going off the rails. The story is filled with sexuality, religion and the filth of existence.

The Discomfort of Evening is semi auto-biographical – how has the writing and publishing process been for you? Is it cathartic or nerve-wracking? 

I worked on the novel for six years. Partly why it took so long was because I was quite reluctant to write this story. It is a mixture of reality and fantasy and I cannot deny that much of Jas is also in me. I made several attempts to write a different book, but I always came back to this original one. I had to get it out of the way before I could continue. A fellow writer who is also a good friend told me at one point that I had to be 'unrelenting' – to the people around me, but especially to myself. I wrote that word in big letters on the wallpaper above my writing desk and it has helped me a lot. As a writer you have to be free from all obstacles, you have to be able to tell the best story you have in you.

When the book was published, a lot of attention was suddenly focused on me. Suddenly the book was everywhere, it was reviewed everywhere and there were even posters in the city where I live, which I’d walk past feeling a bit ashamed - not because I was ashamed of my book, I never was, but I struggled with the fact that my family had a hard time with it, and they couldn't really ignore it. In the village I came from, everyone was talking about it, from the hairdresser to the butcher. All the praise for the book affected me, of course I was very happy and grateful for it. And I also felt very much seen, while I had been living in isolation for all these years, and now I suddenly existed.

At the same time, I was also experiencing a kind of grief, because I had lost Jas, the main character. I could no longer escape into that world when I got home: it was gone, it was out in the world. I think that was the hardest part, letting go of whatever has kept you afloat. While writing you don’t just create a story, but also a kind of homecoming, a safe place, somewhere you can always hide. And suddenly that was gone. Still, the thought that Jas is being embraced by so many people makes missing her a little easier. 

Your previous published work has been poetry, how have you found writing your debut novel?

It took me a while to realize that I couldn’t write my debut novel in the same way as a poem. With a novel you have to take the reader by the hand from the first sentence, while you don't have to with poetry, you are much freer in that and the reader is also more accepting of not immediately understanding a sentence or having to reread it. So the first version of my novel was a kind of poem, chock-full of images. There was no one who was going to read that. Instead I had to take the time to develop, to find the right tone, which was always there, but which I had to stylize and refine. Actually I can never do without both forms. My novel contains a lot of poetry and my poems contain a lot of prose - one can’t exist without the other.

Writing poems is a bit easier for me and also gives more satisfaction in the short term, because you can finish something the same day. And I love to stumble upon a discovery, a nice sentence or a nice word. It makes me so happy I get up from my chair and run around the room, I feel so much euphoria in my body - I just have to run. Then I continue calmly. A novel is much harder work, you are constantly refining it, rewriting it. You become a kind of archaeologist: you can see the discovery, you know that there is something beautiful there, but you have to dig it out very carefully and keep chiselling away at it to preserve what you saw in it from the beginning. But you can explore much more in a novel than in a poem. You get to know your characters, their desires and fears. That’s one of the most beautiful things. At times I feel very privileged that I can practice the most beautiful profession that exists.


Michele Hutchison

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I’m simply over the moon about this nomination and I would so love this to be the first Dutch book to make the shortlist. From the moment they acquired the rights, Faber have been incredibly enthusiastic about this novel and they have put a lot of effort into the editing, production and now promotion so it’s nice to see this paying off for them. The novel had a lot of attention in the Netherlands when it was published, but that rarely translates to the same level of success abroad so this is just amazing.

What did you most like about translating The Discomfort of Evening?

I really love translating poetry and this novel is just filled with it so it was great to work on for that reason. I’ve always had a penchant for child narrators too, they appeal to my own inner lost child. Jas’s way of seeing the world is also strikingly original, the novel really comes to life through all of its vivid imagery.

How do you manage ‘untranslatable’ words and phrases?

I don’t think anything in the novel was technically untranslatable on a linguistic level, though obviously there are some references which are culturally-specific. No English readers are likely to know who children’s TV presenter Dieuwertje Blok is, for example. But early on in the process the editor and I decided to leave in things like this for local colour. The name Jas is kind of untranslatable actually – it means coat in Dutch! But we decided not to change her name into something that approached both meanings like Jacky or Parker because it would lose its Dutchness.

This is Marieke Lucas’s debut novel, did you feel pressure translating The Discomfort of Evening?

It doesn’t matter to me whether something is a debut or not, I always feel pressure when translating. It’s like being entrusted with the care of another person’s baby, and then being asked to raise it in a different culture. I worry endlessly about not getting things completely right – there’s so much you need to pay attention to, from the rhythm to imagery and the tiniest nuances. Literary translation is a huge responsibility and translators tend to be nervous perfectionists.

It’s nice if you get to work with a writer for more than just one book because once you’ve developed your interpretation of their style, the process flows more easily. I’m currently translating my third novel by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, so I guess debuts have a disadvantage in that they’re your first encounter.