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Paul Evanby Interview

Paul EvanbyLadies and gents, in a follow up to last week’s article about fantasy from The Netherlands, it is with the greatest pleasure that we present to you one of the finest writers of modern Dutch fantasy and sci-fi: Paul Evanby.

Evanby was the youngest author to have ever won the Paul Harland Prize (the oldest Dutch award for fantasy, science fiction and horror) back in 1988 and since then he has won it again, produced a stream of critically lauded short stories and two novels, De Scrypturist and De Vloedvormer (The Flood Shaper). On top of all of this he’s one of the most charming and witty people I have spoken to in a long time.

This is our first interview with a Dutch writer at Fantasy-Faction and we could not be more excited. We hope you enjoy it.

Many of your short stories have been produced in English to critical acclaim but what’s with keeping the Living Black series (De Scrypturist and De Vloedvormer) in Dutch? It seems a crime to fantasy as these books have been described as some of the genre’s most intelligent books. When can the English speaking world expect to read more of your work?

Why thank you. This is really up to the publishers in the English-speaking world. It is not a matter of us ‘keeping’ those books in Dutch. But it is very hard for a non-Anglophone author to find an English-language publisher or even an agent. Also, Dutch agents are not usually interested in genre fiction other than thrillers, let alone representing those authors abroad. Economics plays a substantial role in this. Translating a 400-page novel professionally is a significant investment, whether I pay for it myself (which I simply can’t afford) or whether a publisher does. US/UK publishers have access to a tremendous home-grown writer base. There is simply no need for them to go looking overseas. Some European bestsellers get picked up, but most of them just don’t.

That said, there are some initiatives, and there is some interest in non-English genre from the English-speaking world, so there are openings. But these things take time.

It’s different for short stories, of course, which I can translate myself (and which I will certainly go on doing). It’s also easier to find venues for these, and there are even specialized markets, such as the Apex Book of World SF, the SFWA European Hall of Fame, to name two. If it was up to me, my novels would already have won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke. Sadly, it isn’t. So if you want to see The Scrypturist in English, go bother Gollancz or Tor…

You’ve won the Paul Harland Prize for original Dutch fantasy, sci-fi and horror twice now and have also served on the judging panel. How does it feel to be considered up there at the forefront of Dutch fantasy along with such greats as Maryson, Teng and Harland?

To be honest, I don’t really feel as if I’m “up there”, fortunately—my head is big enough as it is. For a start, I’ve known the people you mention personally for a long time. Paul Harland was a good friend. Tais Teng I first met at Paul’s house, and indeed I was immensely impressed at meeting him back then (to the point of hardly knowing what to say to him) because I had known his name for years. But that was a long time ago.

On the other hand, being published by the same house as Tolkien, Pratchett and other luminaries is nothing to sneeze at. I remember being dead chuffed at discovering that I was being ‘cross-promoted’ with Douglas Adams: a bookmark inserted into every Boekerij book had the Dutch Hitchhiker’s Guide reissue on one side, and my book De Vloedvormer on the other. So, yes, there is that.

Was it easy to collaborate with Paul Harland on Systems of Romance? How did you adapt to writing in cooperation with another writer? That must have been a completely new experience for you.

Systems of Romance (cover)Collaborating with Paul Harland was indeed a new experience. And no, it wasn’t easy. He had strong opinions on how a story should be written, rules to be adhered to, tricks to be employed, while I was writing very intuitively: if it worked for me, it worked. As a result I was feeling very much the junior partner in our collaborations, although I was usually the one who came up with the ideas, which we then fleshed out together. He had a tendency to elope with the plot and return several weeks later with a completely new story.

On the other hand, it gave me a close-up view into how another writer worked, in a way you don’t usually get to experience. And the synergy was invaluable. We both came out of the process convinced that we had written something we could not have written on our own. That alone made the trouble worthwhile.

A story recently went viral on Twitter about literary agents trying to ‘straighten’ gay characters in young adult fiction. Have you ever encountered this prejudice with your writing? I must confess I’ve missed the latest spat, mostly I guess because after the whole Orson Scott Card thing with ‘Hamlet’s Father’ blew up I didn’t have the stomach for more bigotry, so I don’t know all the ins and outs of that particular case. I’m glad to be able to say that I haven’t encountered attitudes like these when trying to get my own work in print. The publishers and magazines I’ve worked with (both the Dutch and English-language ones) have always been very open-minded, and I have never been asked to change gay characters into straight ones. Maybe I haven’t submitted to the right magazines, or my characters aren’t ‘radical’ enough.

Moreover, a few years ago my publisher issued two fantasy novels with unapologetically lesbian protagonists by Edith Eri Louw. Considering the fact that Meulenhoff Boekerij has one of the most commercially oriented fantasy lists in the Netherlands, this does indicate that they were definitely not afraid these titles wouldn’t sell, relying on the quality of the story instead.

Of course we are famous for our tolerance in this country, so I suppose it isn’t hard to jump to conclusions, but in the end, as I believe you people say, money talks. It would be nice if the powers-that-be in the English-language publishing world took a good look at that example.

Your ability to create worlds that are almost living, breathing creatures in their own right reminded me of China Mieville’s work. Do you have a recipe to creating these worlds?

De Scrypturist (cover)Thank you again! This question is hard for me to answer, although the literal truth would be: no, I don’t have a recipe. That said, I think it’s possible to distinguish two stages.

First, it’s important to create your world ‘on paper’, to think up as many aspects of it as you can: daily life, customs, what do people eat, wear, say. Make maps, fill databases, do research, do more research, all that jazz.

Next comes the difficult part: bringing all of that to life in a story. The most important thing here is not to focus on the grand magicks or the weird creatures, but to use everyday details to sketch the world around them. What makes a world believable (or not) is the way in which your characters relate to it. Your heroine does not come to life while slaying her dragon, but while nipping out for a pee in the morning. This gives the writer ample opportunity to casually drop in all kinds of details that effectively paint a picture of life in the world she lives in. Emphasis on ‘casually’, because when you simply dump this information on the reader, it won’t work. The catch is to gradually weave the coloured threads into the texture of the story, without the reader noticing.

I have heard it said that my prose is information-dense. I always try to create a ‘total experience’, equivalent to something like a ‘wall of sound’, always making sure there’s a background, filling up the corners of the painting. A writer colleague once said that a story is like an aquarium: the reader looks at what’s happening to the fish on the other side of the glass, but in a *good* story, the aquarium is only a window on the open sea. Sometimes a shark swims through, or a shoe comes spiraling down on its way to the bottom.

Much of your work seems to twist real life into something recognisable and yet fresh and mysterious, playing on common fears and worries. A Thousand Trains Out Of Here, touches on oil issues and our growing fear of being tracked while De Vloedvormer has the looming threat of flooding which is something The Netherlands faces today. Do you feel it is important to use popular human fears as means to add a reality to your writing?

De Vloedvormer (cover)I don’t use the issues of the day to add reality, but I may try to use realism to highlight a certain issue. As a writer my job is first and foremost to tell an engaging story. I don’t educate or proselytize. The most I can do is to tell my story in such a way that readers are able to make their own links and draw their own conclusions. I can only point at things and say, “Hey, look at this.” As soon as I go further than that, I’m flogging a Message, and readers will start to disengage.

Apart from that, there is always the question what aspects of the story’s background readers will pick up on anyway. It’s interesting that you mention energy and privacy issues in the context of A Thousand Trains Out of Here, because I suspect the first thing a Dutch reader will note instead is the reversal of the relationship between Morocco and the Netherlands. Moroccan immigrants are a politically and socially hot topic in this country, which I address in my story. But only someone who has lived here for a time will notice.

I do believe in the idea that ‘art mirrors nature’. All writers worth their salt know that their mirrors are magical, but fantasy writers are allowed to actually use the mirror magic to show nature’s stranger sides.

What do you think are the main differences between Dutch fantasy and fantasy in the European world?

I don’t know if ‘fantasy in the European world’ is a useful category as seen separate from Dutch fantasy writing. European writers stem from a multitude of cultural backgrounds, and I’m not even counting those writers whose background is non-European (in the Netherlands, for instance, we have a fair few writers of Moroccan descent, not to mention those with roots in Suriname, the Antilles or Indonesia.) The differences between Dutch and German genre writing may be smaller than those between German and Italian: to be honest, I don’t know, because I haven’t read that much European genre fiction, due to the language barrier. I’ve read some stories by Danish author H.H. Løyche, and I cannot remember anything specifically Danish about them. Is there anything about Lem which sets him apart as a Polish writer? If you strip the Noon Universe of its Communist underpinnings, are the Strugatskys recognisably Russian?

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting question, because the differences that get highlighted much more often are those between US/UK writing and ‘Rest of the World’ writing. Only recently Aliette de Bodard, one of very few French writers published in the US, posted a long rant ‘On the Prevalence of US Tropes in Storytelling’ in which she pinpoints a slew of characteristics typical of US writing, that are found much less often in Europe, or are less relevant here.

Reading stories by Dutch writers I do often notice a sort of small-town sensibility that may stem from our roots in a small and flat country. We tend to turn to inner space, to the deeply personal experience, and have trouble with the broader view, the visionary epic. I don’t see a George R.R. Martin or Steven Erikson pulling himself out of the Dutch clay by his bootstraps any time soon. The late W.J. Maryson is one of the few who ventured into that direction with any measure of success.

But again, I don’t know enough about the many different European genre conventions to be able to say anything meaningful on the difference.

Paul Evanby (pic 2)In regards to Dutch fantasy and sci-fi as a genre I’m going to put you on the spot now. What is your favourite book of the past year?

Een masker met een tong (A Mask with a Tongue) by Marcel Orie. This actually appeared in 2009, but hey. It’s a collection of stories involving the shadowy figure of Cagliostro, puppeteer, alchemist, charlatan, all written in different styles, periods and genres, from steampunk to commedia dell’arte to Nippon Noir to Weird West to post-apocalyptic SF, and more. The author calls it a ‘hidden novel’, but every reader must make their own deductions.

Is there a classic Dutch novel that all Fantasy-Faction fans should read?

This is a tough one. We have no Tolkien or Peake or Howard. What we do have is a 20th-century comics artist called Marten Toonder. I am nominating him since his stories are actually short illustrated fantasy novels (three pictures per page with text underneath) and he is numbered among the classics even by our literary establishment, having enriched the Dutch language with several characteristic expressions. They started out as children’s comics about an anthropomorphic cat (Tom Puss) and bear (Oliver B. Bumble), but evolved over the decades into pieces of razor-sharp social commentary involving the population of a fictional town. He has written many fine stories, but one that keeps coming back to me is De wilde wagen (The Wild Wagon). One problem for non-Dutch speakers is that (unsurprisingly) he is very difficult to translate, and I am not aware of any English-language editions. Those of your readers fluent in Spanish could try Los Altos Mandos, a Spanish version of De bovenbazen (The Superbosses), reissued on the occasion of the credit crisis.

If there was one up and coming Dutch novelist for the world to watch, who would they be?

Her book is not out yet, but Sophie Lucas’ debut novel Reigers vlucht (Flight of the Heron) is scheduled for next spring. Although I have not yet read it myself, my publisher is very enthusiastic about this book. I recently read one of her short stories, and I can honestly say that I am looking forward to her novel.

And finally, the obligatory generic question: Who or what inspired you to actually sit down and write in the first place?

That’s lost in the mist of time, I’m afraid. There have been periods in my life when writing seemed to be the only thing worth doing, when making the daily word count was the only reason to drag myself out of bed. But I hardly remember when it all started. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t making up stories. My love for science-fiction I inherited from my father, who returned home from the library every other weekend with a stack of SF books which I was not allowed to borrow myself (being confined to the children’s section). Evidently those adult books had a devastating influence on my young brain and ruined me for life, because instead of aiming to become a respectable writer of sensible literature, I persisted in thinking up stories about gigantic spaceships and incomprehensible aliens. And at some point I started writing them down. Since then it’s gone from bad to worse.

If you want to read some of Paul Evanby’s stories in English you should head on over to his website where you can read both A Thousand Trains Out Of Here and i.

Paul Evanby is published by Boekerij in the Netherlands which is also home to the likes of Sam Sykes, Scott Lynch and Terry Pratchett. For those of you in The Netherlands you can pick up both De Scrypturist and De Vloedvormer in all good bookshops.

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