Julie Myerson aan Marja Pruis: 'These characters I’d made weren’t real people.'

In ILFU Corresponding Stories vragen we schrijvers en denkers van over de hele wereld om elkaar te e-mailen over de grote thema’s van onze tijd. De penvrienden van januari zijn de Nederlandse Marja Pruis en de Britse Julie Myerson, die elkaar ontmoetten tijdens ons festivalprogramma Exploring Stories 2023. Vorige week schreef Marja aan Julie over de rauwe eerlijkheid die komt kijken bij autobiografisch schrijven, en de gevolgen voor je eigen (gezins)leven. Vandaag lees je Julies antwoord.

De briefwisseling is in het Engels.


Corresponding Stories Exploring Stories Brief
Een illustratie van Julie Myerson en Marja Pruis. Ze praten met elkaar, aan tafel.
Beeld: Twinkel Achterberg

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Van: Julie Myerson
Aan: Marja Pruis
Datum: 11 Jan 2024
Onderwerp: RE: RE: Corresponding Stories

Dearest Marja,

Ah, when I read your wonderful letter I had the same response I always have when you write to me:

  1. Laugh out loud, because you’re very funny.

  2. Feel a deep delight because I understand so well the things you’re saying… but then:

  3. Find myself a bit paralyzed, hesitating to write to you.

Why? I’m not sure really. I suppose I worry it won’t be good enough, that I can’t say enough or do justice to the things you’ve said…. I’m tired, not making sense, I need to wait etc etc. So I hold on for a few days with all of your vivid questions and sentences going round in my head until at last I do the only possible thing – the thing I should probably have done right away – just sit down and …..WRITE!

Our meeting in Utrecht was so strange, wasn’t it? Like nothing I’ve experienced actually. Before the event, I’d already googled you, seen your lovely simpatico face, noticed you were exactly the same age as me. And your books sounded so exactly my kind of thing. Straightaway I went online to buy, only to find they aren’t translated into English. So disappointing! I don’t think I’ve ever done an event on stage with someone whose work I haven’t read (I think of it as a basic politeness, to know the work). 

But then in that moment when I met you – literally less than 10 minutes before we walked out on stage – something happened. I had this feeling of the deepest empathy and fellow feeling (is that an old fashioned expression? I just can’t think of a more modern way to describe it). I almost felt that I knew who you were and how you would write. And in that moment I suddenly needed to say something to you but all I could come up with – so lame! – was ‘do you get nervous?’ And you smiled at me and said ‘Always’.

I’m in the middle of writing another book, really right bang in the middle, in the difficult part, the part where I need to push the world away and practically live inside my book.

Do you remember that? And – I’ve no idea why – but somehow that felt like the beginning of an intimacy which, to my amazement, just continued to unfold on stage!  Our conversation was so frank and so heartfelt that I almost forgot we had an audience, it felt like just the two of us sitting there (at one point I even worried that our Chair was getting pushed out). And I’ve done so many events over 30 years of being published, but never experienced such an instant and intense meeting of minds. I just knew we would be friends and here we are!

Yes, thanks for asking, Nonfiction came out in the US this month with a whole new cover, so lush and dramatic and beautiful – a bit like a Dutch oil painting! I had nothing to do with choosing it but I love it. I know that your cover (so striking!) comes from a painting, but I believe you chose it and it’s a picture in your house (is that right)? So… did you know from the start that you wanted to use that image? Did it even inspire your book in some way? Covers are strange, yes? They don’t really sell the book, or at least I’m told they don’t, but of course they feel very personal, they’re like the outer garments, the clothes your words are wearing – though you also hope the reader will be impatient enough to strip off those clothes and look inside! (That came out a little more weirdly than I meant it to!)

De Amerikaanse versie van Nonfiction: A Novel

Anyway to answer your other question: yes, I find it massively distracting when a book is coming out. Do you? I feel bad about this. My new US publishers Tin House (independent, passionate, the most engaged publishers I’ve ever had!) are doing a completely amazing job with publicity, I’m doing interviews, going on podcasts, it’s all so brilliant. But (of course) I’m in the middle of writing another book, really right bang in the middle, in the difficult part, the part where I need to push the world away and practically live inside my book. Basically, I can’t think about anything else. And like you, I find it hard to talk about a novel once I’ve finished it. And yes, I do so agree, all those questions about the ‘truth’ of the work. What truth?!

Like you I have no idea what the so-called truth is. I’d even go so far as to say that for me my novels aren’t quite ‘real’, not really, they’re more like magical spells – my job is to put the words together in such a wizardy way that you find yourself convinced of something that isn’t true. The magic of a good novel (for me) is you really believe in its existence, you feel it began before the first page and will continue long after the end. But it’s still a spell, it still doesn’t mean that it’s all true…

A long time ago Something Might Happen (thank you so much for liking it by the way – just like Nonfiction, my publisher at the time turned that book down and for while I was so despairing, didn’t think it would ever be published) was optioned for film, and because my husband is a dramatist, we were asked if we’d like to write the script together. Of course! we said (needed the money, plus I knew he’d do it well.) But we had endless meetings where the producers would interrogate me in minute detail about the plot – what lay underneath and in between the scenes I’d written? Like, ‘what happened then when he walked out of the door’? or ‘What’s she really thinking then?’ 

The problem was, I had no idea! How was I to know? These characters I’d made weren’t real people and neither were the events real events. All of my energy had simply gone into making them SEEM real. It’s a big difference. And the words are all there is really, just words put together in a certain way – the only way I know to make a reader believe. Do you agree with this? Perhaps you don’t? I’d like to know! Tell me! But it’s definitely how I work.

(I should add that the film of Something Might Happen was never made. Like so many of these things it came to nothing. Perhaps that was my fault? Perhaps if it was optioned again, I’d make more of an effort to answer all those difficult questions?! Meanwhile my last novel The Stopped Heart is in development for TV now and it’s going well… I don’t ever hold my breath with these things but it would be amazing to have something made.) 

Have any of yours been optioned for film or TV? I know that Huiswerk has had a lot of attention and good reviews and success (I’m so delighted for you about that!) Does that mean there might be interest? 

I love your image of whispering a secret in someone’s ear. Though the image I have is a little more brutal! I always think a book needs to feel as urgent as if someone had sat down next to you on the bus and grabbed your sleeve and said, ‘you won’t believe what just happened…’. What I mean is, this person wouldn’t pause to describe the weather! Or give you a long boring paragraph about something unconnected! They would just tell the story. This for me is what novels should be… an uninterrupted and utterly necessary flow. I bet yours are.

(De brief gaat verder onder de aanbieding.)

Bekijk het hele gesprek van Julie en Marja op Exploring Stories 2023

Voor slechts €4,50 per maand ben je al ILFU Member, en kun je al onze programma-onderdelen terugkijken. Zoals het prachtige gesprek tussen Marja Pruis en Julie Myerson op Exploring Stories 2023.

Bekijk de video
Bekijk het hele gesprek van Julie en Marja op Exploring Stories 2023

With Nonfiction though something slightly different happened. I found myself being quite deliberately mischievous. It’s partly I think – no, I am sure – a response to years and years of being questioned and castigated for putting the people I care about (some of them anyway) in my fiction. So even though most of this novel is fictional, I wanted to write it in such a way that people would assume I was telling that truth about myself and my life. ‘Why on earth would she take these risks all over again?’ – that’s what I wanted them to think. It was a tease, but it felt as if (this time anyway) I was in control …. There’s more to say, but—

(Aargh. I just wrote a longer paragraph here about Nonfiction but deleted it. I don’t want to go on about it – I think I’m so bored of talking about it. And I SO wish I could ask you a question about your novel which I can’t read.)

But hey, I did just reread the part in your letter about damaging your loved ones. Your dearests. God. When you said that I felt a flinch of pain for you (and perhaps for me too). This is so hard for me to think about, even now. It’s my own fault but in some ways I’m still very traumatised by the idea of it. 

And yes, I’ve been asked about this – as I think you have – so many times by people who are despising of me, or don’t understand, who don’t even want to understand what my relationship with my family is. The first thing I’d say (and I know that this sounds like an excuse) is I’ve come to understand that I cannot NOT write about the things I care most about. It’s why I write. It’s what I was made for, to do that. And yes, that includes the people I care about, the people I love – they are my life so how can I not write about them?  All that matters is my relationship with my kids and these days that’s good. My mother is/was a whole different story… perhaps for another day. But after I published The Lost Child and was attacked for so long (it lasted 6 weeks, the vitriolic press coverage) I felt so terrible about the damage I’d done to my family that I had a bit of a breakdown. I felt I’d turned into a dangerous person, a person who could do harm – in real life I mean, not just in writing. So… I found I couldn’t drive on the motorway, and then I couldn’t drive and then I couldn’t get on a bus and then I couldn’t get on an escalator (yes, I laugh about that now but at the time the sense of being trapped was very real).  

I remember when we were on stage and talking about all of this, you said that you couldn’t publish a book while your father was still alive – is that right? And you said something about the fact that you were always seen by him as a ‘good girl’. And I could see her in you, that good girl, I could so relate to it. My mother said I was a ‘little ray of sunshine’ but she couldn’t bear for me to go out there and say things, I think she wanted the sunshine kept firmly behind closed doors.

I had a quick memory then, something I didn’t put in Nonfiction. When I was four or five years old, my mother had an electric floor polisher (this was 1965!) with an emblem of a small black goblin on it. I was fascinated by this goblin and used to run my fingers over it, I really felt it might be real. And one day I told my mother something about the goblin, a made-up story and she punished me for telling lies. I think she smacked my bottom. And though I must have been upset, I also remember the thrill of that moment. Not just shame, though maybe some of that, but power. Wow. That I could provoke someone so hard by making up a story. Wow.

The one upside of having been through breast cancer – and I was diagnosed just as I was doing the final edits on Nonfiction (that was quite a month!) is that it’s made me brave. Braver anyway. It’s not that I don’t care (see above), I do care. Very much. But I feel that life is short and I need to do honest things with however much of it I have left. (A lot I hope!)

Enough about writing! Seriously. If you were sitting here with me right now, I’d say enough! Let’s stop now and make a martini (my favorite thing, vodka martini with an olive) and just talk about stuff like getting our nails done! And I’d ask you about your children and your grandchildren. I can’t imagine how joyous that must be, holding a baby that belongs to you (in a way?) all over again. I love babies and I love children and I love writing about them, always have. How is it, though, being a grandmother? Does it get tiring? Does it make you write differently? Would you ever write about it?

When I write, I can ONLY do it for a reader, whether it’s just you, my dear friend Marja, or a lot more people. I have absolutely no interest in writing something only for me!

Oh Marja, I so loved the way you brought yourself to life for me in your PJ’s and socks and cooking your 80s leeks dish! I’ll do the same right now and try to be exactly as honest:

OK, so I’m sitting here in my study. It’s dark outside. I can hear sirens on Camden High Street because even though it’s cold, I have the window partly open (I’m on meds that make me always hot) and I’m wearing yoga pants and an old grey agnès b. T-shirt with a white star on the front and the oldest scuzziest Birkenstocks you’ve ever seen. I should also probably confess that I’m not wearing a bra (is this too much information?!) because since I had a mastectomy, I get a bit bored of wearing my fake breast. I have nothing against it, it’s a lovely little squishy polka dot thing – in fact it comes from Holland, would you believe, a company called ProudBreast and when we were in Utrecht I went to the shop where they sell them to try and get another one but they didn’t have my size, I was so cross! Anyway it’s quite cute, but when I’m home and working I take it out. I really do think actually that women should be allowed to go around with only one breast. So what? If I’d lost my leg no one would laugh at me for not wearing my false leg! One day perhaps I’ll dare go to the supermarket like this…

Oh and sleep. No, the same medication (it takes away estrogen to prevent recurrence of breast cancer) that makes me hot also disrupts my sleep. Think menopause but 20 times as bad! I used to put my ear bud in and listen to BBC world service but since the world has turned so dark, I’ve found this isn’t a helpful thing to do, so many unbearable things that I can’t let myself hear in the night… so these days I try really hard just to lie there and empty my head and breathe. If I’m lucky my black cat Dora comes and settles on my legs. I find this helpful too!

Oh, diaries! Do YOU keep one? I kept one every single day of my teenage life, I still have them all, books and books of them, in fact a few years ago I went on a very funny BBC radio programme called ‘My Teenage Diaries’ and let them be read out loud. I’ve never laughed so much. But once I grew up – once life got more interesting, I suppose – I stopped and I never wrote a diary again. Never. I wouldn’t, couldn’t. And it’s quite interesting because I know you said you’ve been reading Helen Garner’s diaries, and I heard her talking on a podcast recently and she said she writes a diary every day because she has to write something that’s only for her and no one else (something like that anyway). And I thought, how strange, I am the exact opposite. When I write, I can ONLY do it for a reader, whether it’s just you, my dear friend Marja, or a lot more people. I have absolutely no interest in writing something only for me! No point at all. So what does that say about me? That I’m an exhibitionist, probably?! Are the Helen Garner diaries good? As you know I’ve only just discovered her and I loved The Spare Room so much. A perfect novel. Sublime.

OK, got to go and cook supper. (Ha, ha, this makes it sound as though I cook every night but in fact I have a husband who does that, it’s just he’s been out today). Anyway I’ve written too much now but I have to finally just ask you about the film ‘Anatomy of a Fall’. So what did you think??! I loved it. I mean really LOVED it. Did you NOT love it? You haven’t said, but I’m sensing something...

I suppose that apart from the fact that it was never boring – I was so gripped, even by the courtroom scenes which I don’t always have patience for – I found it ambiguous in the best possible way. I hadn’t realized it was going to be about so many of the things we’ve been talking about here – creativity, women, truth, responsibility – and I was fascinated. And I adored the protagonist, I had so much sympathy for her.  

But do you know the oddest thing – and of course I’m saying this having only met you for about an hour In Real Life and most of that in front of an audience – she reminded me a bit of YOU! 

Why? Well, her beauty and strength, all of it shot through with so much vulnerability. To me she seemed intensely – beguilingly – vulnerable. And this drew me to her, it made me want to know her more. And I sense this vulnerability in your writing – your writing to me anyway – and oh, sorry to go on about this, but it makes me long to read your books! You know what, I’m beginning to think that there’s only one solution: I’ve got to learn Dutch!

Sleep well tonight dear Marja, can’t wait for your next letter.

Love from your friend Julie