Marja Pruis aan Julie Myerson: 'Sometimes I think writing is more like a game. For men.'

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. In dit eerste bericht schrijft Marja aan Julie over de rauwe eerlijkheid die komt kijken bij autobiografisch schrijven, en de gevolgen voor je eigen (gezins)leven.

De briefwisseling is in het Engels.


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

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Van: Marja Pruis
Aan: Julie Myerson
Datum: 4 Jan 2024
Onderwerp: Corresponding Stories

Dear Julie,

How are you, how is everything? I heard that your novel Nonfiction will be released in the States this January! I saw the American cover, it has a whole new look. Is this something you help decide, or is this out of your hands? Are you going there to do the promotion? What are your feelings about your book at the moment, is it strange to talk about it like it’s a new born baby? Is it interfering with the writing you’re doing just now? 

Sorry for all these boring questions. You don’t have to answer all this. I’d just like to know how you are, how you r e a l l y are. What you’re wearing, shoes, hair, stuff like that. Do you like to cook? I thought it’d better not to come up with these questions all too soon. 

Do you sleep well? 

Do you get your nails done?  

I just came home from a literary event somewhere deep down in the Netherlands. It’s nearly midnight and I’m dead tired. As you know my latest novel just came out and I’m only thankful that people invite me to come over and come to listen to me. But I don’t seem to get accustomed to certain questions from the interviewer or the audience about the truthfulness of my work. Or truth? Maybe too big a word. There’s always the curiosity: did this really happen in your home? Was there this cleaning lady who stole from you? I still don’t know what the satisfying answer would be. I’m afraid I told a disappointing non-story. 

It’s difficult to not feel like an imposter or something like that, when you say that you try to write like you’re whispering a secret in someone’s ears. That’s how I try to make it look. I don’t like it when somebody says ‘Oh I did my best’, whether it’s about a meal they cooked, or made a drawing, but I sometimes can only think: I did my best to make it look as if it really happened this way, as if this really is about me, my husband, my son, my daughter.

That’s also a strange thing I can’t get used to. Like I’m damaging my dearest with my writing. We recognize you, the friends of my son tell him. The good thing is, because the reviews are very positive, he doesn’t feel embarrassed. But there have been other occasions. 

When you don’t have the guts to act this ruthless, maybe you shouldn’t have started to write at all.

Your novel Nonfiction deals with all this – sorry, I have to say this again, such a brilliant title, I’m jealous –, the friction between public and private, the way a writer takes over a story at the expense of her loved ones. One of the most gripping scene I think in your book is that the narrator feels obliged to promise her brother not to write about their mother – if I remember this correctly – and at the same time knows that the terrible thing about writers is that whatever happens to them, however painful and frightening, it doesn’t stop them. Nothing stops them. Once they’ve started they’ll go to any lengths to find the right words. 

When you don’t have the guts to act this ruthless, maybe you shouldn’t have started to write at all. Or is this a romantic, heroic and vain idea?

I don’t know. What do you think, dear friend – already! –, out there in London? Is it also raining the whole day in your city as if you were in Seattle? Do you also have the feeling that this is the first sign that we’re being punished for our arrogant behaviour against nature? Don’t answer this question either, we don’t have to discuss the climate crisis, thank god, I only wanted to show some responsibility in general. 

Apart from our immediate understanding of each other back then in Utrecht, what makes it rather easy to relate about …. everything! … is that you’re reading the same books as I, watch the same movies. I know you planned to go to Anatomy of a Fall, I’m very curious how you feel about this movie. It’s also a story about taking space as a writer, and the conflict with family life. Please let me know what you think, I will reveal my feelings about this movie later. I’ll only say this: I had a hard job to sympathise with the woman, and I feel a little bit awkward about that. Maybe when you say something about it, I understand myself a bit better.

(De brief gaat verder onder de aanbieding.)

Bekijk het hele gesprek van Marja en Julie 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.

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

Last question: do you keep a diary? 

There’s a quote from Nonfiction I wrote down in the copy of my own novel that I take with me when I have to read somewhere. It says: ‘limit your gaze’. It’s the lesson your narrator tells her student: leave things out. Writing a novel is about narrowing your focus. It is something I knew but I didn’t have this clear formula, it helps me when I have the feeling someone thinks that I’m throwing my whole private business on paper. Maybe it’s only me, afraid that I’m throwing down my whole private business on paper. And at the same time I know: I limit my gaze. I leave things out. 

Thank you for this clear view, Julie. And thank you for the novel you wrote years ago, Something Might Happen. As we speak, I get it from my bookshelf, and see that it was published twenty years ago. It helped me to write about domestic relations in a calm, not satirical way. For the first time I thought: aha, this can be a serious subject

Very last thing. It has to do with the shame-thing. The fear, my fear, I’m doing harm to the ones I love, I like, I might like, with my writing. Do you think this is more of a problem for female writers? Today I read in a column in a big Dutch newspaper of a rather famous Dutch writer asking himself: Is it possible to believe that people are good and at the same time be a novelist? And then he gave the answer: No. You don’t have to think that people they ain’t no good (sorry, Nick Cave is singing in my head right now), but you have to be ready to amuse yourself with the people and always have this thought in the back of your head that you can seduce them. To everything.

I don’t know. Sometimes I think writing is more like a game. For men. And I’m not sure whether this would also be a good thing for female writers. Turn your private, emotional stuff into something weird and worldly and relentlessly. 

Saying this: your book Nonfiction is one of the not-weirdest (thank god, no), but worldliest ánd most private, emotional, relentless ánd sweetest I read the last few years. I’m sure the Americans will be amazed.

And saying this: I have to go to bed now. I don’t sleep very well. Always wake up around four, thinking what to do: read? Have a cup of tea? I don’t get my nails done, but I’m always longing to do so. Next week I’m going to my hairdresser, he’s from London, I’v known him for years, he helped me through every stage of colouring and cutting, I’m wearing my pajamas already, no shoes, only socks, I love to cook, this evening I made a nostalgic dish in the oven, a tribute to my living group in the eighties, a lot of leek in it. So, that’s me. It’s your turn now. 

Lots of love,

Your friend from Amsterdam,