Marja Pruis aan Julie Myerson: 'In writing you need the ambiguities of daily life.'

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 Julie aan Marja over de rauwe eerlijkheid die komt kijken bij autobiografisch schrijven, vandaag lees je Marja's 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: Marja Pruis
Aan: Julie Myerson
Datum: 18 Jan 2024
Onderwerp: Corresponding Stories

Dearest Julie,

Finally, it seems like ages ago that I wrote to you. I read and re-read your lovely letter, so sweet it actually made me nearly cry, what doesn’t help is that I already cried this morning explaining to my friend why I cried last night watching the latest episode of the second season of Hacks, the HBO-series with Jean Smart playing an older stand-up comedienne, who’s assisted by a young comedy writer. Her role is played by Hannah Einbinder, I didn’t know her before this but she is absolutely fantastic. O God, I’m so happy to talk to you and the first subject is a television series! I’ll stop here, I only mentioned it because of the tears, once they see an opportunity they keep on coming. The relationship between an older woman and a younger girl, that of the mentor and her pupil, is a recurring theme in my books. This is something I didn’t really know, but watching Hacks it just got to me.

I made notes the last few days about the things I wanted to write to you, and now rereading your letter I scribbled on an envelope things I shouldn’t forget to react to. First things first: the martini vodka with an olive. My favourite too. My publisher/editor gave me a jar of olives to remind me of our habit to drink these ‘dirty dirties’ together once in a while. When you’re here, someday this day will come, I’ll take you to our cocktailbar, it’s right beside my workplace, in the centre of Amsterdam, and it’s very dark in there, which can be something good.

I’m not married so it feels a bit strange to say ‘my husband…’ but oh well, when I told my husband about this correspondence, he said: ‘Interesting, you’re writing about the situation in Gaza I presume.’ This is how it goes, he’s the mocking kind, most of the time in a loving way I hope. I think you just said enough about the times we’re living in, not being able to listen to the news when you can’t sleep. In this house we stopped watching the news rather recently, still reading the papers though, not to mention taking part in the discussions during editorial meetings at the opinion magazine I work for. But in my own writing, in my columns for instance, I can’t find the words, I’m not even looking for them. Years ago I was in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and saw this diary of an American woman exposed in a vitrine. On the day Pearl Harbour was attacked she wrote she baked a pumpkin pie, it occasionally pops up in my mind. 

I’m not a very steady diary writer, just like you I kept it more faithfully during the years between my 12th and my 18th. But I’m always searching for a method to keep notes in a more organised way. As of three years ago I try to write a sentence each day in the Redstone Diaries, thoughts of me & others, in the hope when I reread this I’ll still understand what and why. In reality I never reread it and when I do, I’m puzzled. First line I wrote in this new year: ‘I do desire we may be better strangers’. It’s from As You Like It. Well, maybe this is an enormous cliché in England, but it struck me and I hope I still know why in a couple of months. I’m sure I will. 

I was again thinking about keeping things and throwing them away because I was visiting Marlene Dumas a few times for our magazine, I had to write something about the way she is (non-)archiving the stuff that moves her, it was a difficult thing to do, also because it was a bit confronting. I started to move books from the shared bookshelves in my house to my study, I had a rather vague criterion, something to do with ‘does this writer speak to me’. I’m still in the middle of it; this turned out to be far more difficult and time-absorbing than I thought. 

You don’t have to explain anything in your writing, ‘just’ make it convincing.

I’m so curious about the novel you’re working on at the moment. Of course, don’t say a word about it, don’t break the spell. But it must be distracting, to talk about Nonfiction again. Yesterday evening I was having dinner with a dear friend, also a writer, and I was telling her about the way you see your writing ideally: like a stranger on the bus is forcing you to listen to him, can’t afford any boring details, just telling the story. She was laughing, because she realised she always visualises herself in a dark room, behind a table, mumbling along and hoping someone would be interested, and hoping the interested party would eventually find out that the mumbling person is actually a prophet. I read once a Paris Review-interview with James Salter and he said something that I remembered, it’s a bit like your stranger on the bus, he said that he liked to be somewhere with somebody who told him the ‘true story’, the only thing he was interested in, forget all the rest. 

Yes, but then, all the effort to make a story look like the true story. In writing you need the ambiguities of daily life. It must be a hell of a job like you wrote in your letter, to explain to people who are thinking of transforming your book into a play or a movie, why your characters are behaving like they do. For me it was one of the great inventions, and still I’m forgetting that I already invented this, have to invent it again and again, that you don’t have to explain anything in your writing, ‘just’ make it convincing. I loved your goblin-story, the pure thrill of realising you can upset someone with an invented story. The first sentence I wrote down in a cahier when I was five was something like : ‘When I came into the room my father and mother were already there, and my brother, they were sitting around the table.’ Sorry, this seems a bit pompous (is this a word?), but I immediately felt also a strange, strong sensation, that through writing down something on paper you distance yourself, like putting a window between you and your intimates. In a way this was the beginning of ‘the secret life of the good girl.’ 

(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

This is early Friday morning, and guess what, it’s raining. I’m feeling a bit gloomy, I think it has to do with the weight of a new year coming, what will it bring us, I’m scared. I’m thinking of you and your polkadot thing with the fake breast, so stupid they didn’t have your size, I can go to Utrecht any time and buy you something, you must know this, I’d be happy to. Last year two friends gave me a ‘knitted’ bra as a birthday present, something revolutionary without underwire, I’m not sure yet if this is the solution for me, but then again: does it exist, the solution for living your life as a mature woman? (One of my books is actually called Solutions, some people were disappointed that I didn’t give real solutions, I was being a bit ironic – always dangerous.)

I’m so happy to have met you, Julie. Our first conversation was a major highlight of 2023. I feel the urge to keep talking to you, and I will continue with this in 2024, that’s for sure. I will also expand, then, on having grandchildren – this is a delicate subject. I think I’m going to watch Anatomy of a Fall for a second time; it really moved me the way you wrote about this movie in your letter and how the actress reminded you of me. And you sensed quite well that I felt resistance when I saw it. It touched upon so many things I’m struggling with, and maybe my self-loathing has the face of this woman writer in the movie. I don’t know, ingredients for something else, later.

I have to go to the office, cycling in the rain again. One of the best things I bought recently is a so-called ‘change robe’ for surfers in a skateshop, it’s scary yellow and very big, it’s like putting on your private tent. People react to the coat all the time, I take all this as a compliment, just like when I’m running in the cold rainy dark with my training group, and imagining that my trainer – who’s always running beside me, talking – feels attracted to me, instead of facing the reality that I’m slow and he’s trying to keep me going. 

Hope you started the new year well ,dear Julie. I’m afraid I didn’t ask you any questions, but this is the thing and you know it: I want to know everything about you. 

Lots of love,