Home » Horla Interview: Guido Eekhaut

HORLA INTERVIEW (September 2019)

 

INTERVIEW: GUIDO EEKHAUT

The award-winning author & writer of speculative fiction, best-known to readers of literature in English for his novel Absinthe, talks to Horla about his life, his writing and his future

AND A NEW SHORT STORY 

 

Please tell us something of your early life.

My father died when I was five. I mention this because in a Freudian sense it could explain the almost megalomanic effort I put into writing. As a small kid I have experienced how people can almost completely disappear, and by writing I want to avoid that happening to myself. I want to live forever, being aware that I’m an almost unknown writer in a very, very big world.

But I’m no great believer in Freudian theories, so writing as much as I do might have other explanations. It’s the only thing I’m really good at, and I just like the physical act of writing. I used to write everything longhand and I have a nice collection of good fountain pens. But these days I merely use this MacBook Air, although notes go in old-fashioned notebooks, of which I have a collection that will last me for a long time.

At twelve I had my first classes in English, and soon wrote essays and book reviews that amazed my teachers. I was the typical lonely bookish kid. At fifteen I discovers science fiction when I got my hands on a translated edition of Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters. That was in 1969, a significant year. The late Sixties and the Seventies where a wonderful time for anyone starting in the genre, as a reader, since both the classic texts of a previous generation (Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, A.C.Clarke, Clifford D. Simak) were getting published in Dutch alongside the New Wave and the more literate SF (J.G.Ballard, Thomas Disch, Ursula Le Guin) and of course Philip K. Dick. Soon I bought whatever I could in English pockets. Couple of years later I started writing my first stories.

Was there any tradition of writing in your family?

Not in the least. Even now, hardly anyone in my family is reading, except for my wife (of course) and one of my nieces who reads everything I write, the poor soul. My mother had a collection of Agatha Christies which I read at an early age and found boring (I almost always figured out Who Did It). I’m all alone in this weird occupation of mine as far as my family is concerned. They view this writing things as something bizarre and cannot really understand what it is I’m doing. I’m not bothered by that.

When and how did you get into writing creatively?

Science Fiction fandom has always been close to the professional world of publishers and magazine editors and anthologists. This was (and still is) the case in the English-speaking world, and to some extent this was the case in Dutch-speaking Belgium and The Netherlands. I started writing for fanzines and small literary magazines, but almost at once I had a couple of stories out in professional anthologies, and in mainstream magazines. These weren’t averse to the occasional weird or magic-realist story.

Writing stories seemed the thing to do when you read all those uncommon stuff about the future or about non-existent places and times. I was lucky to be influenced by the more literary part of genre writing, and by the practitioners of the (mostly Latin American) magic realism. I was and still am on the lookout for anything unusual, as I get bored quickly by the more mundane stories. Knausgard doesn’t do anything for me, but Nick Harkaway certainly does.

At what point – and how – did you take up writing professionally?

When you mean professionally as an attitude (and not as a means of making a living), I guess this happened fairly soon, as I took writing very serious. But really earning (some) money with my books happened only in 2009, so rather recently. That’s when I started publishing crime books and thrillers for large publishing houses. But I had been a part-time journalist and interviewer between 1995 and 2008, so the attitude of working and writing professionally has been there for a longer time. I had a full-time occupation then, and only very recently retired from that job, after 42 years. From my point of view I have not retired, I simply became a full-time writer. One could say only now I’m a professional full-time writer.

The term ‘speculative fiction’ has been applied to your writing. In fact, it’s a term you use yourself. What is your understanding of its meaning?

The term is much older than one generally assumes, and goes back at least to the sixties. I abhor the term ‘sci-fi’ since it was a designation first used by film and TV-producers to indicate that stuff about the future they could make much money on, ever since the first Star Wars film.

I used ‘science fiction’ when everybody else was using it, certainly all through the Eighties. But it has become stained from too many stupid movies and TV-shows, and I have no intention being identified with it.

‘Speculative fiction’ does exactly what it says: it speculates — maybe about the future, maybe about our current society, maybe about the really grand questions we should be asking ourselves (ecology, artificial consciousness, space exploration, the possibilities and mergers of biochemistry and cybernetics). Speculation means we invent stories about a possible future to find out what we will do with it, if any of this becomes true. It does not predict or prescribe the future. It merely states: ‘If this happened, then what will we then do?’

As such it is much richer than science fiction, since there does not have to be a link to any sort of science (although, well, there’s always psychology and sociology involved). It has also to be distinguished from anything ‘fantastic’ or weird and so on, because speculative fiction is firmly rooted in what is possible (if not now). Its premises must not invalidate nature’s laws. The fantastic, on the other hand, does not care about nature’s laws.

To readers of literature in English you’re perhaps best known for your crime thriller Absinthe, winner of the Hercule Poirot Award in 2009. How important to you was the recognition? 

I guess I sort of created my own problem. I wanted to become a writer of serious speculative fiction and of literary fantasy, but found out years ago that in my domestic market there is hardly any interest for those. Literary publishers don’t want to touch it, unless it’s American or English in origin.

When I approached my American agent, he thought it would be best to present American publishers with the one book that won a major award, Absinthe. Americans love winners, even if they have no idea what the award was about. Since then, I’m restricted to publishing crime books, since that’s how the American market works (or so my agent tells me). I’m a writer of crime books, nothing else. It doesn’t matter if I publish the occasional story in another genre — but not in book form.

(Continued next column)

The lack of a domestic market for the genre (except for fantasy), means I have written but a few books in that genre, and for the last ten years have concentrated on psychological and literary crime books. They actually become weirder and more literary. 

But now having two crime books with a major US publisher means a lot to me. I’m very proud of them, and I hope SkyHorse will continue the series. From there on, I might be able to branch out, with my YA books, for instance.

You of course write short stories as well as novels (and your extensive writing has included radio plays and essays). Some writers seem to stick to one form, or use the novel very much as the headline act. What – apart from length, obviously – do you think are the essential differences between the short story and the novel? Is there a particular satisfaction to be had from writing – and reading – a short story?

A short story is not much different from a novel, but for the fact that it’s shorter. You skip introductions and start in media res, and you cut the background about your character’s childhood, and you dump most of the second and third level of plot. You stick to the bare ideas, tell what you have to tell, and then exit the building again, while the place is still on fire. If you need to sketch your character’s background or psychology, you have only a few sentences to do it. Short stories are about being concise and precise.

Some world-famous writers never wrote novels (Borges – left – comes to mind), and didn’t need to. Whatever they had to say, needed only ten or twenty pages. Actually, a lot of writers should trim their texts down to that length and avoid annoying us. On the other side is a writer like Nick Harkaway who needs 800 pages for his ideas and still has to cram them on the pages.

To me the short story lets me explore themes that I want to tell, but since I already write three of four books a year, I can’t find enough publishers for all of them. Stories carry perhaps just a single idea (however complex) but one that would get lost in a 400-page novel. The weird, horror and the like are best compressed into a short story, since otherwise the effects get lost with too much extra stuff.

Where do your ideas come from?

Ah, the question one gets asked time and again, and for which I have no answer. In a rare case or two I know exactly where and when a particular book was born. The rest of the time… I generally have no clue what will be happening in my book when I start writing it. I have some characters, and a background, and some rough ideas about what the book is about. But after that, the blighted thing grows into some monster I hardly have any control over. Same for most stories. I have no clue beyond some characters, some general background, and whatever happens in the first few chapters.

As such, inspiration is a continuous process, fuelled by whatever is happening at the moment, like the books I’m reading while writing. I try, when writing a longer text, reading books that are close to the subject matter of my own book, or might inspire me with characters and ideas. Not that I’m actually stealing stuff from other writers, they merely fuel the creative process. Ideas are, simply, everywhere. They are. The world is full of them. One learns, after years of writing, to trust the process, even when one does not understand it. Usually it leads to something interesting.

Who are the writers that have most influenced you and why? Please name some contemporary writers who’ve caught your eye and tell us why they have. 

There are some names I already mentioned, like J. G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guin (left), and Jack Vance (for the adventure stories). I’m fan in so far that I like some of their books, dislike others. Generally when I reread books they tend to be the ones that influenced me when I was a teenager or in my twenties. I like Ballard’s early novels but not his later work, for instance.

Then there’s a whole library of writers I return to, and whose books I will buy and read at once: Paul Auster, Neal Stephenson, China Mieville, Juan Gabriel Vazquez, John Crowley, Christopher Priest.

Two literary writers I like rereading now and again, date from last century: Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov (but only his later, American books). Halfway through the nineties I discovered Haruki Murakami (right) almost before anybody else discovered him, and I’ve been following him faithfully. Usually his new books now appear in Dutch translation six months before any English translation, which gives me a head start over many of my FaceBook friends.

In the early days I would be influenced directly by some of these writers, like trying to write a Ballardian story, a Le Guin story. One quickly tires of this impossible project and one finds one’s own way. There’s no longer any direct influence, except for certain atmospheres, certain modes of discourse.

Apart from that I read a lot of non-fiction, from books on cosmology to current philosophy.

What can we expect in the near and longer-term future from Guido Eekhaut?

I’m working on a six volume speculative fiction series for young adults, which might even branch out into more books. If they sell well and the publisher remains happy, that is. Two crime books are in the works, one to be expected early 2020, the other perhaps only in 2021. All are in Dutch. I hope SkyHorse will do the other books in the Absinthe series (which I like to think of as the Amsterdam Sequence), so I will be working on translations for the better part of 2020. I intend to write more stories for professional (genre) markets, but also more of the weird and surreal sort of literary stories.

Guido Eekhaut’s website is here: guidoeekhaut.squarespace.com

Picture credits

Le Guin – by Gorthian, Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Murakami – by Galoren.com, Wikipedia, GNU Free

NOW READ ON FOR A BRAND NEW SHORT STORY –

A NEW STORY BY GUIDO EEKHAUT

THE MAN AT THE PINK STREET CORNER

THE man at the pink street corner turns away from us every time I pass with my mother. He doesn’t do that on my account, I suspect, because I don’t know who he is. I assume he does it on account of my mother. But when I ask her about him (Do you know who that man is, mummy?) she hisses at me and I have to keep my mouth shut and not tell father. What could I tell dad? That a man I don’t know so emphatically ignores both me and mother, at that famous pink street corner? Is this the extent of the story my father is not supposed to know about?

“Gianni,” she assures me, “some things only concern adults.” So this excludes me, but I’m nine and I’m curious, and I know only this: adults hide too many things from children. I don’t understand why they do that. Is it out of embarrassment? Do they want to avoid hurting or frightening children?

Silently, we retreat to our flat.

It feels like the stroll was interrupted by the appearance of the man, otherwise we would have taken more time and seen more things. There’s no explanation from my mother, and I’m not asking any further questions.

“Don’t tell father,” is all she tells me. Later, after dark, the nanny puts me to bed. As if I did something wrong and I am being punished. As usual, the nanny doesn’t know anything. She was raised in Piedmonte, and this is Rome. She is permanently impressed with the lifestyle of the people here in the big city. Hardly anybody understands her dialect. Except for me.

Three days later the man is there again, and again he turns away from us, from mother and me, while we pass him by on the other side of the street. I wonder why mother is so emphatically following this route, which is a sort of detour. Maybe she wants to be ignored by that man. There is a game going on between them both, the rules of which I do not understand. I get annoyed when I don’t understand the rules and people just do things without explaining anything to me.

A few days later I catch a few words when she is on the phone with someone. She doesn’t know that I’m hanging around her boudoir, eavesdropping. I hear her say: “He is not there for me.” I cannot hear the rest of the conversation. There is only that one sentence, coming at me through the gap between the door and the door sill. I avoid hanging around, so I miss the rest. That sentence was not meant for my ears anyway.

Who did she talk to?

 

She has plenty of friends. Most of them are like cackling chickens. There is not enough breathing room for all them, here in the heart of Rome. Hence they occasionally swarm out to Rimini, Nice, Verona or even to Paris. Their children, and especially their daughters, generally belong to the same species as the mothers. I rarely get to see the fathers. Just like my father, they are always elsewhere, occupying themselves with their business, their bank or ministry, on a trip or to a conference — everywhere, but rarely at home.

The man loitering at the pink street corner is of a completely different species than these fathers. Perhaps he is an explorer or an inventor, but in that case he would not hang around that street corner all day. He is therefore some sort of artist.

But what exactly does he do? And is he there all the time, on that precise spot, or only by chance when mother and I pass by? That would be too much to ask of chance. I’m only nine, but I know everything about coincidence. Things happen just because. Isn’t that weird?

Is he some sort of painter or sculptor, and should he not be at work in his studio? Some of mother’s colourful friends call themselves artists and have a studio in which they often flee (as they themselves say) from the world. Is he a writer, should he then not write? What kind of artist is he anyway?

I want to ask mother, but she says she doesn’t know whom I’m talking about. That’s what she says. I know she’s lying, or at least not quite telling the truth. She knows a lot more about this man that she’s willing to share with me.

 

He does not wear the same sort of clothing as the other men I know. As the men in my family, or the very rarely seen spouses of mom’s friends. He is not even dressed like our servants. No — he belongs to what mama calls the working class. I ask her who that is, but she declines to comment.

I don’t know anyone who belongs to the working class. Yet Rome is full of those people. Everywhere there are people who are more or less dressed like that man. Some occasionally work in our house or in the garden. They speak a strange dialect, most of them anyway. They clearly belong to this working class. I wonder if the man on the pink street corner worked for mother. Whether he did odd jobs in or around our house. And whether he might not have been paid and is therefore angry with her. With mother it’s all about money. It is the central hub of her existence.

“There are a few things you need to know about your mother,” Aunt Isabelle tells me, “and maybe there are some things about your father that you need to know.” I am arranging my toy soldiers into four platoons, so that they will be ready to depart on an expedition in the garden. This sort of undertaking has always been a tricky business: the garden is wild and overgrown, a place to get lost in, especially if you’re the size of a toy soldier.

The strange thing is that our cat got lost just this same day. It is mother’s cat. She is always around when mother is there. Now she is no longer there, nor does she show up, even though Mother calls her for an hour. There’s always a problem with the cat. With cats in general. Children are said to love cats, but I certainly do not. They are quirky creatures. They have a mind of their own, and no human seems able to teach them manners. Sometimes they cultivate habits, but only when it suits them. So I don’t like cats.

I don’t actually listen to what Aunt Isabelle has to tell me about mother. And about father. My thoughts are with the upcoming expedition of my army in the unknown jungle of the garden. For a moment I think about the cat, who may come to disturb my military plans, but I assume she’s gone, far away, maybe dead.

That evening we eat rabbit with plums by the way of Piemonte, always a feast. Our kitchen maid hails from that region as well. She works part-time in the kitchen, a plump woman who seems old but probably isn’t.

“We often have men in here, in the house,” Aunt Isabelle says, “whom I don’t trust. Quite rough men. They carry out repairs, but seem to hang around for far too long.” I have no idea what that means. These men, and Aunt Isabelle, inhabit a wonderful but totally weird world. It means something, at least for Aunt Isabelle, but not for me. I intend to ask her for more information, but a little later I am involved with other things.

That afternoon an advance party from my army discovers the dead cat, partially hidden under a thick bush. Because the cadaver is too big and too heavy for them to carry back to the house, they decide to just leave it, and let nature do its work. They mark the spot on their maps so that future passing units can avoid it, and they move on.

An hour later, three scouts encounter a new obstacle: a wall that runs across the path they are following. The wall is four soldiers high, and the scouts have no ladders or ropes. They contact the main force. The major, who is in command, lets the scouts continue in a western direction along the wall and heads the rest of the troop — all of four platoons — to meet up with them.

Eventually the scouts find an opening in the wall, large enough for a passage. The major, however, is cautious and lets the three men take a position on this side of the wall. He directs one platoon in front, under the leadership of a lieutenant, to explore the area around the passage. There may be a trap. An enemy army can hide behind the wall. Nothing is unthinkable in this jungle.

Finally, half an hour later, the entire army comes together at the passage. One platoon advances through the gap and occupies positions on higher ground at the other side of the wall. No enemy troops are sighted as yet. The evenings falls, and camp is set up.

 

The next day, scouts pass by some abandoned houses. A little further on there is a town. The lieutenant of the first platoon informs the major. He lets the scouts wait on the spot for the main force. Then the soldiers carefully move into the town. They expect opposition, they expect snipers, or armed civilians. But nothing happens. The town seems peaceful. The residents ignore the soldiers, as if they are used to seeing foreign military.

The major wants to buy supplies here, now that the population does not seem hostile. The civilians direct him to a crossroads, where a man can provide for all his needs. A man of some importance in this town. The major walks over to the crossroads, along with some soldiers. There, leaning against a wall, on a pink street corner, a man is waiting for them.

 

 

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