“I’d rather love the spikey parts” — an interview with Alma Mathijsen


Alma Mathijsen was born in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She is the author of six plays, a collection of short stories, and three novels. Her latest novel Forget the Girls has been critically acclaimed and is nominated for the BNG BANK Literary Prize. Mathijsen writes essays on feminism, representation and grief for NRC Handelsblad. Her work has also appeared in Vice US and Vice UK. She’s in New Orleans on a two month writing residency with Deltaworkers, and she will be reading at The Waves at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 24, at Antenna (3718 St. Claude).

RM220’s Isabelle Barany is an MFA candidate specializing in fiction at the University of New Orleans. She is currently the Associate Fiction Editor and the Associate Web Editor at Bayou Magazine. Isabelle spoke with Alma about writing about what troubles her, why she doesn’t control her characters, and singles people activism.

Isabelle Barany: In your novel Forget the Girls, Iris, a writer, constantly tells stories to her friend and roommate Kay. The endings of these stories often include a transcendence for the characters—the Samoans begin having children who are born as a fa’afafine, the third gender, the Korean Jeju “sea women” become so great at diving their community thinks they may turn into fish.

As a writer, what do you believe the purpose of storytelling to be? Is it an escape from reality? Is it what allows us to control and/or change reality? Something else entirely? Does it depend?

Alma Mathijsen: Stories are first and foremost an experience. Then, they can become basically anything. I’m not so sure that every book can create empathy or teach you something. I think that for Iris, she wants to give something to Kay. She wants to tell Kay stories about “women who win,” women who succeed in a different way, which she hopes will give Kay a sense of hope. But I think these stories disappoint Kay because, unlike the women in the stories, she feels like she didn’t succeed. She didn’t become “free.” So, ironically, I think Iris is actually making it worse. For every story you tell, each person will perceive it completely differently. The most successful books are a true collaboration between the reader and the writer. When I like a book, it’s because of the thing it becomes in my own mind.

IB: Your novel The Great Good Things is in part based on your father and the group of friends with whom he formed a string quartet. When did you decide to adhere to what you had researched about the string quartet, and when did you decide to deviate from it? How did you make those decisions?

AM: It all started from a strong notion that I wanted to write about my father. My father died when I was nine. He was this fictional, mythical person to me, and I definitely put him on a pedestal. This often happens when a person disappears. At a certain point, he didn’t feel real anymore. When it was time to write my undergraduate thesis, I started interviewing his friends. I didn’t initially intend to write a book. I remember one of his friends said to me, “Well, do you want to know the truth?”

It was a really nice way to get to know my father. His friends were all people who lived at the end of the sixties, end of the seventies, and one of them had decided to keep living there. This man lives in this tiny town just outside of Amsterdam. It’s this artist’s village. His house is built from the remains of a ship. His doors and windows are round, the house is painted in rainbow colors. He has this painted green mustache. I remember that as we were about to start the interview he sat down, put his finger up, and a bird flew through the window and sat on it.

So I collected all of these stories about my dad, some of which were contradictory—the mythical Super Dad I’d created, the character of my father from his friends—and then I decided that this could be the base of what I wrote but that I was going to write something fictional. From this point forward, I was going to let the characters decide what was going to happen. I think it was really important to let go of the actual truth to make a story that in a way that was more real to my experience.

When you write something non-fictional, sometimes you say to yourself, “Well, this is true, but it’s not exactly what I want to tell.” Ultimately, I think that’s why I made this story fiction instead of non-fiction. I wanted to tell something more real than the truth.

IB: It’s fascinating when writers say something along the lines of, “I was going to let the characters decide what was going to happen.” Could you talk a little more about that?

AM: When you know your characters are set, they’re alive in a way, and they have their own wills and wishes. If you as the writer say to them, “No, don’t walk into that room,” the story will be crooked. So I just place them in scenes, and I listen. Usually, they just react.

I know the characters well enough that I know what they’re going to do and say. If I give a character a glass of water, depending on who they are, they might drink it, or splash me, etc. It all depends on what her character is like. So if that’s set and grounded, there’s never really more than one option. It’s the story’s decision, not mine.

I hope that makes sense. I think I’m an intuitive writer. I’m less in control than people think. When I begin writing, I have a general idea of what I want to tell, where I want to end it, and what my characters are like. Those are my grounding points, and the rest of the story is just what happens.

IB: In a non-fiction essay about the book Grief is The Thing with Feathers, you wrote, “Grief takes a lifetime.” Do you believe other things in this world take a lifetime? If so, what?

AM: That’s a difficult and broad question, and honestly, I don’t entirely know because I haven’t lived a lifetime yet. I hope that my friendships will last a lifetime. I hope that those bonds will last as long.

I do feel that I will keep this grief close to me and treasure it in a way, too, throughout my lifetime. I feel that once the grief is gone, my father will be gone too. I’d rather have the pain but also this image of him, and this sense he’s still close. That’s why I hope it lasts a lifetime. The grief has, in part, made me who I am. So I’d rather love the spikey parts—is that only a Dutch thing? Perhaps it doesn’t translate from Dutch. I’m sure these things, such as my sexual assault, will continue to bother me for the rest of my life, but it’s these things that made me want to write. I can’t change them anyway. So I’d rather keep them close. Of course I wish that they didn’t happen, but they did. So there’s not really another option. It makes you understand who you are and the people who’ve gone through something similar a bit better. Writing is so great because you can do something with it. You kind of give it a new purpose, in a way.

IB: You’ve written both in Dutch and English about your sexual assault when you were a teenager. I assume that you’ve heard over the years, “That was so brave of you,” but I wonder if statements like that—although well-intentioned—perhaps might be missing the truth of why you’ve written about it.

AM: I’m really happy you said that because it’s not really about bravery for me. Honestly, it was more about coping and helping myself. Writing about it makes a little bit better and easier. I think that being silent is very hard and painful. For me, and I can only speak for myself, being silent about it was actually harder because that was just incredibly lonely.

When I’m writing, I know exactly what I want to say at that moment. (Although of course, often when I look at it later on, what I want to say changes.) When you’re writing, it’s incredibly pure and concentrated thinking. When people say it’s “so brave,” paradoxically, it encourages the idea that people shouldn’t talk about it. Whereas the reality is that this has happened to so many people. So let’s talk about it. Let’s acknowledge it.

IB: In Forget the Girls, Iris and Kay have an extremely nuanced friendship. In a letter to Kay, Iris expresses a large range of emotions towards her: gratitude, comfort, admiration, affection, curiosity, confusion, as well as a sense that Kay, who intended well, was “smothering” her. What inspired you to write a story in part about the complexity of female friendship?

AM: Lenie de Zwaan, who’s a single peoples activist in the Netherlands. I went to one of her lectures. In the Netherlands, she’s been fighting for the rights of single people. For example, she wants to create a Dutch law that would allow people to inherit from their friends in the same way spouses can inherit from their partners. She argues that a social family can be the same thing as a biological family. Every election year, she creates voting guides for single people so that they can determine which political party will best serve their interests.

The word for single in Dutch means “standing alone.” After her lecture, I started thinking about my friendships and romantic loves—I hate the term romantic love, by the way, but I’m not sure how else to describe it. I realized that I valued friendships as much as I valued my romantic relationships, if not more. When I went to read more about it, I realized that, at least in Dutch literature, there really wasn’t a lot around female friendship. So I started to create these two characters, Iris and Kay, who have this very intense friendship and are really dependent on each other.

IB: What’s your process to create characters?

AM: This has been my least autobiographical book yet. Iris and Kay came after I thought about Lenie de Zwaan. They kind of erupted. Every night I dreamt about the characters. Then, I began writing the scenes of the important moments in their friendship: the moment they met, their first fight, when they saw each other’s homes for the first time. Through these little writing assignments, I got to know them. I wrote about 15,000 to 20,000 words of these scenes. None of them actually ended up in the book. It could have, but it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I really create characters through writing. I create them in my head as well, but I have to keep getting to know them through writing them. They show their true selves along the way.

IB: In Forget the Girls, Fields, a journalist, recounts the story of a co-worker who believed so completely in a novel that he thinks one of the characters is real and almost pitches a story about it to the newspaper. Conceivably, Iris, the novelist, might be quite pleased if she heard this anecdote. As a writer, what is the greatest compliment someone could give you about your work?

AM: Reviews are obviously really nice and are really helpful for the book. I look up to the people who write those reviews, but I was thinking about this question. I remembered that just the other day someone said to me, “You write like how you talk.” That was a huge compliment. When I write, I want to keep it as real as possible. I teach writing in the Netherlands. Some of my students, when they’re first starting out, make these really oddly constructed sentences where they use really fancy words, and their writing can become totally different and estranged from the person they are. I sit down with them, and I say to them, “What do you want to tell? Just tell me what you want to tell.” After they talk about it, what they write becomes much more sincere. It’s like this little coat has been taken off it.

IB: You self-identify as queer. Has this identity influenced your writing, and, if so, how?

AM: I think it did with Forget the Girls. Once, when I was doing a reading in the Netherlands, a woman came up to me and said, “I don’t think you know what friendship is. This is a love story.” I said to myself, you know what, maybe she’s right, and it is a love story! Maybe this is a story about two women who are in love with each other but don’t necessarily have a sexual relationship. I want all of these different relationships to be possible. I’ve been trying to write about it—I really do want to write about it—but there’s still this hesitance. I think that the hesitance is what I’ll explore.

IB: Right, hesitance can be such a powerful emotion.

 AM: Definitely. Once I started exploring my hesitance to writing about my sexual assault, it become so much clearer why I had that hesitance.

IB: Can you say more about that?

AM: Not really. I think it’s something I can really only figure out in writing.

IB: Final question: What’s your favorite thing that you’ve written, and why?

AM: My last book—Forget the Girls. It’s a bit of a boring answer, but it’s just the way it is. It’s where your heart currently lies. You’ve spent so much time and effort and love on it. I’m working on a non-fiction book here at my residency with Deltaworkers, so probably within a year that will be the book I love the most.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.