Claire Polders is the author of four novels in Dutch. A Whale in Paris, her first book in English, co-authored with Daniel Presley, is forthcoming from Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster) in May 2018. Her short stories, flash fictions, and essays have been featured in numerous publications, such as TriQuarterly, Denver Quarterly, and Mid-American Review. Most pieces published on the web can be found at clairepolders.com. She also welcomes all writers and readers on Twitter and Facebook.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Claire Polders
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
What did you read when you were younger, and in what languages? Your ability to express ideas and tell stories in English is excellent, and you grew up in the Netherlands. Who are some of your strongest influences?
I read a lot as a child, but exclusively in Dutch. I’m (unfortunately) not from a multilingual family and never attended international schools. Swedish authors like Selma Lagerlöf and Astrid Lindgren were among my favorites, along with (historical) fiction from Dutch writers like Thea Beckman and Guus Kuijer. I preferred stories in which either the magical or the eccentric lifted the protagonist from the limitations of everyday life.
Early in high school, or middle school as it’s called in the U.S., I started reading in English, German, French, Latin, and Greek. Most books, however, were assigned or chosen from lists that teachers provided, and although they reinforced my love for language, they rarely influenced me. I didn’t retrieve my passion for reading until later in high school when I discovered the work of Milan Kundera and Albert Camus. Their existential novels were truly inspiring, how they philosophically questioned moral issues in postmodern narratives.
In college, I adored the classics: Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Flaubert, Marquez, Tolstoy, Mann. My love for English and American literature came only after college. The best way to learn how to write in a foreign language, I think, is to read original work in that language. Some of the authors who taught me about sentence structure and vocabulary, about what the English language can do, were James Salter, Zadie Smith, J.M. Coetzee, Muriel Spark, Don DeLillo, A.M. Homes, Julian Barnes, Margaret Atwood, and Graham Greene.
Does your workflow feel different when writing in English as opposed to writing in Dutch, or (as you write in your piece “The Writer and Her Time”) is it equally challenging to write confidently despite “the ability of the Writer’s mind to critique itself?”
Good question. I think I’ve grown as an author since I switched to English, but only because I’ve become more critical. When I started writing in English, my confidence was lower than before and realistically so: what I wrote was not good enough. I was used to writing with a certain ease and in a certain pace, yet outside my mother tongue that approach no longer worked. To get the results I wanted, I had to slow down, try harder, be more precise. I began reading paragraphs out loud, and paid more attention to language, rhythm, and voice. Sentences became as important as ideas and storytelling. So, yes, my workflow has changed, yet it remains challenging to write confidently: I still have so much to learn.
In “The Writer and Her Time,” you keep coming back to the idea that the writer is wasting her time. What exactly do you mean by this? While writing, it’s easy to feel frustration for all of the time spent poring over sentences and poking at words, but still, do you see value in all of the drafts that go unread and the ideas that don’t fully incubate?
The only way to know who I want to be as a writer and to become that writer is to write a lot. This process, necessarily, includes detours and doubts. I trust that I learn something from each draft and each unfinished project, even when I can’t point my finger at it. Sometimes I feel that I’ve wasted my time, but had I known a more direct way to get where I’m now, I would have taken it. Besides, frustration motivates. When I see myself going in the wrong direction, in life, or with a story, I stop, look back, and say: I can do better.
Do you think there’s value to preserving each unique language, or would you advocate for a universal language, so everyone could be equally understood?
It would be wonderful to have one shared language to better understand one another, but not if that means that language would be our only one. I think there’s a psychological and perhaps even moral value to speaking multiple languages. For that reason alone I would never say that everybody should just learn Chinese or Spanish. Language can structure thought, and to speak or write in a foreign language can be like traveling: it’s disorientating and opens the mind to new ideas and connections. I believe that this type of traveling would benefit everyone, especially creative people. There is also a cultural value to each unique language that may be higher than the practical (and economical) value of one lingua franca.
Are there any Dutch words that English lacks, or English words that Dutch lacks? Which are your favorite words, and why?
Yes, I run into missing words all the time! And finding the right translations can be hard without knowing all the connotations. That said, these language gaps are often more fun than frustrating, because they lead to cultural insights and creative solutions. I love how easy it is to invent neologisms in English and be understood.
Most English words that have no equivalent in Dutch are used untranslated, such as “sidekick,” “spinoff,” and “freewheel” (strangely enough, with our bicycle culture, we don’t have a word for this.)
Some of my favorite Dutch words with no equivalent in English are:
– Uitwaaien. Verb. Literally: to out-blow. Meaning: to take a walk in windy weather, preferably on a dike or a beach, and let your worries be blown away into the fresh air.
– Olifantenpaadje. Noun. Literally: a small path for elephants. Meaning: a path created by pedestrians who refuse to follow the straight lines of sidewalks and take a shortcut through the grass or bushes.
– Natafelen. Verb. Literally: to after-table. Meaning: to remain seated at the table after dinner and continue to talk (and drink). This often goes together with: Uitbuiken. Verb. Literally: to out-stomach. Meaning: to postpone other activities, lean back, and let your stomach expand to improve digestion.
Do you feel like there is equal opportunity to pursue literary arts in France, the Netherlands, and the United States? (Is it even possible to judge?)
Let’s compare notes on the Netherlands and the United States, for I’m not informed enough of the situation in France.
What is great in the Netherlands is how many languages we are taught in school, so we don’t have to rely on translations only to read world literature. Thanks to government subventions, publishers also receive funding for translations. But when I went to college, an MFA in creative writing did not exist. I could study Dutch as a language or literature as interpretation or writing as straight journalism. Now there are some private schools in which you can follow courses, but that’s still not the same as getting a university degree in creative writing. Also: there was no market for short fiction.
In the U.S., almost every university has its own literary review. And there are plenty of independent magazines that publish high quality work, and pay. In the Netherlands, fifteen years ago, we only had a few prestigious printed journals that were published by the big publishers and functioned as a breeding ground and promotional tool for their new authors. Now, there are several Dutch literary magazines online, but nowhere near as many as you have in the US. The same goes for the amount of publishers: there are so many presses to which you can submit your writing! Of course there is also more competition, so it’s necessary to find your niche. I don’t have the statistics to compare scholarships and subventions for individuals, but I think it’s probably true that in both countries only the lucky few receive them. What makes the biggest difference in opportunity, I think, is the language in which we write. There are less than 30 million people who can read Dutch, whereas there are an estimated 1 billion people in the world who speak English.
Your upcoming work “A Whale In Paris” (to be released May 22, 2018 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers / Simon & Schuster) is geared toward middle-grade students. How did this idea develop, and what made you decide to write for such a younger audience?
“A Whale in Paris” is a novel I co-wrote with my American husband, who is an author and screenwriter. We often pitch each other stories, sometimes for fun, sometimes to test whether an idea is worthwhile pursuing. One lazy morning in bed, he pretended being beached, and I played the girl who came to visit her sad little whale. Somehow the scene stuck, and over time, the story developed without premeditation—we were just having fun—until we realized that it could become a book. We began to write down everything we had imagined and soon settled on a voice. It was never a conscious decision to write this novel for a younger audience. The story made it happen.
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