You've written many academic books in the past. How was it to take on a subject that was very emotional and personal?
It took the courage to build [to write it] over more than a decade. I have wanted to give this a voice earlier but never managed. The challenge to give a voice to the things that happened inside of me, to try to give that words and to give inanimate things around me some life, that was to me absolutely delicious when I wrote it.
I wrote most of it sitting on an airplane going back and forth to Hong Kong – I needed to give a lecture – and I think I was crying most of the time. When something like this happens, not only is life sort of divided in a before and an after – a prelude and everything that follows – but it's also something that comes back at very surprising moments. When you see something sad, you might associate it with everything you felt then, and tears well up quite easily.
What I truly liked doing was playing with the reader's mood. The colleague of mine [in the story], the atheist with the grey ponytail, is actually an amalgam of two colleagues. So he's a bit fictional, but the two colleagues are quite real and this really is an amalgamation of how they would probably respond. For me to put some attempts at humour in there was really enriching to my own experience – through all this grief and terrible sadness, you still see this other face of humanity. Hopefully I put in the piece something that makes the reader at least snicker a little bit, you know. And that was delightful.
The ideas you explore developed over time, and you had time to reflect on them – to me, it read like a well-crafted diary.
[That] is actually how I learnt to write; I have written diaries basically since I could write and I still have them, actually. The more colourful, metaphorical language to try to capture how I felt about things or about how people looked to me is something that I think I have been playing with for much longer than my academic career. For this [piece] to show up as a diary, as a personal story, is very interesting. It feels like a very accurate reflection.
What you read it as, it actually isn't, and what I mean by that is, it isn't a collage of an existing diary. However, it is a collage of something that I would like to become an existing diary or an existing memoir. I fully agree that this reads like a breathless collage. It in fact moves almost too quickly. Having read through it again, I would love to slow down the pace of the narrative and tell some more, give some more background. I think other people who lose children or loved ones might find some solace in it, or you know at least some relief, some recognition.
In the piece, your experience in the present is punctuated with flashbacks to the love story between you and your wife, which builds suspense in the narrative. Was it important for you to include that element of romance as well?
Very, very important. I had it written without any of the flashbacks, then I read it back and went, hang on, there's stuff missing here. I started thinking, maybe there is a way to keep the reader hooked – why give it all away on the first page if I had to wait for it [in real life]? Stretching it out with those flashbacks was something that I came with later. It came quite naturally to divvy it up in past and present tense – to talk about present tense when I'm in the hospital and then past tense when I have these flashbacks.
The detail in the story is exceptional.
Except from my own diaries, which have never been read, this is the first time I have written something like this with that amount of dialogue. [To write] 'sinking down in the yellow shadows' when I sat down with the doc [in the hospital], it really felt like that. That to me felt so beautiful to try to find words that represent authentically those visual images that I have in my head from all of those memories from all of those years.
This is not my native language, but what I found is English is so much richer because it has so many more influences; there's Celtic, there's French. It's richer than the Germanic languages that I was brought up in. My native tongue is Dutch, I speak Swedish, Danish and German, but English for me is the most nuanced language that offers the most finely tuned meanings. I'll suck on a sentence until I have the word that I think represents most fairly, most authentically that which I remember.
I noticed you don't specifically talk about where you are or use many names. Was that intentional?
It wasn't very consciously so, but I think that it may have been one way for me to preserve some level of privacy relative to the story. I wasn't planning to write this at all actually for this edition of the Griffith REVIEW. I had planned a rather more dry, theoretical piece.
[I thought] first of all, do I have the courage [to write this]? I have found that writing is always sort of an active exhibition, because you never know where your stuff is going to end up, how people are going to look at it and what they're going to take away from it. This was a beautiful opportunity to test my courage, but also to test my ability to simply write like this; write more closely to a narrative prose and reflecting [real] dialogues.
This is a story about a personal tragedy – how does that fit into our ideas about surviving?
Oh, very simple, and that is when you are in the midst of this – when you are sitting next to that little white coffin, the size of a couple of shoe boxes with a red rose on it, and your legs don't carry you and the only wish you have is to pry open the lid and take your daughter out, there is no future. You die, but you have to keep on living.
I would hope that the ability to share more than a decade hence that I'm still here – look, I found some meaning. Not only is there survival, as your heart keeps beating, but there is a way of giving it meaning beyond the dead despair of the moment. To me, this is about surviving in the highest degree.