Herman Koch Gets Meta In 'Dear Mr. M'
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
"Dear Mr. M" is a new novel by the Dutch writer Herman Koch. It is a thriller of the brainy and psychological sort with shifting points of view. And with each shift, reality - or perhaps truth - shifts as well. To brutally simplify, this is a book about a writer who has put real people into his novels. One of them takes it so personally that at various points along the way we feel the younger man may do something violent. Herman Koch joins us from Amsterdam, where he lives. Good morning. Welcome.
HERMAN KOCH: Good morning.
WERTHEIMER: Now, in your book, a teacher has a brief affair with a student. She breaks it off. And then the teacher disappears and no one knows what happened to him. And then a famous writer you call M writes a novel about it.
KOCH: Right (laughter).
WERTHEIMER: So you're starting out with a book that's about a book.
KOCH: Yeah, I did - I were thinking about the little defense people have who are used in let's so call it true fiction, or at least fiction that is based on so-called true facts. So when a writer writes about somebody who is a suspect of maybe the disappearance of this teacher, in this case - because there's never a body found, nobody knows where he is and you fill in the gaps with your imagination and your fantasy, the public might believe more in the fiction - particularly when it's a successful novel - than in the real and true facts. So your life as a suspect - you're worse off maybe than when you would be really convicted.
WERTHEIMER: But, of course, the plot of your novel is much more complex even than that. I wonder if you could just sort of unpack a few layers of what you did here.
KOCH: OK. First of all, I am not a great planner, so I have just a vague idea. And then I start to find out what kind of book I actually want to write. So I started off with the idea of this person, Herman, who has this famous older writer living above him as his upstairs neighbor, addressing himself to this writer, in the beginning only accusing him of being a mediocre writer.
And then I started going further and further and thinking, well, maybe this voice is not enough. So then I started to build more layers. Then I thought the downstairs neighbor 40 years ago had a 17-year-old girlfriend. I thought, now I want to hear the girlfriend as well. So it went from there.
One thing I can tell you about, you know, like, planning this novel is that until a few months before ending it or at least trying to end it, I still didn't have a clue as to where this teacher's whereabouts - where he ended up. So this is the way I keep the suspense in the writing myself as well.
WERTHEIMER: You appear to critique this sort of book in the book when the older author argues with the younger man about the difference between filling up a book with a crowded cast of characters and alternatively concentrating on a few characters. Your fictional author is in the small group camp. Your own book goes way the other way. You have so many interesting and well-developed characters and relationships. Why did you do that?
KOCH: Maybe because myself, when I'm writing - or even sometimes when I'm reading - but when I'm writing I get easily bored. So changing perspectives, for me, was more like writing five short novels and packing them all into one. And I thought it just became a richer book.
WERTHEIMER: Why, then, did you include so much criticism of doing that? You critique yourself in the book.
KOCH: Oh yeah, I do. Yeah. But this is, you know, like making a wink at yourself, a bit like self-irony. There's this whole lot of thing that what literature should do - you know, you should forget yourself and it's - that's the only objective it has. But all these things are theories that go around and that we read in interviews with writers and that I sometimes believe and I sometimes don't. And I just put them all in there. And it's up to the reader to decide which side he is on.
WERTHEIMER: You talk in the book about how M, the writer, rearranges real life for the sake of his plot. We hear him being interviewed about it. We hear him speaking to an audience at a library. He has a very low opinion of interviewers like me.
WERTHEIMER: So is this your life?
KOCH: No, no, it isn't. The thing is that this writer - for me, he's 80 years old, which means that it's - for me, it would be still 20 years away. I was just filling in in my fantasy the way I would feel in 20 years' time, if I would still be excited going to an interview or speaking in front of an audience or going to a literary festival. I hope I won't end up as the writer M does.
KOCH: Also, it's not - you're interviewing me now, but it's not a general criticism of interviewers. It's just a writer who already - you know, he hears himself talk. M gets tired of his own voice. Sometimes I get tired of my own voice as well (laughter) but I try to - you know, to sound if I'm still interested.
WERTHEIMER: Herman Koch. His new book is called "Dear Mr. M." We do appreciate you talking to us. Thank you.
KOCH: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.