Richard de Nooy

In search of empathy

Amsterdam-based author Richard de Nooy discusses The Unsaid, his new novel

BY JONATHAN AMID

Richard de Nooy has spent the past twenty years turning various fragments of personal experience into greater narratives. These penetrate deeply into various personal and sociopolitical issues, exploring isolation, disillusionment and trauma from a myriad sources — all the while unpicking the nature of evil, madness and ethical responsibility towards the “other”.

His new novel, The Unsaid, is the third in a trilogy that began with Six Fang Marks and a Tetanus Shot (2007) and was followed by The Big Stick (2011). They all bear the hallmarks of a singular writing aesthetic: vivid, deeply troubled, supremely memorable characters; a sound understanding of the relationship between space, place and personal development. There is a complex tussle between belonging, home and remoteness, an interrogation of the ways that memory functions (particularly in locations of wounding and the uprooted) and sharp, caustic humour. Then there is his unpredictable plot-lines and formal experimentations with structure and framing devices, and a resounding acknowledgement of the messiness and beauty of the everyday.

What follows here is an account of our hour-long interview, one where I offer summative rather than verbatim answers from the man himself. I first ask about the journey in writing that brought him to where he is now. He informs me that he has been writing for 20 years, that it has been a process of gradually gaining confidence and belief, and that living in the Netherlands has seen him earning Dutch as a second language, writing in Dutch before being translated into English.

What has emerged over the years, I am told, is a slow perfection of style, one that has been developed over the course of his trilogy. He tells me that he enjoyed writing in the “quasi-journalistic” dossier style in The Unsaid, with a series of “bad men” confessing to their various crimes. These include a variety of war criminals and child soldiers, among others, and these “short stories” – told by these men that seem to take over (main protagonist) Deo’s pen while he spends time under “forensic observation” for alleged crimes – are nothing short of sensational. They chill the blood and tear at the heart. Readers will never quite look at an AK 47 in the same way again.

When I enquire as the significance of the journey, both literal and metaphorical, in his work, de Nooy affirms that “movement and dynamism” is very important to him. Despite a “fear of stasis”, of “being stuck in one place”, he has spent “about 90%” of his writing life “between desk chair and smoking chair”. Yet, despite living life in what is essentially a space of 10 square metres, he has near-constant interaction with others online, a launchpad for “travel” and “adventure: in writing over a hundred travel blog posts for KLM, he only visited two of the actual countries he was writing about.

The discussion turns to the best way to capture a sense and texture of a specific place. De Nooy argues that he would purposely not visit a place he wanted to write about, opting instead to read about it in books or to watch documentaries. In capturing proper “spirit of place”, getting the tourist experience “doesn’t allow you to get the nitty gritty”, and it “doesn’t allow you the empathy you need”. Rather, when he does indeed travel to a certain place to get a feel for the lived conditions of his characters, he believes that people reveal themselves by talking, and by talking about themselves, often without much prompting. Most intriguingly, de Nooy tells me about a visit to Zeerust family farms, where, despite moved by the thinly veiled suffering of two women, all he ended up including in The Big Stick was a striking image of a “carpet” of feathers that stick together under a tree.

Probed about his remarkable visual sense, where descriptions punchily immediate, a “over-writing” emerges: descriptions are to be distilled, not meaninglessly embellished, and metaphors must be clear, from the get go. We talk about the prevalence of figurative snakes, sharks and wolves in The Unsaid, distillations of the “bad men” mentioned earlier. Just as readers can get more from a story if they can identify and comprehend the dominant figurative language, so too does the writer in this case write prose in order to “understand” things, in order to quantify and make sense of the world.

Since “writing adds meaning to what we think and perceive”, de Nooy inhabits a “parallel universe”, finding great joy in the fictional realm. It emerges that de Nooy’s biggest stumbling block is the need to “make writing important”. He write with the requisite share of feeling, a complete lack of judgment, an openness to what will emerge. While having never abandoned an idea or a book, his process sees him planning, reading and plotting at home, then spending on average three days at a time away from home, with set deadlines in which to finish a set amount of work.

As a stay-at-home dad, with his family granting him time away to write, he must “inhabit the world of the novel”: he very much enjoys inhabiting characters and listening to their voices. There are “dark places”, indeed, and his greatest anxiety is over “flipping” — crossing the “thin red line” and losing control of what is real and tangible. de Nooy mentions the “associative” brain activity of those with mental disturbances; despite, or perhaps because of, being in charge of all his actions, he can “have a block of flats at the back of [his] mind”, where he can view life and its complexities (particularly for his troubled characters) from different “rooms”.

Still reflecting on his process, de Nooy notes that “the more you talk, you more you reflect” on how and why things are the way they are in writing. Not informed by literary criticism, he feels that he is able to avoid the “superiority” projected by some writers when talking about their work, and instead emphasises the need for empathy in writing. It is important to listen, and to listen attentively. De Nooy tells me he is constantly absorbing things, details, fragments of conversations around him; he is like a “sponge”.

De Nooy is drawn to tragic figures like Deo and The Big Stick‘s Staal because of a single, fundamental question that trumps all others: “How do you get to that point?” It is a key writing objective for readers to become more aware of the fact that many things in our nature are “pre-programmed”, that “hard-drives become corrupted” over time under certain conditions.

In “character-driven” narratives, the “desire to explore and understand” is what compels him to keep writing; fear, anger, that which annoys him, which is the “essence”, what keeps the wheels turning. It is no surprise, then, that the motley crew of mental patients that share their stories with Deo in The Unsaid’s Forensic Observatory are ultimately less threatening and fearsome than one might expect: although men like Shark, Numb, Warsaw and others have done terrible things, they are never reduced to one-note thugs, however hard they may be trying to twist the writer’s arm.

Ultimately, and this is instructive, the drive is not (only) to be a writer, but to commit to telling “the best stories”. Since “fiction is able to fill in all facets of the personal”, he tells me a number of inter-related stories that point to the manner in which real life events have all but forced his hand to write in search of greater empathy. As a psychology student at Rhodes, he visited a psychiatric ward in New England. Here, he met a man convinced that he had a chain inside his stomach, one connected his brothers and sisters, a chain that was being eaten progressively by a shark. In another, much earlier memory, de Nooy recounts the aftermath of an accident where a young schoolmate was killed in an accident that involved a truck driver. In both cases, he felt that it could under different circumstances have been him, thoughts that prompted him to (re)consider his way of looking at others and the world.

By “inhabiting other bodies”, you can “become another person”, more attuned to the feelings and subjectivity of others. Where non-fiction centers around a sense of how things were, or are, very much about the “what”, fiction enables an inquiry into the layers of feeling that abound in the complex interactions between human subjects. De Nooy describes writing fiction as holding a kind of séance, calling the voices of the dead and living into being. If The Unsaid is the result of such a séance, a confessional space where open-endedness rules, then one must also understand the following rationale: “If you want people to think, don’t give them closure”. “Entertainment” is not the be all and end all; rather, de Nooy wants his readers to think, to do so in particular as they bear witness in The Unsaid to a range of gaps and holes, elisions and occlusions, while getting to hear much of what was unutterable or unsayable in his trilogy’s first two novels.

The Unsaid by Richard de Nooy

The Unsaid is published by Jacana and is available from Kalahari.comRead an extract from the novel here.

 Photograph: Chris van Houts

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