Gerbrand Bakker’s outstanding debut, the Twin, won the International IMPAC Dublin Award in 2010 and his third, the Detour, is currently shortlisted for the 2014 IMPAC Award. Both novels are tales of isolation, remoteness and inner turmoil, and the consolation offered by the natural world. Originally from Holland, Gerbrand now lives in a village of only seven houses in The Eifel region of Germany, known for its dramatic landscapes, woodlands and water-filled volcanic craters.
A licenced gardener by trade, it is no surprise that he uses a gardening metaphor to describe what he is doing in this rural idyll. “I am composting here, as it were, trying to regain something, in the hope that one day I will start writing again. There is solitude, no other writers or critics, but there are neighbours.” He has a “wonderful brand new writing room,” which he says is “almost finished,” although much of his time is spent working on his huge garden.“Working in a garden gives me a feeling of absolute freedom,” he says. “I can be doing stuff and suddenly realise five hours have passed.” His writing, whether it is a novel or a newspaper column, is working at the back of his mind in what he describes as a kind of “mild buzzing,” and the physicality of gardening provides inspiration for the following morning’s stint at the computer; although he says he’d prefer not to use the term inspiration, rather “concentration.”
When the Twin was first published in 2010 it was universally praised for its restraint, laconic humour and seductive storytelling, and these traits are evident again in the Detour, whose main character, a mysterious Dutch woman who calls herself Emily, is haunted by the memory of who she once was, and struggles to escape her past. I ask him if Emily is drawn from real life.
“When I am in the process of writing a novel I try to think and reflect as little as possible. It would be so easy to say that one of my best and long-standing friends committed suicide a couple of years ago, and I had to deal with it. That is undoubtedly in the book, but that’s too easy. There are many aspects of Emily that are me, or my mother, or a lost lover. There is always so much in a book about which the writer himself understands nothing. I wrote the Twin in 2002/2003 and only over many re-readings did I gradually begin to understand that it is about a search into my own loneliness and the mechanics of loneliness in general. That is possibly why I have problems understanding the Detour – not enough time has passed.”
Gerbrand has visited Ireland before, most recently for a John McGahern seminar last year, although he freely admits to never having previously heard of the great man. “I bought four John McGahern books, which are wonderful, funny and melancholic.” (A bit like Gerbrand perhaps) “I like the Irish but I always get a little bit embarrassed when somebody breaks out singing. And the Irish know how to read books. Whenever I am at a literary festival in Ireland I can feel the love for literature, which is nice.”
What advice would he give to emerging writers? “Wait until you have something to say? Yes, that’s a good one I think.”
Gerbrand Bakker will be interviewed by novelist and poet Tishani Doshi at 8pm on Thursday 29th May at The Arms Hotel. For more information or to book, please click here