READ CLOSE: I Laugh me Broken is set in Berlin. Tell us about why you chose this city, and what modern Berlin offers to your story.
VAN DER ZIJPP: I had an idea for a novel about somebody who, as an adult, finds out they are at risk of a devastating genetic disease which completely upends their life. To write it, I decided to upend my own life and go off somewhere in the world. Berlin was calling as a destination so I contacted the Goethe Institut to explore possible artist residencies and they generously offered me a language scholarship.
While I didn’t manage to achieve fluency in those introductory language classes, I came to love the way Germans make up a long compound word to exactly describe something (my favourite – Backpfeifengesicht – a face that is asking to be slapped!). German verb and sentence construction is quite different to English and there is a word for mangled, too-literal translations between German (Deutsch) and English – ‘Denglish’. I played with that quite a lot in the novel, and the title itself, I Laugh Me Broken, is a Denglish translation of a common phrase.
When I first arrived in Berlin I think I felt overwhelmed by the potency of the history there, and as a writer you have to take some time to work out where you sit with it all. After the first few months I decided to stay on, as I hadn’t yet got to grips with the story I wanted to write. Joining some writer’s groups I realised that this disorientation about where to start was a common thing. We frequently talked about it – this period of malaise for the newly arrived, because there is so much to try and understand.
One thing I thought about quite a lot was how, as New Zealanders, we have a sense that whenever we have sent our troops off to wars it was always to help defend the side we consider to be in the moral right. In Germany there were obviously very complex concepts for their population to grapple with after Hitler’s regime, about complacency, guilt, punishment, culpability and atonement. For a long time after the second world war nobody would talk about it, but in later generations there has been a lot of self-reflection. And Berlin is also a city that suffered deeply when, almost overnight during the Cold War, a wall was put up between people on one side of the street and the other. Even now, 30 years after reunification, they are still grappling with issues of resentment and inequity between the two former economies. I think that makes for a really interesting society, and a stimulating place for a character in a book to wander around considering big, life-threatening dilemmas.
Your previous novels explore NZ’s fame and obsession, and in your new novel you’re exploring NZ’s youth and naivete on a global scale. Tell us about how the nature of New Zealanders informs your work.
I remember standing in a historical museum in Berlin watching a moving animation of all the border changes Germany has had over the centuries, and it brought home to me how European nations have been showing their strong faces (and sometimes their fists) at their borders for a long, long time. Any two countries that butt right up against each other, Germany and France say, are separated by cultural identities as different as Bratwurst and Saucisse de Montbéliard (and well, yes, the River Rhine). They know who they are and how they are different, and they don’t want to be encroached upon, thanks.
It struck me then how much we are formed by being an island nation. Remoteness is more our challenge, being a peaceful, long way away from anybody else. We tend to look inward, more than we measure ourselves against other countries. And we have this sense, that becomes palpable when you go to continental countries, that we have been allowed to make up our own rules (Covid response being the most recent example).
I think the general lack of threat means that we have a cultural tendency to be trusting. I sometimes got myself into weird situations in Europe by being a bit innocent and over-friendly, but I would always be thinking in my head, ‘At least this is good material.’
Ginny, your main character, is uncertain whether to take a test to determine her genetic inheritance. The bioethical implications of testing can have both positive and negative outcomes – what would you do?
This is exactly the space I imagined myself into for the novel, so having considered it deeply I know that, like Ginny, I wouldn’t be able to decide easily. When I’ve asked others they often say they’d want to know because they could plan their future. But I’ve also sought out the stories of people facing this particular genetic neurodegenerative disease, and the desire for certainty weighs heavily against how you might feel if you didn’t get the result you wanted (and couldn’t then go back to not having taken the test). Knowing that a horribly challenging physical and cognitive decline isdefinitely in your future is, for most, not better than living with uncertainty. What I do know for sure, though, is that if an effective treatment could be found to delay or lessen it, that would change everything.
What’s the best writing advice you have ever achieved?
When I first published my debut novel a person once said to me that you shouldn’t expect your first book will be the best you can achieve, you should aim for a future book to be your masterpiece. I liked that because it illuminated a writing career as a continuum, and that with each new book you are advancing in skill, refining your craft, working towards some kind of ultimate, elusive gold.
I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like I Laugh Me Broken to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation of your novel?
Because the narrator in my novel is herself a writer (which some schools of thought say you should never try), I am going to gather in four (is that cheating?) novels that I admire, all written with female writers/artists as the main protagonists. Each of them uses a different stylistic framework to interrogate contemporary questions of identity.
Rachel Cusk’s Outline was the first of her trilogy to take the form of a series of digressive conversations, through which she seems to be exploring her own feelings about relationships and children, and also what story is. In Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill writes with very spare, pared back prose that has rage exploding up through the words, as she ruminates on the friction of marriage and stalled artistic ambitions. Olivia Laing employs an act of impersonation in Crudo, as her character inhabits the deceased Kathy Acker while also traversing over feelings about an impending marriage, and “growing up”. And Chris Kraus’s series of bonkers letters, in I Love Dick, gives us an eyeful of irrepressible obsession.
What I like about all of those novels is that they all feel so honest and intelligently probing that you are constantly wondering which parts must be true. And I like that those authors are all so clever that within their stylistic framework they don’t reveal exactly where the line is drawn between what we know of their actual lived experience and their acts of imagination (well, actually Chris Kraus gave some clues).
I’d love to get all of those writers in a room, and completely resist asking them where they get their inspiration from!
What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?
Since coming back I’ve been enjoying the surge in local literature. I’ve just been laughing my way through Megan Dunn’s brilliant Things I Learned at Art School. (As I write that it occurs to me that Megan, along with Olivia Laing and Chris Kraus, all have an obsession with Kathy Acker at the centre of their books, so it reminds me that I should really get around to reading her original work.) Meanwhile, next on the pile, and I’m looking forward to it, is my friend Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks.