Date: 11 February 2021
Interviewer: Vanessa Joosen
Transcript: Inge Wijns
Photo: Koen Broos
Translation: Lindsey Geybels
VJ: You debuted at a young age and have continued to write and publish books. This has resulted in a diverse range of works in terms of age, form, and themes, making it fascinating for us to approach age in various ways through your books.
AS: I have experienced many ages myself.
Almost twenty, since your debut, and you probably started writing even earlier. I realise I will ask some cliché questions that may annoy youth authors.
Like: ‘How do you come up with the idea to write a book?’
[laughs] No, why haven’t you written books for adults yet?
Ah, when will you write real books? [laughs]
Exactly. But here I’d like to ask those questions in a different context. Let’s go back to the beginning: you debuted at the age of seventeen. Did you write a lot before that?
Yes, I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. Even when I couldn’t write well, I have tapes where I recorded stories. I started writing longer stories in 1996.
You were twelve then?
Yes, before that, I had notebooks, but the real, longer stories that I mostly kept because I wrote them on the computer and printed them out, are from that time. Writing was really a hobby then; I did it frequently and a lot. When there was a writing contest at the library, for example, or the Davidsfonds Junior Journalist Contest, I participated. So, it was already a significant part of my life.
What kind of stories were they?
They were mostly horror stories. As a child, I read a lot of those 1950s boys’ books that belonged to my father, uncles, and grandfather, like the typical Dutch Arie Roos and Bas Banning, and so on. Besides, I read a lot from the Kippenvel (Goosebumps) series and similar pulp books. Kluitman had those blue thrillers for about 150 Belgian francs; I bought that kind of pulp myself because it was cheap. The good books, I actually borrowed from the library [laughs].
So, I wrote a lot about witches and zombies and such. That changed when I went on vacation to Normandy with my parents when I was fourteen. There, I saw and read everything about D-Day, which had a tremendous impact on me. From then on, I delved completely into World War II, read a lot about it, and my stories completely shifted. From that point, I only wrote about ‘the great war,’ many short stories. Also, in September or October, Saving Private Ryan was released in cinemas, I had just seen it, and as a fourteen-year-old – it really hit me.
I wrote a lot then, but always short stories or poems. The idea of writing a book was there, but I didn’t think I could. In the spring of 1999, I took a writing course from the King Baudouin Foundation, five Saturdays in a row. In Antwerp, it was taught by Bart Moeyaert, and that was the reason I enrolled in that course. I was technically too young because it was from 15 years old, and I wasn’t that age yet during the first sessions. The course was for people aged 15 to 25, so it was a broad target group. I was very impressed with Bart Moeyaert at that time. I also remember another participant who was almost 25; it was a revelation to see other young people involved in writing. Until then, I did it on my own. My parents knew, some of my classmates knew, but those stories rarely left my room. It’s a very lonely hobby, so when I met other young people who were also into it, who were good at it – yes, that was very nice. For one of the assignments, we had to write a story or a fragment based on a photo. That’s where Mist over het strand (Mist Over the Beach) started; I chose a photo of D-Day, which I was still very interested in. Bart thought that was very good, and I was elated, so I blurted out that I also wanted to write a book. I expected him to give me tips, but all he said was, ‘If you want to write a book, you just have to do it.’ It was very disappointing at that moment. I thought: what is that, is that your advice? [laughs]
So, I actually started expanding those two pages. Before, I never got to very long stories because I ran out of inspiration for the story or couldn’t stay focused. Because that theme had affected me so much, I could keep working on it for a long time until it became the size of a book. Those 94 A4 pages are not a very thick book, but it was a big difference from the ten to twelve A4 pages my stories had been until then.
You were fifteen then?
Fifteen when I started, and in June of the following year, I sent it to publishers.
Did you share it in the meantime, with Bart perhaps, or with family or friends?
No. My parents knew I was working on it; in the mornings, for example, I would get up a bit earlier so I could write from half past seven to a quarter past eight. So, I wrote every morning for three-quarters of an hour. If I don’t have five hours available now, I just can’t start – I was very productive.
Did you write it in one go or in different versions?
I wrote on the computer anyway – I had an old discarded laptop, but I think it was just one version. That was twenty years ago; I didn’t document it at all [laughs].
Before it went to the publisher, my father read it. [pause] He took out some historical things; for example, I had let a motor stall on a Spitfire with two engines, while a Spitfire only has one engine, those kinds of things. I don’t think any texts went to Bart or Daniel Billiet and Els Beerten, the supervisors of follow-up courses. I had written down some addresses of publishers in my notebook, looked up ten addresses, and just sent that manuscript with a small square floppy disk in the mail – just to the ten children’s publishers I knew. That was it. There was a very quick response, I remember, in June during exams [laughs]. Lannoo wanted an option to read it more thoroughly, but Houtekiet and Clavis were also interested. I had no idea what to do or why. Clavis always had hardcover books, and I liked those covers, so actually, based on that, I went with Clavis. That was the only reason [laughs].
Did you receive much advice then? Can you remember how that guidance was?
Very minimal, especially when I compare it to later books. The publication also took a long time, in my opinion. In the meantime, not much happened; for example, I didn’t have to rewrite anything and never had long conversations with an editor. I submitted my manuscript, and I received the galley proofs back with only minimal changes. When it was published, they did use my age to generate some press attention.
Did you mention your age yourself when you wrote that letter with the floppy disk?
Yes, [laughs] my mother answered the phone when one of the publishers called. She said, ‘I’ll give my daughter for a moment,’ and the response was, ‘oh, is it still such a little one’ [laughs]. My age was heavily emphasised when it was released, especially in combination with World War II, an not-so-obvious topic for someone who was – at that time – seventeen. That generated quite a few interviews.
Since then, about twenty years have passed, you’re more than double that age now. [laughs] Do you feel that your own age has played an important role in how your writing has evolved?
Up to Wij, twee jongens (Us, Two Boys), which is about five books long, the main characters were the same age as me: in Mist Over the Beach, they are both fifteen, in Duivelsvlucht (Devil’s Flight), Hasse is seventeen, in De gebroken harp (The Broken Harp), Brian is eighteen. After Geen stap terug (No Step Back), with a character of nineteen, then twenty, that stopped because I was getting too old myself. In the beginning, I did write about peers, and those characters in those first books grew up with my own age. Then, I went back in time.
Did you find that difficult? In the literature about young authors who are themselves young, it is sometimes said that they are the real experts, closely connected to the subject matter. Bart Moeyaert, for example, used that in his early interviews when he sometimes received some criticism. He referred to his memory; he was still very close to it. You also had that direct connection with that age for a long time; did you find it harder later to create characters who were at that moment further away from you?
None of my books is about my own world. Those characters were the same age as me, but due to the historical setting, they had a very different life. Their environment and world were so different that I didn’t really draw from my own experience. Lectures also help a bit to understand how children are, but I’m not really focused on that or drawing from things I know.
Nevertheless, have you incorporated abstract elements on some level, such as friendships, certain fears, relationships with parents, family?
I think so. Mist Over the Beach was indeed a kind of reflection of a friendship I had at that time, for example. It also just reflects the things that interested me as a teenager, like that war. I mostly derived a lot from books and the research I was already doing, albeit in a more amateurish way than how a professional historian works. I had actually started Devil’s Flight before I wrote Mist Over the Beach, but it didn’t become long enough, so I left it aside. When Mist Over the Beach was turned into an actual book, Devil’s Flight worked. When I was about twelve, I was very impressed with the books of Ton van Reen about the ‘bokkenrijders’. So, the themes do emerge from the things I was very focused on as a child or young person.
So, you’ve picked up a story from the past at a time when you had more writing experience? I have heard that more often from people who debuted at such a young age, like Anna Woltz, for example. Is it a matter of self-confidence, or perhaps a method?
What made Mist over the Beach reach the necessary length for me was that subject. I wanted and could engage with it very intensely. Once that was successful, I wanted to do the same for Devil’s Flight.
Did you still use a lot from that course at that time, for example?
What I still remember and effectively apply is that Bart suggested filling silences in dialogues with ambient sounds. When a dialogue is very difficult, instead of saying ‘he was silent, she was silent,’ you let the neighbor mow his lawn, for example, to indicate that silence without mentioning it. I don’t think the course helped me cross the threshold to write that book; I think it was the fact that I found that theme. And probably also that nudge from Bart Moeyaert that if you want to write a book, you just have to do it. Because that’s when I started…
What about characters who are significantly older or much younger than yourself? Do you have a kind of reference framework for that, does it mostly come from those sources, or is it a feeling?
The first book for younger children was De laatste reis (The Last Journey), although I don’t know ten-year-olds. So, that is indeed a bit hit or miss or on feeling. Those books for younger children are also a different genre than young adult books. It can be more distant in them. In Het meisje en de soldaat (The Girl and the Soldier), that girl is not the girl from the street here, more a kind of archetype than a recognisable child. That is different from Anna Woltz’s books, indeed, which are about children of today, while the children in my books, due to that historical context, are perhaps more vague.
I also see a difference with older adolescents and how they function in your stories. You can also see that with other authors, for example, when you compare Bart’s early books with later works. There is a form of abstraction in the way young people and children function in them, or at least a distance.
For a child in a concentration camp or during World War I, being a child works very differently than it does today in a classroom. I choose the age of the characters, of course, but the age of the reader always determines the publishing house. The Girl and the Soldier, for example, was not perceived at all as a children’s book. I had originally been asked by Wablieft to write a book for adults in simple language. So, I came up with that Senegalese soldier during World War I, because it connects our history with the history of people who now live here. Through the tirailleurs during World War I, those colonial troops, that First World War is also their history. I placed a child opposite that Senegalese soldier because they both use simple language: the child because of her age, the Senegalese soldier because he doesn’t speak his own language. That was the starting point. But when I started writing the story, I thought it was too good to present it as a Wablieft book. Those are very simply published and don’t reach many people. So, my decision to publish it as a regular book that reaches a broader audience was a pragmatic, commercial choice. I then sent it to De Eenhoorn, which published it as a book for ten-year-olds, while the German publishing house, for example, explicitly chose not to put an age category on it.
Other books of yours, like Us, Two Boys, are on the verge between youth literature and adult literature. Sometimes, in translation, they are then categorised under adult literature. What is your view on this crossover?
I wish my books were more crossover, like Grensgangers (Border Crossers), for example. I feel that it is very difficult to market, partly due to the image or the publishing house. Us, Two Boys received two NUR codes, 285 for 15+ and 301 for literary novel, hoping to reach two target audiences. Commercially, that certainly didn’t happen. There were probably adults who read the book as well, I’m sure of that, but then they feel like they’ve read a youth book. In stores, for example, it was automatically placed with the young adult section. I once asked at Standaard Boekhandel why they categorised it as 12+, not also for adults. The explanation was, ‘Because Clavis is a youth publisher, and we don’t place a book in two different sections simultaneously.’ So, I get the impression that it’s difficult to commercially appeal to two audiences simultaneously with the same book; I think you really have to create two versions, as they did with Floortje Zwigtman’s books, with a cover for younger readers and a cover for adults. Because Davidsfonds also included Border Crossers in their cultural network, it’s doing better there, although in bookstores, it was still only placed in the young adult section. Davidsfonds is now part of Standaard Uitgeverij, which naturally has a less pronounced youth profile. For the Fonds voor de Letteren, now Literatuur Vlaanderen, I was on the youth literature committee for four years, just when Border Crossers was released. So, my file was submitted to both the prose committee and the youth literature committee. The motivation showed that the prose committee thought there was too much explanation in the book, for example, that the introduction mentions that Germany was divided into East and West after the war – a historical context that I think a fifteen-year-old absolutely needs. But even in the rest of the story, the members of the adult prose committee had more difficulty with historical context or things they probably still remembered. Some scenes in Border Crossers are just real events, which adult readers might recognise more quickly and find too explicit, while the youth literature committee didn’t bring that up. So, I don’t know if it can be completely seamless, that double audience. I hope so; as an adult, I really enjoy reading youth novels without feeling like I’m reading a children’s book.
I’ll go back to the previous theme, your own age. You became a mother a few years ago: did that give new impulses to your writing?
It mainly left much less time. [laughs] Occasionally, I think, ‘oh, I want to write a book for her age,’ but that age passes so quickly that I always lag behind. As a reader, I am now much more engaged with the very young category. Every now and then, the urge creeps up to do something for really little ones, but so far, I have been able to suppress that urge. [laughs] She is four now, and that is still well below the age of my characters. I think that once she turns about ten, it might influence how I interact with my characters. I already feel that I have much more affinity with preschoolers than I had before.
Maybe you need less time for those shorter stories? [laughs]
If I want to write a book for her when she’s eight, I have to start working on it now. [laughs]
Back to the construction of those characters. You used many historical sources, about Spitfire engines, and so on. [laughs]
But also about young people. I’m thinking, for example, of your doctoral research, of course. Some authors look for diaries or correspond with young people. Aidan Chambers, for instance, has an entire professional library with psychological documentation about adolescents, philosophical reflections, and so on. What kind of material do you use to possibly seek inspiration or shape your young characters?
Now I feel amateurish; I don’t have a professional library like Aidan Chambers.
As far as I know, he’s the only one. [laughs]
[laughs] My research mainly focuses on the historical and the mentality of that historical period. So, I do read diaries: ego documents are very important, but not necessarily ego documents of seventeen-year-olds; that’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Ego documents are already thinly spread. My research aims more broadly at the mentality of a period, at customs, but not specifically at the world of the characters. In Border Crossers, for example, those twenty-year-olds are still close to my own memory. The second story is about two students studying in Berlin, and I studied in Berlin myself. The book whose first version has just been completed is not a historical novel, it is set in the present, with a twenty-year-old protagonist at university. So, I draw from my own world, my memory. The book is about memories, so I did a lot of research on how memory works and on memories, but not specifically about a twenty-year-old. Twenty-year-olds are actually relatively old for youth books; I think I would find it harder to go back to a fifteen-year-old.
I presume that you were able to build more on your direct memories at that time?
AS: Yes, especially with the university environment, although the main characters in Border Crossers are all twenty, and the others work, which doesn’t come directly from my own experience. They function more in an adult world. That’s also the advantage of historical novels; I think I would find it very difficult to work within the framework of a school. If you want contemporary characters of that age, they spend entire days at school… I would find that boring and restrictive. Being a child or young person now seems much more limiting to me than being a child or young person in the past. I would find a contemporary, realistic book about a fifteen- or twelve-year-old too restrictive in terms of environment. De jongen op het dak (The Boy on the Roof) is also not a historical novel, but it’s not hyper-realistic either. That child spends entire days on a roof. I’m not so interested in the very realistic aspect for children nowadays. The historical context already allowed the children to work or not go to school, or the situation was very extreme, as in The Last Journey, where the child is in a concentration camp. That historical element helps lift young characters out of that school context. If I don’t choose a historical book, then I make them old enough to have freedom of movement or, as with The Boy on the Roof, create a fantasy world or magical realism. What genre is it, a child who likes to sit on a roof?
It’s also a very philosophical book.
Yes, more the context of a fairy tale than realistic.
Do you sometimes reread your older work?
No. Of course, I sometimes have to read parts for lectures or readings. In response to your questions, I went through old documents; I quickly found that Mist Over the Beach is a very bad book, I saw, and I still think so. I still find Us, Two Boys quite okay, The Girl and the Soldier as well, but not The Last Journey – so I don’t think highly of my books for very long. I don’t read them again; that would be torture. [laughs]
Many authors say that. Those who sometimes reread their work say that it’s not always as bad as they thought, so maybe… [laughs]
[laughs] I don’t think Mist Over the Beach will be a pleasant surprise; I think it was published because of my age. I believe a twenty-, twenty-five-, or thirty-year-old wouldn’t have gotten away with it. [laughs]
The Last Journey was your first book for a younger age. You also wrote a Flemish film, In de schaduw van de zwarte dood (In the Shadow of the Black Death)?
That’s right. For the Flemish films, the target audience is the fifth and sixth grades, first year of secondary school, so I did indeed write that for that age. I don’t even know how old the character is in it – of course, it was a child to fit the target audience. The Last Journey also began as a book for a series from Van In Publishing, in which both fiction and non-fiction would be represented. Based on my lectures about Mist Over the Beach, I knew that some children know everything about the Holocaust, and others only know that Hitler wanted to kill the Jews, period. I felt that many fifth or sixth-grade children already have a lot of questions about the Holocaust. But even then, I found that cheap school edition unattractive and wanted the story to have broader reach. So, I reworked and expanded the story, which became The Last Journey. Like The Girl and the Soldier, I started with a question for a specific target audience and wanted to broaden it afterward. Clavis then set an age for it, the age for which it was actually written.
So, the shift mainly originated from a commission?
With The Boy on the Roof, it was my own choice [laughs]. Through The Last Journey and The Girl and the Soldier, I feel that I apparently write two genres or two types of books. The Girl and the Soldier, De lantaarnaansteker (The Lamplighter), and The Boy on the Roof are more philosophical, more abstract, a bit more literary. In addition to those, there are the stories where you delve in, which are much longer and more extensive. Now, I think about what I feel like doing. Another thick young adult story with lots of detail, or rather a refined story that could also be for younger children?
Did illustrations go along with that?
It feels like it should; most books for that age still have illustrations. With The Girl and the Soldier, I initially had photos in mind; it was Marita [Vermeulen] from De Eenhoorn who suggested asking Ann De Bode. With The Lamplighter, I did plan to use illustrations right away. I wanted to work with Marit Törnqvist, but the request came at the wrong time. She found it too lacking in hope. Marita [Vermeulen] from De Eenhoorn also told me that the ending had to be adjusted because it was too dark for young readers.
I remember that as a very warm, hopeful story.
[laughs] Well, in the end, the lamplighter, who sees all that misery, brings all those people together. In the original ending, everything remained the same. Those people still have the warm memory of that evening, but the girl’s father still works, the woman hasn’t gotten better, the young woman hasn’t gotten her lover back, the old couple doesn’t have a child. Marita found it too dark for that age group; there had to be some hope. So now, they help or comfort each other occasionally because they got to know each other – it was adjusted for the reader.
So, this is a book where the publisher really thought about it?
Yes, they intervened at the end of the writing. With The Broken Harp, No Step Back, Us, Two Boys, Schaduwleven (Shadow Life), the later books at Clavis, Siska Goeminne was the editor. It was really about the story, and I think with Shadow Life, a whole storyline was removed, and we talked about it extensively, and I revised it, so a lot happened there. When Border Crossers was published by Davidsfonds, it was a new publisher for me. Getting good editing was one of my requirements for publishing with them. They worked quite thoroughly on it: not much changed, but it was well-discussed with an editor who took their time.
Does a lot of consideration about the target audience come into play there? Can you remember similar discussions as with The Lamplighter that were related to age?
Not really, I think. With Border Crossers, the foreword was written to outline the historical aspects for young people a bit.
In some of your historical novels, there are occasionally very gruesome passages. Did they ever lead to discussions?
No, not that I can remember. Also, the sex in Us, Two Boys was not a problem for the Belgian publisher, but contacts with American publishers ultimately fell through for that reason. Young adult books and sex were irreconcilable there. [laughs] But not here.
Because it was a young adult book, it couldn’t be done. With De kleuren van het getto (The Colours of the Ghetto), you see that American readers are much more sensitive to those gruesome things for young people. I haven’t come across any reader, teacher, or reviewer here who had an issue with the gruesome aspect. In America, it’s often mentioned: ‘A very good book, but I wouldn’t give it to young people.’ While it’s not more gruesome than reality, of course. I have the impression that young readers in Belgium are not spared so much, or at least less than in America.
So, you haven’t written any adult books? [laughs] Via those NUR codes, somewhere yes, but is that something you plan to do or have thought about?
It’s not that I never thought about it. When, in the beginning, my characters shifted with my age, that question came from others, but I also wondered if I still wanted and could write about young people. I still find those young people very nice because at that age, everything is big and important. There is still so much open in your life that the choices you make are also significant. That’s why I like to write for and especially about those young people. You are at a crossroads in your life; you have some baggage, but there is still a lot possible. The directions you take are very defining, and everything also feels that way. The impact that the trip to Normandy, for example, had on me as a fourteen-, fifteen-year-old would never have been as significant if I were 18, 19, 20, or 30. So, it’s a very conscious choice to keep writing about those young people. Sometimes I wonder if I should just write a thriller that sells twenty times more and brings in much more money, but then I realise that writing a thriller will take just as much time. I’d rather spend that time on something I enjoy writing [laughs].
So, it remains a pleasant group to write for because of that intensity.
I genuinely enjoy coming-of-age stories. You can explore many aspects in a story, while someone who’s already settled in life seems less interesting to me. It’s just a pity that the target audience is so small.
Why is that?
AS: There’s still a kind of taboo for adults to read children’s books. As a result, the book often only reaches the age group – even twelve-year-olds don’t want to read a book meant for ten-year-olds. I find that regrettable, but my commercial considerations have not outweighed my ideas yet [laughs].
You mentioned earlier that during readings, you encounter the real readers. In the past, they also used to write letters to authors. How is your contact with readers? Have you been influenced by them in any way?
They definitely still contact you – and more than before, I feel, because email is a much more accessible medium than writing a letter. Sometimes it’s too accessible; then you get emails like ‘I have to write a book review for tomorrow, could you please summarise what…’ Children and adults seem to write the most, real teenagers less so. Also, at book fairs, for example, I connect much more quickly with children and adults than with teenagers. They stand on the other side of the hall, whispering to each other, saying, ‘Look there, that’s Aline Sax.’ Apparently, that shyness is more significant. Sometimes people write to me ten years later that they read Us, Two Boys back then, and it ‘helped them come out of the closet.’ Especially regarding that book, I received several personal emails. It’s, of course, very nice to see how much a book can touch someone and how much it can influence someone’s life. Once again, it shows that receptive age: they often reflect on the effect the book had when they read it. That has never convinced me to write a specific book, only with The Last Journey, I started from the realisation that children didn’t know much about World War II but had many questions. So, a book has never directly emerged from a reader’s request, no matter how often they ask me to write a third part following Us, Two Boys and Shadow Life [laughs].
[laughs] So, you don’t work on request. I assume you’ve never let your books be read by the target audience in advance?
I don’t really have many beta readers. Often it’s the editor of the publishing house who is the real first beta reader. My husband will read my new book soon, but that’s not a completely unbiased opinion.
Well, I think I’ve covered the most important points; we’ve also been at it for a while [laughs]. Is there anything you’re thinking about that might be relevant to our research?
No, I find it a super interesting study and am very curious about what will come out of it.
Yes, it’s enjoyable. What you confirmed once again is that there is something like the magical age of fifteen, apparently. Most of those I’ve interviewed who debuted so young started writing earlier, but fifteen seems to be the moment when it becomes possible to publish a book. Interestingly, with you, it happened through that historical novel. Someone like Bart Moeyaert was much more focused on school, or Anna Woltz. Furthermore, it’s fascinating to see how quite old authors, like Aidan Chambers, Ed Franck, Anne Fine, and David Almond, deal with the gap that sometimes becomes very large. Both Aidan Chambers and Anne Fine told me that due to their age, they no longer feel capable of writing children’s books. Guus Kuijer hasn’t written a children’s book for a long time either, although he still leaves it open that he might start again.
I have the impression that there are more youth authors who make the transition once, or for a long time, to literature for adults – much more than the other way around.
Conversely, it often remains with one book [laughs].
And then on request.
Or because they have children themselves. Jef Aerts really came over to our side like that, even if he happened to start with children’s literature.
[laughs] Our side.
Elvis Peeters writes for both, and furthermore, Kristien Dieltiens and Kathleen Vereecken both have one book for adults. Hilde Vandermeeren definitively switched to adults.
She’s also in our corpus. I haven’t interviewed her myself yet.
It would be nice if you could keep me informed about the results.