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Leesfragment: Amanda Maxwell: 'Teenagers have time on their side'

27 november 2015 , door Amanda Maxwell, Daan Stoffelsen
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Dit najaar verschijnt de Nederlandse vertaling, door Boukje Verheij, van Nobody Told Me There'd Be Days Like These, Als ik dat had geweten, van de Australische debutante Amanda Maxwell. We mailden met haar over de warmte, heimwee, pubers en Salinger.

En toen gebeurde er iets wonderlijks: ik hoorde een geluid. Het klonk niet als een vliegtuiggeluid of het geluid van een glas dat op de grond viel, maar alsof er iets werd gefluisterd. Het kwam van heel dichtbij. Ik keek naar het meisje naast me. Ze sliep. Toen hoorde ik het weer.
‘Shhh,’ klonk het.
Toen ik omlaag keek, deed ik een heel griezelige ontdekking. Het geluid kwam van de glossy op mijn schoot. Ik tilde het tijdschrift voorzichtig op en bracht heel langzaam mijn oren in de richting van Scarlett Johanssons lippen.

In de verhalenbundel Als ik dat had geweten zet Amanda Maxwell op komisch-aarzelende toon ongemakkelijke en absurde situaties neer. Het onhandig balanceren van haar personages tussen jeugd en volwassenheid weet zij precies te treffen.

Let's start with a question the Dutch, being plagued by 'tropical heatwaves', can relate to these days. The heat plays a dominant role in your stories. It drives the characters mad, it's a constant source of frustration and a reason to keep as still as possible. It influences them more than any human character would.
'I’ve lived in Australia for the past few years and the heat here can be really intense. There are bush fires that kill people and animals and burn down houses. There are droughts that make the ground dry up and crack open. There are dust storms caused by the droughts that make you choke. When it’s very hot it becomes impossible to sleep for days on end and people get agitated. The heat here can be a monster.'

Although you live in Australia now, your stories have a wonderfully international outlook, based as they are not only in Australia and New Zealand but in the United States and Canada as well. And everybody is moving and travelling and fleeing, there's something of homesickness in almost every story. Is that on purpose?
'I guess the themes of new beginnings and homesickness come up a lot in the stories because my own life has been very transient. I’m a New Zealander but I was born in Singapore and grew up moving to a new city every two or three years until I was a teenager. As an adult I’ve also moved around a lot.'

In your interview with co-author (illustrator) Sarah Larnach you stressed your work is not autobiographical, although there are autobiographical elements in it - I guess the Australian heat and the travelling are two of them. But adolescence - the age of most of your characters - is certainly no part of your life anymore, as you're a mother now.
'I think in that interview I said that most of my stories have some small element of truth to them, but that usually I’ll just take a real-life moment and think "what if this happened?" and let the fictional story grow from there.
I’m definitely not a teenager any more, but I still like to write about adolescence because I think it’s such a special time of life. It’s dangerous and unpredictable and emotional. I love how teenage attitudes can swing so quickly from innocence to arrogance and back again. I love that there will always be hope for teenagers because they have time on their side, but I also realise that that is a ridiculous notion to a teen.'

That idea may be ridiculous to them, you never show teenagers making fun of others. Their fight is against loneliness and life, not against others. Their struggle is an inner fight. Or isn't it?
'The characters’ struggles are mostly internal, but often there are external stresses that play a key role, like the bullying in ‘Butterfly Knife’, ‘Where We Go From Here’ and ‘Boys’. I don’t know why I write about the marginalised characters rather than the bullies, maybe I’m cheering for the underdog? Or maybe just wanting to tell stories about characters who wouldn’t necessarily think they’re important or interesting.'

There's one story in the book, 'Maybe JD', that blends adolescent with literary fantasies. The idea of Salinger working in 'Keat's Homepathy Research Centre', and a teenager recognizing him and falling in love with him, is so good, strange and recognizable at once. How did you come up with the idea?
'I loved the enigma of Salinger as much as his works. I read somewhere that after he became a recluse he also developed an interest in spirituality and alternative medicines, so that triggered the idea for ‘Maybe JD’. I thought it would be interesting to have a character who was potentially Salinger meet someone who could have potentially been a character in one of his stories if he’d continued publishing his work.'

One of the additional stories in Als ik dat had geweten is 'Anyway', a letter to Salinger by the teenager who loves him. Is there a serial story in the make, with her growing older, and becoming a writer herself?
'Ha ha, that’s a nice idea! I hope it doesn’t disappoint you, but I don’t think there will be any more stories about Stella though. As a reader, I like it when you are given a character for the length of a story (or in this case two stories) and then they’re taken away. That way, you wonder about them, worry about them, hope for the best for them, maybe miss them. They affect your ‘real’ life. Salinger did it perfectly with The Catcher in the Rye, and Sofia Coppola does it so well with her movies, like Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides (based on Jeffrey Euginides’s book).'

Your story 'How to Look Amazing in Photographs' was published before in Vice Magazine, also the Dutch edition, which triggered your Dutch publisher to read more of your work. Vice decided not to translate it, as they thought 'douche' untranslatable (it is, of course, with some explanation). How do you feel about being translated?
'I think that story has now been translated for Als ik dat had geweten. I feel honoured to have my work translated. I try to write in a certain way because I want the stories to be accessible to a wide range of readers, and not necessarily just people who like reading. To have them translated into another language opens them up to more readers and I hope more people will be able to enjoy them.'

Als ik dat had geweten does, of course, include additional stories, like 'Anyway', 'Spa Town' and 'Warmth', and it doesn't Sarah Larnach's artwork. Is it a new book to you?
'Als ik dat had geweten does feel like a different book to Nobody Told Me There'd Be Days Like These, because I was working closely with Sarah, the editors, designer and publisher on the English version so I felt like I had a lot of control over the final outcome. This time it’s all happening away from me and in a language I don’t know, so it’s like the stories have gone and had a big adventure without me. It’s nice in a way, to sit back and trust that they will be okay.'

I like the dreamy stories very much, like 'The Yard Next Door' and 'The Kissing Bridge', but maybe I like it even better when the fantastic runs into a story, like in 'Butterfly Knife', where the house that's cut in half gives the story an extra dimension, or in 'How to Look Amazing in Photographs', where Scarlett Johansson starts talking out of a magazine. What's more of a Amanda Maxwell story, these magic-realistic stories or the ones, like 'The Golden Hour' and 'Find Us Running', that hit the painful side of society?
'Probably both? It’s not something I’m very aware of when I’m writing, mostly I feel like the stories write themselves.'

That's a mysterious notion, stories writing themselves - how are they written? At the beach or at a desk, by hand or on a laptop?
'My daughter is only four months old, so at the moment I write when she’s asleep. I write on my boyfriend’s computer or sometimes in a notebook. My process is not very glamorous. Sometimes I’ll have a whole story, beginning to end, written in my head before I get to the computer; sometimes I’ll start with a very small idea that I want to explore in a story; and sometimes I’ll just start with the first sentence.'

You already mentioned you consider Als ik dat had geweten as a new book - are you working on a new book of stories yourself?
'Short stories are what I like writing best, but I think I also need to challenge myself to write a novel, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment. It’s probably a bit early to start talking about it though…'

Let's talk about what you read then, what inspires you, and what we should read after reading Als ik dat had geweten.
'Lately I feel like all I read is the newspaper and blogs!
But the newspaper is actually a big source of inspiration for me. An example is the article I read a few months ago about two young Scottish soldiers who made a pact that if either was killed in action, the survivor would wear a dress to his funeral. One of them was killed in Afghanistan in September and there was a photo of his friend at the funeral in a yellow lycra dress and pink socks, completely overcome with grief. I think about that article and image a lot.
As for what to read after Als ik dat had geweten or Nobody Told Me There'd Be Days Like These, The Boat by Nam Le is an amazing collection of short stories that came out recently. Other favourite collections are Drown by Junot Diaz, Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver, For Esme with Love and Squalor by JD Salinger, The Desperadoes and Other Stories by Stan Barstow, How We are Hungry by Dave Eggers, No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July and Scission by Tim Winton.'

Foto © Milos Mali

Uitgeverij  De Harmonie

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