BETWEEN WRITERS: A CONVERSATION WITH MARJOLIJN HOF
One of the gifts of my neighborhood is Wild Rumpus Books, a magical bookstore with cats, and chickens and ferrets, and other gentle creatures, and a well-read staff that’s always able to put the perfect book into your hands.
AGAINST THE ODDS, by Marjolijn Hof was that very book for me—a surprise find that was every bit as beautiful and moving as my bookstore friends promised that it would be. A slim, middle grade novel published in the
to critical acclaim,
AGAINST THE ODDS is the story of a young girl whose aid-worker father goes
missing in a war zone. Netherlands
Impressed with this beautiful work, I reached out to Marjolijn Hof from across the sea. And while I’d rather talk books and writing with Marjolijn in the
, I’m delighted for our
pen-pal correspondence, and so grateful to have found her work. Netherlands
First, congratulations on all your successes. AGAINST THE ODDS, your first novel, won a number of major Dutch and Flemish children’s book prizes, and has been translated into nine languages. Could you talk a little bit about writing your first book? How long was it in the making?
First of all, thank you very much for all the praise heaped upon me! And I do feel like going to that bookshop of yours right now, not because they recommended my book, but because it seems such a wonderful place to me.
I don’t look upon Against the Odds as my first book. I had already written stories for educative publishers and provided the narrative for a number of picture books. It was my first book for young adults, though, and also my first novel to appear with a regular publishing house and as such it was dubbed my ‘debut’, in spite of any qualifications I would try to make.
All in all it took me almost a year to complete.
How did you find an editor and publisher for it?
As said before, I had previously worked for several other publishers, but I did not consider them suitable for Een kleine
kans, as Against the
Odds is called in Dutch. Then a co-worker put me in touch with Querido.
Were there particular narrative challenges you encountered in the process of writing the book?
My stories tend to start with a question. What would it be like if…? As for Against the Odds: what would it be like if your dad decided to involve himself in something really dangerous. What would you do if you were frightfully worried about his safety? Empathy is one of the corner stones of my oeuvre: I try to ‘become’ my main characters and thence the story develops.
In this case I wanted to do more than focus on the thoughts and feelings of the main character, I wanted the story to be more universal – a story that could be about any war. No specific country is mentioned for that reason, nor is Kiki’s age. Surprisingly, some reviewers did state them explicitly.
Combining the intimate and the universal was my greatest challenge. By consistently sticking to Kiki’s point of view, by closing up rather than zooming out, I could avoid referring to a particular war zone out in the big world, which is what gave the story its universal character.
Did you imagine your book would speak to so many people as you were working on it?
No, not for a single moment. I allow that sort of question to interfere with the writing process as little as I can. Of course, as a writer of children’s literature you cannot but have a target readership in mind, but on the other hand I do not want to feel tied down by that. And I definitely do not wonder if the book will sell or not. I am highly critical of my own work and I go through phases of acute self-doubt, so I guess the opposite holds true, rather.
Most importantly, I concentrate on the work in hand rather than on what it may bring about. Once a book is finished, I will put it out of my mind quite easily. However, I found myself overwhelmed by the success of this book and the whole aftermath. Remember I was completely new to publicity and the limelight.
For some writers, early success can make later projects difficult. Was that your experience?
While writing it never bothered me at all. However, for quite some time Against the Odds kept being considered my best book, and that did get to me in a sense. It was as if I was over the hill. My latest book, De regels van drie (The Rules of Three) got a splendid reception and when a reviewer claimed it was as good, if not better than Against the Odds, that came as a relief.
I appeared on the scene rather late anyway, so whichever way you look at it, I remain a late-developer.
One of the things I admired so much in Against the Odds was your use of implication to develop character and conflict. In fact, it was during a Wild Rumpus conversation about subtext in children’s’ literature that the staff put your book into my hands and insisted I should read it. Are you aware of subtext as a literary device while you’re working?
Yes. I always try to create some breathing space in a text. I feel it is important to leave the readers some room for imagination, you should not spell everything out. It is a matter of trusting them. And another thing, I am keen on dialogues, which cannot do without a subtext or they will lack interest. I will revise and delete obsessively. Thus my prose will get sparer and sparer – more is hinted at, less is said explicitly.
Humor also demands room and I cannot imagine ever writing a book in which it does not figure.
What are you working on now? What are the delights and challenges in this new book?
At present I am working on an adventure story. The genre requires new skills and a different approach. The incubation took rather long, I am afraid, but now I have actually started writing. I am really up against it, but then I have never been one for easy options. Every story has its traps and pitfalls, whether it is the subject you struggle with or the structure. I am new to the adventure story, which makes the whole undertaking all the more rewarding and exciting.
With every new book I ask myself whether I can make it work and I am not at all sure. And that is exactly as it should be.