Stefan Hertmans and his translator David McKay were longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for War and Turpentine.
Words Without Borders (WWB):Tell us about how you became a writer. Was it a vocation, an accident? How has your relationship to writing changed over time? Have your goals and objectives changed throughout the years?
Stefan Hertmans: I was writing before I exactly knew what it was about—some romantic poems, keeping notebooks as an adolescent. Later on I studied philology and art philosophy and grew interested in professional writing during a decade of study and reading. I published my first book at thirty; literary theory of those days influenced me in the beginning. I was fascinated by the theories of the Frankfurt School and experimental literature, but soon decided to free myself and find my own way.
WWB: How do you see your writing within the larger context of your country’s/language’s literary tradition? What influences/writers/groups of writers there do you draw on, or what literary currents does your work disavow?
Stefan Hertmans: As a Flemish author living in Belgium, a country with three official languages but writing in Dutch, I draw on very different literary traditions, both from Germanic and Latin influence. I consider this eclectic cultural identity as an advantage and a privilege.
WWB: What’s your favorite book from a literary tradition other than your own and how has it influenced your writing?
Stefan Hertmans: It is impossible for me to point out one book and omit others—I was influenced by writers as divergent as Hölderlin, Borges, Flaubert, Nabokov, Sebald, and Gombrowicz, to name but a few, and have been teaching literature and art theory for decades at an Academy of Fine Arts. Living in a multicultural context but adhering to a linguistic minority on the European level, I read widely in four languages and consider this a form of literary freedom.