Interviewing Lotte Lentes
Some time ago we dedicated one of our headlines in the Rompedores section to Lotte Lentes, a writer of german origin, and to the arrival of her novel, translated into Spanish as La arena del desierto by Irene de la Torre and published by Lengua de Trapo Publishing, to all Spanish bookstores.
Just as whenever one of our students at the Masters Program in Narrative gets published, La Rompedora has felt the same urge to peek thru the writer’s window and watch him, trying to understand how he works. Since Lotte comes from Wintertuin, our fellow school in the Netherlands, she is regarded as family in this house we call Escuela de Escritores and, therefore, we could not be more anxious to interview her on La arena del desierto and writing.
To top this, we asked our dear friend Roberto Osa, from the IV Promotion of our Masters Program, if he would be willing to make the interview, since Lotte and him were recipients of the CELA project’s endowment as emerging authors. Without a minute’s hesitation, with his usual kindness and confident tone, Roberto took over his charge as interviewer to stablish an ingenious and rich dialogue with Lotte.
And now, we present you with the comments and reflections of both writers regarding La arena del desierto, creative writing and its impact on society.
Thank you, Lotte and Roberto, for your generosity and companionship!
Tell us about how La arena del desierto was born.
I was in Brussels during an attack on the Jewish museum, but only found out about it when I was back home and saw the news. It felt as if I had been part of something terrible, but I immediately tried to shake off that feeling: due to a coincidence of circumstances, I had been geographically close to a place where something terrible happened, but that didn’t mean I was a part of it. After all: I hadn’t even consciously experienced that it occurred, so I had no right to feel anxious or endangered. As the days passed, I began to wonder if that was actually true. Was it true that I had completely nothing to do with it? Or was that thought just an easy way for me to withdraw, to look away in a sense, just because until then the war in the Middle East, the rise of the Islamic State, the invisible threat of terrorist attacks or even other terrorist attacks in Europe were far-off things to me. They off course shocked me, but they hadn’t really had an impact on my daily life.
After a week the man who attacked the Jewish museum was caught. He was from France and had spent time in Syria. I followed the case through newspapers, television, but mostly through foreign media on the internet. That’s how I started to research foreign Jihad fighters. A wide scope of different people and different stories, a world that I didn’t know nothing about at that moment. Although hundreds of mostly boys and men had already left from almost all European countries mid-2014, there was little to no news coverage on the subject.
How did you went through all the investigation and documenting process?
I am a research addict; I want to know everything. It is a matter of respect for me, I guess. Only if I have done everything in my power to gain an understanding about a certain subject, to hear all the possible perspectives and know all the facts, I allow myself to think about a fictional narrative. It is of course an illusion to think that you can truly be ‘complete’ in your research, but to strive for completeness has always worked for me: that way I feel like I have earned the freedom of creating, of using my imagination.
For La arena del desierto that was particularly complicated, because there was not a lot of reliable information available and most of the information that was available, was already put into a certain narrative. On the departure of kids and youngsters from Europe to Syria, there was practically nothing to find, because it was happening at that exact same time. Entire school classes were disappearing, but nobody knew exactly why or how that was happening or where those kids went to after crossing the border. There were only individual stories and a lot of speculations, no bigger picture yet. So, I read books, watched documentaries, researched the rise of IS and the powerplays that mark the history of the Middle East, but most of my research was done on the internet and covered events that were happening in real time. Via social media and digital forums, I followed people who lived in IS-territory or instructed others on how to get there. I also talked with youth workers who worked with radicalized children, about the ones that stayed and about the ones that left, to get a better understanding of what radicalization is and how it works.
Majid is our narrator. He doesn’t seem like a terrorist, but rather a regular kid. I find this perspective very humanizing, since we’re in the skin of someone many would deem a monster. Why did you choose this perspective to tell the story?
Because I don’t believe being a terrorist and being a regular kid are by definition opposites to each other. That was the big challenge for me with La arena del desierto. To create Majid I had to leave behind my own prejudices, my definition of what a ‘terrorist’ is or could be. At the same time, I wanted to be able to remain critical. It’s too easy to say: because somebody had a bad childhood, they become a terrorist. A bad childhood cannot be a mitigating circumstance for doing horrible things. But it’s a fact that nobody is born a terrorist. What makes someone become one? The answer to that question was complex. I tried to capture that complexity in Majid, tried to let him be both: the terrorist and the regular kid. Also don’t forget that a lot of people who left for Syria had no clue where they were getting themselves into. They were painted a false picture of what live in IS territory would be, there was a whole department of propaganda to do so. As soon as they crossed the border there was no way back, even if they wanted to. That doesn’t justify their choices, but that knowledge did make me redefine my opinion about people who traveled abroad.
Violence is on the brink of unleashing itself on many occasions along the plot. Nonetheless, we never come to see it. How important do you consider violence in this story and why do you choose not to show it explicitly?
For the story I needed the threat of violence more than the violence itself. It was important for me to show that what violence symbolizes, for example in the propaganda used by IS, can be something very different from actually executing that same violence. IS propaganda had the same structure as a Hollywood movie, only, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were reversed. But just as in most Hollywood movies, violence was justified to achieve a greater purpose. It was in line with a way of storytelling we are very used to in the west and therefore it was very effective. Especially among a group of young people who already grew up with, for example, video games in which violence was glorified. But that doesn’t mean they were instantly comfortable using violence in real life. I wanted Majid to hesitate holding a gun, pulling a trigger, because a lot of foreign fighters experienced that it was nothing like they imagined it to be, or what they were told it would be. Just as living in IS-territory was often far from what they were promised.
I encountered so much senseless violence during my research. There was a time IS released new footage of people getting beheaded almost every day. The thing with violence is: on the one hand it is so shocking it paralyses you. It makes it impossible to want to look at what is behind al that gruesomeness. On the other hand, if you see or experience a lot of violence you can get used to it, you can tolerate more and more. At one point during research, I lost interest for it. The bizarre amount of horrible images made me numb. That’s when I knew I had to stop looking at the violence itself, and focus more on the things that were enabling that violence.
Which similarities can be found between two young persons, such as Majid and yourself?
During my research I found out that even people I went to school with left for Syria. That shocked me, because it was hard to find any difference between them and me. They more or less had the same upbringing as me, watched the same movies, listened to the same music, had the same summer jobs. I think it’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this story. I felt very strongly that I was part of a certain generation. But in reality, the people I felt connected with made choices I never, in a million years, would make myself. Apparently, I felt connected to them, but they didn’t feel connected to me. They drifted away in a direction that I didn’t even know existed. I wanted to know: how come?
If you were able to speak to Majid, what would you say to him?
I think I would simply ask him to show me around his hometown, show me the house he grew up in, the streets he would take to walk to school and see what kind of conversation would come natural to us.
What could he teach you?
When I started the novella I truly believed that through the act of writing I would come to understand the choices of the boys and girls, the men and women who left Europe to go to the Islamic State. But that didn’t happen. Bottom line, I feel little compassion for their choices, but what I do feel is a better understanding of the circumstances in which those choices were made. I think Majid made me very aware of the fact that I miss a number of crucial experiences that are necessary to really understand such a decision: social exclusion, for example, racism, socio-economic hopelessness. I think many young people traveled out because they were promised a better life, not because they had the desire to become a terrorist. What drove them to do so are large, social structures that we should look at as critically as we look at the people who are now returning from IS territory.
In the novel, there are two parallel stories being told at different time lapses. What are the benefits of this narrative resource on the story?
It gave me the opportunity to build Majid up without judging him right away, in the hope the reader would do the same.
A part of your story is set in Alepo (Siria) while the rest travels across Europe: Roubaix, Frankfurt, Brussels… What is the significance of these locations on the story?
All those places I encountered during my research. For the places in Syria, I tried to stay close to the truth. I obviously couldn’t go there to research locations, so I used real places and events to make sure I could for example check if I had the right weather circumstances for that time of year et cetera. Roubaix and Frankfurt could have been any European city, but from the beginning I was quite sure that I wanted to use Brussels. Because that’s where this whole story started for me, and I also spend quite some time there during the writing process.
In Spain we have suffered terrorism through decades, being the attack of 2004 on Madrid one of special significance. Nearly 200 lives were lost. What effect would you like your book to have in Spain?
In the context of such brutal violence, I don’t have the illusion there is anything literature can do. With La arena del desierto I tried to contribute to a conversation you can only have if you distant yourself a little bit from reality. That’s one of the reasons I believe that we sometimes need fiction, to give meaning to a reality that seems absolutely senseless. Because fiction makes room for nuance, for everything after a primary response, or at least may be an attempt to do so. In La arena del desierto I tried to look beyond the unimaginable choice to leave home and join IS, I tried to make space for the context in which such a choice occurs. Not to escape reality, but to get more connected with it.
Why do you write?
I grew up quite isolated as an only child. We moved from Germany to a tiny village in the south of the Netherlands where we never really fitted in. When I was young my mother had a lot of migraines, on those days she could not tolerate light or sound. So, I always had to be very quiet. Reading and writing was something I could do in silence. With no other children around to play with, I learned a lot about the rules of interaction and how to behave from books. Through writing I learned to express myself, to communicate, to participate in a dialogue, to challenge my ideas.
The writing process can be very lonely, you have to do it all by yourself, but at the same time I feel verry connected and invested in the world when I write. I think that has a lot to do with the circumstances I started writing in when I was younger.
Does it come easy? What’s your relation with language?
Sometimes I feel like there is only one way to tell a particular story. That there is one set of words, one specific order of those words, that it’s just an incredibly complex puzzle and that I have to keep going until I have all the pieces in the right place. On some days every five minutes I find exactly the right word, I see the puzzle in my mind and I just have to lay it out on the paper. On other days I feel like a two year old with a very small vocabulary, and no idea how to use it.
Truman Capote said he knew he had chained himself to a noble yet ruthless master when he started writing. When did you know you wanted to chain yourself to this “master”?
Right after my masters I worked as an editor at a literary magazine for quite some time. I loved that job and learned so much. I was timid at first, because I found it very daunting to intervene in a text someone had worked really hard on. But as time passed and I got more experienced I couldn’t stop myself from intervening. I got angry at texts, constantly had to refrain myself from rewriting whole stories. That’s when I knew: I am not an editor. An editor works with empathy and compassion, they want to empower the voice they believe in and build on the text that’s already there. I was more of a wrecking ball. Every story I worked on I wanted to dissect and build up again, I wanted to make it my own. So, I quit the editing job and focused on the writing.
I’d like to ask you about your work routine. Do you write every day? How do you usually face your projects?
I only understand the concepts of 0% and 100%, for me there is nothing in between. That means that I can be very disciplined or very lazy. My parents were not religious but they had a blind faith in hard work and perseverance. Being lazy, or laid back for that matter, makes me feel very uncomfortable, so for my own sanity I try to do it the disciplined way.
I write every day. Preferably the first two, and the last two hours of the day. In between I do my emails, my other work and my reading. I find comfort in repetition. My best writing comes from doing the same every day for a long period of time. I’m not very good with surprises, as you can imagine.
What comes first to your mind, the plot or the characters?
Characters, definitely. But the very first thing that comes to mind for me are the surroundings a story sets in. Places trigger me. The novel I’m currently working on for example, takes place in a valley surrounded by mountains. I visited the principality of Liechtenstein a few years ago, which is exactly that: a valley surrounded by mountains, a kind of fishbowl so to speak. I was immediately fascinated with that landscape, fascinated with the absence of a horizon. I had no idea of characters or plot, but I knew for sure that I wanted to use that scenery. So, I just started researching Liechtenstein, to see where that research would take me. Fortunate enough Liechtenstein has a very rich history, but still it took me three years to find and sculpt the right set of characters to put into that specific place.
Amongst the several technical aspects of writing, which do you find the more complex?
For me the writing process is divided into three segments. First there is the blanc canvas, a space where everything is still possible and you can write freely just by following your intuition and pursuing the images you see in your head. Second there is the phase of decision making. That has to do a lot with plot, creating tension, restricting possibilities and building up interesting contrasts. The last segment takes place between the punctuation marks. In Dutch we call it ‘grinding stones’, making the language as clear as possible, focusing on rhythm, making sure that every word in your story has the right to exist.
Phase one and three are my favorite. There is either the freedom to write everything that comes to mind or the merciless focus of making sure that what is written, is sculpted and molded in the best possible way. Segment two is where my anxiety comes to play. I have a fear of decision making, because if I choose something, I automatically rule something else out. That can scare me and sometimes even paralyze me, because you never know beforehand, how big the consequences of your decision are. You do know that every time you make a decision you limited the possibilities of wat the story could be. Making choices is inevitable for good writing, but sometimes it takes me a while to say goodbye to what a story could be, and stick to what I want it to be.
Do you believe in what you are writing while you are writing it?
If I don’t believe it, I quit the story. Most of the time, after a couple of days I find myself longing for the characters and the spaces the story took place in. You can’t miss something you don’t believe in, so as soon as I get that feeling, I start over.
The translation of your novel was done by Irene de la Torre. How was your relation with her during this process?
Irene is one of those rare people who can make you feel at ease right away. She is from Mallorca and during our first collaboration she translated a short story of mine that took place in Mallorca. I think we instantly connected over that. She really understood how precarious the subject of La arena del desierto is and she did everything in her power to treat the subject-matter with the delicacy that it needs. We emailed back and forth a lot, she asked a lot of questions, and even in the minor details she definitely didn’t settle for easy. We were also fortunate enough to travel and perform together, so we got to know each other pretty well. I think her translation really reflects that relationship and mutual understanding.
The whole world is immerse in the pandemic. Considering La arena del desierto deals with another global issue (Islamic terrorism), I’d like to know how do you face your immediate future as a writer.
For me personally the pandemic doesn’t change a lot about the way I look at artists and writers. I think we have an ongoing obligation to be present, to ask questions, to take responsibility for the space we occupy, to use our voice carefully. At the same time we have an obligation to take care. To let our stories be a distraction from reality, to provide joy and consolation. I think the last year proved that we very much need both.
Both of us have been lucky to participate in the CELA Project. What’s it meant to you and how has it helped you improve as a writer?
I am verry grateful that I got the chance to participate in the CELA Project. It was amazing to get to know such a diverse group of people from all over Europe. I had some beautiful conversations and got a really good insight in the literary scenes in different countries. It really broadened my horizons and I made some very good friends along the way.
Lotte Lentes was born in 1990, in Germany and now lives in Amsterdam. She studied European Literature at Radbound, Nimega. She has been selected to be part of the Slow Writing Lob program of the Dutch Foundation for Literature, as well as a guest of the literary residence in Paris owned by the Flemish-Duth House of Buren (Brussels) and a member of the CELA (Connecting Emerging Literary Artists) european project. La arena del desierto is her first novel. Photo: Gaby Jongenelen for De Nieuwe Oost Wintertuin.
Roberto Osa, student of the IV Promotion of the Masters Program in Narrative, was born in Madrid. Morderás el polvo is his first novel and was awarded with the XXXVI Felipe Trigo Prize for Novels and a recognition as a finalist at the Nadal Award 2017. He has worked as a script writer for television during the last 10 years as well as a regular collaborator at several digital media. Recently he has been selected to be part of the CELA (Connecting Emerging Literary Artists) european project, lead by the dutch institution Wintertuin (being Escuela de Escritores one of the founding partners) to promote emerging authors.