‘I want to get rid of that thriller writer label’ - interview with Saskia Noort
Saskia Noort (50) just got back from the London Book Fair, the international network party for writers and TV-makers. She looks elated: her American agent was more than enthusiastic about her new novel.
Not surprisingly, because divorce matters in the partly autobiographical Stromboli are recognizable, the book contains a fair deal of explicit sex and there is a lot of attention for #metoo, the urgent, topical theme that leads to many heated discussions worldwide. By simultaneously mocking the therapy industry Noort manages to keep Stromboli from getting too heavy.
She describes how journalist/writer Sara seems to lead a fairy tale life. Two lovely kids, a beautiful house and a dynamic social life. But due to her alcoholic husband and the fight with her own demons – she was raped in her youth – she hits rock bottom emotionally. Her decision to leave her husband leads to friends and neighbours turning away from her, something Noort experienced herself. To regain her strength Sara goes into retreat in the foothills of an Italian volcano. She ends up in a group with cultish features and a bad guru to boot, plus juice cleanses, breathing exercises and dances, where fellow students feel each other up on command. Typical Noort-ingredients, but this time without murder. She wrote the novel partly on the island of Stromboli, where she experienced a ‘wonderful retreat’. ‘But these are often business models where people come for a quick fix.’
She starts her story with a rape scene that feels like a punch in the gut. ‘I hesitated writing about my youth experience. I thought: everyone will then say I did so out of commercial interest. But that’s total crap.’ Stromboli is not about luxury divorce problems, the book is about somebody who doesn’t live life to the full because of such an event. About her shame. How she is forced to investigate something she really doesn’t want to think about. How sexual violence doesn’t affect just her but all the people around her. And that the confrontation with her past is the only way to move forward.
‘A few years ago I was a guest in the TV-show Zomergasten (Summer guests). Somebody said: you’re not addressing that again, are you? You’ll end up being that raped writer. Very weird when people say these kinds of things. Suppose I had just one leg, you’re not going to say: don’t talk about it, because you’ll end up being that one-legged woman. I was raped at fourteen by someone I knew, and that is a part of me.’
She stresses that Stromboli is fictional, but that it contains biographical elements. ‘The man leaving Sara was not my husband. I’ve had to point that out to my children. And I will tell others the same: this is not a carbon copy of you, or me. I have sharpened events a bit and mixed them with stories about others. But a part of the things I have struggled with are certainly in there. Such as the prolonged silence towards my husband and parents. I was afraid to hurt them; many people consider a rape to be about them. In the case of my father and mother, I decided for them that they would feel guilty and wonder how they could have prevented it. I was afraid they would drag me to the police, or attack the perpetrator.
I’ve had to deal with disbelief, victim blaming and people who had no idea how to react when I told them. We’d be in a restaurant and they’d go: “Right, what shall we order then?” When I came out with it ten years ago, I wasn’t exactly hoping to end up in the gossip press and their sensationalist stories. I opened up to show the taboo and to point out that there really is life after such an event. What strikes me about the whole #metoo discussion in Holland: we copied that from the US and a day later we were already done with #metoo. The eagerness of the counter-movement stupefied me as well. And in particular, that it should be led by women, Catherine Deneuve, going on about flirting. #Metoo is not about flirting in a bar, but about sexual violence and abuse of power.’
In Stromboli Noort displays the astonishing reactions to her divorce, using Sara’s experiences. Many friends in her then place of residence Bergen fell of the radar when she left her husband. ‘Men are afraid that you’re egging on their wife, women fear you’re after their husband. So it’s not some thing of forty years back; it still exists; they stopped inviting me. When I left Bergen, I threw a big farewell party, purposely inviting all the people that had been ignoring me. As some cynical revenge. ‘See what happens.’ And sure enough, they were all there. Including the women from the supermarket who’d change aisles when they saw me approaching. Very embarrassing. And hypocritical. Why they came? Big party, free booze, they perhaps thought they’d run into famous people, pure opportunism. Or a combination. They certainly weren’t there when I was a wreck.’
Just as in Stromoboli Noort doesn’t shy way from her vulnerable side in her columns for Linda Magazine. But there is a price to pay for exposing your personal problems, she admits. ‘I can’t just share the fun events; I have to show the shit too. Or I’d just be lying to people. Through my openness people feel they know me and have an opinion about me. What I also get – in particular when dating men – is: ‘Are you going to write about this?’ Not everyone is too happy about this. And I have to be honest: I do in fact use these encounters quite often.’
Noort bluntly says that being single isn’t easy. The contrast is often stark; when the bestselling author comes home there is just the dog, because the kids have left home. ‘This London Book Fair felt like a big success. I was excited. Until I missed my flight and was forced to stay the night near the airport. I found myself all alone in this airport hotel, knowing I had to get up at six. When I got back in Holland I was really tired. But no one was there at Schiphol or at home that I could tell my story to.
‘Sometimes it’s nice being alone, the freedom. But mostly I don’t enjoy it. I just want to have a glass of wine and share my day. I don’t believe people who say that they love being single. We are herd creatures and staying alone too long is unhealthy. I’m not actively looking for a relationship but occasionally I think: Jeez, I’ll be 51; I’m no longer a catch. Thank god for Netflix as a distraction, but I often wonder: how did people cope before?’
No more cliffhangers
Saskia Noort hopes her loyal fan base – she sold over three million books so far – also wants to read her new book, even when there are no bodies or murders involved. Her publisher even calls Stromboli, that reads like a familiar Noort, her first novel. Does she not view her earlier work as such? And does that label really matter?
Noort: ‘I want to get rid of the thriller writer label. Not because it will make me more socially acceptable to a new target group, or because I’m looking for confirmation. I have proven myself enough over the last fifteen years. But without that label I feel more freedom as a writer. I can opt for another kind of plot, I don’t have to come up with a cliffhanger every three chapters, dealing with the perpetrator or the body. Tension is not restricted to crime, there are many other possibilities: man-woman relations, sex, and family relations.
I wanted to try something new, as a challenge. I have written it down differently from my other books. More raw, more barren and direct, to make it hit you harder. I have no idea what my next book will be. It could be another novel, or maybe a thriller, writing a series for Netflix would be fun. We’ll see.’