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Podcast: Annelies Verbeke on her collection of short stories Halleluja

Annelies Verbeke broke through in literature in 2003 with her debut novel Slaap! She writes plays, scenarios, short story collections, novels and novellas. Her novel Dertig dagen (Thirty Days) won Verbeke the F. Bordewijk Prize, the NRC Book Award and the Opzij Literature Prize. And now there is a new collection of 15 stories entitled Halleluja. In these stories, the characters discover that every beginning carries an end and that an end often, but not always, heralds a new beginning.

Excerpts from the podcast:

Hallelujah. Praise God. Why this title?
'It's a word you can say in so many different ways; euphoric, ironic or resigned. An exclamation I thought would fit nicely with these stories.'

A number of stories in this collection focus on new beginnings or starting over. Is this need for new beginnings also what drives the writing of short stories?

'It is a different way of writing. A collection does need to have stories with an overarching theme. In Hallelujah, that is beginning and end. In a novel, you go down a road and during the long time you are working on it you get the feeling that you are a shepherd who has to gather all the sheep on that one road all the time. I find that quite difficult sometimes. A collection of stories creates the opportunity to be able to look at that same theme from a different way, from a different perspective each time. In that sense, writing short stories is a way of starting over that I like.

Getting there

When I write a novel, I have to know where I am going, how it ends. With short stories, I allow the story to run away with me. With a novel I want to be in control, with short stories I allow more, both in form and content.'

The first story, Crying Baby, features a baby who already knows how his life and that of his loved ones will turn out. That is why he cries all the time. He is actually angry that they conceived him. He says at the end of the story: 'Carry the child that had to live from you.' Is life a punishment rather than a gift?

'He will become an adult who remains true to his grief. I am not like that myself, I prefer to be unfaithful to my grief. This little baby sees life as a chain of loss. It is also true, you lose more and more. Besides, you also make things, like children or books, there is of course build-up. But that build-up usually takes a bit more effort while the loss is there anyway. Sometimes you have to play that the grief is not there. Fighting your grief can also provide something. Literature, for instance.'

Clean slate

Starting afresh is a recurring theme, ending a nasty history and starting with a clean slate is what the characters in these stories want. Why don't they succeed?

'Because you are only living one life. You don't just erase all those experiences either. People can change, otherwise it's a very static idea about life. But you can't pretend you don't know some things. You can't go back to the pristine blank page you once were. That's impossible.'

Self-loss and decompensation play a role in Bus 88. The first-person no longer recognises her own life.

'I don't see that as self-loss, she is still herself but she has entered a different life. I wanted to push the idea of starting over as consistently as possible. Imagine waking up one day in another life. Maybe she wakes up in a parallel universe. It's a surreal story.'

About this podcast

Book podcast The Story features writers talking about their books. The interviews are nice and long, about 45 minutes so there is plenty of time to go deeper into the content. Both fiction and non-fiction and more or less weekly. Also with famous and less famous Dutch and Flemish writers.

Click here for the podcast with Annelies Verbeke

Monique Huijdink

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