With novels like Vrije Val (Freefall), Wij en Ik (We and I), and Eeuwige Roem (Everlasting Fame), Saskia De Coster (43) carved out a place in the literary landscape. A place that glitters all the more beautifully thanks to all the stars that reviewers have given her most recent book, Nachtouders (Night Parents). Some of this glow may reflect on KU Leuven because De Coster has been named ‘writer in residence’ for a year. She will deliver guest lectures, improve the students’ writing skills, and contribute to a research project that explores the intersection between science and art.
When we ask Saskia De Coster for an anecdote from her time as a student, she immediately talks about ‘that time Hugo Claus visited the university’. The ambitious student found herself face to face with one of her idols, but to say that the meeting led to a philosophical exchange or even just small talk with ‘the Master’ would be an exaggeration. “I was so starstruck that I couldn’t speak,” she laughs.
Twenty years later, she is a successful author in her own right, she regularly chats to literary stars like David Mitchell or Jonathan Franzen, and now she is the one faced with shy, speechless admirers. Her latest novel, Nachtouders, was the only Flemish novel to be shortlisted for the Libris Literature Prize. And she has now been named the first ‘writer in residence’ at KU Leuven. This is fantastic new for students with literary ambitions because among other things, De Coster will teach a creative writing class.
“It is a great initiative because that is precisely what I missed in my Germanic Languages programme,” she says. “There was a lot of focus on literary history, grammar, and textual analysis, but the creative aspect of language was somewhat neglected. At the same time, I desperately wanted to learn more about writing skills. It is very nice to be able to redress that lacuna myself now.”
Writing classes have been common at international universities for a long time. In the United States, for example, literary greats like Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison and David Foster Wallace taught creative writing classes. How will De Coster fill their shoes? “I once took a teacher training class, and after two classes I realized: this is not for me (laughs). I think I will be more like a kind of mentor. I want to help students with their creative process and share my own experience. I will read texts critically and guide them in the right direction. To ask the question: why is this good? Or why not? Ideally, the students will be working on a big project, and at the end of the process they will have a decent short story to show for it.”
“I am also eager to learn more myself, of course,” De Coster says. “I am curious about how students deal with language, what their world looks like, and how I relate to it. People sometimes talk about the decline in reading among young people, but I take that with a grain of salt. Language changes and some novels have a short expiration date than others. Eighteen-year-olds don’t go wild about Stijn Streuvels anymore, but they do still read The Catcher in the Rye. Or they listen to rap music by Kendrick Lamar, whose use of language is masterful. I think it would be very interesting to look at how the new generation combines old and new forms, and what the results are.”
De Coster also wants to explore the intersection of science and art. In her classes, but also in cooperation with researchers and students at different faculties. For example, she will contribute to a scientific project about running and writing. “I am an avid jogger and I have found that running has a positive influence on my creativity and concentration. Especially when I am working on a novel. I sometimes wonder, for example, which chemical processes are operative in the brain. Or what the influence of running is on concentration, choice of words, and associative skills…”
I might start writing an intimate love story and end up with a thriller. It grows organically.”
De Coster says that she has always written, ranging from fairy tales that she penned as a child to diaries in which she poured out her teenaged heart. We will never know the content of the latter because she once decided to ‘ritually bury them in the woods’. “Very theatrical, I know (laughs). But also efficient because that area later became a building site and there is a house there now. As a teenager, I made experimental magazines with my friends, but they have also been carefully stored away. Strangely enough, my student years were the only period in which I did not write. It was probably because I had cold feet. The masterpieces that we had to read were often paralyzing for me.”
Nevertheless, she partly has the university to thank for launching her writing career. She took a specialization programme in literary studies, took up the pen again, and won the Babylon Interuniversity Literary Prize for Prose when she was 23. “That helped,” she says. “If only for my self-confidence as a writer. The idea that your work is good enough and is appreciated by a professional jury. It caused a kind of snowball effect.”
The snowball took its first concrete form in her debut novel Vrije Val, which was published a few years later. “But that was a kind of ‘accident’,” De Coster says. “Through the prize, I came into contact with Peter Verhelst, who worked for the literary periodical DW B and was looking for literary talents. He had read some of my poems and asked whether I had anything lying around. ‘Of course’, I said. ‘A long story’. That was a complete lie, but I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity and immediately started writing. It turned out to be a very long story. Verhelst sent it to his publisher and they were impressed and wanted to publish it.”
“I am still very happy that things developed that way,” she says. “While writing, I felt none of the stress or fear of failure that often plague the writing of debut novels, the sense of having to write ‘a real book’. To be frank, I don’t know how to do that. I start from scratch every time. I am not the kind of writer who has a whole structure worked out beforehand. I might, in a manner of speaking, start writing an intimate love story and end up with a thriller. It grows organically. At the same time, it is also hard work. Incidentally, that is something that I would like to convey to the students: divine inspiration does not exist (laughs). What you need is a motive: a story that simply has to be told.”
For her latest novel Nachtouders, she found that motive close to home. In 2014, De Coster and her partner at the time became parents to a son. The novel is the tale of non-biological motherly love, and of the questions and doubts of parents. The fact that the central character is an author named Saskia did not make the boundary between fact and fiction any clearer. But appearances can be deceiving. ‘She does not write directly about her own life,’ we read in Nachtouders. ‘That is for amateurs or corny types who have appropriated the contemplative-witty birthday wish.’
“Nachtouders is not a diary or self-help book for young mothers,” De Coster says. “It is still a novel. I consciously describe it as autofiction. There is something of myself in every book, but it is not that I actually said that particular thing or actually changed that nappy on page 37 (laughs). I would never share purely autobiographical details with the world. I do think it is interesting to flirt with the fourth wall. It is a game that involves manipulation. Rhetoric and tricks to draw readers into my book.”
Nachtouders is frequently tipped in reading lists and touches a nerve among many readers. “Probaly because the subject is so universal,” De Coster says. “Autofiction is very in at the moment. Writing about ‘the ordinary things in life’ with which everyone can identify. Perhaps because we spend so much time in digital worlds and have an increasing need for authenticity. And children are of course one of the most essential elements in our lives. Something that connect us. There is a reason that politicians often talk about ‘the future of the next generations’ (laughs).”
“In the book, I reflect on the relationship between parents and children, and how to shape it,” De Coster says. “In the past, motherhood often absorbed your whole being, but we now combine multiple identities. You are a mother, but also a friend, a partner, an author… How do you give it all a place? I also wanted to cast a spotlight on parenthood. For a long time, having children was self-evident, and it is often still the norm. But what if you don’t want to? Can you not question that self-evidence? I have noticed that some readers recognize these doubts and appreciate that I raise the subject. That is the compliment I most enjoy receiving. ‘You write things that I don’t dare to say or that I cannot articulate.’”
Has this ever led her to hurt or lose people? “Yes, unfortunately it has, though that was never my intention. It is more like ‘collateral damage’. I do not see the sense of destroying people with the pen or fighting my personal feuds through literature. I think that is rather feeble. But of course you can’t control other people’s reactions. It has also happened that people were offended because they recognized themselves in certain characters, while I wasn’t thinking about them at all. I think that is simply something that you have to learn to live with as a writer.”
I want to help students with their creative process and share my own experience. I will read texts critically and guide them in the right direction. To ask the question: why is this good? Or why not?
De Coster has a made a living from writing for the past twenty years, and there are few who have that good fortune. Some careers only count as many days as the number of pages in a promising debut, while other writers are forced to take side jobs. What does she think of her development as an ‘established author’?
“I think my writing is more controlled than it used to be. While I might have needed three metaphors in the past, I now look for that one image that fits. I also try to stay relevant. Once you have been around for a while, there is also a danger of becoming repetitive, a little like Coldplay always making the same song (laughs). I try to innovate with each new novel, while at the same time building on the last. As a child, I already dreamt of having my own model world. An alternative universe. I try to create that through my books, in which every novel is a different street or a different building.”
“You see that ‘worldbuilding’ in many contemporary TV series,” De Coster says. “They actually influence me! For example, I am writing a novella at the moment, with short chapters that each end with a cliff-hanger. Just like in a Netflix show, for example. I am also toying with the idea of a TV project, though the content is still a secret (laughs).”
De Coster also collaborates with visual artists and writes song lyrics and columns. If the term were no cringeworthy, we might describe her as a ‘creative jill-of-all-trades’. “I can’t only write novels’, she says. “My interpretation of authorship is far broader. I am greedy and I need variety. A novel is about introspection, for example, while I sometimes want to express my spontaneous indignation in a column. Or want to leave my writing bubble for a moment and work on an art project with someone. That is why I am very much looking forward to my role as ‘writer in residence’. I am curious to see how the university context and collaboration with researchers will impact my work.”