-6.4 minute read-
The Sunday Session welcomes Philibert Schogt!
Heading towards bustling Leidseplein, Amsterdam, from my last session. And added to that the weather is jumping between glorious sun and torrential rain. We meet near to Phil’s home and office at Cafe Eijlders. It’s 1pm and the cafe has just opened. It’s one of those timeless places, with a certain elegance and history. I grab a tosti and wait for the session to start. All I know is that Phil is a professional writer of some note. Cafe Eijlders is a perfect location for our talk, it’s quiet, classy and at this moment holds a bit of an exclusive vibe. I tell the waiter what I’m doing, he gets it straight away.. maybe this place sees this kind of thing all the time. Phil arrives and orders a sparkling water and tells me his story.
“I was born here but I moved to North America when I was four. So I grew up in North America. And came back when I was seventeen”
Phil was brought up speaking Dutch at home and then English at school. So returning to Amsterdam in ’77 found that his version of the Dutch that his parents had taken over to Canada in ’64 and of the post war immigrants had in fact become a bit antiquated. Phil found himself using expressions that had disappeared in the 50’s. Phil published his first novel: De Wilde Getallen (The Wild Numbers) in Dutch in ’98 with an English translation following in 2000. Sitting in the cafe I’m immediately intrigued by the title, several thoughts come and go, then Phil explains. “It’s about a mathematician who solves a century old math problem. It’s fictitious. The main character is accused of plagiarism, the plot develops from there. It has thriller elements.” Phil adds that it has become quite popular to use Maths as a key storyline, but around the late 90’s the theme of numbers was just starting up. “It was in the air, I guess. I tapped into something.”
Originally Phil wanted his character to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem’ which was the most famous open math problem of the time (proposed by Pierre de Fermat in 1637). “But a friend mathematician talked me out of it, saying that only a total genius could crack the problem, while my main character was a bit of a loser having a mid-life crisis. Not extremely successful. It would have been too improbable for him to want to tackle the Theorem. And the funny thing is that while I was writing The Wild Numbers, out in the real world, Fermat’s Last Theorem was solved!”
“So you really did tap into something there!” I say.
“So I was lucky not to have used that, otherwise it would have been dated, and wrong. And improbable. So a double stroke of luck actually”
Phil talks about being a writer, saying that sometimes he finds that he is envious of musicians and painters because they have a far more direct and instantaneous way of connecting to their audience. But Phil accepts that the way our culture consumes books is forever changing. He chooses to write shorter chapters, reflecting the modern bitesize approach. Phil has now written a total of five novels and we talk about the act of writing. For me a beginner writing this blog I can hardly compare, but we do debate about finding the right flow, to be able to communicate an expression into words and ways to put the reader into another reality. “It’s gruelling” adds Phil. Procrastination is discussed. Such a strange thing that takes us away from the moment, threatening to sabotage our work.
I ask what happens when he formally starts writing a book?
“At first I let all sorts of influences come in, but at a given point I get tunnel vision, certainly the last year I’m working on something. It’s sort of a narrowing of consciousness. But at the beginning I have to be as open as possible; like what am I trying to say with this? Often I’m really only able to answer this question when I complete the book.”
I ask Phil how being Dutch influences his work. He brings me back to the fact that he was brought up in two cultures, which has played a predominant role in his writing. Being part of two cultures has been both a problem and an inspiration in Phil’s writing. In his first book The Wild Numbers the subject of the book is maths, a universal language so to speak. His latest novel is written half in Dutch and half in English. The theme is the experience of speaking two languages. So the audience is narrowed to people who can read both. Again I find this idea intriguing. Not for me right now. However the intention of focussing on experience, rather than narrative appeals to me.