10 Questions for Jacqueline Schaalje

Kira Archibald, Alex Raz

"Her father handed her to us. “No kiss,” he said, a few times. “No touch.” The diminutive old man, bent from hard work, gave his daughter a stern look that I couldn’t quite decipher except that it made me vaguely uncomfortable. However, the promise of no kissing was easy to give. “No kissing and no touching,” I said solemnly. I gave the man a cash advance and said we’d start filming in another ten days. We would call on Laksmi on a Wednesday." —from "The God Girl," Fall 2017, Vol. 58, Issue 3

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I could barely hold a pen, I used to write postcards to family members and neighbors, and there had to be drawn weather icons on them. Not long after, I penned endless letters to my much older cousins, who must have been uncommonly charitable to want to keep up the correspondence. The fiction I attempted consisted of comics about weird creatures, which my sister drew. We also made radio plays, which were unevenly divided between giggles and content. I might have written a story here or there for school, but my high school teachers were quick to nip this in the bud; a few times I remember that my piece was read out loud and made fun of. The rest of my writing went into the sanctuary of diaries; I also scribbled bad poetry in my school diary. I started receiving compliments for my writing only during university education, and published my first pieces well after that.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Too many to mention. They range from D.H. Lawrence to Gustave Flaubert, from Jane Austen to James Joyce, and from Leo Tolstoy to Junichiro Kanizaki, from Naguib Mahfouz to Roberto Bolaño and from Kingsley Amis to Michel Houellebecq (I love good satire). I tend to look up to writers who move me and can pack it into an engaging story that talks about greater issues. In my twenties I was obsessed with John Updike and in my thirties with John Le Carré.

I could perhaps wish there were more female writers. I do admire Flannery O'Connor and Doris Lessing and for poetry Emily Dickinson is my favorite. Now and then I read a few lines in the Bible because its language is unsurpassed, much like Shakespeare. Yet the Bible often fares better in translation, I guess because its diction is simpler. 

And you guessed it—you can also wake me up to go see a play. The only way that real dialogues are more interesting than the ones in plays is because you are talking.

What other professions have you worked in?
Oh, as a waiter, secretary, office manager, in marketing, translation, linguistics, writing jobs and research. My day job is teaching Dutch and English, next to writing something every day. My students are lovely to talk with. With my kid students I play games and read children's books.

What did you want to be when you were young?
I first wanted to work in a circus, preferably as an acrobat or trapeze artist, then I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but I wasn't cut out for those professions. Today, I'd be finished in those careers. Writing is much like what they always say when they advertise the joys of scuba diving, in that you can still practice it (or start it if you haven't done so before) at the age of eighty! Ninety wouldn't do, I suppose, because at this age one's chances of contracting Alzheimer's may rise to 50%, and I don't know about writing but scuba diving would be dangerous with this condition. Of course, there is a market for readers with Alzheimer's; I'd say, a huge market.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I love listening to music of almost any kind (not jazz please, that makes me nervous), but need all my concentration for it, and prefer going to a concert to enjoy music fully. Whenever I write I prefer silence. Background music or renovations at the neighbors' distract me.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Nope. In the past I would finish the housework before I sat down, but now I’m so used to writing in little or larger spurts that I just flop down at my desk, turn on the computer and return to the work I was busy on. I can also write in a café or on the train with someone looking over my shoulder to check my grammar. I'm totally cool. Last summer I experimented with writing poetry outside while looking at the view, like in the tradition of impressionist painters who would move their easel outdoors. It was fun!

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Some friend or other. Many people are happy to receive poems, I've noticed. But longer works, only a handful will read them.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I adore the visual arts but am bad at drawing. My music teacher tried to groom me for a career in music, but I'm glad I didn't pursue that because I and several other people in my family have arthritis, beginning in our fingers, which would make playing an instrument from a certain age on unpleasant.

What are you working on currently?
On poetry and editing the last chapters of a novel. I have another as-good-as-finished historical novel sitting on my computer. I'd like to publish those. In addition, I'm translating a novel "Pipelines" by Jacob Israel de Haan, a Dutch author who was murdered in 1924. This novel was the first gay novel in the Netherlands. Although I'm aware there are writers who are certain that translating makes them a better writer, I see it as a chore because it's all technical: you need to understand a text really well and then find an equivalent in another language. Whereas the appeal of writing literature is that it is part technical, part creative. However, De Haan deserves to be read more widely.

What are you reading right now?
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk. It would be fun to write something in that vein about unmotherhood. And The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel, which is full of witticisms and impeccable style. And Dear Zealots, Letters from a Divided Land by Amos Oz. The first one is an interesting view on how fanaticism and celebrity worship are two branches of the same evil. The English translation is set to come out in 2018; I've just checked it on the internet!

For poetry, I cracked open Ada Limon's Bright Dead Things. My next fiction books are going to be Clarice Lispector; I've downloaded her stories and Aqua Viva.


JACQUELINE SCHAALJE was born in the Netherlands. She published articles in many magazines in the Netherlands, the US, and UK; worked as a linguist and dictionary writer; and ended up living in Israel, where she tutors English and Dutch, and writes. She has an MA in English from the University of Amsterdam, and went to the Southampton Writers Conference last summer to work on a novel. Her stories have appeared in On the Premises and in MayDay.