This is your first novel to be published by a mainstream American press. Why do you think it is A Heart of Stone that has launched your debut in this country? Is it representative of your work? Are there plans to translate your earlier books into English? Read the interview.
This is the second novel you have written about family tragedy and survivors’ guilt. Where does this theme come from? How do you have such a deep understanding of this emotional terrain? Read the interview.
Without further deliberation she picked up Ida in her arms. Carrying her over to the draining board, she brushed aside the breadcrumbs and laid Ida down on her back on the granite. Choosing a butcher’s knife from the knife block, she began whetting it with long, powerful strokes. She felt a charge of strength and self-assurance surging through her. She was one of the chosen. More.
Renate Dorrestein was born in Amsterdam on January 25, 1954, and raised in a Roman Catholic family. Her father was a lawyer, her mother a teacher and housewife. Renate began to write when she was in elementary school. Upon graduating in 1972 she opted not to go to college, going to work instead as a reporter for the Dutch news magazine Panorama, a job that took her all around the world. She left the magazine in 1977 to work for a number of other national publications. This was at the height of the second wave of feminism in The Netherlands; Dorrestein was determined to shake up the world with her provocative columns and articles. In 1986 she was a founder of the Anna Bijns Foundation, which awards a biennial prize for “the female voice in literature.”
Her younger sister’s suicide in 1981 had a huge impact on her life and on her writing, as did her ten-year struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Even though she first made a name for herself as a journalist, Renate Dorrestein had always wanted to write fiction. After years of having no luck getting her books published, in 1983 a publishing house finally discovered her and accepted her first novel, Buitenstaanders (Outsiders), for publication. The book became a bestseller, and established Dorrestein as a writer to watch.
Dorrestein does not shy away from tackling controversial social issues in her novels, which has put her work in a class of its own. It has also meant a steadily growing readership and fan base, and longer and longer stints at the top of the bestseller lists.
Abroad, too, Dorrestein is popular. The novel A Heart of Stone attracted great interest internationally; the book’s translation rights were sold in a dozen countries. Her other books continue to be sold abroad in great numbers as well.
In her 2000 non-fiction book Het geheim van de schrijver (The secret of the writer) she offered fans and novice writers her tips on shaping a book, based on her experience as a writing instructor. She spent the year 1986-1987 as Writer in Residence at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (USA) and has been giving master classes at European and American universities ever since.
The writer Hella S. Haasse has pointed out that Dorrestein’s novels exhibit many characteristics of the gothic, or “female gothic” novel — a genre which arose in England in the eighteenth century when many women chafed at their role in society, but weren’t able to express it openly. Dorrestein is the first Dutch author whose work can be said to fall into this category, albeit with a modern twist. Her work features the hallmarks and themes of the gothic novel, such as repressed memory, family secrets, ghostly apparitions and bloodcurdling violence (or at least intimations thereof). Her stories often take place in isolated settings, which, though seemingly safe havens that should provide comfort and solace, are suffused with a stifling sense of dread. Deception and reality often bleed into each other seamlessly.
Furthermore, Dorrestein is able to show us more clearly than anyone else that “evil” usually lives close to home, even under apparently ordinary and familiar circumstances. The balance of power within the family and the ways in which children are helplessly dependent on their parents are favourite themes. There aren’t many authors who can put themselves in a child’s shoes the way Dorrestein can, or who write about it with such startlingly truthful resonance. Finally, guilt (either deserved or misplaced) is a frequent theme in Dorrestein’s work. Her flawed but endearing characters consider themselves responsible for certain catastrophic events, and this threatens to push them over the edge. “It’s either eat or get eaten,” declare the sisters Ange and Irthe in the novel Het Hemelse Gerecht (The Heavenly Repast), and that truism is seldom far from the heart of her stories.
Although her subject matter is almost always disturbing, Renate Dorrestein employs a light touch. One of the most striking hallmarks of her writing is her wry humour and sly observations. She does not shrink from the absurdities of life, and allows herself generous helpings of irony. The attendant exaggerations, contradictions and paradoxes play a big part in her stories. Striking, too, in many of her books is the element of suggestion. Events and incidents are not explicit, but implied; the reader is given enough hints, however, to draw his or her own conclusions, greatly heightening the level of suspense.
Dorrestein’s work has been lauded at home and abroad. The novel Een sterke man (A Strong Man) was nominated for the Libris Literature Prize and Zonder genade (Without Mercy) for the AKO Prize. Verborgen Gebreken (Hidden Flaws/A Crying Shame), Een hart van steen (A Heart of Stone) and Het duister dat ons scheidt (The Darkeness that Divides Us) were nominated for the Trouw/NS Publieks Prize. Ontaarde moeders (Unnatural Mothers) and Een hart van steen (A Heart of Stone) were both nominated for The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and A Heart of Stone won the Vondel Prize for Translation. Her entire oeuvre was awarded the Annie Romein Prize in 1993 for its “irresistible idiosyncracy”. In 1997 Verborgen gebreken (Hidden Flaws/A Crying Shame) received the junior Gouden Uil award. In the same year she was asked to write the Dutch Book-Week offering, published as Want dit is mijn lichaam (For this is my body); in 2008 she wrote another Book-Week essay, Laat me niet alleen (Don’t leave me alone).
“Dorrestein shares with Hitchcock one of the filmmaker’s great virtues — an intuitive sense of suspense. The uncanny movement between domestic scenes and macabre ones is seamlessly executed. Dorrestein provides enough turns of the screw to keep the reader off balance to the end.”
— The Wall Street Journal
“Elegantly chilling…beautifully written.”
— The Times (London)
“Her novels read like film scripts…psychological thrillers in which what’s most to be feared is closest to home… painfully cutting, and surprisingly funny… a truly courageous writer.”
— The Independent (London)
“A stunning novel about the scorching legacy of loss… Dorrestein shifts flawlessly between past and present, patiently building impact and suspense.” — Time Magazine
“Rendered with hallucinatory clarity… The climactic pages are as harrowing as anything in contemporary fiction, but you won’t want to miss a word leading up to them. A triumph.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“What’s especially appealing — and therein lies her strength — is the ardent single-mindedness with which Dorrestein endows her characters. Their drive for survival and courage are prodigious, which makes their loneliness even more poignant.”
— De Volkskrant
Renate Dorrestein’s books have been translated from the Dutch into a dozen languages. Here is a list of titles in translations (Dutch section).