One of the greatest advantages of being able to work as a member of the press at events like PEN World Voices is the opportunities to really gain valuable insight from the guests at such events. I was allowed to do just that speaking quickly then conducting an electronic interview with author, playwright, journalist, and Blogger Arnon Grunberg. Mr. Grunberg dropped out of school at age 17 in orders to start Kasimir publishing in his native Amsterdam. His first published work was his novel “Blue Mondays” at age 23. Since then he’s gone on to write plays, novels, keeping a blog, weekly and monthly columns in the United Kingdom. His work has allowed him to visit such places as Afghanistan where he was imbedded in the Dutch army, and the highly secretive Gitmo in Cuba–the United States camp for suspected terrorists. Below you’ll find a short exchange with Mr. Grunberg.
Word Riot: You do a huge variety of work, where does the inspiration for it all come from?
Arnon Grunberg: Inspiration can come from any place, and it is not always dependent on outside sources — often it is just a question of keeping our eyes and ears open.It is hard for me to imagine how inspiration would work without a genuine sense of curiosity.
WR: Do you use different literary outlets for different purposes, or do you feel you create a unity with your works?
AGB: I would not say that everything I write is equally important, but I do think that most things I write are connected and belong to my work, in other wordsTo all the things I have written. I do not believe that reports and articles on let’s say my trip to Afghanistan last summer are not connected to my novels, quite the opposite.
WR: Linguistically which of the languages you write in do you find it easiest to express in, both stylistically and technically? Which if any do you feel more at home in?
AGB: Most of my work is still written in Dutch. Dutch is my first language and I think will stay my first language for a while. I do write some things directly in English, and recently I started writing directly in German, but I don’t see it coming that I’m going to write a novel directly in English. I have an excellent translator, so there is not need for me to do it. I mean: it’s not a main goal in my life to write directly in English.
WR: You seem to have a knack for putting yourself in danger? What are your personal reasons for this?
AGB: It depends on how you define danger. Being embedded with the Dutch army in Afghanistan is not completely without risks, but hey you are embedded. They don’t want to send a journalist or an author home in a body bag. I don’t think that I put myself in danger; I do believe that it is impossible to live without risks and the concept of total safety are not only unrealistic but often dangerous as well. In general I’m a careful person, but I’m also aware that the biggest danger is in your own house, so why not travel a little bit?
WR: What moment would you tag as when you knew writing was what you wanted to be doing?
AGB: As you might know first I wanted to be an actor, then I had a publishing house, then I started to write, I think when my Dutch publisher offered me a contractFor my first novel based on two or three stories that was fall 93 — that was an important moment. When you start writing, when you start whatever it is, you need somebody who believes in you. But I remember very well saying twelve years ago that I might write till my 35th birthday. Well I’m thirty-six and I still write, it is addictive.
WR: If you could get to experience and write on any moment in history what would it be?
AGB: I would say that living hundred years ago might be fascinating, but then at the same time it is easy to idealize the past. So in general I’m quite happyWriting and living now, which does not imply that this is the best of all possible times to live in. But for a writer it is not that bad.
WR: Visiting Gitmo: how did that come about, have you felt any backlash from your reporting?
AGB: Last summer I started a news series of articles for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Grunberg among the people, which is basically something like let’s say literary journalism. I was aware of the fact tat journalists could visit Gitmo and I thought this is a good project, especially after having been to Afghanistan. I never experienced any backlashes from my reporting about Gitmo. Which in my view was fair. Well my emigration lawyer told me recently that this is not to good time to apply for a green card, he advised me to renew my 0-1 visa. Had I been paranoid I might have thought that this is somehow connected to my reporting on among other things Gitmo, but I’m not paranoid. At least I think I’m not.
WR: Going off of the World Voices theme–where do you feel home is, how do you define home?
AGB: I moved to New York in 1995 and for that reason I would state that New York is home. But I would not declare that I’m a New Yorker, and recently while being asked to list my influences in terms of nations I forgot to include the US. My sense of home is fluid, which is not that strange given the history of my parents who were Jews from Germany, and who never felt home in the Netherlands, but I don’t see my own ideas of home as something negative. The possibility to be at home at ore than one place, to feel at ease at many places is an advantage.
WR: Give us your reflections on the road ahead, what do you see developing from the state of things on the international scale?
AGB: I’m not an expert on international developments, but there seems to be the sense, at least in certain circles, that we are going to see a big explosion soon. I don’t believe that. We will continue in this fashion for quite a while. Things are very slowly getting worse.
WR: Going forward personally any major goals? Things you hope to do?
AGB: I’d like to finish my novel somewhere in January 2008. I plan to go back to Afghanistan — later this summer I’m going to work a few weeks as a chamber maid in a small hotel in Bavaria and I’m going to report on a daily basis for a Dutch newspaper about my experiences there. These are things I’m really looking forward to. Of course I’d like to win the Nobel Prize one day but that’s beyond my control. My work is to write and to a certain degree to live in a way that will benefit my writing.
WR: For those interested in novel writing or journalism any advice?
AGB: Don’t measure success in sales figures. Stendhal sold during his life never more than 200 copies. An anecdote my German publisher loves to tell. Don’t limit yourself when you don’t see the merits of the limitations. Listen carefully and postpone your judgment. Premature judgment kills curiosity. Always question your own motives. Be aware of self-censorship.
WR: Any last words?
AGB: Yes of course but not at the moment.
My thanks go out to Angela Hayes at Goldberg McDuffie and Mr. Grunberg’s personal assistant for making this happen.