The members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our scrawlings with one another.
In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.
This week we will hear from Andreas Bergsten, a psychologist from Stockholm, avoiding his purported mission to write a Swedish college textbook by indulging in English-language fiction writing.
When did you join the group?
In March 2014. I was surfing some ex-pat sites for advice on how to make the Belgian postal service actually deliver parcels when I saw a link to the BWC. I made contact the same day, went to the next session, and have been a regular ever since. Last year I also went to one of the BWC writing retreats.
What were your first impressions of the group?
I had three immediate impressions. Firstly, how passionate and serious everyone was about writing. Secondly, the welcoming and sociable atmosphere. Thirdly, what a diverse and interesting group of people the BWC is. Something refreshing in ex-pat Brussels where you can find many uniform, conformist cliques. All three impressions have been reinforced over time.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve tried out some different stuff in the group, both fiction and non-fiction. Now I’ve settled on a story that demands space, so let’s say I’m working on a novel. At the same time, I’m supposed to be writing this psychology book in Swedish, so there is both competition and interference. The protagonist of my novel, then, seems to be a psychologist on a confused mission (no, it’s not really autobiographical fiction, he’s even more of a whack job than I am) and the writing appears to be an odd fusion of chick lit and noir. Yeah, I know, that’s not really a description to approach an agent with…
Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?
Impossible to say. I’ve been reading English-language fiction daily since I was twelve, when my father drowned me in P.G. Wodehouse paperbacks from Penguin to supplement the school teaching he deemed inadequate. Then I went off on my own and have had so many loves since.
I think my own English writing aspires to a light touch on heavy subjects, but what amalgam of influences brought me there is too hard to unpack. Let me just say that right now, I’m crazy about Ali Smith, Jenny Offil, Ben Lerner, Donald Antrim and Zia Haider Rahman. And I’ve just discovered Iris Murdoch’s amazing oeuvre. Go figure.
Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?
Oh, yes. More than I can share, really. But to pick an anecdote at random, I remember this one time a guy read out a lyrical and moving short story. Everyone seemed excited and the feedback session was intense. The first feedbacker insisted he condense it into a poem, since the diction, metaphors and rhythm practically yelled out ‘poetry’.
The next one said it would be a crime not to expand on such a gripping theme and develop it into a novel. The third had quite specific instructions on changing characters, switching locations etc; The fourth had actually re-written a few lines to make some transitions smoother.
Now we all know that, when it comes to feedback, detailed suggestions for changes are less helpful than just explaining one’s reaction to the text. Since words are the writer’s medium, it’s like taking the brush to someone else’s half-finished canvas. But sometimes we just can’t help ourselves, and it’s often when we get really enthusiastic that we go overboard.
After the fifth feedbacker told him the only sane thing would be to convert the text into pop lyrics or a technical manual or whatever, the poor author threw up his hands. “Please, stop,” he said. “My head hurts!”
What do you get out of the group?
Well, as for the writing (kind of the obvious point of the circle), you get so much interesting feedback. Wildly different and sometimes contradictory reactions and ideas (see above), but that is part of the art and actually quite liberating. If the responses were unanimous, they would be harder to resist and probably influence me too much – especially in the early drafting stages. With such a smorgasbord of reactions, if I may use that expression, I can pick and choose in a way that leaves my feedback diet nutritious and challenging, but not belly-achingly hard to digest. And I get such a rush from having a room full of perceptive and skilled readers doing their best to improve my work.
Then, for me, there has been a most welcome side effect. In Brussels, I mostly skulk around in the shadows. I’m a stay-at-home dad, but the kids live in Sweden (grown-ups, nominally), and my breadwinner wife is constantly on the road. So the BWC is the main provider of great company for me. At the sessions, sure, but also the frequent post-session beers and the friendships growing out of socializing with other lost souls. If you like writing, and you like people, I can’t recommend the BWC enough.