Meet the Circle: Andreas Bergsten

MTCAndreasPhotoThe 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?

MTCAndreasJeevesImpossible 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.

It's not always this cold in Stockholm - honest!

It’s not always this cold in Stockholm – honest!

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BWC Member Nick Foster on publishing his True Crime book ‘The Jolly Roger Social Club’

The BWC is thrilled to announce that member Nick Foster’s True Crime book ‘The Jolly Roger Social Club’ is being published by Henry Holt next month. Huge BWC congratulations are therefore in order!

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Nick Foster, who hails from Liverpool in the UK, has been a member of the Brussels Writers’ Circle since 2000 – when the ‘Circle’ was a ‘Group’, Belgians spent francs in the shops, and we were all a lot younger. The commitments of family life mean that Nick doesn’t attend meetings as much as he would like; the rest of the time he cheers on the efforts of the group from a distance.

In 2014 Nick got a deal with Henry Holt in New York to write a non-fiction book on the story of an American serial killer who murdered five of his compatriots in Bocas del Toro, Panama – an outwardly idyllic stretch of Caribbean coast, with azure seas and white-sand beaches.

Nick’s book, The Jolly Roger Social Club, will be published in July 2016 by Henry Holt in North America, and by Duckworth Overlook in the UK and other English-speaking territories.

So Nick, tell us about your book?

I was living in Latin America back in 2011 and I came across the story by chance. A young American man named William “Wild Bill” Holbert had, apparently, killed at least five of his compatriots in a vaguely sinister expat community located in a remote part of Panama. Holbert ran a bar called the Jolly Roger Social Club with a flyer promising that “over 90% of our members survive”. That itself seemed ominous. Then I wondered about the expats: Why were these people there at all? What were their motivations? And how did it affect things that this was an American crime transplanted, if you will, to Latin America? What kind of culture clash might this entail? My questions went on and on. That’s when I figured that this was the story I was looking for. There’s a longer description here: http://us.macmillan.com/thejollyrogersocialclub/nickfoster.

William "Wild Bill" Holbert

William “Wild Bill” Holbert

 

 

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How did you get a book deal for The Jolly Roger Social Club?

Through the traditional route of getting a literary agent (in London, in my case) and then a publisher. I took a month off work to visit Panama and to write the book proposal. For me, it was important to set a deadline to get the proposal ready and sent off. From then it took about four months to get a book deal. The North American rights to The Jolly Roger Social Club were put up for auction by my agent and he set a date and time for bids to come in from the States. Ten minutes before the deadline there were still no bids. I was getting despondent. Then two bids suddenly came in, including Holt’s. I could hardly believe it – it was a really happy moment. After that, the hard work really started. Everything had to be researched – non-fiction means precisely that: it’s all true. I went to Panama a further four times and once to the United States. They were all long trips. As I wrote the story, I discovered it had the most amazing twists and turns. You really couldn’t have made this one up.

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You read your book out at BWC meetings along the way. How did the feedback you received help with writing the book? 

It was very useful. Even though most members write and read fiction, rather than true stories, I got really good feedback. I could instantly see which passages worked and which ones didn’t.

Any tips for aspiring non-fiction writers?

First of all, read a lot. In my case, before I even got on the plane to Panama I devoured a vast amount of narrative non-fiction to see how it was done, to try to break it down. That alone took six months. I needed to see how other writers structured their books. It’s a really important point: if my book just follows me, the writer, discovering a story by interviewing people and uncovering facts, it won’t be very compelling – it will simply be an account of me becoming gradually less ignorant about something. To make a story riveting, you need look how good writers approach chronology, how they use flashbacks, how they establish a powerful sense of place, how they arrange their narrative around strong scenes. You also need to get the pace right and your story has to be suspenseful.

When you pitch your book to an agent, you have to be absolutely focused. Most agents explain on their website precisely how they want to receive pitches. Follow their instructions to the letter. Do exactly what they ask you to do. Try and put yourself in their position: the publishing industry is a business and, if they take you on, they will pitch on your behalf to publishers. So don’t complicate things for them – be clear precisely what your book idea is about, and tell them clearly and concisely. Check this page out for some more tips: http://ducknet.co.uk/blog/ten-tips-writing-creative-nonfiction.

It helped me when I started writing my book to think of it in terms of building blocks. You have a certain number of chapters and then sections in each chapter. It’s easier to think of a book as forty sections of 2,500 words than a big job of 100,000 words you have to sit down and write.

What are your influences?

On the non-fiction side, the direct influence for The Jolly Roger Social Club was A Death in Brazil, by Peter Robb. Apart from Robb, Sebastian Junger and Jon Krakauer are both excellent. The late Gordon Burn was a terrific writer, and a northerner to boot. The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman is beautiful and heartfelt. Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is the best true crime book I have read in a while, and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken – the survival story to end all survival stories – has a wonderful cinematic quality.

In fiction, and off the top of my head: James Salter, Graham Greene, Richard Ford, Kazuo Ishiguro, James Joyce, Philip Roth, JM Coetzee, Peter Carey, David Szalay, William Boyd, Geoff Dyer and Tobias Wolff (I’m not a big fan of memoirs but Wolff’s are superb). Finally, I don’t read very much poetry – at least not compared to prose – but I simply cannot get enough of Philip Larkin.

Thanks Nick, and congratulations again!