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 Recommends – Jeanie Keogh

BWRJeaniePhoto

BWC Recommends is a segment asking our members to talk about their favourite literary meals. Those paragraphs that are so rich they take a while to digest, that packet of word crisps you put in the cupboard but keep going back for until the whole thing is empty, that comforting poetry soup you heat up when you’re not feeling well. What is it about these novels, plays or poems that makes them so delicious?

This time we’re talking with BWC member Jeanie Keogh. Jeanie’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in the Canadian literary magazines Riddle Fence, Broken Pencil, Grain, FreeFall, Room, and The Puritan. Her play Baby Making was produced by Thought Bubble Theatre and staged at both The Geordie Theatre in Montreal, Quebec, and The Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, Ontario as part of the Summerworks’ theatre festival. She has completed degrees in creative writing, journalism and theatre. On this side of the Atlantic, she currently works as an editor for a press agency and is the fashion and travel writer for Together magazine.

What are your five favourite books (or poems or plays)?

I can’t answer questions like this without feeling seriously muzzled and tranquilized so I’ll cheat and list my top favourite contemporary fiction reads in the past two years.

In the long fiction category: ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver and ‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride.

In the short fiction collection category: ‘Better Living Through Plastic Explosives’ by Zsuzsi Gartner, ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You’ by Miranda July, and ‘This Cake is For the Party’ by Sarah Selecky.

We would never try to muzzle you Jeanie, and we so rarely tranquilize people. Choosing one book from the list above, can you tell us what you found tastiest about it?

Cheating again. I’m choosing two. I’d have to say Shriver’s bravery in taking on such a daring subject in ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ and doing so from such a controversial point of view. From a socio-political standpoint, it was a story that needed to be told and was so unapologetically. Reading her feels like being in freefall with no parachute.

And ‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride reads like the voices you hear in dreams. The tone is lone Yo-Yo Ma cello meets Nirvana. Her style is brutally raw, the plot is take-no-prisoners, her characters are headed from the first page toward a train wreck end.

Who is your favourite writer? Why do you like him/her?

There is nothing that Joseph Boyden could write that I wouldn’t read. Same for Ali Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, David Mitchell and Jose Saramago. Wow, I’m really not following rules here….

Cracking the spines of these books, you know you’re in for a good literary ride. Personally, I have a sense that I’m going to close the book a changed being, or at the very least, my perception of “the way things are” will have radically shifted. In each, you learn something about the human condition you didn’t know before. What they all have in common is their ability to write characters so complex and well-defined that even the most unsympathetic ones are people whose motivations you understand and can even feel compassion towards. Not to mention they tackle subjects head on in a way that makes the reader come to realisations about themselves that even the best psychologist could never unveil.

Eddie Murphy once said, “Anything you have to acquire a taste for was not meant to be eaten.” Have you ever forced yourself to read something because you were told it was ‘good for you’? If yes, what did you learn from this experience? If no, tell us about a book that you hated.

I read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert because I was sick of telling people why I would never read it and how I didn’t need to read more than twenty pages to know how terrible it was.

What put me off the book was that it was shelved as literary fiction in the bookstore rather than as well-written self-help. Beyond that, the premise bemoaning the broken-hearted, well-off American woman in search of herself while travelling seemed a bit thin and there didn’t seem to me to be much in the way of suspense, unless you belong to the first-world problems set.

Then I watched a TED talk featuring her and she didn’t seem like a totally pretentious self-help charlatan after all. As much as she is a one-hit literary wonder, the book was not as egregious as I thought it was going to be. And it withstood my initial scathingly critical and biased attitude towards it.