We published a story called Rus and the Letter in our eighth issue. It’s a deceptively simple little tale full of well-observed wit from Dutch author and artist Bette Adriaanse. We catch up with Bette just as her first novel, Rus Like Everyone Else, is published by LA-based Unnamed Press.
Have you always written and created art in parallel with one another?
Yes. At The Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam I studied at the Image and Language department, and I developed both my writing and my visual work. Now I always describe myself as ‘a writer and an artist’ but actually there are very little boundaries between the two for me. I have a lot of ideas, some work better as a story, others should become drawings, sculptures, or combination.
My novel Rus Like Everyone Else is made up of short scenes. The whole book existed as a sequence of images in my mind. I made a series of drawings that were going to be part of it, but in the end the writing created all the images in the mind of the reader.
It’s good for me to work on my visual art alongside my writing. There’s a Dutch writer who said something like ‘being a writer is like being an opposite athlete’. It is bad for your body, all this sitting and thinking. For drawings and sculptures you also need to concentrate but it is more physical, your hands and your eyes do most of the work.
How did you hear about Structo? Through the Oxford MA?
When I started doing the Master in Creative Writing at Oxford University, I spent a lot of time reading British literary magazines. Structo stood out to me because the writing was of high quality, but it was also very diverse. Structo has an eye for stories that have something new and unusual, but are still good stories that engage the reader. Those kind of stories excite me as a writer.
Where did Rus come from?
Rus is the main character of my first novel Rus Like Everyone Else. He is a young man who has grown up in an illegally built home on the roof of an apartment block. He was home-schooled by his mother, and after she left he lived a quiet, dreamy life, oblivious to the modern city around him, using his mother’s debit card to go to the Starbucks and the supermarket. Then, he receives a tax bill and he wakes up to ‘the real world’, and has to start taking part in it.
The character of Rus originates from a feeling of wonder and bewilderment at everyday life, the feeling of being an outsider. I have always had that feeling, and it means you become extremely aware of what other people are doing, you constantly wonder why they are doing these things, you wonder why you don’t want to do it, and what is expected of you.
In the book I have fun with this. Rus is an outsider and he questions normal events and requirements. When you put a magnifying glass on everyday life, it becomes absurd, and funny.
In the book, I have tried to create a collection of viewpoints on modern life, what we tell ourselves about our society and how to live in it, the ways we comfort ourselves and what we believe is normal and real. There are a lot of things that aren’t real about the real world.
We published a section of Rus Like Everyone Else back in issue eight. Your search for a publisher has not been a typical one—why did you go with Unnamed Press in the end?
When I first set out to find an agent and publisher, I made a list of what the qualities my ideal publisher would have. I was hoping I would end up with an internationally oriented publisher who published high-quality and remarkable fiction, loved my book and would promote it well. Also, it would be good if they were nice people.
Later I realized making this list was a very optimistic move. Eventually I found a great agent who really believed in the book, but it wasn’t easy to find a publisher. The book was difficult to pitch, because it has so many characters, and it takes place in a kind of layered reality. Many publishers were afraid to ‘take the plunge’.
Then came a request from Unnamed Press in LA to read the book. One of their editors had heard me read. It turned out that Unnamed Press is exactly the publisher I was hoping for when I made that list. They publish writers from all over the world. Their list is full of brilliant novels that are in some way different from the rest and capture the time we live in a way that hasn’t been done before, like Escape from Baghdad and Nigerians in Space. They are very thoughtful about every step of the publishing process. The design of Rus Like Everyone Else looks amazing, it suits the content so well. Also, they are nice people. I am very grateful and proud to be one of their authors.
I hear novel number two has been sent to your agent. Can you tell us anything about it?
The new novel is about a man named Louis, who lives in an apartment in London. One evening, a man rings his doorbell, he says he used to live in Louis’ apartment, and would like to have a look around. The man gets injured and has to stay the night, and over the following days, Louis finds himself unable to kick him out. When the man reveals that he believes the apartment should belong to him, a miniature war unfolds in the home.
The visitor finds allies in the neighbours who, as it turns out, never liked Louis, while Louis takes advice from an anarchist lawyer who is specialized in Outer Space Law, and from a shopkeeper who believes you should be loyal to a few but brutal to the rest. Louis tries to find an ally in his illegal cleaning lady, but she turns out to be a very different person than he expected her to be.
The novel is about belonging, inheritance and possession and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are entitled to. It’s also about what happens when you put two people in a small space, who are each other’s opposites.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am preparing for the promotion tour of Rus Like Everyone Else, which will take place in January. There is actually not much I can do to prepare, but I am going to drive through the Midwest, to cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, and it can get really cold over there so I have been googling things like ‘At what temperature do your eyeballs freeze?’ (They don’t, really.)
Having finished the second book I am now in a very exciting phase, I have time to develop the new ideas that have been popping up in my head over the past years. I’m writing down bits of dialogue, setting up new drawings. It is my favourite part of the process.
Find out more about Bette and her writing at her website: www.betteadriaanse.nl