‘The Dinner’: A Deliciously Appetizing Look into a Parental Nightmare: A Conversation with Author Herman Koch
GALO: Without revealing too much about the novel, the plot deals with a very specific act that has been surfacing in the media in recent years, pertaining to young adults, almost as if your novel is playing with the cliché saying “art imitates life or life imitates art.” Was it your intention to bring awareness to certain societal issues, especially in terms of homelessness, teenagers and violence, mental illness, as well as the difficulties of parenting when creating your characters and story? In other words, were you making a statement on those elements and on the violence that surrounds young people today?
HK: I was only trying to bring some awareness of the politically correct ways in which we view the homeless or the adopted children from Africa in general. Young people have been violent in all ages. Only a hundred years ago they went singing to the front in the First World War. That they seem no longer prepared to do this kind of thing, I see as progress — even if we have to pay the price for this in the form of some violence on the streets.
GALO: When reading the novel, many readers might find that it is a great basis for a play (it even reads like one with the various sections it is divided into, despite there not being that much dialogue involved). I remember reading someplace that the novel is in fact going to be turned into a theatre production in Holland and Germany. Can you tell us a little about this in terms of your hopes for the stage adaptation both as an author and as a former actor, how you’d like the characters to be presented — especially the character of Paul — and whether or not you’re involved in the production in any way yourself?
HK: Yes, there are about four or five stage adaptions so far. I only saw the one here in the Netherlands. I tried not to be involved and let the director and actors have complete freedom. So, I didn’t have a lot of hopes either. So far my conclusion is that it is really a book and not a play, although it looks like it from the outside.
GALO: Many critics have compared your novel to Roman Polanski’s film Carnage due to the fact that both plots center around two sets of families discussing their children’s criminal acts, and the actions that ought to be taken. What are your thoughts on this comparison (and how do you feel the two stories are similar/different?), especially since the novel has been adapted to film in the Dutch language and is scheduled to be released sometime in 2013?
HK: Yes, I saw the similarity and I liked the movie. The big difference is that the children here haven’t done anything serious. In the end, we see that they have already made peace while their parents are still fighting. But there are no moral issues at stake, like in The Dinner. I have seen a rough version of the movie that will come out here. I liked it a lot. The morality issues are treated differently than in the book, but in a way I found it very original and satisfying. There actually is more of a morale in the movie than in the book. Like with the plays, I let the director have complete freedom of making his own movie.
GALO: In an interview with the UK blog Café Babel, you expressed that your first novel is no different in quality than The Dinner, with the only difference being that it “cost [you] a lot more to write it.” Moreover, you stated that you found yourself stuck on countless occasions without an idea on how to take the story further until you poured yourself a glass or two of whisky. In fact, many artists and writers have found that mild alcohol use can stimulate creativity (there have even been studies done on this admission in recent years). What difficulties did you encounter when writing this novel and how did you overcome them, and what emotions did you feel while writing, whether in relation to the plot, the characters, or the act of writing itself?
HK: When I am stuck today, I go running five miles. Somebody remarked recently that in the 21st century there are probably more writers who are long distance runners than there are writers who are alcoholics. Since I don’t plot in advance, I am sometimes literally stuck in the sense of: what happens next? Twenty years ago, I went crazy trying to find the solution the same day. Nowadays, I know that the best solution is to let it rest till the next day. Try to see it in a fresh light. One of the advantages of getting older is that the next morning I might even have forgotten what the problem was in the first place.
GALO: Since The Dinner, you have published several other novels, including a story about a family doctor who isn’t interested in his patients or profession until a certain telling event occurs. Are there any plans for this novel as well as your previous or forthcoming ones to be translated into English, so that readers in America can continue to enjoy your stories (perhaps even self-publishing or through independent publishers if a major publisher doesn’t catch on)? Have you also considered writing a novel purely in English, being fluent in the language yourself?
HK: Actually, the next novel, about the family doctor, will be published at the end of summer/beginning of autumn 2014 in both the UK and the US. After that, we can have a look at the older books. But I am also finishing a new book which will be published here in spring 2014. And no, I don’t think I am fluent enough to write a novel purely in English.
GALO: The novel is quite unsettling and makes you think (and question): “who really are those people who live around me, who I pass on the street, and who I work with on a day to day basis — what secrets are they hiding.” Where did the idea for this novel stem from and why did you decide to pursue it?
HK: My first original idea came from an aspect of the real event: the boys who were molesting a homeless person looked so nice, so normal. They are ruining their lives in five minutes, was my first thought. And in that moment I realized I was identifying with them, not with their victim.
Featured image: Author of “The Dinner,” Herman Koch. Photo Credit: © Mark Kohn, Hollandse Hoogte.