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Craving Solitude In 'Ten White Geese'

Feb 23, 2013
Originally published on February 23, 2013 6:40 pm

Gerbrand Bakker's new international best-seller, Ten White Geese, opens with a mysterious woman alone on a Welsh farm. Humiliated by an affair with a student, she turns up alone at the farm, looking for nothing and no one. She answers to the name Emily, but that is actually the first name of the American poet about whom she is writing her doctoral dissertation. Her husband has no idea where she is.

"She's trying to make the best of it, and she tries to be alone. But as you and I know and everybody knows, it is virtually impossible to be alone in these times," Bakker tells NPR's Jacki Lyden.

The search for solitude is just one theme in this mysterious — and often menacing — story. The woman is haunted by the memory of who she once was, and the farm seems to be giving her a chance at reclaiming her health and strength.

Then, all around her, things start to happen in the natural world that remind her of her own mortality. The white geese that live on her farm begin to disappear, one by one, and she cannot save them.

Bakker talks with Lyden about the novel and the escape for solitude.


Interview Highlights

On escaping distraction to write

"I don't know if a lot of people realize this, but for a writer these days, it's horrible. Cellphones are horrible for us because people know things about each other all the time."

On writing about the connected world

"It is more and more impossible to not know things about other people. And a lot of plot-driven books, and especially thrillers, are based upon people not knowing things. ... I find it a curse."

On writing in the voice of a woman

"I am a strange man, maybe, but I think that there is no fundamental difference between men and women. A lot of people would say otherwise, perhaps."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. The Smiths were one of the most iconic bands of the '80s. Later, my conversation with the band's legendary guitarist, Johnny Marr.

First, though, a mysterious Dutch woman, humiliated by an affair with a student, turns up on a remote Welsh farm. She answers to the name Emily, but that's actually the first name of the American poet about whom she's writing her PhD. Her husband has no idea where she is. This is the opening of Gerbrand Bakker's new international best seller called "Ten White Geese."

GERBRAND BAKKER: She's trying to make the best of it, and she tries to be alone. But, as you and I and everybody knows, it is virtually impossible to be alone in these times.

LYDEN: The search for solitude is just one theme in this mysterious and often menacing story. The woman is haunted by the memory of who she once was, and the farm seems to be giving her a chance at reclaiming her health and strength. Then, all around her, things start to happen in the natural world that remind her of her own mortality. The white geese who live on her farm begin to disappear one by one, and she can't save them. And then one day, something breaks the woman's solitude.

BAKKER: One day, a young boy - 18, 19 years old - jumps over her garden fence, and he's together with his dog, Sam. And I always like animals in books. Animals are very important to me as a character as well. And this boy, he doesn't really say who he is, and he is very double-sided, you know? You could say that he's an angel of death, but you could also say that he's an angel of love or whatever. And they develop, like, a sort of love-hate relationship. And then the husband finally finds out where she is, and he and a policeman he befriends board a ferry to Hull on the day before Christmas, and they get closer and closer.

LYDEN: I love what you said a moment ago about it's really hard to be alone, because she's really trying, and it gets increasingly sort of noisy, if you will, around the farm. And there's something about the fact, though, that you have here a protagonist, a heroine, if you will, she doesn't have email, she's left her cell phone on the ferry, nobody else has a cell phone, and it's so quiet.

BAKKER: I don't know if a lot of people realize this, but, you know, for a writer these days, it's horrible. Cell phones are horrible for us because the thing is people know things about each other all the time, you know, by WhatsApping, by sending text messages, by Facebook, by Twitter. It is more and more impossible to, you know, not know things about other people.

And a lot of, you know, plot-driven books, and especially thrillers, are based upon people not knowing things. So it's really - it's - I find it a curse, you know, these cellphones, because you always have to, like, for instance, in this book, I had to, at a certain point, think of, you know, where she would have lost or left her cellphone. It's horrible. In that sense, you know, I wished I was a novelist maybe, you know, 50 or 80 years ago.

LYDEN: It's a beautiful book, Gerbrand, and you've set it in this moody landscape. But let's get down to your character. Who is the woman who calls herself Emily?

BAKKER: She's a woman that teaches - or maybe you had better say taught - at the University of Amsterdam. And she is - or was - working on a thesis about Emily Dickinson.

LYDEN: The first thing that happens is she gets bitten by a badger.

BAKKER: Yeah. That's strange, yeah. And nobody believes her. She goes to the general practitioner in the little town, and he doesn't believe her. Nobody believes her. And I think that's something that's in all the characters in the book. Everybody is maybe - or maybe not - lying.

LYDEN: Well, let's take a look at the poem that is beside her bedside. Sometimes she doesn't write much while she's at this remote farmhouse, but she is a Dickinson scholar, and you have one poem here. I love it. I had not read this poem. Could you read it for us?

BAKKER: (Reading) Ample make this bed. Make this bed with awe. In it, wait till judgment break excellent and fair. Be its mattress straight, be its pillow round. Let no sunrise yellow noise interrupt this ground.

That's it. You know, it's a very short but mysterious poem. I think maybe it is really one of the reasons for me to write this book, to try to really understand, to really feel this poem.

LYDEN: When you think about this poem today and think about the theme of mortality, which exists in this novel - I was just sort of adding it up in "Ten White Geese" - Emily Dickinson, of course, is dead, although the conversation keeps going on with her. At one point, Emily, our character, says to her: It's easy for you. Life is easy for you because you're dead.

The cottage has been rented from a woman who is dead and whose presence she senses. The doctor she goes to see is smoking himself to death. You play with this whole idea here of, what if I wasn't here? What if I just dropped out of existence right now and ran away and joined the circus, but there's no circus.

BAKKER: That's a very relaxing thought, right? Tempting. What I realize now is that in the time that I was writing this book, I was building up to a huge depression without realizing it. Even when I was in the middle of this depression, I did not know what was happening to me. I had angst - the angst with a capital A - fear. It was horrible. And I think this is also, you know, in the book. It's almost like a sort of exorcism of, you know, things I was feeling and experiencing at that time - 2009, 2010 - that I was trying to get rid of.

LYDEN: Was it difficult to write in the voice of Emily? Was it difficult to be this woman and this sort of middle-aged woman here?

BAKKER: No, not at all. I am a strange man, maybe, but I think that there is no fundamental difference between men and women. A lot of people would say otherwise, perhaps. But there were certain physical things that I had some problems with. But, you know, my mother is still alive. I have friends, girlfriends, my sister was very helpful. And that's something you can ask them. But I don't really think there is such a big difference between men and women.

LYDEN: Gerbrand Bakker joined us from Amsterdam. Thank you so much.

BAKKER: You're very, very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.