Name: Isabelle Wéry
Occupation: Author, actress, theatre director
Current publication: Isabelle Wéry's latest publication Lily-Jane explose is out on ONLIT Editions.
Recommendations: Listen to the music Man O To by the Iranian Berliner DJ NU.
Read Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by the genius Chinese writer from the 17thC Pu Songling.
If you enjoyed this interview with Isabelle Wéry, visit the website of her publisher ONLIT Editions for more information about her work.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about literature and writing that drew you to it?
I really fell under the spell of poetry when I was 8 years old while reading the poem Le dormeur du val (The Sleeper in the Valley) by Arthur Rimbaud. Since that time, I have a strong link to books, literature, poetry and bookshops. I began to write long letters to my friends, that was my first step. After that, I wrote my first theatre piece Death of the Pig and since then, I’ve never stopped writing.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I have been performing in the theatre since I was very young. I have studied writing through my experience as an actress and theatre director, through that particular relationship to text. Learning by heart and acting Shakespeare and Bertold Brecht was fundamental. They are wonderful playwrights and storytellers. They are free in their form and style. They also have a strong sense of music and rhythm. These experiences have given me a very good background and still influence my own creativity. I'm also very influenced by the Belgian and French Surrealist authors. Their freedom in their art guides and inspires me.
What were your main writing challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When I began to write, I was so impressed by all that had already been written, I was totally shy. I wondered if I could dare to start the process of writing, if I had enough “pretention” to write, and minimally, I needed to experiment with something “new”, something creative. I still hold myself to that challenge.
What does writing mean to you personally? What is expressed through literature and poetry that cannot be expressed through other forms of art?
Literature is the wonderful art of whispering stories in the mind of the reader. It is an intimate relationship. I adore that. And really, literature is a visual art. It is about painting images for the readers with only words. That's one of the reasons why I'm so fascinated by writing books and reading books. It is an art where the imagination of the reader is trained intensively.
As a writer, I really feel free to practice anywhere, anytime. Books travel easily. They are eternal. This is a hugely positive aspect for me.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
Writing is a matter of balancing all of those elements. All of them are linked. Every piece of writing must find its own coherence. But the starting point is the subject of the text and you have to find which style and which form will be the most suitable to translate this subject into literature.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Actually, when I had my first cell phone, it really changed my writing. The "texting style" can be really creative and explodes the relationship to language. It opened doors in my imagination and allowed me to be "rude" towards "classical French language".
In my writing process, the only technology I use is my computer. First, I write by hand, letting my hands and my body write and dance with the pencil and paper. After that, I transcribe it onto the computer. This is an important phase where I correct and structure the text.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My whole life is dedicated to art (literature and theatre). I have no children and I work the whole day from 10am to 10pm, going from one task to another. I write a lot at home. My bed is my favourite office.
That state between being asleep and dreaming is very propitious to have ideas for writing. I'm very influenced by David Lynch and his practice of meditation in his writing process (he explains this wonderfully in his book Catching the Big Fish). I write when I dream, when I swim, when I run, when I take a sauna ...
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how did you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
My novel Marilyn désossée (Marilyn Deboned) was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. This book has been translated into 10 European languages. I wrote it during a period of 12 years! At the beginning, I just wanted to write the story of a young girl who is convinced that relationships will be one of most fundamental elements of her life. I let my imagination fly. And this story became more and more surreal, full of animals with human aspects, human bodies with various genders ... I wrote it in a really crazy state of mind, exploring the limits of language. The result was a piece of work that I hadn't expected. It really escaped my control. But it was impossible for the readers to understand. Then I began to sculpt it. It took me years to decrypt that jungle-text.
Today, different audiences across the world tell me how many contemporary subjects are in this book: feminism, queerness, homosexuality, polyamory, relations with animals, freedom of speech and sexuality.
Writing Marilyn Deboned was such a journey! I still don't understand what really happened. The subconscious is so puzzling.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
I travel a lot. It’s vital to my writing. It's my gasoline. I need to live intensely and experience new sensations. I need to observe and catch new images. And, of course, I'm reading a lot, doing research, watching movies, going to exhibitions.
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
In my writing process, I go back and forth between periods of conscious planning and moments of subconscious inspiration, between improvisation and composition. The going back and forth from one to another is key for me. I am really curious about the powerful images that my subconscious sends to me and how they could, possibly, fit into my plan. Writing is like the work of an architect. We have to build an imaginary world that has its own coherence. This is hard work.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
For me, music is key to enter in the ideal state of mind because it stimulates my brain and my body. My thoughts are dancing. As I write surrealistic stories, it really helps me.
What are the most important conclusions you've drawn from the changes in the publishing landscape? How do they affect your writing? What role do social media play for your approach?
As I'm writing "experimental" literature in French, it is still hard to find publishing houses that dare to publish it. Mainly, French-speaking publishers are still very classical and don't take many risks. It's about money; their approach is primarily commercial. I feel a bit like I am being "censored".
Fortunately, there are publishers in Belgium, such as Onlit Editions that promote "creative literature." But Belgium is a very small market. You can't earn enough money through selling books.
I use social media only for the promotion of my work. It has a lot of impact on my audience. It's very useful. But I don't publish on social media.
Literature works with sense impressions in a different way than the other arts. How do you use them in your writing? From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Writing is a very physical experience, an experience of the body. While writing, all my senses are very open. I need a kind of "trance state" to write, like an actress entering into the body of a character. I need a particular kind of concentration in order to deeply enter into the images that I want to translate into words. I'm obsessed by images. That's the most important part of my work. I'm trying to build particular images that will impact the imagination of the reader. It's the stuff of poetry. To give the reader a physical sensation with words.
Maybe vision is the sense that is the most important in my work. That's why I travel a lot. I need to see the world, to receive new sensations and information.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I trained as an actress in Belgium at INSAS, a school that is very socially and politically engaged. I have played many strong authors such as Shakespeare, Brecht, Ensler (The Vagina Monologues). I am very conscious of the power of books. Books can be weapons and can impact people's lives. That’s why they are censored in many countries. So, I'm writing stories with many layers of social content: gender, freedom of speech and sexuality, feminism ... But I try to do it in a subtle way. My books are not theses with obvious messages. They are contemporary tales with characters behaving with a certain freedom. I want the reader's imagination to be free.
Despite the radical experiments of the 20th century, the basic concept of writing and storytelling is still intact. Do you have a vision of literature, an idea of what it could be beyond its current form?
I observed in China that many people are reading literature on their cell phones during their long journeys by metro or train. Many writers are self-published, have huge audiences and earn their livelihood in this way. I think that in megacities, this will continue to expand, especially with the Covid-19 crisis.
Here in Brussels, one of my passions is to create performances mixing literature and the stage. How to give the audience a taste for books. How to put a book on the stage. In Brussels, you can really see that audiences are waiting for performances that mix music, text and visual arts as a prolongation of the experience of reading.