Still only in his mid-thirties, Dutch writer and historian Daan Heerma van Voss has already produced a large body of critically acclaimed work, with a reputation for taking on big topics and forensically examining society’s relationship with its past.
“The only thing I tend to do is follow my curiosity and that can go in any direction sometimes, and I don’t really concern myself with what it is, what the genre is. I raise questions, try to find answers,” Heerma van Voss said, ahead of his appearance at the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival.
“And sometimes that results in an article for a newspaper or magazine, and sometimes that results in a nonfiction work, and mostly in novels. That’s remains my favourite genre.”
As a young history student, he “felt trapped by the confines of the truth … I was writing essays about historic periods or people that interested me, or didn’t interest me. I felt like I was writing in a very confined way. I was writing what other people, my teachers, wanted me to write and say.”
He first made a name for himself as a writer when at 23 he embarked on a project to interview several elderly Dutch writers, and on a few occasions he did the last interview with famous literary personalities. The interview series got a lot of attention and he won a major award for his work.
But he quickly realised that the realm of fiction could offer him more latitude as a writer.
“For me, literature and fiction has always been a means to escape, to feel totally free. For me fiction is the only domain in which I feel totally free. So, literature is for me the normal path to finding more and more freedom,” he said.
His most recent novel, The Last War, has been a major hit around the world and is published in China by the Guangzhou-based Flower City Press.
“It started with a preoccupation, or a fascination of mine, about history and how it affects or does not affect the present. And it slowly turned into a story. That’s normally how it goes with me, I ponder these large questions and they become more and more concrete, and in the end there’s a story.”
Heerma van Voss said he was struck by the fact that in the 1990s people around him rarely talked about the Second World War or the Holocaust, “but when I was in my twenties, as political tensions around the world rose, the Second World War, instead of slipping away, it came to the forefront again in the rhetoric of certain populist politicians, in the way we responded to large crises – such as the migration crisis – and with the advent of the Alt-right. Even though our basic knowledge was getting smaller and smaller, so that tension was for me very interesting.”
The protagonist in his book is obsessed with doing the right thing by the standards of the 1940s or the 1950s but trying to implement them in the present, Heerma van Voss said.
“So, it’s a sort of a moral expedition into the lessons of good and evil, which we were taught, and finding out whether they have any worth in today’s world.”
Although the novel is his preferred genre, he has spent the last two years working on a nonfiction title about fear and anxiety, looking at “how you know what it is, how it works”.
He describes the research period as being very difficult and challenging, where for more than a year he read everything and anything about fear and anxiety he could lay his hands on – philosophically, medically, biologically – before moving to the phase where he felt he could start framing a narrative.
In his own native Holland, for instance, one million people out of a population of 17 million have anxiety disorders, so one of the main questions he is examining is its prevalence and how the philosophical concept of fear changed into a medical condition in the Western world.
The topic is a very personal one for Heerma van Voss “because I’ve been very fearful and anxiety-ridden for a long, long time, even when I was a child”.
“So, it’s a strange mixture of essay, memoir, classic nonfiction and the quest to find out how it became a disease. Yeah, just what happened there. And it is a very, very big question, but it’s becoming more and more confined, condensed now. I’m sort of finding out my narrative,” he said. “It’s basically my own relationship with fear and that’s the basis. And then I have all these digressions in science and political theory. It’s a weird combination of genres, it’s a hybrid form which I like, but I’m not sure yet how that will come over.”
Looking back on his body of work to date, he says he has a tendency to tackle the larger topics – from genocide to racism to fear and anxiety – rather than on small and concentrated stories, which he feels goes some way to explaining why his work has been picked up all over the world.
Deeply rooted in historic research, his writing has been shaped by the fact he felt he was growing up at a point where two time periods met, “the tension between past and present, between memories and ideas of the present, or acts in the present”.
“Partly it’s just a deep-rooted sense of trying to capture the past before we forget it. And, of course, that’s a tragic desire because it can’t be done, and when you focus all your energy on conserving the present or the past you are not fully present in the moment. So that’s something I always try to have to come to terms with,” he said.
“So, it’s partly a very personal desire to try and save as much of the present or past as we can. And it’s partly a real concern about how different societies all around the world, in which direction they are headed right now.”
As a prolific and critically acclaimed young writer, Heerma van Voss is often asked for career advice from other young writers. He feels that a sense of independence, freedom and writing are deeply intertwined, and his advice to other writers is seek it out where they can find it.
“Seek freedom wherever you can. When the margins are small, use those margins,” he said. “The more freedom you feel, the better your writing will become.”