Delightfully Sinister: S.M.C. Wamsteker
An Interview with S.M.C. Wamsteker
By Silver Webb
S.M.C. is the kind of writer an editor prays will submit her work. “Pests” was published in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, a story awash in spores, murder, mushrooms, and ghoulish impulses that might, after all, be perfectly natural. The intelligence and careful plotting of her story is all the more remarkable given that English is not her first language, but rather something she chose as an adult to be her form of creative expression. Coffee and water fuel this Dutch-Californian writer of sinister tales, although she admits to the occasional drop of Jack Daniels. Her zodiac signs are Cancer and Dog, virtually guaranteeing a loyal, deep-feeling friend.
Silver: Where are you from originally and how has it influenced your writing?
S.M.C.: I was born in Haarlem, a city on the outskirts of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. I’ve lived in Holland most of my life, and this undoubtedly influences my writing; not just my use of the English language, but the subject matter as well. Having said this, I’ve never considered myself very Dutch, and the first time I visited the United States it felt as if I was coming home, even if it was also a rather brutal culture shock. It felt so ‘right’ that I decided to come back and live in California for years, with the objective of becoming an actress.
Although quirky, Holland is a moderate country, and I guess I’m not. I thrive on the extremes that can be found in America, both the good and the bad, and its work ethic. I like to set almost unattainable goals for myself, and that’s not a very Dutch quality. My father, who was an internationally renowned surgeon, did show me the way, in that respect.
Silver: What do you hope people will feel like after reading your work? Are there particular emotions you hope to elicit?
S.M.C.: Not really. I hope they enjoy it, and that it’s strong enough to engross them. If people are enlightened or inspired by my work, that would be great, but I don’t mind if they’re freaked out by it. As longs as it elicits some kind emotional response. Apathy would be bad. But then again, I’m not sure if I would mind that either.
Considering my mushroom story, there is a particular sensation I was aiming for. I would call it: horrified exaltation. It’s the feeling I myself get when reading a story by Edgar Allan Poe or Roald Dahl. That delicious anticipation you feel throughout the story that something’s going to rattle you, and even though you were expecting it, when it’s finally there, it still gives you chills.
Silver: When were you first gripped by the determination to be a writer of fiction and what was the inspiration for it?
S.M.C.: Although I never realized it, or identified it as such, I’ve been writing since quite an early age. It never occurred to me that it might be something that I would do for a living, or that I was any good at it. Just a subconscious need to write down what cannot be said, something that plenty of teenagers experience, I suppose. When that need presented itself more fiercely at the time I was living in Los Angeles, I still didn’t see it as anything other than mental flatulence. Just things that needed to be expelled, that I needed to get rid of, digest. And such a wide array of madness happened when I was living in LA, there was a lot to digest. One time, as an impulsive act, I sent out a poem to a contest, and to my own astonishment, I won third prize. Later on, I discovered that the organization was one of those moneymaking scams, but that doesn’t matter. It was the spark that ignited the belief in myself as a poet and writer.
Silver: How often do you write? Are you driven to do it?
S.M.C.: Yes, the drive, or need, as I like to call it, is there. And I can’t attend to that need often enough. My two kids are a source of inspiration, new wisdom, and so much love and joy, but it’s a constant struggle to find enough time to work.
Actually, it’s not the amount of time. It’s the lack of head space; to write, you need a certain level of egocentricity, or maybe just the ability to close off all distraction. And that aspect is at odds with being a good parent. To make things worse, my standards are unnecessarily high, I’m a perfectionist, which doesn’t make me a better mother, but does occupy a significant part of my working mind.
There’s this dichotomy of wanting to give your all both to your work and to your children. It’s impossible, but I find it hard to accept that impossibility. It doesn’t help that I really like my children and love to spend time with them. Fortunately, I have an amazing husband who pulls more than his weight, so that helps; but it can’t erase this gnawing sense of having to be available all the time. On the other hand, having children is also incredibly enriching, opening up new avenues and offering many insights.
But to answer your question a bit more concretely: a good week consists of five days with three or four hours of writing each. I also get distracted easily, which I regard as both a weakness and a strength, because it’s a way I pick information from a wide variety of realms.
Silver: Where do you find inspiration for your characters?
S.M.C.: Everywhere. In daily life, on TV, in newspapers, in books, on Facebook, pictures, ads. Most of the time, however, my mind gets to work with the information received and suddenly presents me with an idea. A character can arise from a single thought.
Silver: How would friends describe your personality?
S.M.C.: I think they would say I am a loner, with whom it is hard to keep in touch. They would probably say I am opinionated and passionate and sometimes belligerent about issues that I feel strongly about, for example my conviction that there is no real difference between women and men, or homo- and heterosexuals. They would probably say I’m a libertine and a bit strange.
Silver: Are you ever satisfied with your work?
S.M.C.: Sometimes. But Doubt is always lurking. I can read some of my work and be proud of it one moment, but detest it the next. When a piece is finished, I usually don’t like reading it again. As if I have let go of it. That’s why rewrites are hard for me. When enough time passes, I often regain my appreciation for what I wrote.
Silver: What’s the wildest adventure you’ve ever been on?
S.M.C.: That’s a tough one. Experiences are almost as basic a need to me as food and drink, so I have a serious collection of adventures. I like to explore the darker, dangerous side of life, of humanity. I’m not talking skydiving, but wandering around Skid Row in Los Angeles, for example, which I did as part of the research for my novel, LA Diary or The Dark Side of The Sun. My wildest adventure would be the four years I lived in Los Angeles to become an actress; I did some crazy stuff there.
Silver: Are you in a writing group and how has it affected you?
S.M.C.: No. I am too bullheaded for it. Once, I was in a poetry workshop in Sligo, Ireland, where I attended the Yeats Summer School. We were supposed to give feedback on each other’s poetry. A guy there thought my poem was too old-fashioned, and that I should use modern language. I told him the old-fashioned tone was the whole point of that particular poem. It turned into a stormy discussion. Neither of us was right or wrong, but I decided to stop going to the workshop and this became a bit of a riot. This poet-guy even followed up on my ‘atrocious act’ by sending me a long letter that very eloquently summed up all my shortcomings.
The thing with these groups is that people feel the need to find fault with whatever is presented, even when they don’t have any criticism. You can’t just like something. They teach that in schools. As if having a critical mind means you need to criticize. I want to add that my experience with these groups in the US is different; Americans tend to be more positive and constructive. I guess Europeans are critical by nature. But I really dislike criticism for the sake of it.
Silver: Are there any particular authors that inspire you?
S.M.C.: All my life I’ve had trouble choosing, and only recently I accepted that, most of the times, I don’t need to. I admire a wide array of authors, ranging from A.M. Homes and Jonathan Frantzen to Stephen King, Jack Kerouac, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Adams, Edgar Allan Poe, Jonathan Saffran Foer, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Nathaniel Hawthorne and all the Romantics. I’m not particularly fond of Dutch literature in general; it contains a certain asceticism. I love rich, colorful and descriptive writing. Sometimes an austere writing style can work really well, but as an overall property of Dutch literature, I don’t like it.
Silver: Any forthcoming or in-progress novels, poems, books, etc.?
S.M.C.: I have a finished novel, LA Diary, or The Dark Side of the Sun, and I hope to publish it soon. In the meanwhile, I’m working on a screenplay, and researching a new novel. Three of my poems are featured in the Spring/Summer edition of literary magazine The Stray Branch.
Silver: What do you find most gratifying about writing?
S.M.C.: The moments when words or ideas come out that you never knew were there. Those moments when you feel you’re channeling something higher. When you know something needs to be written. It makes you feel insignificant but also less alone, part of something bigger. Getting lost in the story. Some people describe it as ‘being in the flow.’
Silver: Your short story had so many details about mushrooms. What kind of research did you do for that and are you a mushroom fan? Having written this story about murderous mushrooms, do you still eat mushrooms?
S.M.C.: I have always been fascinated by mushrooms, but I did quite a lot of research. I love doing research, learning new stuff, especially about natural phenomena. Sometimes I research a single word or name, it has to be perfect; it’s why I’m a slow writer.
Mushrooms are pretty amazing; they are not plants, and they are not animals. They are like earthly aliens. And yes, I still eat them. One time before my extensive research, I was in the forest with my children and saw these gorgeous porcini. I will only go for boletes, because none of the boletes are deadly poisonous. Still, the first time I picked them, I only ate them myself, after sauteing them. I waited for twenty-four hours and when I still wasn’t dead, or throwing up, I let my family eat them. They loved it. So I’m very careful when collecting wild mushrooms. But the deadliness of the poison of some of them also fascinates me; it’s creepy how the death cap works. And extremely intriguing, why does it need to be so deadly?
Silver: The lead character for your mushroom story is a very neurotic, twisted character who has a carnal relationship with mushrooms. He gripped me quite vividly, and his demise was quite satisfying. What inspired this character and how did he evolve?
S.M.C.: Well, some parts of him came out of me. Being around other people is something I like at times, but it inevitably draws energy from me. I once heard someone’s definition of extrovert and introvert people: extroverts get energy from being around other people and introverts get energy from being alone. The latter is definitely true for me. So I can relate to someone being a hermit, although I don’t think I would ever be one.
His lust for mushrooms is rather deviant. Personally, I’m not sexually attracted to anything non-human, but it seems to me that something you love so much, which you dedicate all your time to, could also evoke physical sensations, especially when a ‘normal’ sexuality is absent. The cap of a newly emerged bolete does feel like velvet.
Many of the Latin names for mushrooms are suggestive of the sexual organs of humans, like Amanita Phalloides (meaning phallus-shaped). And, as the name indicates, they resemble them: some look like human vulvas and many have a phallic shape, especially when just emerged. I tried to create a twisted character that the reader could nonetheless feel sympathy for; to me, his wife seems quite aggravating at times.
Creating him, I was inspired by a short story by Roald Dahl, called Royal Jelly. I read it in high school and it made a lasting impression on me.
Silver: I don't believe English is your first language, yet it is the language you prefer to write in and you do it very well. How does the language influence your writing style?
S.M.C.: Since late childhood I’ve had a special relationship with English: my best friend and I used to play games in English. One of the best teachers I ever had was my English teacher in high school. He’s also a published writer.
Many Dutch people are critical of my choice for writing in a language that is not my mother tongue. In the US this really isn’t that uncommon, although most non-native speakers who write in English do live in an English speaking environment, which I don’t. Not at the moment, at least. My decision to write in English was hardly a conscious one; it was sprung upon me while living in Los Angeles.
I am very aware that it makes me an easier prey for people looking for mistakes. I sometimes purposely neglect to mention my nationality, simply because I don’t want to give people an extra reason for scrutinizing my English. I’m extremely meticulous when I write, and this is especially true for when I write in English. I can get physically unwell at discovering I made a mistake that I haven’t taken out. A couple of lives ago, when I wanted to be an actress, I knew I could only be an English-speaking one. I regard English as my creative language. It’s the language I paint with, where Dutch serves more pragmatic purposes.
Silver: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!
You can find her story "Pests" in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal.