the gentlewoman

Reader of the Month

Bianca Stigter is one of the foremost cultural critics and historical writers in her native country the Netherlands. A former editor of the Dutch national newspaper NRC Handelsblad, for over two decades Bianca ensured that its 200,000 daily readers were served an enriching artistic digest until she left last December to pursue her own research projects, at last. These may have to wait just a little bit longer, however. The success of the film 12 Years A Slave, directed by her partner Steve McQueen, has meant that she’s had to concentrate more on dresses than discourse of late. But her part in finding the source novel is opening Bianca’s work up to wider attention. In some downtime between award ceremonies, Penny Martin met Bianca at her home in Amsterdam.

Bianca Stigter

Penny: Do you think Amsterdam’s a good city for writers?

Bianca: Well it is for me. A lot of my work centres on the Second World War and that period of Amsterdam’s history is so interesting. Plus I’ve never really lived anywhere else so it’s difficult to compare. It’s actually quite a compact city. Being somewhere like London, where Steve’s from, always makes me feel quite provincial; it’s so big. In the Netherlands if you travelled as far to work as you might in London, you’d be in Belgium.

P: How long did you work at NRC Handelsblad?

B: For a long time; since the beginning of the ’90s. I was one of the editors of its weekly arts supplement, which was incredibly time-consuming. All my other projects would always get put on the long finger as a result – tomorrow, tomorrow, and then three years later, it would still be tomorrow. So last December I decided to leave. I’ll keep writing for the newspaper, but now I’ve more time for research.

P: Are you a fast writer?

B: I can be; I worked at it for so long. But I’m not a particularly efficient typist. I still use two fingers. Thank God for spellcheckers!

P: Did you never want to learn to touch type?

B: Not really. I think too slowly for touch typing to be of any benefit to me.

P: Everyone enjoys the research bit, of course, but do you find the writing part pleasurable?

B: I always find the moment before I start writing very pleasurable. I think, “Yes! I’m going to say this and that is so interesting, this is so beautiful.” I get really passionate about the material.

P: Do you have any writing rituals?

B: Smoking a lot of cigarettes.

P: Do you miss the camaraderie of working on a newspaper desk?

B: Well, a lot of my own projects involve archival work so I spend a lot of time on my own, which I don’t particularly enjoy but it’s a sacrifice you have to make. And the idea of working in a library has its own romance, I suppose.

P: It was you who found the book 12 Years A Slave, wasn’t it?

B: Yes, I found it in 2009.

P: Are you surprised by the reaction the film has received?

B: No, I’m very happy about it. Steve isn’t a very experienced researcher so I offered to help him. He was working on a story about a kidnapped free man and I suggested he look at a true account of slavery. I read about 20 books and Solomon Northup’s one really stood out – it’s completely amazing. From the first page, I couldn’t put it down – it visualises history in an incredible way once you get used to the somewhat grandiose literary style of the 19th century. I went to Steve and said, “This is a film script already.”

P: Would you consider adapting a book yourself?

B: A screenplay? Probably not, otherwise I would’ve done it already. Saying that, a book that I wrote in 2005, Occupied City, might be developed into an app, if we can find the funding. The book is a guide to where everything happened in Amsterdam during the Second World War so the app combines those maps and that information with GPS technology to tell you exactly what occurred on a particular street.

P: For the whole of Amsterdam?

B: Yes, the entire city, but remember during the War it was still quite small. A group of history students from VU University Amsterdam are currently inputting all the information onto a Google map, which I’m pleased about. Otherwise I’d have to do it all myself.

P: I notice Steve’s been assiduous about crediting you in his speeches at the awards ceremonies. In fact, there’s been so much press about you in connection with the film, are you concerned about keeping your own identity as a writer and not becoming “Mrs Steve McQueen”?

B: Actually, it’s nicer now because I have a production credit in this movie. With Hunger and Shame it was a little more difficult because I had a lot of input to those, but it wasn’t acknowledged officially. That can make you feel like you’re not part of it and yet you still have to go to all the events. Whereas before I felt a bit of a “wife of”, now I feel like I’ve made a contribution.

P: Does it all cost you a fortune in red-carpet dresses?

B: Thankfully, Prada have been very kind in providing me with dresses for the awards ceremonies. I’m just talking to them about what to wear to the Oscars.

P: Has the success of the film brought pressure on the pair of you to relocate to the US?

B: Not really. Maybe for Steve but I don’t think he wants to go. Our children are here at school so it’s just not going to happen. Plus Amsterdam’s really worked for us both so far.

P: When we first launched The Gentlewoman, I spent quite a bit of time here in Amsterdam and I really noticed the benefit of being away from the intensity of a major creative city like London, New York or LA. Maybe it’s nicer to keep that sense of excitement you have as an outsider looking in.

B: I feel like an outsider everywhere. But isn’t that the role of a writer, to remember what you need to explain?

Interview by Penny Martin. Portrait by Tessa Posthuma de Boer. Penny met Bianca while in Amsterdam for the always smashing annual Fantastic Man / Gentlewoman get-together. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!