Sunday, August 6, 2023

Q&A with Bridget van der Zijpp


Photo by Jessie Casson



Bridget van der Zijpp is the author of the new novel I Laugh Me Broken. Her other books include the novel Misconduct. She is based in New Zealand.


Q: What inspired you to write I Laugh Me Broken, and how did you create your character Ginny?


A: I was initially intrigued by the idea of how difficult it is to face up to big truths in our lives, and the justifications we might create for ourselves for the sake of self-preservation.


In I Laugh Me Broken Ginny discovers that she’s at risk of an inherited degenerative disease and needs to decide if she will take the genetic test that will reveal if she has it. She is about to get married, and instead runs away to Berlin to think about how she will cope if the test turns out to be positive and she is facing a physical and mental decline. Might it be better not to know?


She also has the slightly wonky idea in the back of her mind that by not telling her fiancé the reason she ran away she might be potentially saving him from the obligation of marrying her – and perhaps that is the greater act of love.


Most people’s immediate response to this kind of dilemma is that they say they would want to take the genetic test, but before I started this novel I had a part-time writing job at the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand so I knew that less than 20 percent of people choose to take the test for this particular disease. 


Even though it is counterintuitive, the reality is that when there is no cure or treatment people frequently prefer to live with the possibility that they are okay, rather than risk definitely knowing that they are not.


Of course, whether or not to take the genetic test isn’t the kind of decision you can make in a snap, so while Ginny is trying to decide her life gets entwined with the other people she meets up with in Berlin – her sex-obsessed flatmate, her impetuous stepsister, her possibly deviant neighbour, her skittish cousin, and the enigmatic charmer she meets in a café.


She is flirting with the idea that if you were facing an uncertain future then you could be attracted to becoming more hedonistic and burning up what life you have left with impulsive acts. These thoughts, though, are complicated by loyalty to her fiancé so while she is suspended in indecision she is unable to move either way and tends to live vicariously through the adventures of others.


Deciding to take the test is an act of courage, and in writing this book I thought a lot about how we go about the process of gathering courage for ourselves.


Ginny’s excuse for travelling to Berlin is to write a book about Count von Luckner, a German sea captain, who was captured in the Pacific in WWI, and made an audacious escape from a prison camp in New Zealand. 


Her initial decision to approach the story is impetuous and she begins to wonder what attracted her to it. Is it that his acts of bravery are so outrageous they amount to a kind of hare-brained insanity? 


To create the character of Ginny, I went to Berlin on my own. I think when you detach yourself from your regular life and place yourself in a country that you are unfamiliar with, every daily thing becomes foreign which makes you alert to quirks. It also makes you more conscious that when you meet new people you only really amount to whatever you can project in the moment.

I made myself open to the idea that a person who is facing such uncertainty might live a little more on the edge – so for a while I kept my eyes and heart open to every random thing that came my way in that big, complicated city.


Not that I’m Ginny – I just let myself experience a lot of things on her behalf. I lived there for nearly four years, loved it, but was eventually driven back to New Zealand by the pandemic.


Q: The writer Sara Taylor said of the book that it “[g]ives a sense of the way that life continues to be beautiful, funny, and worth living even when we’re in the middle of wrestling with questions that have no good answers, problems with no neat solutions.” What do you think of that description?


A: I absolutely love that description. I’d like to think the book has a certain kind of joyfulness because big confrontations in life also make you think about what you value. And because it’s not possible to think about enormous life-changing things all of the time, open-hearted Ginny occasionally gets herself into some sticky situations too, which hopefully are quite fun to read.  


Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: “I laugh me broken” is the very literal translation of a German phrase, “Ich lach mich kaputt,” which is actually the equivalent of saying “I laughed my head off” - in this case used rather wryly. 


A lot of the book is about a struggle with an unfamiliar language and living in a place where you don’t fully understand the rules, so I wanted the title to be a nod to how things get lost in translation, but also there is that sense of laughing in the face of adversity.


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Ginny has a 50-50 chance of having a positive test. For this novel I followed my own curiosity and never decided what the outcome might be for Ginny while I was writing it. I wanted to suspend my knowledge in the same way that she was forced to. 


At times I let myself go so deep into the character I had to remember to convince myself that I was not actually at personal risk of having this particular disease. 


While living in Berlin I met a friend who is a very kind and funny man and often when I was thinking of Ginny’s fiancé I would model his actions on what I thought my friend would do or say in that situation. I think he had a big influence on where the book went to, because in this swirling world, I liked the idea of writing about the influence of kindness.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: When the pandemic started I returned home to New Zealand and ended up working on a literary festival, and became the artistic curator for the 2023 Auckland Writers Festival. Now that’s been delivered I have begun writing my next novel, which will be my fourth, set between New Zealand and France.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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