Jan Van Der Veen’s short story, “Dithy’s Mother” appeared in the Summer 2020 edition of LPR.
Q: How did you become a writer?
I was born in Medan, a city on Sumatra, in Indonesia. When I was three, my mother, my older sister and I travelled some twelve thousand miles to join my father in the suburbs of New York. Perhaps this early experience explains why I have long been consumed by wanderlust. As a young man living on the East Coast of the United States, I hitchhiked across the country three times before making pilgrimages to various other locations around the world. Vivid memories of a few of these places have stayed with me throughout the years: various redwood groves, a shuttle launch, Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp, the church of St. Trophime in Arles, the city of Chandigarh and the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in the town of Adyar.
Although I did not know it at the time, it is clear to me now that I was gathering images that I would later use in my writing. For as far back as I can remember I have dreamed of describing, in words, places I have visited, objects I have examined, people I have met, scents I have smelled and emotions I have felt.
Q: Where did the inspiration for “Dithy’s Mother” come from?
A: During some of my early travels, I once drove my old Volkswagen Beetle too fast at night on a steep, downhill two-lane road which featured, unbeknownst to me, a sharp turn to the left. I missed the turn and found myself, out of control, careening through an apple orchard. My headlights lit up a succession of tree trunks; each one mercifully leapt out of the way before my little car finally stopped. Relieved to be alive, I breathed uneasily for a few minutes, turned on the ignition and drove home.
Years later, I drafted a short story about that incident. The original title was “Tim Hardeman,” the name I gave to the Beetle’s driver. Over time, Tim morphed into a clerk/delivery man who drove a delivery van for a local grocer. In the story’s early iterations, Tim died in the accident in the orchard. The contents of his van were strewn among the apple trees.
But the early versions of the story went nowhere. I put them aside for a while. When I returned, the story took me in a different direction. It had become clear that writing about a delivery clerk who died in a bizarre accident was far less interesting than writing about his most compelling customer, a housebound alcoholic with an alcoholic husband and a daughter named Dithy.
Q: Even though Dithy’s mother is the titular character, she’s never named. What made you decide to refer to her only as “Dithy’s mother”?
You are right. Dithy’s mother is not named. Nor is her father. Furthermore, there is no origin story explaining Dithy’s nickname (might her proper first name be Judith or perhaps Edith?) The absence of names (and, for Dithy, the presence of only a nickname) is intended to impart a sense of the universal to the story, a sense that the characters represent something larger than themselves. Thus, Dithy’s mother is a woman who, despite being an alcoholic, despite having a tenuous grasp on reality, despite living a life full of drudgery, still manages to function as a mother—albeit minimally. There are many others like her in the real world.
Q: The writer Amy Hempel is famous for not naming her characters. She once said this: “There are more possibilities when you don’t pin down a person with a name and an age and a background because then people can bring something to them or take something from them.” Would you say you agree?
A: I would, for some writers and under some circumstances. Hempel’s own short fiction is an example; it is poetic, precise and cerebral. But another writer may want to “pin down” a character, to rely on a reader’s knowledge of social mores or historical context. On purpose.
Q: Reading this story in the eleventh month of the pandemic, I was so struck by the sense of isolation and its profound effects on the characters. Were you thinking about any of those themes when you wrote the story? How has COVID changed how you think about it?
A: A sense of isolation, of alienation, of difficulty in communicating with others, a sense that often grows more potent as we humans age, permeates my writing; all of us, to some extent, feel helpless in the face of forces we cannot control or even understand. And yet, somehow, we find a way to go on. For example, Dithy’s mother flushes the key to her jewelry box not once but twice to get it to go down. Isolated and alienated, her telephone becomes her “sole means” of communication with the outside world. Something as simple as her request for a different type of pasta is rejected by the grocer Abbott. Despite these challenges, she has small victories: she stands up to her husband when he demands that she clean up a mess he has made, and, at the end of the story, she makes a personally satisfying connection with a prospective paramour (one who is, regrettably, a ghost).
So “yes,” I was thinking about these kinds of themes. But the story itself was all but completed before COVID-19 upended our world. At present I am working on a piece of longer fiction which features (among other things) the outbreak of a viral hemorrhagic fever in the Washington DC area. COVID-19 has greatly informed my approach to this piece.
Q: What does your typical writing process look like?
I get up gently, having slept late; I wander out to the computer, fire it up, and scan several legitimate news sources before I begin to write (I feel compelled right now to stay current on all things COVID, BLM, insurrection and other crucial topics; informed, but not overwhelmed). Then I review and edit lightly my writing from the prior day incorporating insights, words and phrases that bubbled to the surface of my mind during the night. Then I write some more. I often take breaks to read the works of others: short stories mostly, but some novels and occasionally excerpts from novels too.
Q: How have you been keeping up your creative energy over the last year?
A: I rely a lot on my family, especially on my wife (Martha). We take daily walks around our neighborhood (a practice we both credit with maintaining our sanity in these challenging times) and we talk. Somewhere along the way—shortly after we begin, if I’m being honest here—the conversation turns to themes, plot points, character development, story structure and the like. That is how, together, we bound the pieces of “Dithy’s Mother” into a coherent package. On occasion, at home, I read to her short passages that excite me or that I think mostly work. She tells me what she thinks. I also am drawn to rereading some old favorites. Recently I revisited Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” and the epic “Gilgamesh.”
Q: What other writing projects are you working on?
A: I just rough-edited a short story about wildfires in Washington State. I put a second story aside, to marinate; I’ll get back to it later. I’m working on a third one, which was originally part of longer work of fiction but seems better standing on its own. As for that longer work of fiction, it is in that seemingly endless phase called editing.
Q: What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
A: It is difficult to separate my favorite piece of writing advice from my favorite writing advisor (that would be my wife). She reads—or listens to me read—and comments on almost everything I write. She often cites Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (I’m paraphrasing here): “just get a first draft, warts and all, down on paper and then you rework it.” And she adds, in her own words, “write what you love and because you love to write. Otherwise, what’s the point?”