An interview with Tonke Dragt

One of the big (and to some, surprising) hits of English language children’s publishing in 2013-2014 was a novel originally written in 1962 by an author very few people in the UK or the US had ever heard of. However, on its publication here, it was greeted with virtually universal acclaim, featuring in many “best of the year” book lists. In a matter of months reprints were ordered more than once.

That book was The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt, available for the first time in English thanks to multi-award winning translator Laura Watkinson and Pushkin Press, a publisher committed to bringing more international classics to an audience notoriously wary of translations.

secretsofwildwoodThe Letter for the King is widely recognised in its home country, The Netherlands, as the best children’s book ever to be written in Dutch. And it’s success in the UK suggests that children here love it just as much as they do across the North Sea. My family, with one foot in each country, doubly loves the book, it having been a bedtime read multiple time in both languages.

So you can imagine my sheer delight when I opened a parcel on Friday to find it contained a proof of the bestseller’s sequel: The Secrets of the Wild Wood.

This really is one of the most exciting moments of my book-ish year. If anything, the sequel is even better than The Letter for the King; and I can say this having now read (or listened to) both books in both languages. Few sequels surpass their predecessors, but for my money The Secrets of the Wild Wood stakes an astonishingly good claim to doing just that.

Whilst a review will take some time to brew as I go back and look more in detail at the translation and let the (English language) story settle in my head and heart, I wanted to mark this very exciting occasion somehow. My excitement spurred me on to approach Pjotr van Lenteren, a Dutch journalist, who had the very good fortune to interview Tonke Dragt earlier this year. I asked if I might translate the resulting article (which originally appeared in the Dutch broadsheet Volkskrant) and very generously he agreed, so today I’m thrilled to bring you something very special and very rare – an interview with Tonke Dragt.

Tonke Dragt: My knights’ tales belong in England

By Pjotr van Lenteren 5 January 2015,
[originally published in the Volkskrant, available at http://www.volkskrant.nl/boeken/tonke-dragt-mijn-ridderboeken-horen-thuis-in-engeland~a3822758/ ]

Children’s writer Tonke Dragt (84) has finally conquered England: The Letter for the King has been a success for more a year. In this rare interview she tells us how things stand with her.

‘So, now I’ll stop complaining’, says Tonke Dragt after talking continuously for quarter of an hour. Not so long ago the 84 year old children’s writer moved house to a private nursing home, because her previous one went bankrupt. Her arthritis has worsened and since Dragt broke her foot in inexplicable circumstances a month ago, she can barely walk any more.

‘I find the nights the hardest. I often don’t feel like going to sleep, but there’s nothing to do. I read a lot. The Scarlet Pimpernel for example, for old time’s sake, and to balance it out the Tao te Ching. They’re trying their best here, but sometimes I get really fed up with everything. That I’ve got physical difficulties, that’s clear, but sometimes they treat me as if my mind isn’t good either. They only believe I’ve written books when it is in the newspapers.’

She may have physical difficulties, but mentally the creator of the Letter for the King (1962), one of the best know Dutch children’s books, crowned with the Griffel of Griffels [each year the best Dutch children’s book of that year is crowned with a Golden Griffel (stylus), and in 2004 Letter for the King was picked as the best ever winner of a Golden Griffel / zt] is still her old self. She is enthusiastic about her late breakthrough in England. The Letter for the King has been a runaway success now for a year. ‘Yes, what can I say about it? I’m really delighted. Finally!’

So happy that she has – exceptionally – granted an interview. The fact that it has been published at all is something special; only 3% of books published in the UK are translations. In Germany, children can get all of Dragt’s books, in Spain more than half of her books are available. An edition has appeared in Indonesia, where Dragt grew up, and also one in the land of the occupiers at that time: Japan. [During the Second World War Dragt was imprisoned as a child in a Japanese camp in the then Dutch East Indies / zt]

The Letter for the King tells the story of Tiuri, a squire. On the eve before he is knighted, he leaves the chapel where he is holding a vigil, because someone asks him for help. A quest, which closely mirrors the classic knights’ tales which are so popular in the land of King Arthur and Tolkien.

But the only book of hers available in English until recently was the little read 1975 American translation of her science fiction book, The Towers of February. ‘That the English didn’t want The Letter for the King, I’ve never understood, to be honest. I have always felt that my knight tales belong there.”

The book was offered multiple times by her publishers, once indeed with a letter of recommendation from the famous English fantasy writer Alan Garner. “That time I got the parcel back with the wrapping torn open. Jolly good, I thought, they’ve opened it. It was the first time they’d done so, but even then they thought the cost of translation was too high.”

The 52-year-old spell was broken by Laura Watkinson, a Netherlands-based translator, who sent the first chapters in English to Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press, a publishing house specialising in translations of international classics, who had just launched a children’s imprint.

When one night his kids secretly pinched the manuscript in order that they could read more from it, he was won over. “They were delighted,” says Dragt. “They thought it was like Harry Potter. That’s nonsense of course – there are no knights in Harry Potter and in the Letter for the King no wizards. Oh well. They were going to publish it. Fine with me.”

And as to sales figures too, the Brits were proved wrong: All the major papers wrote glowingly about the book, the third printing was in the the shops before Christmas, and Watkinson is now dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of its sequel: The Secrets of the Wild Wood.

‘Yes, I’m pleased. Really pleased. It’s finally done. Although… maybe my other books will find favour too. Sky High and Miles Wide, for example. [Dutch: Torenhoog en mijlenbreed / zt]. Who knows? I can dream about it, can’t it? I have to keep my mind a little bit busy to forget the failings of my body. It’s always good to have something to look forward to.’

She hopes to be able to return at some point to her own home, now modified, and to be amongst her own books and the collages that she’s been working on during the past few years [Dragt is an artist as well as a writer / zt]. She also wants to be present when the dolls’ house that she built as scenery for her last two novels is donated to the Museum of Literature. She even dreams of writing one more story. It has working title “The Painting of Wu Daozi” and is a key passage in her still unfinished final novel, The Road to the Cell.

‘It’s about a legendary painter from the 6th or 7th century BC. His paintings were so lifelike, that one day he disappeared into one of them. I often told my version in the classroom, when I was still an art teacher. It resulted in the most beautiful artwork. I never wanted to write it down, because I was afraid that then I wouldn’t be able to tell it any more. But now I often find myself thinking about it at night. Yes, I do think I should write down that story. Then you’ll understand everything.’

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Our much loved collection of books by Tonke Dragt
Our much loved collection of books by Tonke Dragt

I hope it goes without saying that any errors or misjudgments in the translation are mine and mine alone. I’m most grateful to Pjotr van Lenteren for permission to translate his Volkskrant article, and would encourage any of you who read Dutch to take a look at his book blog De Gelukkige Lezer or to follow him on Twitter @gelukkigelezer.

If the story Wu Daozi has piqued your interest, I can wholeheartedly recommend the exquisite picture book Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look, illustrated by Meilo So. I do hope that one day we get to read Tonke Dragt’s version of the story, but in the meantime I’m sure you’ll find plenty to enjoy in this Look and So’s retelling of Wu Daozi’s story. As to more from Dragt? I’m delighted to report that translator Laura Watkinson is now working on Dragt’s De Zevensprong, a book about a treasure hunt and a rescue mission which takes its title from a traditional song every Dutch child knows. A challenge for Watkinson to translate, but one I’m more than sure she’ll rise to!

The Secrets of the Wild Wood publishes on 3 September 2015 in the UK. Special thanks to my mother-in-law for first alerting me to Pjotr van Lenteren’s interview.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read the interview I carried out with Laura Watkinson, or this post about my favourite books translated from Dutch, with further suggestions for future translations from translator David Colmer.

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4 Responses

  1. […] in 1962 by Dutch author Tonke Dragt and recently translated into English by Laura Watkinson,The Letter for the King takes readers […]

  2. Enjoyed the article on Tonke and her translation to English. Has great meaning for me as my mother was a close friend of hers in the Japenese Prisoner of war camp and says she wrote her first book with her as teenagers (supposedly on display in a children’s museum in Amsterdam). This weekend is VJ Day and my mother will return to Holland (she has lived here for 50+ years) and has arranged to meet up with Tonke. I found your article whilst explaining to my own daughter, who is a book worm, just how famous her ‘Oma”s friend is in her own country.

    • Oh Chris, thank you for sharing this. Wishing your Mum a very special strip back to the Netherlands.

  3. […] confident enough to keep writing. I always forget to credit her as writing inspiration along with Tonke Dragt, who first made me see that there are worlds within worlds. Probably because I can’t read […]

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