Gemma Venhuizen studied Physical Geography at the VU and became a freelance journalist. She recently – and hesitantly – began referring to herself as a writer: her debut novel Alle bessen kun je eten – alleen sommige maar één keer was published in January.
She has the following advice to anyone with the ambition to become a writer: ‘Don’t be too critical of yourself, just set aside some free time to do it. Dare to make your dream come true, even if it feels safer to just keep dreaming. ‘Writing fiction is just like sex: don’t think about it, just do it.’
At first glance, Venhuizen doesn’t resemble her novel’s protagonist Jasmijn at all, who wrestles with making choices. On her site, she explains that she knew that she wanted to be a writer from the age of five, and by the time she was 17 she was writing a weekly column in the daily newspaper de Volkskrant. But her life as a freelance journalist could also be seen as a way not to have to make any real decisions, as she explains in her bohemian flat that she shares with a friend in Amsterdam’s Spaarndammerbuurt neighbourhood.
How did you manage to get a weekly column in de Volkskrant when you were only 17? “I read the columns by Anna Woltz about her life as a student and thought: I want to know if I can do that too? So I submitted a piece to the editors of the Volkskrant. My mother, who in no way resembles Jasmijn’s mother, told me: ‘Maybe you should start with the regional newspaper Heemsteedse Courant?’ But the editors liked my piece, and offered me a weekly column.”
‘Writing fiction is just like sex: don’t think about it, just do it’
Why did you choose to study Earth Sciences if you wanted to become a writer? “That was really more to have something to fall back on if it didn’t work out as a writer. My parents had taken me on holidays to the mountains since I was two. As a child, I just thought it was boring, but I gradually learned to love the panoramic landscape and I became interested in how it was created.”
Did you learn anything useful in your studies? “I think about that a lot. I’m not really a scientist; a study in the humanities would probably have been easier for me. But I still benefited from my studies, and I often write about subjects related to earth sciences. And the study helped to shape me as a person. For example, all of the field work helped me get over my homesickness. And now that I really enjoy working at the juncture between science and art.”
“When I was 15, I wrote down three dreams in my diary: travel to New Zealand, write a book and marry the man of my dreams. Thanks to my studies, I was able to participate in an essay contest for young geologists, which I won. The prize was a trip to a geological conference in Australia. So I took an extra five months’ vacation and went on to New Zealand. That trip gave me another idea for a story: my next book will take place in New Zealand.”
How did Alle bessen kun je eten come about? “Publisher Paul Brandt invited me to a meeting when I was writing my columns. He said: ‘If you ever write a book, let me know.’ That was a real luxury, of course! We met several times after that, and he always asked me about my book. I had started on a story before, but I couldn’t get any farther. But then I went to Spitsbergen for field work. That trip was so overwhelming that I thought: I should use this as the setting for my story. After talking about it with some friends, I came to the idea that the theme of the book should be how difficult it is to make choices. Not just while you’re a student, because you can always doubt whether you have made the right choice, or you can ask yourself if you made good choices in the past.”
“So when I came across Paul again, I told him about my idea. We agreed that I would send him something, and that gave me the motivation that I needed. I eventually stopped working temporarily to give me the time to focus entirely on the book.”
So you’re well on your way to making all of the dreams on your list come true. What would you like to do next in your career? “I would like to shift to writing more fiction. But on the other hand, the benefit of my journalism work is that I have to get out of the house and actually interview people. When I’m alone in front of my laptop, I can lose contact with reality.”
Maybe I’d like to combine my writing with a part-time side job. I used to work one day per week as a forest ranger in the dunes, where I could feel the wind in my hair. But I also love to improvise, and I’d rather leave the future open, because it gives me the illusion that I still have plenty of options. Now, I can try lots of things without having to choose. I don’t want to lose that freedom.”
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