It was a cold autumn evening in 2005 when a book made me cry for the first time. I was 17, sitting at a table in my hometown, Wroclaw, drinking mint tea and reading. The book which struck me so hard was Like Eating Stone by Wojciech Tochman, about an anthropologist who tries to find and recognize scattered human bones after the war in Bosnia. Tochman’s sentences are usually short and sharp as knives. Reading them, I realized that verbs have overwhelming advantage over adjectives. A verb tells a story.
(What I couldn’t have imagined at that time was that, nine years later, Tochman would become the publisher of my first nonfiction book. So I can say that my publisher made me cry before we even met.)
“They told her that the donor was a white man. But he was dark-skinned in fact, and he had Asperger’s”.
This is what a Belgian weekly newspaper reported in February 2014. I studied Dutch at university and during my internship in Antwerp, I read this article online and that’s how it all began. They quoted one of the mothers saying that her children’s skin turned darker every month. The fertility clinic in Barendrecht, the Netherlands, was referred to as “the sperm mafia”.
The internet was aswarm with English translations – some more reliable, others less so – of this Flemish article. People copy-pasted it in various forums. In one forum I read that “a Dutch clinic accidentally inseminated 500 Dutch women with the semen of a mentally handicapped Surinamese man”.
I wrote down the names from the article and the TV documentary I found soon after.
I thought I wouldn’t be able to find the donor, the children, the mothers. But I was. I thought they would not be willing to talk to me about such private issues. But they did.
Before I travelled to the Netherlands, I looked once more at the photograph of the man – Donor S. Who was he? He looked too young. Or was it an old photograph?
Had someone taken advantage of him, manipulated him? Was it his decision, having grown up in an immigrant family, scorned by the Dutch, to attract attention in this way?
It could have been that. But it turned out to be something else entirely.
The second time I cried because of a book was in late January of 2007, when I heard on television that Ryszard Kapuscinski passed away. I instantly opened one of his books, The Emperor and read out loud, its first lines, once again:
“It was a small dog, a Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor’s lap and pee on dignitaries’ shoes. The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet. I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was my job for ten years.”
Opening lines tell the story, they are there to catch the reader’s attention. I realised that I was going to miss Kapuscinski and his opening lines. At that time he was my narrative hero. A few years later, after I read his controversial biography, he remained a hero, but he also became a man of flesh and blood. Men of flesh and blood sometimes make mistakes. They even fail, from time to time.
Speaking of failing, one of the greatest lessons I ever learnt about writing was to always turn failures into advantages.
I heard this piece of wisdom from another Polish nonfiction writer, Mariusz Szczygiel, who learnt it himself while writing a story about a Czech entrepreneur, founder of the Bata Shoes company, Tomáš Baťa. When, early in his shoe-making career, Baťa couldn’t afford to buy a lot of leather, he decided to make shoes out of canvas, which didn’t cost that much. The little amount of leather he spared was just enough to make soles. That’s how he invented his first bestseller – canvas shoes with leather soles. I’ve read the reportage about Bat’a in Szczygiel’s book ‘Gottland’, which to my mind remains one of the most notable pieces of Polish narrative journalism.
Since then, I always look for canvas shoes with leather soles in every failure I face.
I knew that my book would be incomplete without an interview with doctor Jan Karbaat, the man behind the infamous fertility clinic in Barendrecht. I tried to visit him three times. The first and the second time he didn’t even open the door.
My decision was to turn this failure into an advantage.
First, even though I didn’t manage to meet him, I described those two attempts at a visit in the book. A woman who went there with me was one of the donor children conceived in the clinic. So, because we went together, I suddenly realized I had a good narrative reason to tell her whole story too. Later she became one of the protagonists of my book.
Second, my fellow colleague advised me to write a paper letter to Karbaat. It was a great way of expanding the storytelling, because I could ask him anything I wanted and then cite it in my book, even if he didn’t reply.
But that didn’t mean I gave up on meeting him in person.
Before my third attempt to see him, I stayed in the Netherlands, searched through the files in the libraries nearby. In the archives I found a lot of interesting details about the doctor and his past. It took me 11 days. I decided to somehow include this research fact in my story. That’s how I found some good first lines for that chapter:
‘My first encounter with Dr Karbaat lasted eleven days. This is how long I spent going through newspaper articles, special features and documents, trying to reconstruct his career.’
There was one more unexpected advantage of this failure. In one of the old articles, Karbaat himself wrote in detail about the history of his house and how it became a clinic. Finally I found all the verbs I needed to tell the story:
‘The doctor patched up the roof, installed new door frames and double glazed windows, repaired the angel figurines and put them up where they used to be. With the municipality’s permission, he installed an old black gate from the cemetery at the entrance to his property. A neighbour got annoyed. He was putting up his house up for sale and worried that with Karbaat’s cemetery gate looking so handsome, his own house might drop in value.’
And you know what?
The third time I tried, he opened the door. Soon after it turned out I remained one of the last journalists who interviewed him. Karbaat died a few months later, on the very day when I collected first copies of All the children of Louis from the printing house.
It was a brisk spring morning in 2017 when I first held my own book in my hands.