Sarah Meuleman is a Belgian writer and journalist. In 2015 she published her first novel The Six Lives of Sophie, which received much critical praise in the media and was nominated for the Bronzen Uil, for best literary debut of 2015.
In the beginning of 2016 however, she ‘remixed’ her debut novel and presented a new version with the title Wat ik je niet vertel which, again, received much critical acclaim.
Sarah is an accomplished moderator and interviewer. She was co-creator and host of the television show Sarah’s Savages. Sarah is a Vogue columnist and has written many interviews with international artists, politicians and celebrities. She studied Germanic Philology (University of Ghent) and Literature (University of Amsterdam, cum laude).
The American and Canadian rights to The Six Lives of Sophie have recently been bought by Harper Collins New York. All international requests can be addressed to Cecile Barendsma (Cecile B Agency) through email@example.com.
Photo by Eric Lange
De Volkskrant by Rob Rollin (Debutante of 2016)
First Sentence: No-one knows about it.
The Book: ‘The story starts in Belgium, 1996, the era of the shocking Dutroux child abductions. Hannah and Sophie are two twelve-year-old girls who share everything. One night, Sophie disappears. Eighteen years later, Hannah has moved to New York. She gives up her career as a journalist to write a book about the disappearance of famous mystery writer Agatha Christie. Queen of crime Christie becomes a character in the novel. Agatha’s story drags Hannah back to her past and helps her to unravel the mystery of Sophie’s disappearance. One of the major themes in the novel is: can you learn to forget things you don’t want to remember? Can it sometimes be better to forget?
The profession: ‘I never had a burning ambition to create something for eternity, a neat stack of papers with my name on it. I just enjoy the writing process tremendously. First, I craft the story, I try to pack it with suspense and unexpected twists. Then I start writing, but a lot can change during the process. I have written this book sipping cappuccinos at a small table in my favorite coffee place. When I work, I always need some background noise. Oddly, it helps me to concentrate.’
The style: ‘I generally use short chapters – only three to six pages – with titles that refer to movies, songs or books we all know. It’s my way of revealing to the reader what mood to expect in the next chapter. In a scene, I don’t describe every detail minutely. I concentrate on just a few significant things. I love to play with sound, rhythm, even rhyme. I want my sentences to roll, to rumble, to purr.
Women writer: ‘Often journalists have asked me: “Is this a women’s novel?” It made me wonder if there’s something like a men’s novel? Yes, there are many strong female characters in my story, and one very inspiring writer, but I don’t see how that should limit my audience in any way. For me, writing this novel is the sum of many things I have done before. I’ve been a singer-songwriter, a journalist, a television host, managing editor at Vogue magazine. I feel that I can use my experiences in all these different worlds to create believable scenes and characters. Have I changed? I think I’m more of a rebel than ten years ago. I knew that I was going to rewrite this novel, no matter what.’
VOGUE by Claudia Ruigendijk, photography by Zoe Karssen
Writing is in her DNA. Sarah Meuleman combined her busy work as an editor and interviewer for Vogue with writing her first novel, The Antelope Knife, a mysterious story that takes you from the Flemish countryside of the Dutroux era to London during WW1 and back to contemporary New York.
Hannah and Sophie, two twelve year-old friends from the Flemish countryside, share every secret. Until the moment Sophie does not return from a party. Eighteen years later Hannah works as a successful journalist in New York, when she decides to leave everything behind to write a ‘biography’ about Agatha Christie, a women who, like her friend Sophie, one day disappeared into thin air. In her search for the answer to the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie, Hannah gets closer to answering that question from her past she has tried hard to forget: what happened to Sophie, that fatal night in 1996?
Are you fascinated by disappearances?
I am, in the broadest sense of the word. All of us are constantly alternating between remaining in the background and looking for the limelight, just like Christie and like my protagonist Hannah, who, against all odds, gives up her fame and career to write a biography.
How did you come up with the idea for the book?
It had been on my mind for a long time to write this book, and the story developed throughout those years. It came from my admiration for Agatha, a fascination for Flanders where I grew up, the energy of New York, powerful women and so much more. It’s not an autobiography, it’s fiction. But the scenes with Agatha Christie – who becomes a character in my book – are based on her biography. You feel for Agatha, when she struggles to connect with her daughter Rosalind, or when she is abandoned by Archie, the husband she adored.
You are a journalist by trade. What was it like to write a novel?
As a journalist you have to stick to the truth, but not now. Finally! If I say my character has cascading blonde hair, then she does. Period. It felt magical. I also found it gratifying to figure out a plot, although I felt quite frustrated at times. All the pieces have to fit.
Apart from Agatha, where did you get your inspiration?
Series, I have seen so many: The Killing, House of Cards, Mad Men. It’s interesting to look beyond the storyline and see how these series are constructed. How do you create suspense, how do you make the very most of a scene?
Can we expect another novel soon?
I have an idea for my next novel and I am about to begin. One thing I have learned writing this book: there is never a good time to start writing because it’s so much work and you can find so many excuses. But in the end the best moment is always now.
Essay: the ‘remix’ of a novel
Published in several media (2016)
“Is a novel ever finished?”
I ask the question to the audience in the bookstore and for a while everybody is
silent. Then one woman shakes her head reluctantly. Others agree: no, a novel
is never finished. Great, such overwhelming consensus. But also distressing,
because why, I ask, has hardly anything been altered then in the hundreds of
books that surround us in the store? Sure, some books got a foreword or two, but
most novels have simply frozen, they’ve stopped evolving as soon as they hit the
Two years ago, I wrote my first novel. I remember the moment when my
manuscript went to press and my amazement that this was ‘it’. The end of a
literary procedure, the practical, completely arbitrary finish of my writing
journey. After this, nothing in my story would ever be changed. And I wondered:
Then came the reviews. Praise, questions, comments. My debut was nominated
for the prestigious Bronze Owl Award for best literary debut of the year. But when a
mid price edition was announced, I wanted to change more than just the price
tag on the cover. I decided to rewrite. Not as a betrayal to my debut, but out of
sincere curiosity and by way of experiment.
I threw myself back in the world of my characters, Hannah and Sophie, and
brutally expelled two women from the story. Kill your darlings, in, well, the
most literal way. Within a week my carefully constructed novel was completely
unhinged., All these dangling chapters and half (de)constructed
characters were terrifying. There I was, with shards of a text that looked back on
itself melancholically, like in a distorting mirror.
But it was me, as a writer, who was looking in the mirror; an incredibly
exciting and humbling experience. Something I was only able to do
after a year, after the reviews and remarks from critics and readers who have
inspired me and sparked my curiosity.
“Shame on you! No writer should obey her readers!” I realize that critics
will argue that a real writer isn’t influenced by comments, she will hold her
ground, never yield. But a novel, in my view, is not a monologue. Once a book is published, it
travels to the outside world where it will inevitably communicate with other books, with
readers, with society at large. This communication leads to new insights and ideas. Why not take advantage?
Really, it is not all that revolutionary: the music scene is rife with remixes.
Kanye West comes up with with one version after another, Coldplay made a
splendid Salsa edition of Clocks. Movies have director’s cuts. In the theatre,
companies like The Wooster Group develop their plays on tour.
Then why, I wonder, do we see so little of this dynamics in contemporary literature?
Are books meant to be static? Do we value their rigidity? Could we be afraid that literature will lose part
of its esteem if it would join the more whimsical rhythm of a brand new era? Is a novel any different
from a composition or a play? Do we still prefer our writers’ words to be written in stone?
There have been authors who were famous for altering their published words.
Vladimir Nabokov has rewritten almost every sentence he ever wrote. He said:
“My pencils outlast their erasers.” And so they do.
So, to all the writers out there, never stop erasing, never stop writing. It’s time
for literature to finally join a dynamic era where variability and dialogue
are inevitable and key. The new edit of my novel has received some great
response so far, but more importantly, it has raised some long overdue
“Is a novel ever finished?” You tell me.