‘Studying English gave me a fertile humus layer of world literature’
Author Gustaaf Peek, who has been nominated for the Libris Literature Award, studied English Language and Literature in Leiden. ‘I completely submersed myself in literature during my studies, and the effects are still with me today.'
When did you make the decision to become a writer?
‘That ambition has been a part of me since I was young. I always felt that there was something majestic and heroic about creating with my own words, so I never seriously considered any other profession. I already started writing poems and horror stories when I was a boy; writing was the only thing that could motivate me.’
But why did you first enrol in the Law programme here in Leiden?
‘Coming from a family of entrepreneurs (the Peek family of the Peek & Cloppenburg chain of department stores, ed.), that was what was expected of me. My parents had always wanted me to study something decent. I wasn’t a bad student, but after receiving my propaedeutic diploma during my second year in Leiden, I felt it was time to switch to a programme I was truly passionate about: English Language and Literature. To be honest, those two years at the Law faculty haven’t been completely wasted: I can now read legal jargon without feeling intimidated. Whether it’s in the papers or in a contract, I can easily understand it.’
Did you enjoy studying English?
‘It was a perfect match, as it provided me with an excuse to read as much as I could. Even books and pamphlets written in Medieval English, that I would otherwise never have touched. I completely submerged myself in literature and I’m still benefiting from that experience: studying English has truly provided me with a fertile humus layer of world literature. But I also spied on many other specialisms by enrolling in various optional courses that had little to do with English. I followed courses by film historian Nico Bredero and also attended classes in Indonesian, Semantics and Philosophy of Language.’
How did your study in Leiden helped you to become a successful writer?
‘During my studies I learned how to structure my thoughts and to write them down clearly and correctly. Writing my thesis, which focused on the works of American author Richard Brautigan, was also a very helpful experience. I essentially locked myself away for six months and slowly progressed on a daily basis. It was a very useful exercise in discipline and in working on a large project, just like writing a book.’
How did you experience life as a student?
‘During my first two years in Leiden I shared an apartment with my brother, who was also studying in Leiden at the time. Afterwards I found a tiny apartment for myself, so I never really lived in classic student accommodation. But I loved having my own place and creating an independent existence: “You’re on your own now.” I also joined Augustinus, which at that time was still a place for guys with long hair and sneakers. It only became a bit more snobby later on. But I was a very active member and I’m still good friends with the people I met at Aedeodatus, my association.’
Have themes or experiences from your time here in Leiden ever returned in your work?
‘I have written several poems about Leiden and about my wandering period after graduating, which have been published in literary magazines. But they haven’t really returned in my books. Oh wait, (laughing) I completely forgot about one case! In my newest book, Goddess, two estranged lovers run into each other for the first time in years in the Academy Building in Leiden. But apart from that, I quickly let go of my student life. I’ve heard some graduates say that they still felt like a boy when they were 25 years old. I never felt that way. Though I came to Leiden as an uncertain, restless child, I grew up rather quickly.’
Your latest book has been nominated for this year’s Libris Literature Award. What does that mean to you?
‘It’s great news, as it means my book will get some more publicity. Since the publication of my debut novel Armin, the responses have been becoming more and more positive with every subsequent book. I feel very blessed.’
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
‘I wrote my thesis under the supervision of Joke Kardux, lecturer in American Literature. She didn’t actually say it in so many words, but she gave me the feeling that I could do anything I set my mind to. She gave me space and believed in me, which has really been a great stimulus for my work. It only takes a few words to inspire me to do the best I can.’
(31 March 2015)
Who: Gustaaf Peek (1975)
Study programme: Law (1993-1995) and English language and Culture (1995-1999)
Student club: Augustinus
Favorite spot in Leiden: My former home on the Langebrug, across the street to Kapper Erik. We had a great neighbourly relationship; we sometimes chatted, he cut my hair and I occasionally brought him home-made apple pie.
Armin (novel, 2006)
Dover (novel, 2008)
I was America (novel, 2010)
Goddess, hero (novel, 2014)
Peek is also editor of the literary magazine
The winner of the Libris Literature Award will be revealed on 11 May. Last year’s winner was Ilja Leonard Pfeijer, another Leiden alumnus, for his novel La Superba.