In his new decades-spanning novel The Illusion of Separateness, Simon Van Booy models his characters on acquaintances and strangers alike—including his girlfriend’s grandparents.
Zola: The story jumps back and forth between six characters’ stories, following events from 1939 to 2010 and taking place in several different countries. What kind of planning went into arranging the stories in this particular order? Did you plot out exactly which character, time period, and place would follow each other, or did the arrangement organically come together on its own?
Simon Van Booy: The stories evolved together, based on an idea explored by the 16th-century painter Bruegel, where a piece of work has no main character. I do very little plotting, I just sit down and deliver letters the way a postal worker would, making sure that each one goes into the right place. The best stories come when I impose very little of myself upon them.
Zola: Most of the characters’ stories are written in third person, except for Amelia and Mr. Hugo, which are written in first person. Why change the point of view in those cases?
SVB: Excellent question. It’s not something I’m consciously aware of until after it’s written. It felt the most natural way of telling these stories.
Zola: Two of the characters, John and Harriet, are based on the story of your girlfriend’s grandparents, Bert and Annette. You even incorporate an actual WWII telegram Bert sent to Annette. What was the reaction of your girlfriend’s family when you approached them about this idea? Are any of the book’s other characters based on real people?
SVB: Oh my dear! ALL my characters are based on real people. Let’s hope they never know. My wife’s family were overjoyed at having part of Bert Knapp’s war record put into print. The telegram was actually lost, so I recreated it on my old typewriter with telegram slips bought on eBay. Mr. Hugo is based on a deformed homeless man I saw in Paris.
Zola: One of the characters in the story, Amelia, powerfully claims, “In a sense we are all prisoners of some memory, or fear, or disappointment—we are all defined by something we can’t change.” What memory, fear, or disappointment defines you?
SVB: That’s Amelia’s idea, and not necessarily mine. I’m defined by my ability to hope blindly.
Zola: Several of your characters deal with the struggle of finding a place they can call home. You yourself have lived in Great Britain, Wales, Kentucky, Paris, Athens, Long Island, and Brooklyn. Were your travels inspired by similar motivations—to find a place you can call home? What’s the one place you’ve felt most at home?
SVB: I never felt at home anywhere in my entire life, until I realized that for me, home is not a place but a person.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.