An Interview with Mette Jakobsen, author of The Vanishing Act
1) The Vanishing Act is your first experience venturing outside of playwriting and into the realm of fictional prose. How do the two mediums compare and differ? Why not write this as a play?
In playwriting there is an amazing immediacy, you have to capture the audience almost immediately, and you have to know what is at stake for each character. There is great focus on conflict and dialogue, which is a wonderful awareness to develop in any kind of fiction writing--and something that I teach my students as well. But I had a great desire to write a longer piece of work and also to write about space, to give an impression of a particular place.
I grew up on an island in the Baltic Sea. It was flat, desolate, and I don’t seem to remember it ever being summer. Most of my memories are of the snow and the cold. The trees on the island were windswept, all bent in the same direction. We lived very close to the sea. It was turbulent, grey and dangerous, and it was only when I started travelling later in life that I experienced firsthand perfect, even waves.
I loved the sparse and harsh environment. It was my playground and in some ways my comforter, and I really wanted to describe it and to have a little girl live in it. The island Minou lives on is quite a bit smaller than my childhood island, but there are nevertheless many similarities.
2) What literary works, if any, did you draw on in writing this novel?
I wrote the novel for adults. Well, really I wrote it for myself. Being my first foray into novel writing, I attempted to write something that I would like to read myself. I have always loved the Moomin troll books by Tove Jansson. Being Danish, I grew up with these big and deliciously rotund trolls. The quirky voice, the perfect mix of humour, sadness and a little darkness can be read by children and adults alike, and they definitely inspired me in the process of writing The Vanishing Act.
3) Was The Vanishing Act always written from Minou’s perspective, or did you try out different voices before it felt right?
Initially I was trying out a woman’s voice, but Minou arrived one day, fully formed and knitting in a lighthouse. That flash of inspiration gave me the first solid sense of what the novel might be about, simply because her voice was so strong, I started seeing everything on the island through her eyes. The process of writing was a continual unfolding, but she remained a constant throughout the years.
4) Was it challenging to narrate a world through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl? Did you tap into any of your own childhood experiences in order to create a more authentic voice?
I think that the landscape of my childhood island was the biggest help when it came to seeing things through Minou’s eyes. Apart from that, she was such a strong character that I was able to stand back a lot of the time and just observe what she was up to. It sounds a bit mad, but she really was very "whole" as a character, and my own childhood was not something I thought much about when writing the story. It was really only when I wrote about cold hands and running through snow that I recalled my own experiences.
5) Did your background in philosophy help inform your writing?
Yes, I definitely drew from my philosophy degree. René Descartes was the first philosopher I studied during my degree in philosophy. He is the father of modern Rationalism and famous for his saying: “I think, therefore I am.” This made him the perfect candidate for being someone Minou’s Papa would not only admire but also want to be related to. Descartes puts up a very convincing argument, but, similarly to Minou and her Papa, his reasoning ultimately led him to the wrong conclusions.
6) The loss of one’s mother is a common theme in books written for children. Why do you think this is?
Someone said to me recently that you need to kill off a mother to have a potent narrative. I don’t think that’s true. But I think that any story needs a conflict, and for a child the absence of a mother is a great one.
7) How did the idea for your book originate?
I saw a documentary called Black Sun some years ago. It features a painter who lost his sight during a violent break-in. The burglars threw acid in his face. The painter recalls recovering in hospital, head and eyes bandaged up. He said that strangers came and sat at his bedside. They told him intimate things, confessions of sorts. In his reflections the painter puts it down to the fact that he wasn’t able to see.
This was the first spark of an idea to have a dead boy as an important character. A boy who, through his nonseeing, nonresponding state, brings out confessions and deeper longings in others.
- Each of the characters has a personal philosophy that colors how they view what happens in their lives. How do those philosophies explain who each of them is?
- Why does the author choose The Vanishing Act as her title?
- At the beginning of the story, Minou and her father find a dead boy. How does his presence help Minou and her father? How does he come to mean more to them than an unknown person?
- Discuss the setting of the island. Why did the author decide to set her novel there?
- Mama and Papa had different experiences during the war. What effects did their lives at that time have on them?
- What is the significance of the lighthouse? Why does Papa keep the light off?
- Minou’s grandfather sends many postcards to Papa. What message is the grandfather sending Papa and why does he send ones exclusively with the same art?
- Theodora is the founder of the island and has become a legend for the people who live there. How does her story affect each of the characters?
- Why did Mama disappear? What happened to her?
- Are reason and magic compatible? How does Minou integrate both in her life?
Mette Jakobsen on The Vanishing Act
About Mette Jakobsen
Mette Jakobsen was born in Denmark in 1964. She holds degrees in philosophy and creative writing and is the author of several plays. The Vanishing Act is her first novel. She lives in Sydney, Australia.
Books by Mette Jakobsen
"The best stories change you. I am not the same after The Vanishing Act as I was before.”—Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus