‘Only then did I realise how much of myself I had poured into this character and his Achterberg-inspired poetry – how much of myself I had poured into this book.’

David Cameron’s latest novel, Femke, is both an immersive psychological study and literary mystery. Here he writes for BooksfromScotland on the the journey of writing this compelling novel.


By David Cameron
Published by Taproot Press


When my late friend, the writer Robert Nye, told me he had a hunch I should write a novel about a Dutch poet diagnosed as a sexually deviant psychopath, I might have taken it the wrong way. But I didn’t. I liked the poems of Gerrit Achterberg (1905–1962), and had even attempted – heavily reliant on a Dutch-English dictionary – to translate a couple of them. I did object, however.

‘Robert, I know next to nothing about Achterberg, except that he shot dead his landlady and wounded her daughter and then was committed to a psychiatric institution.’

‘The less you know, the better,’ he mischievously replied, only half-joking. Nye had written a number of successful novels, mostly focused on a character from history such as Sir Walter Raleigh or Joan of Arc’s murderous sidekick, Gilles de Rais, or those about whom history hasn’t all that much to say, such as ‘Mrs Shakespeare’, or characters from literature, such as Falstaff and Faust.

Unlike Nye, I had only one book under my belt at this point – an odd mix of autobiography and fiction called Rousseau Moon, published in 2000 just before I set off for The Netherlands. When I left Scotland, my book was in the window of Waterstone’s and I had just completed a book tour of the Highlands. I thought my destiny as a full-time writer was assured.

But it was another 14 years until my next book appeared. And this was a different work to the one begun in late 2001, partly egged on by Nye. In the end, I went with my own gut instinct and avoided writing directly about the killer poet, Achterberg, but I did create a character, Michiel de Koning, who was a disaffected disciple of Achterberg’s. De Koning didn’t come into the story until after I’d made the move from Amsterdam to rural Ireland. By then I had ditched the novel, which was called Femke from the off, believing that my distance from the book’s location would make it too hard to continue writing. But I was wrong. The insistent voice of the book’s female narrator wouldn’t go away: I had to let her have her full say.

‘Femke’ is a Fresian name that means ‘girl’ – or, in some accounts, ‘peace’, which would be an ironic name for so troubled a character. The odd origin of her story was this… In late 2001, near the entrance of Amsterdam’s Oosterpark and just across the road from the building where I taught English, I glimpsed the face of a young woman walking past with her dog. It was a face that, under the hood of her parka, seemed either darkly alluring or ravaged by life. At that moment I wanted to see the world through her eyes. Shortly afterwards, her imagined voice, speaking about her dog, came into my head: ‘Bibi has what I need.’

Femke is taken up – or chewed up and spat out – as a Muse by an English filmmaker in the first part of the novel, before she becomes acquainted in the second part with the elderly and now rather neglected Dutch poet, De Koning. Theirs is a complex relationship, seemingly of the father-daughter sort but with an edge that suggests she might be the Muse to reignite his poetic career. Perhaps sensing and fearing this, Femke assumes the role of detective and tries to hunt down De Koning’s ‘last – and only – great love’, the enigmatic Madeleine celebrated by De Koning in his sonnet sequence, ‘M’.

Where is Gerrit Achterberg in all this? Achterberg was always obsessed with the search for the lost loved one, and Femke in the novel literally carries out the search for De Koning’s lost love. Achterberg, who was described by the poet-critic Martin Seymour-Smith as the most gifted of the Dutch modernist poets, is a touchstone of poetic seriousness, a reminder of the poetic giants of the past. He took that seriousness to a murderous extreme, which shouldn’t be glamourised – and isn’t, in Femke. His once-disciple, De Koning, couldn’t in the end stomach the extremism of the master-poet. Achterberg’s most famous work is a sequence of fourteen sonnets on the subject of the death of the beloved, given the ominous-sounding title, ‘The Ballad of the Gasfitter’. De Koning’s most famous, and last, work is the twelve-sonnet sequence ‘M’, which charts the story of his tragic love affair through its passionate beginnings, the turmoil of exile, and its ending in madness.

Even writing this, I have to remind myself that Achterberg was a historical figure and De Koning a fictitious one. Never having been a fan of poetry in fiction, I followed Pasternak’s example from Dr Zhivago and placed De Koning’s poems at the end of the novel, for any readers who might be interested. In his highly entertaining poetry readings, Norman MacCaig used to make sly fun of an audience member who had asked him if he ever cried when writing a poem. This would seem to be a risible notion. Yet I did cry writing a poem, and it was one of these De Koning sonnets. Convinced I was playing a clever game, I was caught off guard. Only then did I realise how much of myself I had poured into this character and his Achterberg-inspired poetry – how much of myself I had poured into this book.

Begun in 2001, put aside for a number of years, picked up again and completed, then revised and now due to be published by Edinburgh’s Taproot Press, Femke charts the journey of a young woman who thinks her dog has what she needs, only to realise that she has needs which only other people can fulfil. A modern woman in an ancient role, she isn’t fool enough to be Muse to an exploitative man for long, but nor is she fool enough to disbelieve in romantic love. She is unlikely to have consented to play the part of Achterberg’s, or De Koning’s, lost beloved, but she is (I hope) a character worthy of their words – and mine.


Femke by David Cameron, is published by Taproot Press, priced £14.99.

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