It all started with Martha Nussbaum, she says. Emy Koopman, with a short mass of blonde curls and wearing a respectable jacket, deftly doffs both her leather shoulder bag and her rucksack – ‘I’m staying over in Amsterdam tonight’ – and joins me at a table in Lebkov coffee bar. It’s one of the last sunny autumn mornings and we’re sitting outside, looking out on the gleaming roof of Rotterdam Central Station. Around the corner, buses pull up with a heavy sigh. A saxophone echoes from the bicycle tunnel.
So it all started with Nussbaum, the famous American philosopher who writes about ‘the good life’ and who claims that literature makes us better people. It’s a congenial hypothesis. Only, it’s never been proven (apart from that one study that whipped up a bit of controversy). Koopman, who studied both clinical psychology and comparative literary studies, was tired of all these claims. So she decided to research it herself.
In short, the answer is yes: you gain a better understanding of people’s troubles by reading a book now and again. Literary language brings us into contact with new, often complex and mixed emotions (although it’s not clear whether reading one of the classics such as Tolstoy or Multatuli will result in more benevolent behaviour than reading a few pages of a popular bestseller). The doctoral committee was so impressed that she received the designation cum laude – ‘I’ve no idea how often that occurs, but at our faculty at least not often’.
When I ask her what we can do with these findings, she shifts uncomfortably in her chair. “As a psychologist, I think about how we can make people better. You could use literature in mental healthcare, to help people talk about mental illness in cases where a loved one suffers from a mental disorder, for example. But from the perspective of literary theory, I do have a little trouble with this use of instrumentalism. It’s not simply about utility. It’s also about beauty. A tree is not simply beautiful because you can make a piece of IKEA furniture from it.”
Emy Koopman (1985) studied literature studies and clinical psychology at Utrecht University. This autumn she finished her thesis ‘Reading Suffering: An Empirical Inquiry into Affective and Reflective Responses to Narratives about Mental Pain’ succesfully. In September, her debut novel Orewoet was published by Prometheus. Earlier, she wrote De Correspondent, Hard//hoofd and De Groene Amsterdammer, among others.
Koopman grew up in Haren – ‘yes, the same town as the Project X riots’ – before moving to Oss. Her father worked as a headmaster at a secondary school and her mother was an assistant professor of French at Radboud University in Nijmegen. She was an avid reader. She was also a keen writer of short stories, but never thought her work was good enough for publication. In secondary school she wrote the lyrics for her band Fallen Angels. “Our great example back then was Anneke van Giersbergen of The Gathering, who called it ‘poppy’ with an ‘edge’.”
The novel she was working on when she started her comparative literary studies degree in Utrecht was shelved. She mainly wrote reviews and essays for online magazines such as 8weekly and Hard//hoofd, which led to having a ‘cup of coffee’ with an editor from Nijgh & Van Ditmar, but nothing else.
In 2014, however, at the end of a Hard//hoofd event in the Torpedo Theatre in Amsterdam, she made a breakthrough when she was approached by a woman from the publisher Prometheus. “It came at exactly the right time, just when I actually had something to show. It’s something I’d wish on everyone: no pressure in the beginning, but at a given time to be offered a contract that encourages you to finish it.”
“My plan was to spend at least one day working on the book in the weekend and three evenings during the week. That didn’t always come off, because sometimes I was simply exhausted from my work at the university or I needed to take some time out with friends. But the intention did help.”
Normally, PhD candidates have enough on their plate carrying out their research, especially when fulfilling the demands of their teaching commitments. With Koopman, however, this was different. She still had enough energy over from writing her dissertation and novel to attend a masterclass in investigative journalism. And on those occasions when she felt it was becoming too much, she would think of the tip her mother gave her.
“She once told me on the phone that she’d seen a snail in the back garden that morning. It was a whole story about how the animal appeared not to move. But then in the evening she’d actually found it again in the front garden.” She laughs. “She meant it’s a question of battling on. If you do that, you’ll get there.”
Then all of a sudden it was the summer of 2015. And she was all ready to make the final sprint – ‘just work three times as hard and I’ll be over the line’ – when she received the news. It was just part of the national screening programme. Nothing to worry about, she thought at the time. But the gynaecologist came with the result: it was cervical cancer.
“All of a sudden I was a cancer patient,” she wrote in a personal account a few months later. “And my two most pressing questions were: does my womb need to be removed and will I survive this?”
The answers to the questions are now clear: no, and yes. She had to undergo surgery, that was certain. And have a check-up every three months. But in no time at all she was back at work and was even able to join the masterclass in investigative journalism she had enrolled in. She recounts it in good spirits.
I ask whether she feels proud of how she’s dealt with it all.
“I don’t really reflect on it in normative terms. I wouldn’t know how there is a ‘bad’ way of dealing with it.”
Well, by breaking down perhaps, I say – something that would be quite normal.
“Initially, I was of course shocked and emotional,” she explains. “But at a certain time I tend to start looking at things from a distance. So I think: that was actually quite strange, how the doctor did that. Or: that was interesting, how that woman behaved.”
She laughs, contritely: “This is simply a way of creating order in the chaotic reality. It’s called coping. I can talk about it with friends or write a scene about it.”
Her debut novel Orewoet (from Middle Dutch, meaning ‘a violent burning desire’) is based on a similar ‘interesting’ situation: a love triangle she ended up in when she was about twenty-five. The story is set in the mid-1970s – ‘the heyday of anti-psychiatry’ – and is largely written from a male perspective.
I ask her whether her research into empathy helped her in any way.
She laughs. “It’s not as if my research has furnished me with a whole collection of literary characters I can call on to satisfy the emotions of the reader. I write what I’d like to read myself.”
She will continue in science, as an independent, but intends to focus primarily on writing and journalism. “Science is more stable. I could always try for a Veni grant, seeing that I’ve already published quite a bit. But I don’t think it’s currently such an attractive environment. You’re always fighting for your money. And if I have to fight, then I’d prefer to do so for a second novel rather than for a new research project.”
Would you like to hear more? Emy Koopman will be discussing her research and her novel in Studio Erasmus at the Rotterdamse Schouwburg at 20.30 on Tuesday 11 October.