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“When I hear people calling me an illustrator or cartoonist it makes me want to laugh”

Hugo van der Ding
In his first meeting with Livraria Lello, Hugo Sousa Tavares, known as Hugo van der Ding, insisted on having his bookshelves loaded with books as a backdrop. From his childhood nights, reciting The Lusiads to impress adults, to the desire of becoming a full-time writer, and the sidekick book of all his trips, in a humorous conversation – as it should be – Hugo van der Ding revealed an intimate relationship with the world of books.

Livraria Lello: You were born on Christmas Eve, in the late 70's. How did you spend your days as a child?

Hugo van der Ding: I grew up as an only child and, like all only children, I developed a very particular universe. Before I went to school, my friends were like “Play Mobil” dolls and I created movies with them.

LL: Did that reality also favor your relationship with the books?

Yes. I read a lot since I was a child. And I was also already writing my films and my plays. It was a childhood very rich in ideas inside my head.

LL: What is the first book you remember reading?

I would love to be like a friend of mine, whose first book he read was Zoo Station by Christiane F., which he stole from his older brother. But that wasn't my case. My relationship with books is so old it's hard to say which was the first book I read. I grew up surrounded by books and still live surrounded by books to this day. I read the adventure books all children read, and I remember, when I was still a child, I caught The Lusiads. It might have been one of the first books I read cover to cover. Afterward, my mother used me in a few moments with friends at home, to recite large excerpts from The Lusiads, which fascinated the adults. [laughter]

LL: Back then, what did you answer when someone asked what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Back then I had the idea of studying law so I could pursue a diplomatic career and travel a lot. I had the idea that being a diplomat was traveling and attending parties. Now I have some diplomat friends and I discovered that, after all, being a diplomat is traveling and attending parties. There was still a time in high school when I took drama classes and I thought – after all I want to be an actor – but then, when choosing the course, I followed what I had in mind since I was a child. I enrolled in law school and spent three years there. Then I left college and went traveling. I was abroad between my 20s and 30s.

LL: Did that experience give you more than any degree could have?

Of course! It's an experience I always recommend. It was a seminal time in my life. My original idea was to leave and spend six months in each country, but I ended up living in just two. I spent a few months in London and spent the rest of those years in Amsterdam, a city where there are people of all nationalities, and you meet people from different cultures. Living in Amsterdam was seeing the world.

LL: What books were part of this adventure? Did you take a lot of books with you? Did you bring a lot of books?

Amsterdam is an extremely small and very populated city, so having a house is very complicated, because of that I moved many times in the early years, and as I kept my apartment in Lisbon, I regularly filled a box with books and sent them to Portugal. I bought a lot of books because, in addition to reading, I collect books. I met many Dutch authors. It was at that time that I fell in love with Asian literature, with writers from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Africa.

LL: You also received this multiculturality from Amsterdam through Literature…

Yes, because the books that we read, when we are teenagers or young adults, became part of our identity. In fact, what my portuguese friends read at the time was not exactly what the Dutch read, or the Germans, or the French. When I met people from other nationalities, we shared books that were part of our experience and that was very enriching.
Hugo van der Ding
LL: You are a voracious reader and book collector as well. Does this fit with an image of a cool and fun person?

HVDD: I don't know what image people have of me… But even when I'm working a lot, as is the case right now – I have the radio show and I'm rehearsing a play – I need to read every day, even if it is just one page. It makes me so confused when people say they don't like to read. For me, it is like saying they don't like to eat or sleep. Reading is not a planned activity, it just happens. Reading is my space for introspection. I read Literature, but also History or Science books. That's when I get closed in on my ideas… often I must go back five pages to realize – “Oh, they are brothers after all” – because I have already lost myself. That must have happened to me in Os Maias. [laughter]

LL: And as a collector, what is your relationship with the book?

HVDD: In the last 10 years, I've moved three times – which is already a pretty boring average – and the books are already the hardest part of moving. I have a special relationship with my books. For example, I know exactly what my favorite book is, and I know it's because it's that specific object. It was a book given to me by my best friend when I went to live abroad, Anatomy of Restlessness by Bruce Chatwin. It's not my favorite book for what's written there, but it's my favorite book/object, and it always goes in my suitcase when I travel. And I loved collecting rare books and first editions. I don't do it much yet, but I have some amazing stories with books I bought by chance. I used to go to a fair that happens every Friday in the center of Amsterdam, and I once found a book of one of Maigret's adventures (by Georges Simenon), which had been published during the war and was, therefore, a very limited edition. It was immaculate and I paid three euros for it. In fact, I didn't even pay, because I borrowed the money from a friend who was with me. A little further on, I was approached by another bookseller who told me: “Choose all the books you want in exchange for that one”. When I went home and looked at the last price at which the book had been auctioned, I realized it was worth three thousand euros.

"I never thought my drawings, so simple and primary, would be the center of my profession."

LL: Is the experience of buying books in a bookshop important to you?

Yes, it is! Books are now sold in many places, but, in bookshops, a relationship is established. We are loyal to a bookshop. You may not even talk to anyone who works there, but you communicate. When you enter a bookshop, there is communication through the selection of works, in the way they are displayed, in the authors who are highlighted. Booksellers are talking to you and guiding you, almost ideologically, through reading suggestions. Bookstores have this fundamental role of showing the world. In addition to having certain bookstores that are also monuments and incredible spaces.

LL: Have you ever visited Livraria Lello?

Yes, I've been there several times! I used to go more when there wasn't such a long line. But I'm really happy that people stand in line for hours to see what is considered to be the Most Beautiful Bookshop in the World. It's a luxury to have it in Porto.

LL: What word or expression would you choose to define Livraria Lello?

I'm very sparing on adjectives, I only use one which is “AWESOME!”. Couldn't choose another one! [laughter]

LL: Let's get back to your path. It was already in Portugal, when you were a literary translator, that you started drawing your comics. How did the first characters come about?

This story is very funny. I've been making these drawings since I was a child, and they were just for fun. One day, 10 years ago, I had an idea for a play on words: “Is a servant [in Portuguese "criada"] being rude [in Portuguese "malcriada"] a reason for dismissal for just cause?”. I shared this idea with a friend, and he told me, “Don't bother me, go home, and make a Facebook page out of it!”. And I did, but just for him to laugh. That turned out to be immensely successful. It was surprising on many levels. I never thought that my drawings, so simple, would be the center of my profession. And, in addition to the drawings being terrible, I thought this type of humor I have – the deconstruction of language, seeing the ridiculousness in everything, always being aware of double meanings – was something limited to my group of friends. Realizing there were many people with the same tuning after all, who know how to read my score, was amazing. Sometimes I think: if this went so well with something I don't know how to do, imagine if I ever do something I know how to do! [laughs] Even today, when I hear people call me an illustrator or cartoonist, it makes me laugh. I always thought that writing would be my way.
Hugo van der Ding
LL: Drawing has emerged as another tool for you to communicate. You also did television, radio, theatre. Do you feel you have a lot to say to the world?

HVDD: The writing will be what I have to say to the world, these other things I have started more selfishly because they are things I have always wanted to experience. I've always wanted to know the behind the scenes and find out how television, radio, or theatre is made. However, whether on television or radio, perhaps I have something to say to the world about what entertainment can be. The podcast “Vamos todos Morrer” [in English “We’re all going to die”] emerged from this vision. I think it's possible to learn something in moments of entertainment. And the truth is, when people comment on the podcast, they say exactly that: “I laugh, but I also learn something new”.

LL: Do you think it's possible to laugh at everything, even death?

HVDD: Yes. We almost always come up with a comic angle. There are stupid deaths, there are last sentences that make you want to laugh. And something that surprised me is that kids love “Vamos todos Morrer”. A child, Diogo, wrote to us saying he liked Gago Coutinho a lot and asked to come on the show on the day we talked about him. And he was! Children don't put that much weight on death, I think that's why.

LL: This podcast became a book, released recently.

Yes. It's a selection of 140 biographies. I tried to make it as diverse as possible, with the same number of men and women and with representation from the five continents. This process was difficult, and I talk about it in the book. Until the 19th century, this diversity did not exist in European historiography: only white men were mentioned. And it's not that there weren't different people, with artistic and social contributions. They were, in fact, the majority, but their stories were not heard. History must stop being investigated and written only by white men. When, for example, a black woman goes on to investigate history, she has a different perspective of the same document. Until recently, there weren't even biographies of all the queens of Portugal, and we are talking about women at the highest social level. Imagine what remains to be told!

“There will be a time when I will hide, start writing and I will be happier”.

LL: Have you published other books?

Yes, almost 10 years ago, I published a book with comics from A Criada Malcriada. And I also wrote a detective novel, published by Fernando Alvim. In fact, the book came about like that. He said he had a publisher – “Cego, Surdo e Mudo” – and invited me to write a book. I wrote a detective novel. I wrote it on holiday in Amsterdam, in two weeks. Agatha Christie invented pretty much every solution to a crime, and I think I came up with another one she hadn't tried. If you read O Inspetor Acidental you will find it surprising.

LL: You have never been a lawyer or a diplomat, now you know “what you want to be when you grow up”?

I really want to be a writer! I'm loving everything I do – radio, theater – but I know there's going to be a time when I'm going to hide and start writing – serious writing, novels, proper stuff – and I'll be happier.

LL: So you don't lack ideas for books, some already on paper, is that it?

Yes. I've been writing since I was a kid and have thousands of books started. I love making up titles, first and last sentences for books. All my projects already have these three things. And I already have some complete books. For a long time, my books were very dark things, very serious and heavy, without any grace. Once I started the comics, I realized the themes could still be heavy, but used with grace and a certain black humor. It changed my life! Now I know exactly what the first book I'm going to publish will be and what style I want to follow. The style that I enjoy the most and with which I get moments of greater creativity.

LL: Which authors inspire you the most?

I am always very attentive to new writers from different countries. I really like Pakistani, Indian, Chinese, Japanese writers. There is a lot in Brazilian literature that influences me, too. There is a cadence in the Portuguese language written by Brazilians that I think is incredible, in the works of Rubem Fonseca or Nelson Rodrigues, for example. Among Portuguese writers, of course, Eça or Agustina are references. Then on the more comic spectrum, on an international level, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster. There are many voices, and very different ones, but these universes all together make up what I liked to do.

LL: Can you choose the cardinal book that marked your life? What was it and why?

Maybe I have a book for every period of my life. It's very difficult to choose just one. But A Passage to India is definitely one of the books of my life, either because of Forster's writing or because the book is also his story, about discovering himself. Even because it took him so many years to write it, because he needed to find his voice, it's something I identify with a lot. I read it precisely before going to India.

LL: And if you stayed forever on a desert island, what book would you take with you?

In this case, I would take Anatomy of Restlessness, because of the emotional value of the book my best friend gave me, because it's the book I take with me on every trip and because it's a travel book. If I stayed forever on a desert island, surrounded only by the sea, I think having a travel book would be the coolest thing.