‘Inventing something as a writer is very liberating’

Marc Swerts: ‘People do crazy things sometimes and I find that very interesting. I look at a person’s face, the eyebrows, how the eyes move and what those signals mean.’Lieven Geun’s picture

He says that he is always a big fan of the English TV series Fawlty Towers because its concept is as simple as it is recognizable. “The series takes place in a place everyone has been to, a hotel, and in each episode something happens that can lead to great hilarity. Food poisoning, an incompetent Irish handyman or a group of offended German tourists. Add to that a few recognizable characters, and a legendary series is born,” says Marc Swerts.

With that knowledge in mind appeared in 2020 Coversa campus novelfollowed by After Switzerland (2021) and recently the trilogy was concluded with half of the world. Only the setting of that trilogy is not a hotel, but a university.

Swerts occupies a special place at the Tilburg Academy. As a professor of discourse studies, he specializes in non-verbal communication and prosody. He researches things such as intonation, speech melody, rhythm and pause – in combination with non-verbal signals such as hand gestures and facial expressions. In addition, he writes novels at a high pace and in his spare time is also a successful musician. One of his latest achievements is accompanying the singer Spinvis during the last Science Gala on his hit A child of God.

You unwittingly chose this research area thanks to Ferdi E., the kidnapper of Gerrit Jan Heijn.

“I worked at an institute, and my colleagues had studied Ferdi E’s tapes. For the younger readers: this is the man who had kidnapped Heijn in 1987 and who made his demands known on a cassette tape broadcast on TV. The colleagues have tried to find out whether you can say something about the person, the character traits or the origin based on the characteristics of the voice. The people who had done the analysis had to admit afterwards that it was indeed very disappointing. For example, it was said at the time that it would be someone with a non-Dutch background, but in retrospect that was not the case.”

“As a result, I also started listening to that tape. Do I hear other things in this voice, I wondered. Then the fire lit up in my house and I noticed, for example, that I also started listening in a different way at home. My wife once said I wasn’t listening. I do, I said, but I’ll listen to you wording things. I listened to her voice and knew, for example, when she would finish her sentence. The same applies to this conversation. I look at you and I can predict exactly when you will nod or say aha. If you start to pay attention, it’s only then that you notice how much you do these kinds of things on autopilot.”

You probably see and hear examples like this all day long.

“Sure. It was sometime in 2009 and every day I drove from my hometown Grote-Brogel in Belgium to the campus in Tilburg. The car radio was always on and the hour I heard the news, often read by the same lady. After hearing her a few times, I realized that she consistently misused stress. She often emphasized the wrong words, which can sometimes lead to very wrong suggestions. It makes a big difference whether you emphasize the last word or the penultimate word in a sentence like ‘I feel taken seriously’.

Why are you doing this research?

“It is pure fascination. I have with humans what others have with monkeys. They go to the zoo to see how strange the animals are, or that they pick fleas apart. And some people think it’s so funny when it actually isn’t. The monkeys are just themselves. Conversely, people sometimes do crazy things, and I find that very interesting. I look at a person’s face, the eyebrows, how the eyes move and what these signals mean. And no, I’m certainly not the first to do this, Darwin was already investigating it back then.”

In addition to doing research, your third book in three years has recently been published.

“The books are a magnification of something that we all experience from time to time. For me, it takes place in the university world. My first book was about the prize circle, which plays a big role in the academic world. The second book is about escapism, where a main character attends a conference in Switzerland. My new book is about reorganization and renewal, focusing on an open day being organized and all that comes with it.”

You draw recognizable caricatures. The American professor who likes himself the most. Daughter of the principal who has a side job at the university and a secretary who mainly works with her nails.

“They are indeed caricatures, but that is the nature of satire. When I started writing, I wondered if I should write deeply philosophical or psychological, but this genre suited me better. Like in Fawtley Towers I don’t want to change the grades either. And without comparing myself to the greats, I try to have a Carmiggelt approach. I like to write about normal things that happen every day in college. And I hope it’s fascinating and recognizable, even to people who are unfamiliar with the university and who may never have heard of a chancellor or a gown.”

When I read your book, I was reminded of a statement by the philosopher and psychiatrist Damiaan Denys, who said that science is mainly about power and reputation. Monday morning at the coffee machine, people brag about the amount of lectures and the best publications.

“I recognize that. The people in my book are just people. The professors, too. Or rather the professors. Not only do they have well-thought-out ideas about important subjects, but they’re also preoccupied with the size of their office. Just to name an example . In addition, a university is also a hierarchical organization, which is quite remarkable. Because ideas can be hierarchical, one idea may be worth more than another, but who tells that idea doesn’t really matter. If you’re in the military, you understand me that you need a colonel and a general. Because when it’s war, you have to listen to one person.”

Science is about finding the truth and your novels are fiction. Is it complicated for you?

“As a scientist, you are bound by content and style, and you must not lie. You report what you are sure of. It is interesting, but also limiting. As a writer, the opposite is true. I have to invent and I choose the shape I want. It is sometimes very liberating.”

You seem like an all-rounder. At the last Science Gala, you thought it was no problem to play a saxophone piece with Spinvis (Erik de Jong, ed.) after your lecture.

“I get time for it, and it gives me energy. As a musician, you have to be creative on the spot. At the Science Gala, I asked Erik: what should I do? “Do something,” he said. It was exciting and scary, but it was very satisfying afterwards.”


Marc Swerts (11 May 1966, Turnhout) is a writer, musician and scientist. He is Flemish, lives in Belgium, but is affiliated with Tilburg University in the Netherlands, where he researches aspects of non-verbal communication and prosody. He is married and has three children.

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