Thomas McGonigle: I'm wondering, what must you be thinking about, when once again you sit down to do one of these interviews?
Cees Nooteboom: What do you mean? To begin an interview again?
TM: You've done many of these over the years.
CN: Yes. But you see, interviews are mutual things, whereas writing has to be done by oneself, alone. In an interview, one is partly dependent on the interviewer. There are people who, for example, know my work, and then there are people who just have to do an interview for a daily newspaper or something, and they do not really know me. For each kind of interviewer you speak in a different way. The great thing about interviews is that they can force you to become concrete about certain ideas, and then you sometimes discover things, just as you do in writing.
TM: Is there ever the temptation to create a new personality? Because I remember Nabokov once said in an interview that there was always the temptation to create a totally new person for each interviewer.
CN: I've been traveling the third world most of the last forty years, and I've been writing European, Asian travel, South American travel. People always come with these questions: Why are you always traveling? Is it an escape? Over the years, I have given so many different answers to that question, and I've fabricated so many answers that who knows? By now I don't even know what the truth is. But during today's interview I'm not tempted to act as a totally different person.
TM: So what I want to start with is All Souls Day. Your other novels are much shorter. This one is well over twice the usual length. Why?
CN: One hopes that would be self-evident. The characters asked for a long novel.
TM: The characters?
CN: Yes. Also, Berlin, Communism, the Second World War, and terrorism are large subjects. Since the novel deals with these historical subjects, as well as a man's reaction to them, plus the issue of personal fate, I would think you need a few pages.
TM: All Souls Day tells the story of a documentary filmmaker whose wife and child are killed in a plane crash. They're on their way to Spain for a holiday. He then goes to live in Berlin and spends his time walking through the city. What attracts you to Berlin?
CN: I have a long personal history with Berlin, though the book is not autobiographical (I've not lost a wife and a child in a plane crash). Berlin, first of all, to the Dutch people, is the capital of the former enemy, and when, as a child, one heard messages, speeches, or directives from Der Fhürer's headquartersóthey came from there. There is this powerful, mythical connotation that arises from a child's life. Then, after the war, we didn't have much to do with Germany. I was still young, but as soon as I could travel, I went south to where the light is and where things were not destroyedóat least not in the same way. The whole idea of Germany was somehow anathema, yet without us being too conscious of the fact.
TM: A Song of Truth and Semblance begins with a person sitting down at a table and a sentence comes to that character: "The colonel falls in love with the doctor's wife."
CN: This is really true. And this is important, because people do not understand that my books are not planned. I spoke to creative-writing students in Houston in November, and at first they didn't believe me when I said that I did not know what I was going to do when I started that novel. But I certainly did not. I was sitting around feeling some sense of desperation. Then I found this first sentence, "The colonel falls in love with the doctor's wife," and from that the book developed. I have no plans for books. There is no master scheme. The thing about A Song of Truth and Semblance is that it's about fiction and the making of fiction. I've never been to Bulgaria. But people who have read the book think that I have.
TM: Which is contrary to those writers who plan out their books and talk about them as flowers that have to be arranged and rearranged.
CN: I remember visiting Faulkner's house in Oxford, Mississippi, and right on the wall in pencil he had plotted out the day-to-day chronology of A Fable. I find that fantastic. I'm full of jealousy. But I can't do it. Instead, my craft is scrupulous description. It comes from my travel life. It's what I learned from traveling. And it sharpens my descriptions of Lisbon in The Following Story and of Berlin in All Souls Day.
TM: I am aware in some sense that you're not a Catholic novelist, but your novels are soaked in Catholicism.
CN: My father died in the war, and my mother married, in 1948, a very Catholic man. As a result, I was sent to a Catholic boarding school because the best education was done by monks. Maybe this stepfather hoped I would become a priest, but that didn't happen. But, as somebody has pointed out, in every one of my novels there is a monk, and I now find it a very big temptation to never leave out a monk.
TM: Are there any disadvantages to your nomadic life?
CN: Oh, I suppose there is a disadvantage to every kind of life. But like I say in my book Nooteboom's Hotel, I've been in so many hotels in the last fifty years I've built a hotel in my mind that is poor and rich, that is third world and first world, that has a view on one side of the Polar Ice Sea and on the other side of a Caribbean beach. It has an unending number of rooms, and in each of these rooms I have written something because much of my work has been done while traveling. All Souls, for example, was written in California, in Australia, and in Spain. I carried the book as a sort of fixed burdenóit's snow and Berlin, Berlin and snow. The image must have been very interiorized because it was a few years after the German experience that I started to write that book, and I was in sunny Southern California.
TM: Like Calvino or Nabokov, you write books that have an independent life. And you invite people to join in that life.
CN: Or not, I'm afraid. For instance, A Song of Truth and Semblance is a book that's very dear to me. But I don't want to publish it again in Europe.
TM: Why is that?
CN: Well, because I think it probably won't sell.
TM: But then surely people will ask you, Why can't you write a best-seller? You're a skillful journalist. You've traveled. Why aren't you turning out the next equivalent of a John Grisham novel?
CN: I couldn't. I couldn't do it. Though I must confess that I haven't read such booksóbut they are books with plots. Very ingenious, apparently. And they must be in some way very good for the public because people love them. Could you ask Calvino to write a Grisham?
TM: I've noticed in The Following Story, Fernando Pessoa reappears, as he does in a number of your books. What is the attraction that people feel in general to Pessoa, and what do you yourself feel?
CN: Well, he did something that many of us would like to do, only, if we were to do it now, it would be like an imitation: to invent all the writers within the writer that you already yourself are. That is, to divide your personality and create fictional people who write real books. I believe this is the most fictional thing you can do. Remember that famous line by Marianne Moore: "Real gardens with imaginary . . ." No. "Imaginary gardens with real toads in them." I mean to have imaginary poets that write real poems. Fantastic. No passports, but they produce books.
TM: And the wonderful sadness of The Book of Disquiet, an endless reiteration of sadness and every possible approach to it.
CN: He drank himself to death. But he left twenty-seven thousand pages of unpublished manuscript. Incredible.
TM: Then finally, just to mention the one major travel book of yours that is available in English, Roads to Santiago, I wonder why it isn't more fragmented. The narrator has these long chapters, but it seems to be a book that should be divided into many discrete little sections.
CN: I never wrote it as a book but as a series of articles. I kept coming back to Santiago since Santiago is, for me, the spiritual capital of Spain. Spain is so many different countries, yet it's still united through this place because it's the burial site of the apostle James, the patron saint of Spain. All these pieces were written without the thought that they would come together as a book. But they did, and I think this book forgives itself, if you see what I mean.
TM: So at the moment, you're, as you've said, "waiting for a novel?"
CN: Yes, I always put it like this, "waiting for a novel." It's very difficult to define this, but it's sort of a chemical situation. If you add one more drop of something, a solid will turn into a liquid. So I have to bear with myself for a year or two, thinking about certain themes in a way, desperate or not. Then, at some given point, this drop of something will fall and then I can start again . . . take up the burden of inventing characters for a new novel. I remember reading something in the Los Angeles Times that the plot of All Souls Day is very thin. How much do I or does anyone care about plots? There are millions of writers who write books with plots. There is certainly a plot in this book. But the book is also one long digression and philosophical argument. I'm prepared to defend that because there are enough books without it. So I take the liberty to digress and then, of course, people can take it or leave it. But I missóand this is a sentiment I often have, and maybe it's a form of self- indulgence, time will tellóbut I miss my characters. I actually miss them. I think I have these marvelous characters and they could have gone on talking forever. Why don't they? If they did, I'd be getting nearer, without any claims for comparable quality, to a Proustian novel. But there is also a voice that rings in my ear. I was befriended by Mary McCarthy through an accident that happened in 1962. As a fledgling writer, I attended a writer's conference in Edinburgh. I met several people there. There was Norman Mailer . . . and Mary McCarthy.
TM: This was the famous conference about William S. Burroughs in 1962. Mary McCarthy was a great defender of Naked Lunch.
CN: Yes, all that. And Mary somehow, let's say, took to me. This friendship endured 'til her death and I often visited her homes in Maine and Paris. There was something very difficult in that relationshipóshe couldn't read my books because they were not yet translated. For her, it was like intuition or instinct. I could read her books, and I admired her essays. Her mind was very sharp. Of course, I was flattered that someone of her stature saw something in me. When Rituals was translated, it was like going for my exams because she would have told me if she didn't like it. I had heard her say things to people that gave me the shudders: "This is the worst book I've read in a year," or things like that. But she decided to like it. Later, when we got to know each other better and she asked in a letter, "How's so-and-so in Holland and how's so-and-so?" I replied, "So-and-so has just published a six-hundred-page novel." And she wrote back to me, "Cees, you stay small."