What's the best thing about writing?
Go back to your childhood, the morning of your birthday. You wake up, jump out of bed, and can't wait to start unwrapping presents. Then suddenly it is late afternoon, you don't want to stop, but you have to. Writing at its best is waking up like this every day.
What's the hardest part of writing?
The hardest part 1: To begin.
The hardest part 2: To stop.
The hardest part 3 is a warning to the home front: On my best days I am unreachable; on my worst insufferable.
Have you always wanted to write?
Writing and speaking, the Power of Words, always fascinated me. I remember my father standing up, the sound of him tapping his glass, and being overwhelmed by that magical moment of expectation and silence around the table. At home words were abundant – books in abundance, a lot about politics, World War II, many in English. Recordings of favorite comedians. Long before I understood him, I quoted Wim Kan.
What do you prefer to read?
In my youth: William Earl Johns (Biggles), Alistair Maclean, Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Lawrence Sanders. Later in life: James Clavell, Robert B. Parker, Tony Hillerman, Elmore Leonard, John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Frederick Forsyth, David Baldacci, Stephen King. Much later: Tom Wolfe, Scott Turow, John le Carré. In my mother tongue W.F. Hermans, more than Reve or Mulisch. Koch, Bervoets and Worthy more than AFTh. and Wieringa.
What do you prefer to write?
I love this genre, “to thrill” as its engine. You should go to sleep, really, but you need to know what happens next. I like to explore the boundaries and play with its clichés, like serial killers crueler than Hannibal Lecter and cops with personality disorders and drinking problems. Jan Peter Balkenende as the main character, anyone? I would like my books to add something, to be different from what already exists. That should tell us something about our world (there is an angry white pastor in me).
Any tips for aspiring colleagues?
Tip 1: To begin, every day again.
Tip 2: Turn off the littles voices in your head (whispering 'this is nothing’). Forget your ambition that it must be something right away.
Tip 3: Read and read. See what colleagues do and how they do it, and think about its effect. Books you dislike are a magnifying glass on your own blind spots.
Tip 4: Read Stephen King's On Writing.
Tip 5: Never listen to tips from colleagues.
What came first, suspense or literature?
Read Homer and you will know. Read all the great storytellers, read Shakespeare, Dickens, The old Testament. No chicken no egg – and vice versa. You have your well written books and your less well written books, good reads and bad ones, to each his own, it doesn’t get more complicated than that.
What are the best opening lines in fiction?
The three that immediately spring to mind:
1. ‘The doorman is an invalid.’ (Nooit meer slapen, W.F. Hermans)
2. ‘With one particular horse, called Nugget, he embraces.' (Equus, Peter Shaffer)
3. ‘They should shoot those damn Kennedy’s,’ said the Secretary of State.’ (Tranen over Hollandia, Tomas Ross)
What constitutes a good ending?
Since my debut, there have been discussions about my endings. Openings and closings are linked. Moving targets until the very last second. A deadline helps me, literally, in prohibiting further changes. I like to postpone making the final adjustment. To quote my M: ‘Never an ending, always a beginning.’
I love Hollywood endings (they lived happily ever after), but most times my main characters get in my way, they prefer to eternally wrestle. With open eyes, with the best of intentions and with full conviction, they persist, often achieving the exact opposite of what they strive for.
Where do your ideas originate?
In the twilight zone between the conscious and the subconscious, the light and the dark, the high and the low. I get them, that’s for sure, but not in the active sense – to say I invent them would be too much credit. The things I invent, words a character should say or actions he or she should undertake are often my biggest hurdles to overcome. On my best days, my characters do the work, and all I have to do is listen. For those who want to know more about this: Read Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic. But beware, says King (and he should know): 'All art is magic, but not all magic is white.'
Do you do a lot of research?
Yes, but we shouldn’t exaggerate. Words are not the truth, ceci n'est pas une pipe. I do not need to go to Sarajevo to describe what it was like on the Apfelkade on June 28, 1914. And I am quite sure that my Prime Minister in Queen's Day would have been less true had I interviewed him.
Where does your love for the international setting come from?
I need space and distance, otherwise I'm too close to it. I must be an 'absentee', as Frans Thomése nicely puts it. Without distance we cannot detect the best point to zoom in. Queen’s Day was a great experiment, but getting lost in those 146 minutes in one room was almost impossible. Whereas for me it often starts when the main character (or the writer) is lost. When I stay in the Dutch flatlands, my writing becomes Swiebertje and Bromsnor.
How do you handle bad reviews?
The secret is not believing the reviews in which you are compared to John le Carré. Then you don't have to work as hard if someone calls you a failure.
What is the interviewer's secret?
I have interviewed David Baldacci, Karen Slaughter, Nicci French, Jo Nesbø, Saskia Noort, Tomas Ross, Daan Hermans, Deon Meyer, Simone van der Vlugt, among others – some of them more successfully than others.
Interviews are a co-production, it's more than just questions and answers. It is a dance with a stranger, to an unknown musical tune. Of course you should lead, but it only becomes truly beautiful if you can also follow. With Deon Meyer you can hardly not ask his opinion on the situation problems in contemporary South Africa, while at the same time you realize that he must be exhausted by it, each and every time. You can only admire how patient and nuanced Deon continues to answer.
With Nicci French, the best moment was when someone in the audience knew better what was in their refrigerator at home than Nicci and Gerard themselves. David Baldacci told the same anecdote twice. First in the afternoon at his publisher Bruna and later at the Broese Kemink bookstore – the exact same words, the exact same timing, the exact same twinkle in his eye. As if the story occurred to him on the spot, although he must have told that story a thousand times. That’s professionalism. To surprise him, you have to work hard – then maybe Nicci French’s refrigerator is worth a try.
What is the story behind the new website?
My new site was created by Leads2 – and those simple words make it sound much easier than it was. Erik During presented me with the exact same questions I ask just as offhandedly when I try to get to the heart of the matter, but which are not as easy to answer when you look in the mirror.
Such as: What do I actually want to achieve with my work? Am I looking for debate? For the truth? Do I want to convince my readers? Pfff. Yes and no. I want to be convincing, of course, but initially I write because something touches me personally. Something I loathe or admire beyond measure. Something I can't really understand, but want to or need to understand. My work therefore does not start so much with my audience, as with a question to myself. Or with an opinion that I declare too firmly that needs closer inspection. Do you already know what you see? Then look again. My characters look for these different perspectives in my name - they reflect, they tilt and turn and get caught up in the opposites of previous images they held. To top it all off, the design is vintage Henk van der Hart, the site was build by Kevin 'no prob' Rietveld.
There are seven years between Queen's Day and Rebound 1 .
My dear colleague Daan Hermans put it this way, when I told her about the approaching completion of Enter: ‘It is about bloody time, Asman.’
What about Rebound 4?
Signed the contract. Wrote the manuscript. Announced the book. Rewrote the manuscript. Postponed release date. Rewrote once again. Delayed once again.
I can be pedantic and refer to Dexter: after three seasons, they should have demanded more of themselves. Remember the crispness of Casa di Papel season one? Nothing wrong with commerce, of course not, we need bread on the table. And to be honest: I was also curious what happened next, with Ty and Charlie, with Oz and Gar. So I gave it my absolute best shot.
But each time the result was not to my liking. A fourth part, in my opinion, should not be "more of the same", it has to add something, a twist that no one – not even me, apparently – sees coming. The manuscript lies on the shelf, whispering “forget me not” - so who knows, in two years from now, or ten.
Who inspired you for the child's voice in Simon Zonder Zonder?
In my previous work, my adult alter egos (and George Smiley's) have played the main part. Prior to Simon zonder zonder I never attempted a child's voice. Since I don't remember much of my own childhood, let alone my way of thinking back then, I looked for examples in fiction. I reread classics like Beckman, Terlouw and Dragt, Safran Foers Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Hosseini's The Kite Runner, Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjama. Without a doubt, Michael Frayn's Spies was the book that inspired me most when writing Simon zonder zonder.
Is Simon zonder zonder autobiographical?
I write fiction, my weapon of choice is imagination. I describe actions I never did, thoughts I never had, people I never met, places I never visited. Still, at the same time, everything I write and wrote is extremely personal.
So much for the general answer. For Simon zonder zonder let me add the following (spoiler alert): I was montessori and my all-time best friend ever was not. His name was not Johnny, but indeed he was much more daring than I was. At his home things were allowed I would not dream of bringing over to my house – I liked very much to play over there. His father (who was not called Viktor) worked in the harbor. A big man with a big heart and big hands. I remember huge bags of homemade prawn crackers. Everything that fell off the truck in Simon zonder zonder is imagined and my sole responsibility, as is Simon’s grandfather's holy war, his father's darkroom, as are André Rieu and Freek de Jonge, Ubbingen and Grambergen.
(WA, July 2022)