Date: 5 februari 2021
Interviewer: Vanessa Joosen
Transcript: Cédrique Caethoven
Copy-editing: Merel Vanegeren
Translation: Lindsey Geybels
VJ: Your books are a very interesting corpus for our research because they are so diverse: spread over time of course, almost over forty years, and then there is a lot of variation in the books themselves.
EF: Yes, there is variation in genres and in ages. Double variation actually.
You debuted fairly late compared to some other authors. The first book of yours we have been able to find was published when you were about forty-four. Had you written much before that?
Yes, but that was more in the journalistic sphere. Back then, critical city newspapers still existed. Maybe you are too young to remember that. That was democracy from the bottom up, and in some cities city newspapers were then developed, especially following municipal politics very closely. In Hasselt, that was the Nieuwsgierige Hasselaar. That was sold in newsstands in single copies, and it was successful for a number of years. I wrote a lot in it; that was one thing. There was also a pedagogical journal, Impuls, a broad pedagogical journal, and I wrote quite a lot in that too. That wasn’t actually literature, but I knew I had a smooth pen, so I wasn’t afraid either. When I started writing, I was actually not afraid that it would be a tremendous failure. Maybe a failure in that it wouldn’t be accepted, but I didn’t start writing like a scaredy-cat. I did have some writing experience and even in those pedagogical journals I poured some pedagogical insights into the form of a short story, or a fairy tale, or something. I had been writing for several years anyway, but never literature, not that.
Did you also write as a child and as a young person?
No, I have never kept a diary. I have always been an avid reader, though. I think in primary school I was already reading three to four books a week, which were not very long books of course. Throughout my life, I have really been an avid reader and over the years I have also ploughed through the whole of world literature. That started at the end of secondary school, say the penultimate year, that’s where it broke open. Despite the teachers, because in those days literature was nothing to those priests, they didn’t know anything. Fortunately, I had a friend, a lifelong friend, he is as avid a book lover as I am. The two of us ploughed through the whole of world literature from the poiesis onwards.
But back then you didn’t feel the need to write anything yourself?
No, because I became a writer by chance. When I was forty-three I wrote Spetters op de kermis (Splashes at the Fair) and when I was forty-four it came out. I was always very committed, at that time I was in the grassroots groups of Jef Ulburghs, the priest from Genk who founded world schools, and helped found Agalev in Limburg and so on – I’ve always been a fairly left-wing rascal. When I was forty-three, those meetings stopped. Then I thought: if the world doesn’t want to change, then let the world scram. I could still see myself climbing a mountain and stuff like that. At that time, an article appeared in Het Belang van Limburg, an interview with a couple I knew who had a children’s bookstore in Hasselt, which still exists – Poespas. In it, they said that they were fed up with having to sell books they didn’t fully support and therefore preferred to start their own publishing company, which became publishing house Clavis. And, that was the crucial sentence, that they hoped to discover new Limburg talent. And I thought, yes, that might be me, new Limburg talent – more of a comic play than anything else, of course. And since all those meetings were cancelled, I had three, four free evenings a week and had plenty of time.
I just had a daughter in her fourth year of primary school and thought, “I’m going to write for that age because at least I know them; I know what they can handle in terms of language and humour”. Splashes at the Fair was that, and it was immediately accepted. I think that was the first book published by Clavis. That also won the Children’s Jury award at the time and then, of course, they asked if I wanted to write another book. I wasn’t thinking about that then. Back then, I was still in the stage of “Ah, so I can write a children’s book, good, now I’m going to climb a mountain”. But then they kept nagging me and I wrote a second book. That was Tenten in de wei (Tents in the Meadow) and it won the Children’s Jury award again. Then they approached me again and gradually I got the bug. I got into writing, more of a folly than anything else, but that’s how it happened. So no, it’s not like: as a child I already knew I wanted to be a writer later. That’s not true with me.
Fortunately, there was that article and they were also persistent enough at Clavis to urge you on. Since then, you have been at it for many years; just under forty years. Of course, you yourself have gone through different phases in your life. Do you feel that your own age has played a role in your writing process?
Not really, no. What I do really like is that I waited so long to start writing. I think my age when I started did determine the rest of my writing process quite a bit. I was forty-three, which is pretty old if you want to be an author. Not many wait that long to start writing.
And why do I like that? In retrospect, you already have a foundation, you’ve gone through a lot in a lifetime. Actually, all the most important things there are have already passed in terms of life experience. Also in terms of ideas you have and what you’ve been through and all the possible feelings you’ve had. That gives a foundation that allows you to grow quickly as a writer. Splashes at the Fair was more like a creative exercise. I don’t know if you ever read it, Splashes at the Fair? Nowadays you wouldn’t write that, , of course, but well, that’s okay. That was still only really a folly: a once-over to see what I could do for children with language and with humour. The first three or four books were like that. But in the meantime, of course, I thought: I should quietly go and see what children’s literature is on the market right now. I actually had no idea anymore, because I hadn’t read any children’s books for thirty years, of course. For that, I had to go mainly to the ‘Dutchiees’. At that time, Flemish children’s literature was still mainly in the hands of teachers. Apart from Henri van Daele and someone else here and there, there was nobody who really fascinated me. If you then took Dutch literature, you ended up with people like Guus Kuijer, Wim Hofman, Joke van Leeuwen, Peter van Gestel, you name it. Then I thought: “Hey, this is something different from Splashes at the Fair. This is about something. This is about life”.
Hence: in 1985, Splashes at the Fair came out, but in 1988 I wrote, among other things, Geen wonder dat moeder met de goudvissen praat (No wonder Mother Talks to the Goldfish). In terms of sales my biggest success ever, that was also widely praised. Stille brieven (Silent Letters) also appeared three years later, which was already my first work in poetry. And especially Begraaf me over de bergen (Bury Me over the Mountains), that also appeared then, and I still consider one of my best and deeply rooting books I’ve written so far. That’s all on a time span of three years. Four or five years later, I don’t remember exactly, came Zomer zeventien (Summer Seventeen) and I immediately won the State Prize with that. So that went very fast and that’s only possible when you’re a bit older.
When you publish a book at 20, you shouldn’t think you can do that kind of thing in a span of four or five years, because that difference is not big enough. So I’ve always been very happy that I only started later in life. That really did push my career into the heights right away, also because that’s when I started reading adolescent novels. Those names are almost forgotten now, but those were individuals like New Zealand’s Margaret Mahy, Canada’s Cynthia Voight, Aidan Chambers and others. Those translated works, that was really a world that opened up. The fact that you could find such depth in children’s literature, I had never known that. When I was a child, none of those things existed. Young adult novels are a phenomenon of the 1980s, as far as I know. What was available here in Flanders was really a massive eye-opener. I could handle that genre, as Summer Seventeen proved by winning the State Prize. That I was able to handle it in a very short time was precisely because I was already so old. I am convinced that the road would have been much longer otherwise. Because it takes a while to find your favourite themes and especially your own language timbre. Anyone who delves a little into my work will immediately recognise my language timbre in the books I have written for teenagers and a crossover audience. You see that phenomenon in all writers. When reading Louis Paul Boon, no matter which book of his, after seven sentences you can already tell that’s Louis Paul Boon. Once you have found that linguistic timbre and developed certain characters, which are obviously in large part reflections of yourself, then that is your world. And you don’t actually evolve much more as a writer after that. If it’s good, you don’t need to evolve anymore. Just like with Louis Paul Boon, I want to say: I’ve read De Kapellekensbaan, now I don’t actually need to read Zomer te Ter-Muren, because it’s the same again, but with different words and images. And yet you read Zomer te Ter-Muren simply because you fell in love with that linguistic timbre, that way of writing by Louis Paul Boon. So I don’t mind that you don’t evolve anymore.
Do you feel that that language timbre has remained fairly consistent despite the diversity in your work?
Within the age categories, yes. Another example that age no longer matters. The purest proof is my newest book, Panda & Eekhoorn (Panda & Squirrel). That is in a collection of stories for oldest preschoolers. That was published last year and it sold out within three months, despite the fact that libraries and bookshops were still closed at the time. So it sold out exclusively through word-of-mouth, I suspect, and internet sales. Fifteen hundred copies in three months. Those are preschool stories for five plus; I myself am almost eighty, so I don’t know if age still has any influence. The starting age as I said, that has been very important. But certainly no real influence after that.
In the newspaper this week, there was a quote from Jan Terlouw, who said that he cannot write for children at the moment because he has too little feeling for children.
To me that is rubbish. It does not resonate with me. Besides, I have always kept far away from the reality of children’s lives. I have never dared to use texting or referred to I don’t know what social media in my books, even when they were about contemporary teenagers. I say, “no, that’s not what life is about”. These are writers who want to be youthful and say, “look, I understand young kids and I can be contemporary and I am as young as ever”. And then they start with all the possible delusions of the day that sneak up on that youth too, which then later creep into their books. I have always kept far away from that. I don’t need all that, that’s not what my books are about.
For Aidan Chambers, that was a reason to stop writing for adolescents; that social media, he didn’t want to get into that. He may have felt more that need to write from the immediate world of young people.
No, me neither, but whether that’s a reason to stop? I stopped writing adolescent books, but for a very different reason. I think I haven’t written one since Minne, het mozaïekmeisje (Minne, the Mosaic Girl). That’s from 2015, so six years ago. There are two reasons for that. First, that doesn’t sell anymore, you practically can’t get rid of that. The publishers really aren’t keen on it anymore either, unless it’s a thriller or I don’t know what all that science fiction stuff (all clones of themselves and games they’ve watched) – rubbish all round. I was a lecturer for Davidsfonds for a while and 3/4th to 4/5th of the manuscripts were all Tolkien clones. I got very sick of that. It didn’t interest me, but of course it interested the publishers, the science fiction clones or thrillers. The wave before that were horror novels . Those are precisely all things that did not interest me at all, not as a reader and therefore not as a writer. I never read those kinds of books. The actual adolescent novel or crossover novel as Querido has done such a fantastic series over the years, that is no longer trending, so that doesn’t sell. And then you might say: are you doing it for the money then? No, of course not, then you’re better off laying tiles undeclared on a Saturday afternoon somewhere, then you’ll earn more. It’s not about the money, it’s about the investment. If the time and energy investment is very large and what you get in return as social thanks (and that simply translates into money these days) is so small, you must be quite a masochist to still do it.
The second reason is that it is indeed a huge mental and spiritual investment after all, a real young adult novel. In that sense, age does play a part, that I am starting to think: is it still worth it? Because what you have to tell, you have actually already told in several variations. You can add another variation, but the need is gone. Not that you feel you’re done writing, but that you’re not going to tread fundamentally new paths anyway and that it’s all been told once already. So at that age, why put in that mental and that spiritual effort anymore? Especially if, on top of that, it is also not appreciated by today’s readers.
For those reasons, I’ve stopped writing young adult novels. Hence, I fall back on things I can write with my eyes closed, such as a short read-aloud story for toddlers. Once you have an idea, it is not written down, polished and moulded into its final form in one weekend. And then if you write about six of those, you’re done in six weekends, even though it can apparently catch on wonderfully. Get it? That’s also a bit age-related.
Yes. But those trends in adolescent literature have not encouraged you to look at the other side and start writing more for adults, for example?
Look [pause] First of all, I always thought the distinction between children’s literature and adult literature was rather silly and artificial. I know that Henri Van Daele always refused to call his books juvenile literature. I find the youth literature/adult literature distinction irrelevant; in fact, the only relevant thing is the distinction between good and bad books. Even as a reader, you have that. As an adult reader with a vast reading experience of say seventy years, if I pick up a Winnie the Pooh book and read a chapter from it, I enjoy it more than some supposedly profound or hyped contemporary novel.
At one point, I was a reviewer for the Standaard der Letteren, and back then I also had to read a lot of children’s literature and young adult novels. I often enjoyed those more than the adult books I was also reading at the time. I recently re-read Kafka’s short stories. That man remains fascinating because of the weird fantasies and the atmosphere he conjures up, but purely literary, he is a very arid writer. You should try re-reading some of his short stories, they’re in a colourless language. It shocked me, but of course I read those when I was 20. No, I have to be honest, I wouldn’t re-read Kafka out of my own inclination. Because he has so little to offer in terms of literariness. Only in terms of content do I think it’s wonderfully interesting, but of course that’s not enough. So that’s a first thing, that I thought: I started in children’s literature and I like that – although I’ve moved up in age from time to time.
The second thing I noticed, and that made my choice not to switch to adult literature definitive, is that I immediately noticed that in adolescent literature and crossover, you can put everything you would want to put in an adult book as well. There are children and sensitive teenagers, who are complete people with all the feelings that adults can also have. All the things that adults go through can all be experienced as an older child too, and you can make them the core of your adolescent book just as much as you can with an adult book. In that sense, I often found a good young adult novel more engaging than a good adult novel. There is also so little pomposity in a good adolescent novel. Adults always insist on being profound and want experiments in form that make you say, “yes, the author is having fun, but for once tell your story in a decent way”.
So I could put everything I wanted to put in children’s literature and even for a younger age. After all, I have written books that I think go pretty deep, even if it is only for 10-, 11-year-olds. I can give examples of that, but I’m not going to brag about myself, of course. So if you can still put everything into a niche in which you have debuted and in which you feel comfortable, why on earth would you make that switch?
By the way: a few things have appeared for adults anyway. Bury Me over the Mountains, for instance, first appeared as an adult book. I had sent it to Nelleke Berns, who was then with Houtekiet, part of Manteau at the time. She read it and said she thought it was very good, but perhaps more for adults. She then gave it to Julien Weverbergh, who was then the boss of Manteau Flanders, and immediately published it. It then won another prize. It was called the Mathias Kemp Prize, which no longer exists, I think. That was a prize from Belgian Limburg and Dutch Limburg. Over a period of five years, the jury chose the novel of the past five years that was the best of the two Limburgs. I’ll say it: I still consider that one of my best books. That was first published for adults and afterwards Nelleke Berns published it again for adolescents.
And then among the adaptations, there are also a few exclusively for adults, for instance Mijn ogentroost, mijn afgrond (My Eye Comfort, My Abyss), a commentary on Shakespeare poems. Or the adaptation of a couple of Grimm’s fairy tales, The Girl Without Hands, for instance. Then also the Boccaccio and Chaucer retelling, which is in between both. Of course, good adolescents can actually handle all adult books. I did read some adult books as an adolescent.
So I do have a few things for adults: Bury Me Over the Mountains, by chance, the Shakespeare poems and the Grimm adaptation were deliberately for adults, but both on demand. They suggest you do that and then I did that once. But those are more slip-ups.
And for you, they’re also suitable for adolescents?
Yes, I think so. Not My Eye Comfort, My Abyss, I don’t know if they could handle that. But all the other things could be done for, say, the last two years of secondary school. The adaptation of four tragedies by Shakespeare, in prose form, all of that can be done for the good reader. They are also all adolescents. At the same time, I am very often read by adults, you know, I can tell by the reactions. A lot of adults who start reading to their children and say: “I like that one myself, I’m going to read it all myself”. I do have some fans among adults who read my children’s and adolescent books – absolutely.
I wanted to go back to what you said earlier about your own children. You said that when you debuted, you had a daughter in fourth grade and that that helped you get an idea of what that target audience could handle in terms of humour and language. Did they inspire you in other ways? Has parenthood played an important role in your writing career?
No. Well actually yes, everything that makes up your personal life has an important role, of course. Every writer tries to write about “life”, i.e. to do something more than just come up with a story. I have also written some books that are just a story, but then they are preferably well-constructed stories that are fun to read, like De witte muur (The White Wall). These are things that children like to read. There, too, the intention from the start is to write a nice, solid, smooth, well-told story. I am not against that, especially if you want to drag the somewhat weaker readers along. But books that are about “life” are always autobiographical. Not in the sense that the things that happen in them actually happened in my life – they don’t have to at all. That autobiographical element plays out on a completely different level, namely in the creation of your characters and how they are in life, how they look at life, what thoughts go through their heads and what feelings they struggle with. The ink coming out of your pen, then, is actually the blood coming out of your veins. You can’t touch that and you shouldn’t touch that, because that is precisely what gives authenticity to your writing. If it is well written, you just go with that. That is necessary for the authenticity of your text, that it just comes from your own veins. Your own life experience comes out in the way the characters view and react to life. In that sense, a book with content is essentially always autobiographical. You can’t fantasise another life, you can’t.
And does it also have to do with memories? Are you then sometimes concerned with things you remember from your own childhood?
Well, sometimes it does include things that happened in real life, of course, but that is more the coincidence. Let me give you an example: we lived on the edge of the city park in Hasselt and the daughter went to primary school on the other side of the city park. At one point she came home, giggling and red. They had seen a flasher [laughs], an exhibitionist. I wrote a very funny story about that once. De eskipiet (The Eksipiet) is the name of that story – it’s in Met de kont tegen de krib (With the Bum Against the Manger). Summer Seventeen contains most of myself in terms of concrete elements of my life. The way he lives in that house with his mother and with a lot of children, there are some things in there that I really experienced. What also has a lot of personal stuff is No Wonder Mother Talks to the Goldfish. But that’s it in terms of concrete things that are traceable. Everything else is on the autobiographical level I outlined earlier, it doesn’t matter whether something really happened or not.
Sometimes it’s also about remembering what it feels like to be a child. I’ve talked about that with Joke van Leeuwen before.
Yes, but even there I have an opinion that differs from that of most other writers. I sometimes give readings to adults and they have usually read something of mine. Then one of them always says: “You must be observing children quite a lot, say, to be able to put it into words so pointedly, to characterise it”. But then I say that I never observe children. I also find children really irritating. No, what a good children’s writer does, and I do consider myself a good one, that’s how pretentious I am, that’s not easy to explain. Look, anyone who is thirty or forty or older, they drag a number of layers with them, they get piled on top of each other, everyone does that in their own way. What happens to most people, I think, is that between those different stages there is a layer of concrete, and so there are four, five, six or seven concrete divisions on top of each other. All most people remember then are a few amusing anecdotes, like the Witte van Zichem having to flee naked and then jumping into the stream – yeah okay, amusing. Or like people thinking back to their army days. What do they remember about their army time? Three or four pleasant things. But with a children’s literature author it’s different. They can descend back into themselves, there are openings in their concrete layers and so the writer can go back to when they were fourteen, seven or maybe even four or five. The writer can feel in touch with that again. For him, it’s not just the anecdotes, but really the feelings and thoughts he can recall. That’s how I’ve always experienced it anyway. So there is no need to look at the youth of today. In terms of feelings, the children remain the same as I was in my time. I am talking about basic experiences and basic feelings, so there is little or no evolution in that. There can’t be. Man has been making no evolution in that for a hundred thousand years in my opinion, but now I am rambling.
I hear that more often, that it is indeed mostly about feeling. Some authors do say that their children sometimes make them remember certain things, or that it can sometimes help them get back to what it was like to be a certain age. But that varies.
Yes. For me, it goes beyond certain memories, mind you. With me, it’s mostly about the atmosphere of feeling you felt at a certain age. I don’t know, it’s deeper than concrete memories. Like you can have more seamless contact with the world of a certain age anyway. Then when you really like being read and those kids feel it too…. I sometimes get touching emails that I helped someone through their depression with a particular book. That’s a sign that it was spot-on.
Do you sometimes reread older work of your own?
No. Someday I will, when I end up in an old people’s home, hoping I am not demented. Then I might read them all again. No. What I do do: once the book is out, I read through it one more time, marking the passages I can use to read aloud during readings. It sometimes happens that I read a few poems for myself, but I don’t re-read prose works. I did used to read some of my books to my children when they were younger.
Had you then felt that you looked at them differently than when you wrote them?
No. I then had to say to myself, “damn, boy, it was actually good anyway” [laughs]. I was usually content with what I then read out loud.
That is actually what most authors say when asked that question. Thankfully.
Yes, but that’s also true. You can’t judge your own work, can you? But if you didn’t like it yourself, why publish it? It’s inevitable.
As you said, you’ve also grown quickly as a writer in those early years. Sometimes that can be a nasty feeling to then return to older work, which you may not be able to fully support anymore.
Only those very first books, when I didn’t know what writing was, of those I would say: I wouldn’t write that again anyway, but for most other things I am not ashamed. Even now, thirty years later, I am not ashamed of having written them. Is that now a form of false modesty? I don’t really know.
It also interests me from the point of view of age. If you have entered an older life stage and look back at work from the past, it is interesting whether you could then see certain things in it that you had not read in it before.
Anyway, I have no problem with that with my older work, I have to be honest.
Now I wanted to ask a few more questions about the target audience. Do you have an age in mind while writing?
Yes. For a children’s writer, you have to. There’s no way around that for children’s literature. Even when starting read-aloud stories. Who do you write them for? For a three-year-old toddler, or for a five-year-old toddler? It does make a difference. In language use, of course, and first and foremost language level. Then I’m not talking about AVI levels, but simply about which words you do or don’t use. Also, situations that toddlers have never experienced already make it more difficult. The way you express feelings and thoughts is strongly influenced by the age of the target audience you have in mind. This is especially true with children’s books, in my mind there is always a range of two years. That’s a bit like in primary school, three times two years. Even in secondary school, I also tend to think in lower and upper secondary. I ask myself roughly where I want to go, within a span of two to three years at most. It may move up, but never down. If it moves, for me it is upwards.
Can you recall a concrete example of that?
Looking at the titles here, I think that with No Wonder Mother Talks to the Goldfish, I went deeper and deeper into the character and his relationship with his father. That was initially meant for, let’s say, first secondary and gradually, for me, it slid into third secondary, two years. Surely they really had to be teenagers already to enjoy that. Bury Me Over the Mountains also moved up quite a bit. There must be other things that have moved up. You have the same with poems, by the way. If you put Silent Letters and Vind me maar (Just Find Me) side by side, you will see that my poetry has also moved upwards. It happens. But often it also hits the spot and I just stay within the general target audience of a span of two to three years at most.
What can you rely on for that? You said with that first book that it helped to have a child in fourth grade?
That helped to tie the knot, because of course that is the first question you ask yourself with a children’s book: what age is it roughly for? But whether that really helped much, I don’t really know, maybe subconsciously. Finally, as I have said: you descend into yourself, you don’t even look at your own children when you are writing.
I think I already know the answer, but I’m going to ask anyway: did you ever let children read your work beforehand?
No. Never. In later stages, when I got to know Heide Boonen and felt uncertain about certain passages, I would ask her if she wanted to read the passage, and sometimes I received useful feedback. Perhaps it would have been better if I had let others read it, but I don’t know, I never felt the need to have others read my books. Also because you still get feedback from the publishing house, albeit less and less over time. Eventually, they trust that it’s good when you submit something. But still, when I read those comments, I thought somewhat condescendingly, “Oh girl,” – usually they are women – “You are also not aware of the matter, damn it. How can you make such a silly remark…”. So, I didn’t really find constructive feedback from the publishing houses. Sometimes, yes, I’ve published a few books with Querido, and if Jacques Dohmen said something, then you should pay attention. He was the only one whose feedback I thought was valuable.
Can you remember any specific points of discussion?
No, I don’t remember, it’s been so long. I must say that in the last ten years, I’ve received almost no feedback. The only thing I can recall, and completely dismissed, was for Hoe Seppe ondanks alles zijn zestiende verjaardag haalde (How Seppe Celebrated his Sixteenth Birthday Despite Everything). That was a very wild book, where I mixed all possible genres. I wanted to make that book absolutely unrestrained. That was the intention of the book, to go from one surprise to another, with all possible forms of humor – an intentionally chaotic book. The publisher, of course, wanted to mold it into a stricter form; she started cutting, and only half of the book remained. I think she had no idea where I was going with that book. It’s something you have to respect, where the writer wants to go. You can only give feedback in this way: “You want to go there, but you’re not consistent because look at what you’re doing there,” or “what is that scene doing there.” But that publisher only said what she didn’t like, and I completely ignored that.
And that was possible as well? It did get published.
Yes, and it was also sold out. So I mean… It’s not like readers didn’t like it.
Do you still have that material, actually? Do you have a large archive?
No, I never keep it.
Would you like to keep that, Ed?
Corrected manuscripts? No. I do have my own manuscripts because I still write by hand. I’m still with Veerle Moureau. They have a good language corrector who loves nothing more than correcting my manuscripts. On a book of about sixty pages, she might have twelve suggestions for language improvements. That’s because your linguistic craftsmanship becomes so refined that a language corrector practically finds nothing more. They no longer provide substantive comments on my books content-wise. I’ve rarely had substantive feedback, by the way.
It is worth considering to keep your archive, for example, at the Letterenhuis, who are currently expanding their archive of children’s literature. A student of mine examined manuscripts in all possible stages of a book by Henri Van Daele. It was interesting to see how his language was handled and how he actively resisted some corrections.
No, what you can see very well in my manuscripts are the autocorrections. That’s true: what I’ve crossed out, what I’ve added, and where I’ve changed a word, etc., you can follow in all those manuscripts.
Yes, so definitely never throw them away.
No, they will eventually end up in that Letterenhuis.
You have also adapted stories that were not initially published as children’s books, including many older stories where that distinction did not really exist at the time. Where did the boundary lie for you in terms of content and style? Have you possibly evolved in that regard?”
Most of the adaptations I have made include an afterword, which clearly indicates how I approached them. Take a look at those afterwords; they perfectly explain how I edited them. Making adaptations is very rewarding. I would almost say arrogantly: you can only improve the book. Take, for example, Robinson Crusoe: if you try to read the original text, after twenty pages, you’ll get quite annoyed, even after just ten pages. It was an incredible fuss, and it’s not something that grabs your attention. These are all things written not only in a language idiom but also in a stylistic idiom that is two hundred, three hundred years old. An adult can pick that up, willing to immerse themselves in the language idiom of a hundred years ago, but a young person won’t, they close the book. So, what you’re actually doing is a bit like renovating a house. You shouldn’t knock down the support beams and load-bearing walls, and you shouldn’t mess with the atmosphere of the house. But the clutter inside, a lot of that can go away. So, you freshen it up, you bring it into an idiom of the 21st century. You have to be careful not to commit betrayal. So, my basic position was always: whatever the author clearly wanted to be in his book, make sure that stays. Take, for example, Moby Dick; you could write a whole dissertation about where the author exactly wants to go with that book. Also, about his way of storytelling, is it very colorful or not colorful? Are there conversations in it? Are they witty or not? Will I keep them all? Are there any that are actually unnecessary and add nothing? All these choices are explained in those afterwords. An example of things you need to handle is the exaggerated sentimentality in certain periods of romanticism, which now no longer affects your tear glands but your sense of humor. For example, Edgar Allan Poe often wrote those grandiose sentences, but for a contemporary youth, it’s almost unbearable. So, you start cautiously cutting some sentences here and there. Or, for example, Jules Verne, who is very talented but lacks a sense of humor, so if he wanted to make conversations a bit humorous, your toes start to curl. So yes, you might need to make it a little more humorous.
Have you sometimes encountered substantive moments where you thought: what should I do with this?
That is usually a matter of deleting and omitting, but never inventing. I believe that you should not do that when adapting a story.
Do you have a guideline for the passages that you usually remove?
Yes, for example, in the adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights, Twenty Pearls, there are many things I omitted. Countless poems that now you would say, “Jesus Christ, that was rhyming, that can’t even be called poetry anymore.” Then I take the best ones and keep those, but out of fifteen, only four remain. It’s mostly about cutting, omitting. But, as I said, not cutting load-bearing walls and support structures.
If you look at your body of work as a whole, it stands out that you are increasingly publishing adaptations. The first adaptations date back to the early ’90s.
Yes, possibly. Perhaps the first one was Michael Strogoff.
Yes, in 1993, and then there are more and more of them. Is there an explanation for that?
Yes, there is an explanation for that. Firstly, I enjoy doing it. Secondly, the adaptations seem to be good. I fear that if my name continues to live on as a writer, it won’t be through my own work but through my adaptations. That’s the sword of Damocles hanging over my head. But, well, I won’t care when I’m dead. Yes, I seem to be good at it. I usually get praised for it, so that’s also a motivation. And I enjoy doing it; it’s the former teacher coming back, tinkering with essays, saying: “I might be able to do this a little better by doing this and that”. Not better in the arrogant sense that I am a better writer than Jules Verne or Daniel Defoe, but for today’s youth, I can make it a little better, of course, because he didn’t have that youth of today, you know? A writer back then also targeted adults, by the way.
The main reason why I continued with it for so long is still that I have published quite a lot, including my own books. Sometimes two or three per year. You can’t publish five of your own books per year; that’s just a bit too much, it’s a kind of inflation that turns against you eventually. And those adaptations were a kind of alibi to write an extra book because it stands next to your body of work and is not seen as your own production. It allowed me to channel my writing drive. It’s a bug. Like my son now running in the park, first 5 km and now 10 km. He can’t go a day without running at least 5 km. I noticed that too when I cycled to Compostela with my friend, which led to Summer Seventeen. I wasn’t a fanatic cyclist, but we cycled for 21 days, and from the seventh or eighth day, we couldn’t get on that bike fast enough in the morning. It became a kind of urge, those legs had to move, you couldn’t miss the wind. There must be some kind of happiness hormone that gets tickled when you constantly repeat certain mechanical movements. Writing is the same way; after a short time, it truly became a bug or a virus for me, and you can’t get rid of it. So, I’ve never been a hobbyist as a writer. I fear that most children’s literature authors are hobbyists, especially those who write AVI literature for young children. Occasionally, they might write a story because they enjoy it, and the level of those books approaches the level of grandmothers who, at the edge of the bed, tell a story for their grandchildren to put them to sleep. But if you are cut from the real writer’s cloth, then it’s a necessity. I discovered that late, and afterward, I said to myself: “How is it possible that I never realized that this is actually what I was born for?” That’s strange, but well, better late than never. And then you can’t do without it, indeed. With something like writing, you have the need to do that, maybe not daily, but very regularly. Once that is awakened, you can’t lose it. So, those adaptations were a polite way to continue venting that writing drive. [Laughs] I bet you’ve never heard that before, huh.
Beautiful answer, and nice to hear that the drive apparently hasn’t been satisfied yet.
No, it has decreased a bit by now. It doesn’t have to be every day or every week now. I’ve been able to go without writing anything for a few months. But well, when you turn eighty. To continue writing until I’m ninety, why would I? It’s not necessary. That’s why now, perhaps, I’m escaping into those stories for preschoolers. In the meantime, there’s a second edition, and a sequel is ready because they were nagging about it. On top of that, the first book has also been translated into German. If I feel like no one remembers who I am anymore, then I think I might say: “Okay, let’s put a stop to it, it’s been good”. But so far… I’m working on some side project, and if they still have a bit of success, and we can bring joy to some children and parents who read aloud. Well, why not do it actually? But it doesn’t have to be anymore. What I wanted to express, I’ve expressed, and what I had to tell, I’ve told. So, it’s been good, actually, with a few side projects.