When and where were you born?
I was born in October 1950 on the military airbase of Leeuwarden, in the province of Friesland, which in in the north of the Netherlands. My mother had to deliver suddenly in the middle of the night. There were some complications. My father wasn’t home. He was in the hospital. Something was wrong with his stomach. The neighbor, a retired Frisian farmer, took my mother to the airbase on his bicycle. I guess the first sounds I heard were the take-off and landing of supersonic jets. I have always thought this to be very special. As if I have some inner connection with air-travel.
Where did you grow up?
When I was two, my parents moved to Sneek, a town some twenty kilometers away from Leeuwarden. My father got a job as a manager of the branch office of the provincial newspaper there. This is where I went to Kindergarten, primary and secondary school.
What do you best remember from your boyhood?
As a boy of 10 in primary school I built a museum on the upper floor of our house, right underneath the ceiling of the roof.It had three departments: Past, Present and Future. The Past consisted of "objects trouvé" and constructed artefacts from the Old Greeks right up to the Second World War. For example, a club from 1296. I imagined it was used by the murderers of a famous Dutch count, a national hero, called Floris V. I made it myself after seeing a picture of a work by Uecker, the zero artist from Düsseldorf, who had put hundreds a nails in a certain pattern on a wooden surface. I held it in a fire, to make it look really old and rough.
At that time, you didn’t think about being a writer or an artist?
No. I had been writing a diary since I was nine. I wrote things like: today I got up at seven thirty. My mother was preparing breakfast at seven forty-five. I had breakfast at eight o’clock. My friend came over at eight-fifteen and we walked to the school in five minutes. Then we played soccer at the schoolyard for fifteen minutes. I listed the classes at school and whether they were boring or not. After school finished at three thirty, I went home and there was tea. Then I did my home-work until five o’clock and worked in the museum for an hour. Dinner was due at six o’clock. At seven o’clock television programmes started and I watched my favourite shows: Thunderbirds, Ivanhoe and a funny show called Father Knows Best.
It sounds very organized. Were you good at school?
All through secondary school I was a very good pupil. I was the best in my class. I read everything I could lay my hands on. History, literature, whether German, French of English. Adventure stories like Karl May, all forty volumes of it. I remember hating the end of the term as I had to come to the front of the class when grades were handed out. All the kids of my class had to know what kind of grades I got: 10, 10, 10. The director made me into an example for my class. He would go: "Oh, there is one 7 for gym. What happened to Dalstar?" Everybody knew I had hit the gymteacher with my hockeyclub, as he just walked behind me, when he blew the whistle for us to hit the ball. I remember I had a 6 for French and Algebra in the first year of high school, when you have to learn all about declinations, temporalities and formulas. Then the director would say: "Dalstar is having a hard time with abstraction." So I concentrated on abstraction, whatever that was supposed to mean for a boy of 13. But literature, history, geography were my favorites. Later mathematics, chemistry and physics.
How about the girls?
When I was fourteen a coffee bar opened up in town. That’s were I spent every night after nine oclock. Hanging out until eleven, when the bar closed. Then I got involved with girls. The diary tells a romantic story. I pondered over subjects like the meaning of life, the nature of women. I didn't have any sex until I was 17. Girls liked me for the long walks I would take them on. Talking about longing, loneliness and true love. Later, I took them to my hide-out in an empty house next-door. I served chips and cola, played records by Cliff Richard, Conny Froboess, Sabine Sinjen, Peter Kraus, Paul Anka, Catherine Valenta, Ricky Nelson until they were bored or had to go home. I was rather shy with girls. When the Beatles came to Holland in 1964, everything changed. I turned my hide-out into a party shack. By the time I discovered Bob Dylan, I made my first serious moves on the girls.
Did you play music yourself?
I took guitar‑lessons for two weeks. I wanted to become a rock star. I quit when my fingers were all fucked up. So I started collecting rock-music. I was into Californian groups: The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish, Poco, Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills Nash and Young. Radical harmonies especially turned me on. Later I got into Britpop. I was a fan of the Pretty Things, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Who, Traffic, Yardbirds, Animals, Cream. Anything by Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton. But I always returned to Dylan. I learned all his lyrics by heart. I had a friend, who played the piano and explained teenage life in terms of Bob Dylan lyrics. It made a tremendous impression on the ladies. So I tried it too, but it didn't work so well. I thought I couldn't be a poet myself. I seemed to be destined to become some kind of professor.
How did you become a writer?
Because of my father. He was a poet, but did write poems. He always said I should go to a university. Because of the family he had to support, he hadn’t been able to go himself. As long as I can remember he encouraged me to read, write and engage in higher learning. In 1968, I graduated cum laude from Dutch high school. I had no idea what to study. Should I study law and become a lawyer? Should I study theology and become a minister? Go for engineering and build bridges? Or try medicine and be a doctor? Although I was very well qualified, I imagined all these professions to be boring.
Why medicine, for example?
In our family there was only one academic example. It was my nephew, the only son of the oldest sister of my father. His mother died when I was five. His father wanted him to become a doctor. When I was ten, he had managed to become the co-assistant of some famous professor in medicine, who experimented with white rats. But five years later, he was still a co-assistant experimenting with rats. It was a shame. I remember my father talking to my mother about it. How come he didn’t move on? I knew why. He was a bit like me. I stayed at his place in the town of Groningen almost every holiday. His appartment was located in an alley over a warehouse, packed with vegetables. Across the street was a bar. Next door a prostitute was sitting behind the window.
So you became a painter first?
No. I didn't dare too. My artistic nephew encouraged me to do my first painting. I asked him what to paint. "Just paint what you like", he said. So I painted a double portrait of the devil. A comic small face within a larger serious face. I had mixed feelings about it. Should I put it in the museum, yes or no? I didn't. I turned to archaeological collecting instead. I remember diving in a muddy lake, looking for fragments of Roman pottery. I came up with a broken drainage pipe, that some farmer had thrown in the lake. But my nephew was sure it was the neck of a Roman vase from the third century A.D. Although the Romans had never ever been to the lake, I was convinced he was right and put the piece in the museum. Somehow I learned there was more to life then plain reality. I wanted to explore the world.
Where did you go?
The United States. After graduation I applied for a foreign exchange program. I spent the whole of 68-69 in the Midwest. The state of Iowa. A town called Indianola, twenty miles south of the capital, Des Moines, some 600 miles west of Chicago. Indianola had about twenty thousand inhabitants, the same size as my hometown. It was farmer’s country. Redneck territory. A republican stronghold, where traditionally, the party-caucus was held. The most conservative part of the States. Here you find the so called Holy and Pure counties, where prohibition is law. No bars. There are people still riding on horseback in their nineteenth century puritan outfits.
How did you live?
I stayed with a rather liberal family, that originally migrated from Amsterdam. My American dad was a Chevrolet dealer. He demanded I make my own money and got me a car-wash job in his garage. I received a green card. This is a work permit, valid for life. I still have this green card. I can legally work in the States. Mom was a sensible woman. There were three kids. A younger sixteen year old brother and two sisters, aged fourteen and nine. Since I was the oldest boy, I was to set the family example.
What did you do?
I went to high school. Since I had just graduated from a Dutch high school, it was an easy year. But the American system is different from the European. First of all: the size. My Dutch high school had some five hundred pupils. Indianola Highschool had two thousand students. Second: the grades. My Dutch school had five grades. Indianola high school had three: sophmores, juniors and seniors. I was a senior, hanging out with the tough gang, the most popular boys of the school. I took classes in U.S. government, American history, chemistry, economics and composition. Composition is a writing-course: how to write essays, short stories, poems. That’s when I first considered becoming a writer.
Were you easily accepted as a foreigner?
A good question. Yes and no. You have to prove yourself. For boys' sport this is very important. You have to compete in the school sports' program. It gives you the status you need to impress the girls, the teachers, the community. It is the important ranking system. In the fall of '68 I came out for cross-country. I started jogging and ran marathons. Actually cross country has the lowest status in the program. American football is the best you can get. Only really tough guys are qualified. As a European I could not possibly compete. Second in status is basketball. This is for the clevers boys but you have to be tall or very fast.
So you had to run for life?
Yes. What counts is if you are a good team member. I was, even if I ended up as the last runner to cross the finish. Every afternoon for three months I ran some twenty miles on endless dirt roads. Uphill, downhill under a naked sun, strong winds, heavy rain and snowstorms. I liked it. It made me tough. First time I ran a contest-marathon it took me six hours. Everybody had finished, showered and was waiting in the bus to go home. But I got a tremendous cheer. Step by step I got better. Till I won my first medal. At the end of the week, on friday afternoon, there was the Peprally. All athletes gathered in the Gym. Pompomgirls did their dance routines. Cheerleaders were firing up the crowd. Then the coach announced the winners of the week. My name was on the rollcall and I had to line up in front of the audience in my white vest with that big purple ‘I’ on it. ‘I’ stands for Indianola. The coach asked me to step forward and receive my award, a golden pin showing a runners' shoe with a little wing attached to it, like the emblem of the Greek god Hermes. As he pinned it up the ‘I’ of my vest, all of the student body rose and applauded. I felt like a hero. It was my first moment of fame.
Why didn’t you become an athlete?
In the end I hated the pure physical competition. Probably I was spoiled by an intellectual past. I started to collect other signs of social prestige. I wanted to become a member of the editorial staff of the school newspaper. Actually, the same kind of position my father held back in the old country. It wasn't easy. First, I had to become a member of the debating club. So I wrote a paper on reincarnation, telling the story of a bishop from Boston, who had contacted his dead son. The question was: does reincarnation exist? My answer was: In language, yes, in reality no. I settled for a compromise: you have to be a believer, otherwise it does not work. I passed the test. Pretty soon I was invited to participate in the Model United Nations. I had to play a representative of some third world country. I chose Zambia and argued for economic sanctions against South-Africa, because of the Apartheid system. I convinced my fellow-students that Apartheid was a rejectable theological position, originating from a dogmatic Dutch minister from a little town north of Amsterdam. I passed. Then I was invited to join the Drama-Club. First, I played a Russian count in a one-act play, called: The Game of Chess. I was to poison my opponent with some deadly powder from a green ring just before my king was taken by the queen of my opponent. Although I managed, something went wrong. The powder was all over the chessboard. Still, the other guy zipped from his so called poisoned wine and died dramatically on stage. My next role was the valet in Charley’s Aunt. I shuffled about to serve the leading actor, who played a transvestite. As a duo we got roaring laughter all the way through. I was asked to give an interview for the school newspaper. A girl rang up. She picked me up in an old green stationcar. Her name was Cheryl. She turned out to be my fate, or ‘Schicksal’ as you say in German. I fell in love with her. The interview was never published.
What’s wrong with that?
Nothing. But remember, I was an exchange student. I had to obey the four golden rules for all foreign exchange students: Don't drink, don't smoke, don't drive, and don’t fall in love. I had my obligations. I hadn't smoked, nor did I drink or drive a car. But now I had fallen in love. And the worst thing was: the girl responded. She flirted with me. Cheryl was a cheer leader. One of the top girls in my class. Destined to go to Berkeley and study psychology. She was the daughter of the director of the local post office and almost engaged to be married to some college boy.
That sounds like trouble.
Right. At first everybody liked it. It was innocent. We were a very funny couple. It was getting near spring and I came out for track. I was in the arena, practising fiber glass pole vaulting. I ran the 220 yards in reasonable time by then. She was watching.Trying to break my own record, I twisted my ankle in a bad fall. I had to walk on crutches. Cheryl walked me through the school. She carried my books. Somebody from the school newspaper took a picture. She was opening up my locker. The picture was published. The caption read: Dalstar is being taken very good care of by his girlfriend. That was too much. Dad took me for a walk. Remember the four golden rules, he said. You must stop seeing this girl. People in the garage are talking about it. The whole town is talking about it. This cannot go on. Her old man doesn’t' like it. His wife is nagging him. She thinks foreigners like you have bad morals. You must stop seing her.
No. I told dad not to worry. Nothing had happened. We are good friends and just liked each other. It was true. By that time we were still kissing. No sex. But dad stuck to his story. No contact. Otherwise I was to be sent back to Holland.
A crazy situation. How did it end?
The yearbook came out. Here I was in all the pictures. Cross-country, Track, Debating Club, Model United Nations, Drama-Club but also a special page on the Foreign Exchange Student on crutches with his girl friend Cheryl who carried my books, opening up my locker. I did not realize this meant we were going steady. I had been set up. I thought it was good publicity. Because of this picture, I got a lot of invitations to give lectures for social clubs in town. Everybody wanted to see the foreigner that had succeeded in seducing the daughter of the postmaster. I spoke to audiences of old ladies, veterans, farmers, kids. The Rotary Club, Kiwana Club, all these community clubs and church organisations invited me to give a talk. I performed with my slide show and explained all about Holland. Where was I born in Europe. How come Holland was beneath sea level. What was the function of windmills and sluices. It was hilarious. After one performance some old lady asked me which part of Sweden I was from and how I liked America. Nobody was interested in Holland. Sweden, free sex, that was on her mind.
So it was a trap?
Yes. But I didn't realize it then. I liked playing the cultural ambassador. Also the fact that I was adapting rapidly to a new cultural environment. In Holland I used to wear suits. Now I wore jeans, slacks and ironed shirts. Fashion was more casual. The mentality was different. It was not intellectual or critical. It was popular. You had to be popular in order to make it socially and you had to show responsibility for the community. By mid spring I was asked to give lectures at school. I did informal speeches on the subject of cultural misunderstandings. The audience was cracking up. They seemed to be having a good time. I discovered I could be an entertainer. I hadn't known this before. In reality though I was clown, walking the thin edge of acceptance or rejection. People wanted to see how far I would go. I had broken the rule. Now I had to fall. But for the first time in my life I didn’t care.
Did love teach you to become inventive?
Yes. We designed a secret system to see each other. I would sneak out of the window at night when the family was asleep. I followed this one straight street, running north-south, crossing all these east-west streets. When I spotted carlights, I hid in a ditch. Police patrol cars were passing. I felt like a criminal on the run. At her house I threw pebbles at her window. Sometimes she wouldn't react. A few times she came out. We took a walk. Always to the same place, a chapel on the university campus. We sat in the chapel, pondering our fate. It was hopeless. We were soulmates, I guess. At dawn we parted. I sneaked back in and slept for an hour or so. But one time I came home and there was dad in his nightgown smoking a cigar. He told me one more time, and I was finished. I agreed, sneaked out once more, got caught and was sent off to the headquarters of Youth for Understanding, the foreign exchange organisation, located in Ann Arbor Michigan. It was a nice villa on Washtenaw Avenue with an enormous garden. The president of this organisation was a woman. She looked like a general with white hair and she carried a little stick. There was a meeting: Should I be sent home immediately or work for the organisation as a punishment and go home with the other twelve hundred kids on a boat from New York to Europe?
You got a second chance?
Yes, of course I wanted to go home by boat, I thought this was fantastic. I said: I’ll do anything’. “What about gardening?”, Mrs. Andresen said. She introduced me to the gardener, who turned out to be her husband. The guy looked like the Colonel from Kentucky Fried Chicken. White hair, a little white pointed beard. There was another guy. Willy, from Oslo, who also had to be punished. We worked together in this garden. Mowing the grass, weeding the plants, cutting the woogs, watering the plants. We worked for two weeks and got our picture taken for the newspaper. By then Mr. Andresen got to be pretty physical with us. Hugging and stuff. He was always laughing. You boys are doing a good job. That kind of thing. Also I kept thinking about the girl. So I talked it over with Willy. He was about to quit also. “I ‘ll beat you up’, he said, ‘then you run into the house, yelling and tell them you have been attacked by some homosexual college boys and you don’t want to do gardening no more". So it happened.
Did you see the girl again?
Yes. First of all I talked to my new host mother. Her family was from Sweden. She told me to read Shakespeare, play tennis and wait till she talked to the minister of the methodist church. So started to read the Collected Works and played tennis. After a week the minister came by. He agreed to take responsability for my trip, if I agreed to work with the kids of the Methodist church group in the Coalbranch Heights-ghetto of the city of Charleston, the capital of West Virginia. Coalbranch Heights was a black ghetto, somewhere up in the mountains. This summer new pavements around the church, staircase, and a basketball field had to be made. “Are you good at digging?” He asked me. I told him I was. So it was a deal.
l was very disappointed. I remember I played this one song by Bob Dylan: "Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed. " I flew back. But the trip cheered me up. Going to Charleston, we drove all the way through Ohio and Pennsylvania in a bus. The ghetto was fun, too. I met Klaus from Hamburg. We worked and got to know the black kids. Then it happened!
All of a sudden I knew what I was going to study. It was going to be sociology. I wanted to know more about the class structure in American society. On the way back we passed through the sites of the Civil War. I heard Lincoln’s address. Then we even did Washgington D.C. and looked at the White House, the Capitol and Arlington, where Kennedy was buried. Back to Holland I wanted to know all about american sociology. It was a very fashionable subject. I was advised: don’t do it. You’ll never get a job. You’ll be out of work. People don’t like you any more. It’s only for hippies Well, I thought, then I am going to be a hippy! That’s how I started to study sociology.
Where did you study?
I went to Groningen. It’s the biggest town in the north of Holland. I studied sociology there for two years. You’re supposed to do three years to get a Bachelor’s. I got my Bachelor in General Sociology in two years.
I remember you were already clever in school.
Sorry. I wanted to continue in theoretical sociology, abstract theorizing, social philosophy, mathematical sociology, theory building, statistics, phenomenology, structuralism, even marxism. But the most important thing was a californian brach of theoretical sociology. They called it ethnomethodology.
Does it still exist?
I don’t think so. Ethnomethods had an extreme linguistic position, meaning: everything is language. Social structure is only what you can see and it is only relayed through language. Language is the only visible universal social structure on a day-to-day basis, practiced by all people and meaning the methods of the members in some ethnos.You will find them all over the world, whether you talk to an Eskimo or to a Negro or to a Chinese or to someone from South America. They all have the general structure of turn-taking, meaning: one person speaks at a time. If two people speak at the same time, this is called disorder.
I don’t want to interrupt, but it sounds pretty boring to me. What’s the point?
The point is: A universal structure is not reversable. Like for example marxism. Marxism is not as universal as turntaking. Marxists talk about the capitalist system, but what does it mean in terms of turn taking? What is the concrete referent of the words: capitalist system? Actually, I was very much in favor of this extreme nominalism. Only the things you can see do exist.
Okay. So you were a hippie and a language freak. But what did you do?
It was impossible in Groningen to continue my studies. The political struggle in the faculty between marxists, structuralists, phenomenologists, structure-functionalists and what have you. It was impossible to find a pluralistic view at this faculty. Very dogmatic atmosphere. People were digging ditches and manholes for a war.
Not your cup of tea?
My father was a liberal. I grew up in this tradition of tolerance and respect for other worldviews. I wanted to know something about everything. To solve this problem I entered the student movement. I should never have done it, but I did. At the sociology department in Groningen the maoist faction was the strongest. I became secretary of the board on education. It was decided we needed some new blood from outside. I had heard about this brilliant student leader called Pim Fortuyn, who had led the occupation of the free university of Amsterdam.
Is that the rightwing politician that was killed in Holland two years ago?
Yes. With a student delegation we went to see Pim and offered him a job as a professor in the masters program on theoretical sociology. He accepted. He gave a course. Idea and Movement, it was called. Based on some texts by Mao‑Ze‑Dong. It was a big succes. All farmers' en workers' talk. But the doctoral program was voted down by other faculty‑members. This meant waiting another year.
So you left.
I had a friend called Willem de Haan. He had the same problem. We made a deal and we left for Germany . It was Easter 1972. I remember we had a Fiat 600, a little red car. We drove to Berlin. At the faculty of Freie Universität and Technische Universität it was even worse then in Holland. All marxists. We didn’t want that. So we went to Hamburg and checked it out. All behaviourists. We did not want that either. Finally we ended up in this little town between Hannover and Münster. It was called Bielefeld.
Didn’t Luhmann teach there at this time?
Yes. In Bielefeld pluralism was a principle. Freedom of speech. It was a Reform-Uni, just founded a year before. There were at least a hundred members of the faculty. Over fifty professors. All in different fields. I took as many courses as possible. Sociology of literature, documentary film making, methodology, planning, decision making. I finished in two years.
How was student-life?
Bielefeld was a part of a bigger world through the art-academy, the museum, which carries a replica of Rodin’s penseur. There was a large mental hospital, where the Nazis had done terrible things. Then there was this centre for interdisciplinary research, where I learned a lot. Every weekend there were conferences. I lived in the first student flat on campus. Most of the students were foreigners. I remember a lot of black guys from newAfrican states. Most of them had heard about Luhman. Niklas Luhmann was a famous system theoretician of the social system. He had this wonderful idea that the social system would reduce the complexity of the environment just by itself. So everybody in the third world wanted to have a degree from Luhmann, because he had been introduced into the international debate by Habermas.
The old Luhmann-Habermas shit!
There were a lot of black students, who couldn’t speak a word of German. But they spoke French. I remember this one guy. He was the son of some kind of African king or president. He had been there from the first moment. And he intended to stay as long as possible.He could only speak French. Although he had been in Bielefeld for three years. He was just partying around, having a good time, talking about Luhmann and “le système”. It was such a good joke. This guy practicing Luhmann for a job home. Also, there were these other guys from the Middle-East. Sons of sheiks from oil states and Arabian countries. Whereas the African guys dressed rather formal, the Arabs looked more like yuppies. Nobody wore his traditional garment. These kids would have their own cars and villas.
Sounds like an upperclass neighborhood.
Not all the way, though. Among the student body there was a strong communist influence, that seemed to come from Dortmund. But it was okay, too. Nothing was really dominant. Everything just started. It was a Jungle University. In the middle of this Teutoburger Forest.
What was the topic of your thesis?
I was mostly interested in the central problem of sociology. The problem of order. How does the social system stick together? What constitutes the social system? Language! It’s like a kind of glue, that keeps everything sticking together. Why does it not fall apart? The system stays together by linguistic rules. When does it fall apart? The rules are followed or not. What happens when they are broken? Even when rules are broken by members of sub-populations, these sub-populations still follow rules. It’s like a culture and sub-culture. This idea of society as a system of rules, -like traffic on the public roads-, very much appealed to me.
The system. What about it?
It got me interested in deviant behaviour. Like why don’t people follow the rules? Why do they deviate from majority rules? Because they’d rather follow minority rules. They call these rules their own, so deviance is organized as a social phenomeon. Every sub-cultural population forms part of the total population, but differs from this majority of people. Soon I became interested in psychiatry and criminology, the two main disciplines that focus on deviant behaviour.
But did you get a job?
I got small jobs in Holland. Polytechnic Eindhoven. University of Utrecht and Amsterdam. Finally, june 1976 I got a major job was at the Free University of Amsterdam. It was a job in the Law-department. Post-gradute research at the Institute of Criminology, I worked with the famous Dutch criminologist professor Herman Bianchi. Among other things he specialized in religious belief systems and asylums. I did a research project on the escalation of violence. I designed theoretical and mathematical models of escalation, based on cybernetics. I wrote sociological papers on the origins of terrorism, intuition and violence, poverty and house occupations, Berlin-Amsterdam-Zürich-the international distribution of the squatting movement, Dutch drug policy, Dutch ethnic problems. I participated in Dutch-German-British media research to check out the main news.
You were very busy.
Yes. The international news project focussed on the main news, November 1975. It compared German ZDF to Dutch NOS to British BBC. A whole month’s main news recorded on video, written out and compared, to see how news stories are made up. A week after Franco’s death, and that of Pasolini, my father died. In the same week my American professor at the University of California died: Harvey Sachs. To me this project meant that I had lost all my fathers in one month.
That is a big statement.
Maybe. It was a very interesting time in terms of youth. Everything happened at once. This was what life was all about. Except that I felt I was in the wrong scene. It was all academic.
I left the Free University in 1980. I was thirty. I’d had enough. There was more to life. I didn't want to be a professor studying social behaviour all the way through. On the other hand I felt I could solve the crime-problem. I seriously believed we should be able to cut crime to zero. Really solve the crime problem. But it’s like a horizon. You never reach this horizon. For example, take sexual minorities. Zero tolerance.
No tolerance whatsoever?
In Holland for crime? Yes. For abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and soft drugs, no.
Apart from the other things, why homosexuality?
A good point. Always in each population all over the world, four percent of the population is homosexual. It doesn’t matter where you are, how big or how small, always four percent is homosexual. You cannot change that. You must accept the legal minority rights as part of the ideology of the Hollow Core, as the famous dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has expressed it. The Hollow Core, that’s the area of Holland called Randstad, together with the Flemisch Window (Vlaamse Ruit) in Belgium and the Rhineland in Germany. This is one western European old cultural area. it stems from the Renaissance eight hundred years ago. You cannot change it.
Its time to move on. You still haven’t told me how you became a writer.
Right. Well, lets say: politically, it is not a very satisfying job to be only a criminologist in Holland. You never get done. So in1980, I quit. I was going to become a free writer, a poet and an artist.
Was that the first time you started to write poems?
No. I started to write poems when I was seventeen. My first poem was bout the S-bahn system in Hamburg, where the Beatles had become famous. So looking back , I made the decision to be a free writer in 1967. It’s truth and the correspondence of theory and reality that counted. To become a literary writer, to become a poet or a story-teller is quite different from what ordinary people do.
Don't tell me this ordinary people stuff!
I had a German girlfriend called Margaret, who was a very sensitive woman. She was reading German literature. Hölderin, Musil, Celan, people like that. She wrote letters in a fragile language. Very thin. I started to be interested in this kind of “thin” writing. It was as if it was air or smoke or water. Then she said "you have this quality too, you should try this kind of writing". So I wrote my first poem. It was different from what a woman writes, but it was she that first set me going and said I could be a writer. I just had to change my mind. This was how I started. I was thirty then.
Was it difficult to make such a decision, to walk away from a safe salary?
Yes, but I never doubted the decision. It was the first of January 1980 when I started to write a novel. It was my first novel. It took half a year. I got to know a few professional writers. I went to a publishing house. They said: Oh, there are 300 hundred pages. And I can tell you, only the second half is interesting and in the second half, only fifty pages are really interesting. So leave out the beginning, leave out the end. It’s all bullshit. You must keep the middle.
You did it like that?
Yes. It was 1981.
And this novel was published?
Yes, twelve years later. 1993. It was called: The Eal Pond. For the novel it took that long.
What more did you publish?
I started critical writing and did television and book reviews, writing like a journalist. I started writing drama-reviews. They were published. Also, my art-reviews were published. I wrote a few volumes of poetry. The last book : Et age, was published in 1992. Then I wrote stories. They were published in magazines. A few columns. That kind of thing.
But not a major writer.
No. Not in Holland. People know me in Holland for the performance of my stories. In Holland I am known primarily as a performer. I remember my first story about performing a hunter, somewhere in Canada. He was on a mission to visit a friend at his hut, who was also a hunter. I was reading this on stage, and there was a tape, with the sound of a snowstorm. When he came into the hut, his friend was not there, but there was a woman in the bed. And she was dying. So he was listening to her life story: She had fled to this hut because she had killed a man, who had raped her mother.
Yes. It was very dramatic. Finally, she died and the two dogs of the hunter were witness to the whole event. There was a little fireplace and the wind was howling and things like that.
So there was always a criminal aspect in your writing?
Well, in those first stories, yes. I was thinking about a next chapter. I had to explain, what happens in the next chapter? So, the woman was dead, he had to bury the woman and there was a snow storm. Can he get out of the house? He had to dig himself out, he has to go to the next hut for help or find out who this woman was.
So the story was a success.
Yes. To make some money, I wrote reviews and columns. Newspaper jobs. It all started in the Amsterdam underground, that was made up from different scenes. I wrote plays about this underground, and performed in these plays with fellow poets and artists. Looking back, I would say people saw me as some kind of Artaud-like artist, collaborating with other artists for specific projects.
Was it fun?
In the beginning, yes. The collaboration was tremendous. One artist would make the stage set. Another would produce the sound tapes. Pretty soon I performed in dance shows. I wrote a script based on Edgar Allan Poe’s original of the House of Usher. I would adapt it to modern dance. The theme was love between “Brother and Sister”. It was set in an old castle in England. I adapted it for the stage, using some hundred folding-chairs for a complex choreography.
Did you retain the central theme of incest?
No. By that time I started to doubt black romance. I discovered that when you start to write, you probably start as a heavy romantic poet. But you have to get rid of this gothic stuff. Some poets never get past this phase. They always stay in this romantic void, like a kind of naturalism. I can very well understand why it is so basic. But then, after this, I was thinking about experimental sound poetry, which is very abstract, sounding more like music. In 1984 I went to America and discovered rap in New York. Black rap poetry. Short sentences. Always life stories about the ghetto. How rotten life is. The fucking ghetto system. This rap kind of thing.
It was new to you?
Yes. So I adopted this style and wrote a volume in this style called Fashion. It was 1985. Then it was a time to write a manifesto. I wrote a manifesto called Maximal Art. This manifesto was like two hundred sentences on maximal art. It was against the minimal and conceptual art of the seventies. They would say: “less is more”, I would say: “too much is not enough”. You have to cross the border, and you have to do as much as possible. It’s not always easy. The dynamic of things is, in the long run, more important than the static of things. To sell your thing is not so important as to change yourself and cross your own border.
You went back to Amsterdam?
Yes. I got to know other local poets. I went around with a poetry caravan through Holland, performing. I became a kind of performing poet. I was the poet who, within a second, could create an enormous volume. I was known to be a kind of shouter like Artaud. I felt the performance of the poem was the climax of cultural destruction.
Was the message understood?
Yes. Very slowly people started to get used to my act. First, I would warn people. I would say that the poem I’m now going to recite is called Young Rain, don’t be afraid when I start to shout. And suddenly I shouted really loud. This is how I developed my style. The most important thing was that there were publishers interested in my work. I had contracts with publishers. And I still do. I just did it to draw attention. I had something to say, although the literary quality was doubtful. But it drew a lot of publicity.
So you could be independent, do what you want. You could live off your writing?
More or less. I learned to write any genre. You have to remember that in Amsterdam there is a lot of artists, a lot of poets. There is a lot of competition on a small scale. It’s like too many mice, too many animals in a small territory. The competition is intense. There is a lot of jalousie de métier. Also, there is the language handicap. Dutch. If you want to be part of the Dutch literary status pyramid, you have to follow a conventional career. You have to be like the big guys. It took them like 20 to 40 years to become famous! Today they are still at the top. It’s like a pyramid - you have to go step by step. You know, that you can never make your own translations. You will write in Dutch and you have to wait until people translate your pieces into German, English or French.
How did you escape this problem?
At a very early stage, I must have decided this career pattern is not what I want. I spoke two languages. I spoke solely Frisian til the age of six. Frisian language is very close to English. So Dutch for me was not the first natural language. It was the second language. Widely spoken in Holland and Belgium. And then in South Africa, Indonesia and Surinam. I started to write directly in English, German and French.
It must be a linguistic gift. I don’t know. Every morning we walk our Frisian dogs. I talk Frisian to them. When I walk the dogs I get this brain wave, and here comes a line. It doesn’t matter which language, really. I jot it down and I have part of a poem. I wait a few days and out comes the rest. If you have this linguistic gift - this poetic rain - it works all the time. It’s like ideas come up, lines come up, ready-made little packages. It’s not like a factory. You have a piece here, and a piece there, you have to jot it down, wait, and after a few weeks, put them together. And you see it’s a complete line, a complete story. This is the way I work. It is not predictable.
What is the kick about it for you?
It helps me to get abroad. For example, in the mid-eighties I was for a long time travelling in Europe. I was in Cologne for half a year. I was in Spain for a year, in France for half a year. Then I was in America. In Japan for half a year. In Russia for a few months. I was in Berlin for two years.
Are you leaving Berlin?
Yes. But I’ll be back. I am sorry. Saying goodbye is really hard. When you’re in a culture with another language, you start to adapt to that culture. You pick up words. You pick up things that sound right to you. I have found my German book litle to be: Jenachdem. As you like it. It is the title of a comedy of errors by Shakespeare.
Why this title?
I had the idea, when I was in Jena. The town where Hegel finished his Phänomenologie des Geistes. I had to perform at the festival of Thüringer Literaturburo. I met the writers Kristina Köhler and Bert Papenfuß. Papenfuß was interested in my work. He read the manuscript of my Russian book. It was called: Vienna-Beha. Phonetically it sounds like the Russian word for: Vein. Papenfuß could read cyrillic, because of his eastern German background. Russian doesn’t have the Latin alphabet. Only one third of the Russian alphabet is Latin. Two thirds are specific Russian letters.
Before you talked about performing in a Russian play, the Games of Chess? Don’t tell me this was your inspiration for the Russian book.
Not that I was conscious of at the time. Just a few weeks ago I met the new Russian world champion in Chess. I gave him the book. He was delighted and asked my why a Dutch poet want to do a Russian book. My motivation to do something with Russian culture goes all the way back to the movie Doctor Zhivago and this Arabian actor Omar Sharif that played the main character. The character was called Yuri. I could identify with this kid. He became a doctor first and then a poet. I wanted to do the same. I was curious how I would do in Russian. So I went there in September 1993 on an art-exhange program. I met the avangarde poet Dmitri Prigov and the artist Yuri Leiderman. It was a good move. The word: art in Russian told me something. The word “iskustvo”, which means “art” in Russia sounds like ‘ietskoestere’ which is meaningfull in Dutch. So you ask “iskustvo”. What is this? This means art. And it is really funny because “iets koesteren” in Dutch means: to take care of something.
But that is a coincidence.
True. But also the beginning of a poem. The equation art = take care of something is a new idea. You can write something about that. So this is an example of how I started to dig into a language with almost nothing. I published the Russian book in 1998, both in Amsterdam and Moskow. It was presented in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, by Pim Fortuyn, February 1999. He said he didn’t understand much about the book, being about an illusionary media-complot. Maybe he was right then. But three years later he was murdered in front of the television company where he was supposed to give an interview on the Dutch elections he was running in.
You were shocked?
Yes. It was may 2002. I moved to Berlin a week later. I realized I should start a new book. The German book.
Did you get any good reviews on your Russian book?
A Dutch writer, called Adriaan van Dis, made a good remark about the Russian book, which is basically about a Dutch sailor, lost at sea. This story appeals much to the reader. It makes you want to go abroad. Especially when you are in Holland and an old friend is murdered. In the book was a poem on the city of Amsterdam. Amsterdam is compared with an oyster. It opens and closes at will. To me it was closed for a long time.
The same thing that happened to me in science at the end of the seventies happened again in my writers’ career in the nineties. I wanted to quit the competition. I was satisfied being an avant-garde artist writing in different languages.
Is there a language you prefer to write in?
It depends. Language is a fascinating “means” for me, because it is like chemistry. You have alphabetic letters, which form physical combinations, that constitue chemical formulae. If you put a few formulas behind each other, you have a sentence, a string, and with this string you can go anywhere. It’s like this.
So it is not a specific language that obsesses you, but general linguistics.
Yeah. I guess so. I have internalised this linguistic turn in the early seventies. Everything I saw, I saw through a language. I wrote classical poetry about clouds and rain, in French, in German, in Dutch. All kinds of rain, like heavy rain falling down, drizzling rain, like very small drops - so you are getting into the poetics of rain. And then to recite this poetry I designed installations. So I would have a rain installation. I would sit there under an umbrella and it would start to rain. This is how I discovered that performance and installation are connected.
Which was when?
Around 1987. I found out that you can actually design your own installations. Also you make a video of your performance in this installation. You can present this video and you can put it on television. People can say hey, this is a rainbow, and you’re not even there. This is how I discovered that it is good to make art for publicity’s sake. I made a lot of installations. The thing that comes very close to writing is drawing or painting. I started to draw and to paint. And that developed into something separate. The thing with painting is of course colour and form. You paint this image and then it has to have a title. So you have language again. And you can write a poem about your painting. I started to work with all kinds of interconnected media. Sometimes I was better in one medium than in another one.
You are an interdisciplinary artist?
Yes. I would say I’ve been working 20 years in this field. I would say I could do anything by now. The last thing I performed was the hulk.
Who is that?
It is the hero in an American television series from the sixties. He becomes a green ape, when confronted with some injustice. I was performing in the middle of a marathon. Fifteen thousand people walking this forty-some kilometers. I appeared suddenly at the half-distance point and worked my way up through and against the crowd in front of a television camera. I got me an eleven minute broadcast by a local station. My mother was watching. She couldn’t believe I was the hulk.
So you have reached everything?
No. I would like to learn video editing. I don’t know how to do it. I have a lot of video material - also shot movies. I could think up a story for a movie in a day. Like we were in Los Angeles last year. We were in this suburban situation. There was a swimming pool and there was a dog staying with this family. We went to this toy shop for children. I bought a mask, a blond mask with sunglasses like Roy Orbison. I would put it across my head and sit next to the pool with this fake mobile telephone for children with big buttons and I would start to be ….like “Mr Suburbia”.
In America yes.
It is very easy for me to think up a story. Or I would go into the swimming pool and be like another character that would swim up to Mr Suburbia. And that would be the end of the movie. Things like this. But these videos are not edited. Now I’ve started to be more disciplined..
Looking back, what have you done in Berlin?
I have done many things in Berlin. I got married in 1999 and spent my honeymoon in Berlin during the millenium. It was in Berlin that I started to look back at my career for the first time. Also, in Berlin I learned to understand the Russian book in an East German situation. Through Papenfuß I got to know Stefan Ret, the publisher of Basisdruck in Prenzlauer Berg. He urged me to start writing in German.
Does being in Berlin help you to find yourself?
Yes. Berlin was an ideal spot for me. Berlin is a very congenial location. It’s bigger in spacial terms than Amsterdam. Holland is very small and crowded. The culture is very political in an normative sense. There are rules for everything. This is typical Dutch it’s like Israel. You have to have all kinds of opinions on everything. They completely recycle these opinions in the media. What do you think about this, what do you think about that? But nothing ever changes in terms of opinions.
How about Germany?
In Germany it’s more open. There’s more space. People are mostly living in their own world. What you find is a much bigger surface in Berlin when you come from Holland. You see the country widening up. Spaces, objects, landscapes, everything becomes larger. It’s easier to get lost . But it’s also easier to find yourself. You’re reminded in a relaxed kind of way of what it’s good to be or what you should not do next. In Berlin, there is a very good working atmosphere. I wouldn’t like to stay here my whole life. It’s not like I would say “this is it”. It gives a lot of quietness, though, to make a new start, to put things together in a different way.
Have you always had dogs?
No. I used to have a little dog when I was a boy. I remember playing in some slum, and there was a nest in a deserted card for little kids. It was a nest full of small dogs. I wanted to have a dog. I was with a friend. We wanted to take a dog along. A man came and asked us what we wanted. A dog. The dog cost one guilder. I did not have one guilder. The man told us to go and earn the money. So I worked all afternoon to bring old bottles to a shop. I collected all this money, from 5 cents, 10 cents. Finally, I had one guilder, and I bought the dog. I had this dog for seven years. I used to have a rabbit also as a student. I thought a white rabbit was hip. White Rabbit was the name of a psychedelic album by Jefferson Airplane. So I had this white rabbit living in an old radio box on the balcony of our commune in Bielefeld. Later, I kept a goldfish in a bowl. As a boy, I had white mice. I bought these white mice from a poor boy from the slums and people would say: “You’re always having these friends from the slums. Why do you always draw to the poverty?” .I said: “They have nothing to eat and they cannot play, so I bought two mice from these boys.” Then the mice escaped. I remember in our garden there would run hundreds of mice. But they would not be white any more. They would be grey.
And now you have two dogs.
Eight years ago I bought these two Frisian dogs. They are twins and called: Jorrit & Jisne. I was doing a performance in the Dutch countryside, in Friesland, near the sea. I came to a farmhouse and here were these two dogs.They were the two remaining dogs in a nest of seven dogs and the farmer asked me if I wanted to buy one of them. Then I said: “All right, but I will buy both of them. I took them home. My mother would say: “One dog is OK, but two dogs is too much!”
But you kept them anyway.
Yes. The two dogs have been travelling with me wherever I went. Italy, Spain, France, Germany. Two years ago, when I moved to Berlin, the first day I took the dogs for a walk to the park at Friedrichshain. They ran off. I could not find them anymore. It was like six o'clock at night, beginning of February. All through the evening and night I kept searching. Finally, I went to the police-station and called the asylum. Nothing. Next morning I went to see mv publisher and asked him what to do. Write a flyer, he told me. Put a picture of the dogs on it. Print it in a thousand copies and hang it up all over the park and the neighborhood.1 did. Pretty soon people started talking to me. They told me all kinds of weird frightening stories. They had seen the dogs being kidnapped by some hoodlums from Eastern Europe. Probably the dogs were in Poland already, being sold to some rich breeder or even worse, being killed for the cosmetic industry. Others told me to go check this particular Italian restaurant where the food tasted funny. It was crazy. After another day of searching my publisher called. The dogs had been found by the police near the Tempelhof airport and taken to the asylum somewhere way beyond Weissensee. Like a madman I drove all the way over to the asylum and fetched them. They looked okay, a bit dirty though. At home I looked on the map. The dogs had walked some ten kilometres crossing the Spree and two Autobahns. How they did it is still a miracle. My publisher told me: “You came to Berlin to write a German book. Start writing about your dogs. As far as I can tell, they wanted to take the first plane back to Holland.” So I am working on this story about my dogs, seeing Berlin from their perspective.
Why do you suppose the dogs wanted to go back to Holland on the first day you were in Berlin?
I don't know. Maybe some unfinished business back in Holland?
Probably. From the internet I collected some information about you being involved in an unsolved criminal case about an artist being car bombed ten years ago. How about that?
Yeah, he was a friend of mine from the Amsterdam art scene. He was the most talented painter of our scene. We could work very well together. We could stimulate each other, meaning that I would think up titles and poems and stories, and he would paint them. He would paint something and I would say “Oh this should be a nice thing to write about” Things like this. Also we were good at networking. We went to Cologne together in 1987. We became a popular duo over there. We were invited to parties. Met some beautiful girls. No competition. There was always a good atmosphere until he started to take hard drugs. His character was he couldn’t take the burden of this. As soon as he became a star, he couldn’t take the burden of being a public figure. He would need distance from that public existence of being himself in some way, I think. This is why he started to take hard drugs.
Were you taking any drugs then?
Yes. Not so much hard drugs though. With soft drugs like hashish or weed for example, this is not so much of a problem. When in Holland, I am a regular weed smoker. Coming from Holland you grew up with it. The world becomes a bit rosy after five o’clock. You become more relaxed, more concentrated, go into yourself. You start being a little bit fuzzy in your thinking. There is nothing wrong with this. When you start to take cocaine, or even worse, heroine or speed, it is a different ballgame altogether. It changes you. It changes your character, your personality. Especially when you’re not open about using drugs.
Can you use drugs in public?
A joint, yes. Hard drugs, no. There is no public place you can take hard drugs, only on private parties. So you have to start a second life, a secret life. You have to go to the toilet to take your dope. This becomes a system. My friend started to know the dealers. He started to become addicted. So he could only work when he was stoned. This changes the situation. It means like you have these emotional outbursts that fuck up your social system. People don’t understand your emotions. So you start to lead a sub-cultural double life. Also the psychology changes, you are not as we would say, honest, people can’t count on you. It’s not like this common sense rule: a man, a man, a word, a word any more. It becomes very tricky.
How did it affect your relationship?
He let me down a few times. In Paris, on Tenerife, in Japan, he started to work against me. There would be this competition, all these games. But still, a lot of people ask me, “Yeah Dalstar, if you realised this, why did you still work with this man?” There’s really a good point there. Is it possible to help somebody? I thought, maybe I had a good influence on this guy. I always had. But he turned against me, I was dumped time and again. I became angry, but I forgot about it again. Later, I realised, that this is impossible. If you trust people and you start to abuse this trust, you get instinctive negative reactions. It is not like you sign a contract. It is a very deep intuition, this feeling of basic trust. You count on the smallest things.
What did you do?
I helped him time and again, but he got worse and worse. In 1994, he had just got married in Amsterdam and asked me to work with him again and to go on a trip to Kassel, Germany, where he had become an art professor. Would I teach his students at the art Academy of Kassel? Sure. On this trip to Kassel he told me crazy stories about sex games and criminal connections. He felt very paranoid. People wanted to blow him up. He had borrowed money from a Yugoslavian drugs dealer. I thought at this moment he is stoned, he is taking drugs. I said “Well, you should talk all this over with your wife. I’m not married to you. You must decide with her. It’s not my problem”. He seemed to be reassured and accepted . I could n’t believe it. I didn’t know, whether he was for real or not. We had this relationship where, at the beginning, we were joking and making up stories all the time. This would be for our reality. But we always knew that in true reality, to make the fantasy work, it takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of careful planning. It’s not easy. Even if you can work well together. But at this stage, I didn’t believe it. Until it happened, two weeks later it happened. He was blown up in his car. It was terrible. He lost his legs. It happened in the middle of Amsterdam, in the neighbourhood where there are a lot of children and old people. There was terrible panic.
Are you going to write a book about it?
Yes. It’s going to be a German book. The most important thing is to find an editor you can trust. It takes a long time to find somebody who’s able to take that kind of story and who is objective in that he asks you relevant questions. A book has to be coherent. Simple questions like: “I don’t want to know, what are you doing here but why are you here?” Or he asked me: “Well, you say that it’s done by a Croatian connection. It has to do with Tuchman. Tuchman was mobilising the Croatian scene in Toronto in 1990 just before the war. They were big players in the game of the art world. It’s this particular guy, who got involved with my……, made promises for the new art museum in Zagreb, borrowed a lot of money from this dealer and then withdrew. But why would Croatians do things like that, in Amsterdam? Is it worth it?” A good question. because I would say no, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth blowing up an artist for a 100,000 Guilders. But on the other hand, it is worth seting an example. Nobody fools with us expect like this. So an expert will review the book, that knows all about Croatia and the situation in 1990.
Is it going to be a fiction book….?
No, no. It should be very personal, going into drugs and sex. You have to find the right tone for it. On the one hand it’s a documentary, it really happened, and on the other hand, it’s fiction. When you talk about sex and drugs, it’s like a sub-culture. When you’re young and you’re not married, you don’t realise that this is actually some kind of prostitution, drugs weapons……. So to talk about this phenomenon, we decided I would talk about the sex in an ironical way, to make it more humorous. It should not be heavy because these women, they are central in this story, but who wants to blame the women? It should be ironical. The drugs is a different kind of thing. You don’t have to be ironical to talk about drugs, but you have to talk cynically about it. That’s the only true way to talk about it. If you talk about it in a romantic way, people don’t believe you. Because then they would say “Well if it’s so romantic, then how can these bad things happen?” If you talk about it in a documentary way, it’s boring. Did you know that the formula of cocaine is C15HOO, or something. Do you know where it comes from it comes from the Incas. The function of it is to stay awake longer. People know that. You have to settle a few style questions. So, it’s not just fiction. It’s a true story. It really happened, but the style makes it partly fiction. And also the questions. There can also be personal questions. Questions like, on a personal level friendship, it’s what people want to know. Why did he accuse you? Why were you his best friend? How is this possible? Yes, because I’m the only one who knows the truth. He told me. So, you have to say, but he doesn’t want the truth to come out. Things like this. “Why did you go back to him? Why do you want to publish the truth anyway?” Questions like this. It has to do with my personality as a writer. On this subject I can only be honest. I know it’s a long way, it takes a long time. I don’t think car bombing is OK, or terrorism is OK. I guess it disrupts the whole system. I’ve seen it disrupt my social system. If you see what happens now, all over the world, this new crusade, it’s not a regular war. Terrorism has evidently to do with bombing cars.
Killing innocent people?
Maybe, who am I to judge. It’s not my fault what happened. You have to be very sensitive. The small things that make a difference. It’s not easy, but it can be done. When I look back, this has to do with a certain phase in my life, in a certain place. It has to do with Amsterdam in the eighties and the early nineties. That’s all. In every art scene there are always people becoming stars leading a people life and then falling. It’s not really a unique story. Only that, in my life it’s rather unique, I would say. But it’s only my life.