Jaap Scholten



 

“WRITING IS VERY MUCH ABOUT BEING A GOOD OBSERVER”
 

Interview by Jac Veeger
Photography by Mart Engelen
 

Jac Veeger: You come from a family of industrialists from Twente, in the eastern part of the Netherlands, not a typical background for an adventurer/writer. How and when did you find out that that was what you wanted to be?
Jaap Scholten: My family was always very active, with a strong “go get” mentality that encouraged you to do something; being passive or complacent was not really an option. Another important factor was that at the age of 17 I fell in love with the daughter of A.L. Snijders, a Dutch writer, famous among his peers but less well known to a wider public. They were a very free-thinking, artistic family. I often stayed with them and for the first time I realised it was possible to become a writer. I started to read a lot. I then went to study at the Technical University in Delft and continued to read intensely while I was studying. Then, under the influence of Gustave Flaubert, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, I gradually became more and more attracted to the idea of becoming a writer myself. I started to experiment with writing during my student years. I wrote hundreds of letters. Then, when my grandfather died, each of the grandchildren received NLG 1,500. At that point, I decided that I wanted to become either a film director or a writer. I used my small inheritance to enrol in a special scriptwriting course, in a monastery near Barcelona, Spain, given by Frank Daniel, the godfather of famous scriptwriters and directors like Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart). There were 120 people from the film industry, most of them Spanish, and one Dutch participant—me. On the last night we had to write a script for a short film and six of the 120 scripts, including mine, were chosen to be evaluated by Frank Daniel. It was about an old man in his last days who wants to return his marine turtles to the sea before he dies. Eight hours after I wrote the script I sold it, on the spot, in the dining room of the monastery. It was titled Beauville and was made into a movie in Los Angeles by the Belgian director, Rudolf Mestdagh. Beauville was my first piece as a professional writer. The most important lesson that Frank Daniel taught me was that a story, a script, should be built up in three acts. In the first act you tell what you are going to tell, in the second act you tell it and in the third act you tell what you have told. And, basically every scene and sequence is built in that same way. This is really the only lesson I ever learned about writing.
JV: So Frank Daniel was a major influence on your work.
JS: Yes. If you look at my novels, most of them are built up in three parts, as Frank Daniel taught me; so yes, he has most certainly had an impact on my work. He gave me the tools and the courage to start. I also think you have to have your own style, your own voice, as a writer: that is all that really counts.
JV: Was he the reason why—as some critics say—your work is at times cinematic, very visual?
JS: Well, I actually think that it also has something to do with my family background. There is a sort of Twentse entrepreneurial energy in my writing. I strive to have a hidden energy in my sentences. There should be a strong urge forward hidden in the pages. I think that makes my books cinematic; leave out everything that is not essential. It also helps that I have a visual memory. I remember places and atmospheres in detail. While writing I see the scene I want to write; I live the scene. My education helps me, studying Industrial and Graphic Design I learned to use my eyes. Writing is very much about being a good observer, that is your task as a writer. You have to be precise in defining exactly what triggers a certain emotion or a detail that gives a certain atmosphere to a space or room. I always do a lot of rewriting because I want to concentrate on the essentials.
JV: Certain themes can be identified in your writing. A key theme is past glory, the fading of wealth. You write about families, such as your own, but also about an entire social class, as in your last book Kameraad Baron about the aristocracy in Hungary and Transylvania. (Editor’s note: last October Kameraad Baron won the prestigious Libris Geschiedenis Prijs). Are lost worlds an obsession for you?
JS: I am certainly intrigued by lost worlds and, coming from a family that was once wealthy, I think that the melancholy of wealth and glory that has gone is a wonderful theme to write about. Once wealth has gone, you can still enjoy the memory of it, but no longer have to deal with all the responsibilities, the hassle of protecting your assets, and that can be a relief. You can dream about what once was, and besides that it can grow in your imagination into dimensions it never had. I recently saw the documentary Khodorkovsky, about the former Russian oligarch, once the owner of Yukos but now in jail far away in Siberia, having fallen out of favour with Vladimir Putin. Khodorkovsky explains from his cell that he feels truly at peace now that he no longer has to fight every day to protect his empire from relentless attacks from the outside. He can now concentrate on the things that really matter to him. I find that remarkable.
JV: But don’t you think it can be a little sad: people who were once wealthy and still desperately trying to cling on to a way of life they can no longer afford?
JS: Yes, tragic, but a very interesting subject for me as a writer. Wealth gone by is much better for literature. I am especially interested in how a disappearing social group is still capable of holding on to certain standards, especially in their conduct, and by doing so keep alive a group-identity—a theme that can be detected in all my books, but most clearly in my last book, Comrade Baron. In Hungary and Transylvania, where the aristocracy had to be destroyed during communism, I had the ideal hunting ground for research on this topic.
JV: How did you end up in Hungary?
JS: For the one and only reason, love, of course. The only good reason for anything in life! My wife is half Hungarian, her father left the country after the 1956 uprising, in which he had participated. Through her I got to know and like Hungary very much. I have so much more freedom and adventure there. And what also inspires me is that in Hungary my wife and I, together with friends of our age, are in some way connected in a “Gründer Generation” that wants to build things and restore some of its old glory. As a writer I love to reminisce about things gone by, past glory, but as a person living today I want to build things. You can recognise the same drive in a lot of people of my generation in Hungary and Transylvania. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians fled the country in 1956 after the revolution that was brutally suppressed by the Russians. A lot of children and grandchildren of these refugees are now returning to the old country and so there is quite a large group of people of my age in Budapest who are committed to restoring the legacy of their parents and grandparents.
JV: From Hungary, I would like to move on to your last novel De Wet van Spengler (“Spengler’s Law”), which two years ago was chosen as the Book of the Year by the Dutch booksellers of Selexyz. It is a family history and a requiem for your oldest brother. What can you tell us about its creation, the origins of this novel?
JS: I started to write a novel about a family of five sons. We had quite a tough childhood and I wanted to write about that. My idea was to blend it with the bigger picture of my family history. I wanted to take the great stories about my ancestors and develop them into a novel. While I was writing this novel, my eldest brother fell seriously ill with cancer. He was not just my eldest brother but in some ways also a kind of father to me, and perhaps also to my other brothers. He was very important in our family, the leader. His word was law.
I tried to get to the Netherlands as often as I could to see him. At the time, I was writing the chapters about the bigger family history, which had a Gabriel Garcia Marquez kind of surreal richness. I read these chapters to him. He would lie on a couch in front of the open fire listening to them. I was working like a madman; I almost felt that by writing this book I could save Jan Willem. I felt I had to finish the book before he died and that would rescue him. It didn’t work; I couldn’t stop the cancer with my words. I asked my brother if it would be OK for me to write about him and his illness. He agreed and I think in some way he nurtured the idea. He was the brother who always gave me confidence and liked my writing, even when, like my first novel Tachtig, it was upsetting to the rest of the family. When he was young, Jan Willem was very responsible but at the same time rebellious. He laughed about the shocked and indignant reactions to some of my writing.
In the weeks and months after Jan Willem died, I locked myself up in the basement of our home in Budapest, surrounded by pictures of him. I worked very intensely, twelve hours a day, and finished the first draft of Spengler’s Law in three months. For me it was a way of keeping my brother with me, alive.
Originally, the book had three parts, the first part about the five boys, the second part about the family and their wealthy past and the third part about my eldest brother. In the end, I took out the part about the family history, it was too much. I really wanted to tell the story of the five boys. The brothers don’t speak much, instead they go hunting or fight. The fighting sprang from the period when we lived in the Catholic south of the country. As we were Protestants, boys very often threw stones at us and my other brothers had to fight a lot. I, myself, did not have to fight too much as, being younger, my brothers protected me. They learned young to stand up for themselves. There is also a strong hunting tradition in my family; my grandfather had an estate in Twente and one in Scotland. Both were sold by the generation above us, but bit by bit my eldest brother restored the estate on the same island in Scotland, which I called Kintra in the novel. Shooting is a terrific way to be close to each other without having to talk about your emotions. This is very much how it works in my family, with the five boys. They have a strong bond but are not very talkative about their inner feelings. That is why you get this visual, dynamic epic or saga, with a lot of emotions hidden below the surface. I hope I have captured the way the brothers tried to deal with the death of the eldest, the leader of the pack. I am lucky that I can write; for me it was a way of unleashing my emotions and coming to terms with them. I really loved going to the basement every morning, to be with Jan Willem. In a way, I kept him alive for all those months when I was working on the book. I felt sad when I finished the book, because that was also the final farewell to my brother. Each of my brothers had his own way of coming to terms with Jan Willem’s death. Talking about it was difficult. Instead we have this unspoken alliance, standing with each other, brotherhood in its purest sense.
JV: You want to make Spengler’s Law into a movie. Why this novel?
JS: Spengler’s Law is a story with very strong visual dimensions, it takes you to a lot of places. First, you have the five brothers in their tough early years. Then they move to their grandparents and the completely different world of a wealthy family of Twentse industrialists, a Shangri-la for the boys. I think that offers unique footage and images for a movie. It is a world that has rarely been shown in any movie up to now. The second part of the book takes you to the hills of Scotland and mountains of Transylvania and the surroundings of the returning aristocracy, which is also a unique setting. This gives the novel its cinematic dimension. A strong atmosphere. I think it all has to be filmed on location. It should be done in a style like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. An international production, high quality, with a sufficient budget. Take the shooting scenes for example, they could be great, but to make it look authentic you have to invest and not just throw a few gold-painted chickens in the air.
JV: A final question for you. You have men who dream and men who live their dreams, you certainly belong to the latter category. What is the next dream you are going to live?
JS: First, I am trying to raise my children to be good human beings. Then, I am working on a new novel, the final book of the trilogy that started with Tachtig and Spengler’s Law. The missing part is going to be a love story. I clearly have the desire to make it into a really good book. And I would like to build a tower. My wife and I bought some land which used to have a factory on it where they made coffins. The factory has been partly demolished and I have about eighty thousand beautiful old bricks that I want to use to build a tower in the Hungarian countryside. That tower will be the ideal workplace for me. A hidden space but at the same time high above the ground, enjoying magnificent views overlooking the fields and forests of Central Europe.