Cees Nooteboom is a delightfully quirky Dutch novelist (Lost Paradise, In the Dutch Mountains, Rituals), poet, and travel writer (Nomad's Hotel: Travels in Time and Space, is just out). The delights his work offers the serious reader are easily matched by meeting him in person. When I interviewed him about a dozen years ago, I began with the question I asked all the writers I was studying: "Have you had a fiction-writing experience where you lose track of time?"
His response surprised me: "I don't want to debunk things like that, but I honestly do not believe that. For example, I was reading Nabokov's son's comment that Papa would come in totally absent-minded and take in dinner and disappear again. No. Dinner is very important."
So I pressed a bit: "Have you never had an experience where you're very involved in your writing and then you look at the clock and more time has passed than you would have thought?" And he relented slightly, or maybe he didn't . . .
Those times I wouldn't look at the clock. You see, that's the point. Yes, such things have happened, but not when I'm writing a novel. I will sit down and start at a certain point. And of course I don't like to be disturbed, but I also find disturbance a challenge. It's not that I don't care to be interrupted. I prefer not to be interrupted. But one is interrupted. And normally I'm simply too curious. And again there's this challenge, to get it right after the disturbance.
I have long periods between novels. And I have a feeling, I can't prove it, but somehow these novels are worked out in a rather more unconscious form. It's thought over, mulled over, in multiple ways, and so that you're aware of what the quintessence of the thing is that you're going to do. I can only say I'm always surprised to see what comes out. And obviously when I'm in Holland, and my wife is at home, then I will say, I'm not taking any calls. But again, when the thing has rung, then after some time, or I am at the moment of nothing, I will call down and say, "Who called?" Then you have the other people who put the machine on and who can hear who calls. That would disturb me even more, I think.
Nooteboom said that what gets him started writing is simply "wanting to write." Yes, but does he want to write every day when he wakes up? For him, he has this sense of duty about the writing. "Also," he adds, "knowing that if you let it slip, say oh well, after the weekend, or something like that, that is not good." I wondered if that was because it would be harder the next time, or due to some guilt?
"No, no guilt. It has to do with the arithmetic that I follow. With some books I have a deadline, but mainly it's the idea that you must finish the thing," he insists. His writing goal is 500 words a day, and he counts them. When he feels "this is enough," whether more or fewer hours have passed, he takes long walks. Sometimes he feels guilty, especially when he reads about how some writers write 12 hours straight. But now he knows, he says, that such walks are a good thing.
I'm curious also. I'm curious to see where it will go. I have this idea that you have to do a certain amount of words a day. I'm not curious enough to double the words. With the new book that I'm doing, I know more or less what's going to happen. But the adventure of the writing still remains, of how the formulation will come out. How you will formulate it. And you always are suddenly surprised.
So is that where his enjoyment comes from? I mentioned to him that some people say they're motivated by how good flow feels.
Wait a minute. I would call the flow something different. The flow for me would be the certainty that I would do it every day, and I'm always very surprised that people say they sat eight hours over a phrase. I think that is, in my opinion, absolute nonsense. This thing, I think, is very dangerous. Because you write it now, later you will see how you correct it and make it better. That is the challenge, to do it immediately.
The last piece of the interview I have time to share now is about the special notebooks in which Nooteboom writes his novels. He told me:
I visited the factory in Spain to know whether they had enough for my lifetime. The vertical lines help me because the writing turns out neat. But people make too much of this. I would say to a beginning writer,
"Try the next five things: try to get a little bit of asthma [like Proust], lay down in bed half-suffocated, line your room with cork, and write Remembrance of Things Past. As soon as you see that it doesn't work for you, try a lectern and smoke a pipe, or then again, before you commit suicide, go big game hunting [like Hemingway] and then from time to time write a novel about life. Or, well, whatever, do like Nooteboom: go to Spain, buy notebooks, and write 500 words a day with a fountain pen, Mont Blanc, of course." This happens to be my way of doing it.
- For more of this brilliantly inventive author, his insights, and his humor, check out this audio interview.