Jul/Aug 2005  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview With Daphne Buter

Review by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Holland is a small rusty freckle on the map of Europe. Only the Dutch can tell you were to find it. No one wears clogs here anymore. Only our grand-grand-grand-grandparents did, and they were Neanderthals.

Daphne Buter resides in a village close to Amsterdam with her two children and husband. She is the author of the novel De Blauwe Prins (The Blue Prince, 2002) and a collection of short stories, Alle Vogels Van De Wereld (All Birds Of The World, 1999), and she is a contributing artist/photographer to several online magazines. Buter is currently working on two novels, one in English, one in Dutch. Her work with its layered meaning contains elements of the bizarre, irrational, and incongruous, and it is often reminiscent of surrealism and other post-modern literary styles. On her blog, Writing and Surviving in the Netherlands, you can read and see examples of her unique voice and vision.

My oldest girl was twelve and she was in love with a fourteen year old boy. She told me she had a reverie about him and her, riding the back of two Capricorns with wings, in the sky. A few days later that boy and she were in her room and after some time they came out and their faces looked like two glowing lights. Then they went back in and after some time they came out again and only the face of the boy still looked like a glowing light, but the face of my girl looked very disappointed.
      —Writing And Surviving In the Netherlands, May 8, 2005


EG     Is this blog entry about your own daughter?

DB     It is about my daughter. Most of my blog flashes are very auto-bio. Often about little things that happen in our daily life, and by the time I read them over they become more important to me. I sometimes believe a story lives in almost every moment of a life. It can be very depressing to know that.

EG     Why would that be depressing?

DB     You have to consider what is important enough to write a story about, what is our life? What is material for more stories? Isn't it scary if everything that happens is a potential story? If I think about my own death, I cannot think about it without turning this happening into a story in my head. I begin to describe the people that visit my funeral. I begin to describe what they are wearing, thinking, saying, and what they do, and how they go on with their life when I'm no longer one among them. How glad they will be it isn't them yet who's in that coffin. Everything I do or see or feel, wants to slip into a story. That is the depressing thing about it. Sometimes I just want to be a person who lives without being a part of a potential story. And even worse, if I don't write I don't feel complete, like I'm losing my head. I'm losing my head. If I don't write I'm wasting time, and although I know this is nonsense because who the hell cares how many books I wrote by the time I'm over, two books or six? Nevertheless I have the feeling someone is always tapping me on the shoulder, whispering: "You are wasting time again, Buter." And that tapping person is me. I am one of my best friends.

EG     I was not sure why your daughter was unhappy when she left her room the second time in your story. Do you want to leave the meaning of your story to the reader?

DB     Isn't that obvious? Use your imagination. Hollow out your own memories. What do you think happened in that room? Do you think they talked about Capricorns in the sky? Do you think a fourteen-year-old boy has the same ideas about love as a twelve-year-old girl? I hope this answers your question.

EG     Why did you start a blog?

DB     Mainly because I don't submit my English writing so often to magazines and I wanted someone to read it anyway. I might be just too lazy to send it out by regular mail to the other side of the world, so, I only submit if magazines accept email submissions and there aren't too many who do. I don't blog in Dutch.

EG     Why don't you blog in Dutch?

DB     Probably just because I began my Blog in English. No kidding, if I would blog in the Netherlands I would be stalked by depressed guys who would tell me how to improve my writing. The Dutch literary Internet circuit is so small only a snail would enjoy blogging in Dutch. I think we have one literary ezine, maybe two, and no one reads them, including me. Listen, I live in isolation in a house with a man and two children, that is my world. I hide from the world in a strange way. I hide from my past in the same strange way. A part of that way is writing in English. When I write in English I have the idea I am no longer here, and that I left it all behind. The places of my life that scare the hell out of me. And the good thing is I can be back home the same day. I sometimes wonder what is wrong with me. It is such an odd way of fooling myself, and so translucent, but it works for me.

EG     Do you think your stories are layered, having multiple meanings like a dream?

DB     Absolutely. My fiction stories written in third person are containers of layers.

EG     Do you dream at night?

DB     When I was a child I had horrible nightmares that kept returning. For a couple of years my dreams were thin and behind curtains. I haven't dreamed something suffocating for years.

EG     How did your parents handle these nightmares?

DB     I was the one who had to handle my nightmares, because the nightmares were about my parents.

EG     Would you tell us about your family and how they affect your writing?

DB     They affect my writing, yes, but all that I want to tell about them is in my writing and will slip into my writing over and over again. My parents are dead and buried and they both died a few years before I got published.

I can turn these people into characters in my stories, because I believe they were characters in my story. My family affected my life so colossal it sometimes gives me the feeling that the only way to fight this back is to transform them into characters in my stories and then I'm the one who decides what they think, feel and do. It is much like a game, sometimes. It is like playing hide and seek and I always find them, I always win the game because I am the one who decides where they hid and how. I give them masks to hide behind, and new identities to be in, but however, I know who they really are and what their problems are. It is kind of not a hundred percent, actually.

EG     Will Shakespeare and you have something in common. "'All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players."

DB     Don't take me too serious. I write a lot of fiction. It is just that the characters in the stories are sometimes much like people I know. But when I write the story they always end up like other people, people I'd never met but who still remind me of people I know. In my short story collection are a few characters based on the characters of people I know. The stories however, have nothing to do with their life. I just placed them in a situation I would like them to be in reality, or, I placed them there to see how they possibly would react if they would be there in reality. I let them meet people who they would dislike a lot if they would met them in real. I let them argue with fictional characters. Sometimes I am one of the characters I place in a fictional situation. Donja in "Call of The Heron, Silence Of The Snake" for instance, her life reminds me of the life I led when I was about 20 years old. But when I wrote that story she became a caricature of who I really was. And the boy she picks up, Clemens, in reality he wasn't a snob at all, but a very nice person. I screwed the characters up completely. I made new people out of them. I think you can compare this with an artist who paints a portrait of a person and then he or she paints a landscape with odd colors and weird things around them and it isn't real, but just it fits the portrait.

EG     I guess someone who puts a dwarf whose penis is a water spout in the garden in her story "Don't Give me that Crap" cannot be taken too seriously. Do they make dwarves like that in Holland?

DB     Oh, I'm very serious when I talk about plastic dwarves in gardens that pee in kidney shaped pools. I agree they don't make dwarves like it in the Netherlands, but the dwarves they do make look like they pee in kidney shaped pools. Is it my fault?

EG     Where did you get the idea for the water spout?

DB     When I saw a penis for the first time in my life.

EG     Do all your stories take place in the Netherlands?

DB     Well, as soon as I mention Dutch places, streets or cities, I cannot deny they might do take place in the Netherlands. But when I mention a beach, for example, it can be any beach. In my story "Now That I am Sober" which will appear in the US magazine Night Train this year, I believe no Dutch village or city is mentioned. It is easy to imagine this story takes place in any house, in any city, at any planet, somewhere in a universe. The real place where all my stories take place, is in me.

EG     Many of your stories seem surreal. I could see them painted by Dali.

DB     Sometimes my stories become surreal, I agree. I don't paint too often, but all my paintings are surreal as well. I sometimes maneuver a story in a surreal direction, sometimes the story maneuvers me that way. But this happens mostly when I write from the POV of a fictional character that in no way is linked to me as a person. Then I maneuver them into a surreal reality, into the depth of fears, the places we rather don't go. Sometimes I look at that as a way to torture my fictional character and I wonder why I let them suffer like that. I feel sorry for them, but I also laugh about them. Then I realize the reason isn't so complicated: I just want to write a story about some people who try to understand something about themselves, and I make it easy for them because there isn't anything to understand. I place them in a psychological labyrinth and I leave them there. At that point I understand I am always them. I am superwoman in my stories, I mean, I'm sometimes so heroic when I'm writing from their POV.

EG     The images in your stories are tactile and poetic. They create a world that has a strange hypnotizing beauty. Here are the first two sentences in your story "Call of the Heron, Silence of the Snake." Do you have favorite descriptive paragraphs from your work?

Only when darkness slid off the night, and the world turned into a moist drab molehill, did Donja feel her despair disappear. Fear was a snake crawling through the hairy red grass of the nylon carpet, where it remained hidden until the next attack.

DB     I'm sorry, I don't understand this question. What is favor? Do you ask me which metaphors I like best from my own stories?

EG     Yes. And also this was a statement of appreciation.

DB     In that case the answer is I don't like any of them enough.

EG     There is also a feeling of anarchy in your stories like the world is chaotic and meaningless. Do you think this is true? Death almost seems welcome, as in this passage from "I Think You Should Bury That Cadaver":

After my pigeon was killed by the cat, I kept it in a shoebox. I made a circle of white pebbles in the garden and put the box in the middle. The pigeon became stiff for maybe one day or so, but after that she became flexible again. I thought about the goodness of death.

DB     Death is most unwelcome to me. It is that basic terror we feel when we realize we will be over so damn soon. And then we don't want to think about it, we want to live and don't think about it too often, and we want to believe that there is more to death than our disappearing. Only that makes death something we can deal with. Every culture had or has his own god or gods, millions of gods were created in the past. I fear we cannot accept our life as just a marble on a genetic chain of life. We want to be someone, we want to be important enough to survive death. I do believe the world is chaotic, yes, but I don't see life and this world where it takes place, as meaningless. The meaning of life is life itself for everything living. And of course death can become welcome, in the end, when we are tired of trying so hard to keep death away from us but we lose the battle anyway. You know what I mean? Let's say we have 13 years to be a child, 13 years to be young and attractive, 13 years to be a good parent, 13 years to accept we lost our youth and fertility, and the rest of our time we get to say "if I'm still there." Haha!

EG     How can you write stories that are dark and despairing and also magical and beautifully luminescent?

DB     It can be only so if the character is very human in behaviour, and hurt but also hurting. As soon as a character would be nothing but a prey OR a predator, I believe the story would no longer be about any person, but about just one person and that one person wouldn't be a very interesting one to me. I always seek psychological conflicts in my stories because they end up in verbal conflicts.

EG     What do you see as the themes in your stories?

DB     In my stories I see a few themes returning. People who struggle with fear, power, lust, and each others fear, power and lust. That is what I like to write about, about people who aren't balanced, or even better: civilization is nothing but a thin mask that can be easily fractured, and next our table manners seem to be nothing else but handy tricks. Sometimes I believe we all act like human beings by following a lot of rules we made up.

EG     What triggers a story? Is it family, neighbors, news events?

DB     Neighbors, it's always the neighbors. All the faces of my neighbors tell a story. And in a way it is always the same story, it is a story about fear, power and lust. I can tell that they want things, things they will never get enough of, and it is always power or some kind of satisfaction, and then there is fear that it will stay like that forever. Their faces are pages of a diary, and I imagine I can read their psychological battle. You know what I mean? I am them and they are me. I am my bloody neighbors.

EG     I liked that Donja in "The Call Of The Heron, Silence Of The Snake" wore high heels and you made a point to describe them. I liked that you tell your story describing everyday accessories vividly. I know you are an artist. Have you had any training?

DB     I should have. I've tried to follow any training. And it always failed. I don't know how to do it. I don't know how to enjoy it. I just don't know how to enjoy it to be with a few people in one room, all drawing the same naked model, and to keep the feeling going that this makes sense. Something is very wrong with me if it comes to training. I always give up after two lessons. I give up as soon as people tell me I am very good in drawing. That is the moment I feel like they gun me down. Of course I understand I am the one who's pulling the trigger.

EG     Is Donja, an artist alcoholic who contemplates suicide and the failed suicide of another woman as she gets ready for a life drawing class, typical of the characters in your stories?

DB     I wouldn't say yes on this one. Donja is nothing else than a character in a story. She is a young woman who doesn't know how to live because fear is ruling her life. She's an example of a human being who's paralyzed by fear. She's a forlorn person, lost in terror. She lives in a city in the centre of Dante's hell. She isn't an alcoholic but a person who uses alcohol and company to dim irrational fears. I am interested in irrational thoughts and behaviours. Most of the characters in my stories aren't rational. Their lives are nothing but ideas about themselves and others. Often filled with hatred and despise. And they don't know how to find rest in their restless journeys. Donja is trying to stay alive mentally, although fear is pushing her over the edges of her understanding. It is stronger than her potential to deal with it. It takes over her life, it already took over her life, she's ruled by something that is a part of her. She is the snake that strangles her.

EG     "Their lives are nothing but ideas about themselves and others." What a philosophic statement. Do you believe we are all the creators of our life experience through our thinking? Thought is everything?

DB     I'm not that rigid, but in a way I believe we certainly are. We often look at the world from our POV, we often look at other people from our personal rock bottom, and next we fill in what others might think, feel, are, want, need. What is best for others. Often we are wrong about what is best for others, but that doesn't stop us from believing we are right. Language, communication with words never seems to be adequate to understand one another. Sometimes I look at people around me, friends for example, and I wonder do they understand me? How do they see me? Do I understand me? Do I understand them? How lonely can we be together in one room? It is this feeling of desolation that I experience that drives me to pencil and paper to create situations in which characters doesn't know how to deal with others and their selves.

EG     Do other writer's styles influence you? Do you think writer's need to know what is going on in the writing world in terms of style to be a success and what is success to you?

DB     I think every book influences my writing more or less. A writer cannot read any story without noticing the way it is written. Success to me is acknowledgement. I wanted to prove I could write since I was about eight years old. It became so important to me, this proving, that it made me a writer. So, if I didn't have this strong urge to be acknowledged as a writer, by the people around me, I wouldn't have tried to prove it.

EG     What writers do you like?

DB     I like writing that reaches emotional edges and edges of euphoria and humor. When my novel was accepted for publication my editor asked me if I'd read John Fante, he said Fante could turn normal situations into catastrophes, and that I do the same in my writing. This made me curious so I'd read Fante, and I really like Fante. I would like to play golf with him, non-stop, on an endless green field surrounded by birds and butterflies, until we die there.

But I'm not a person who reads a lot. I'm always writing on paper or in my head. When I was eight my father gave me a typewriter because I had asked for it for my birthday. When I was 11 my mother gave me Dutch adult literature to read. I liked it a thousand times more than any schoolbook. In prose I like bright writing. I see words as equipment for a story. You have to use them right to make a story work, but you don't need more equipment than you need.

EG     English is your second language. How does this affect your writing for English readers? Does Dutch translate easily into English? I know in some languages meaning is lost in the translation.

DB     I am lucky because I'm not depending on a translator who can do with my story what he/she wants. I can revise it myself as often as I want. My English is good enough to see if a translator raped a scene, and I wouldn't allow it. First my Dutch stories were translated to English, then I began writing directly in English. I like it both although I always have the feeling that I cannot be so detailed in my English writing as I can be in my Dutch writing. But then again, that is the challenge.

EG     How did you learn English?

DB     I learned English on the Internet. Thanks to Bill Gates for that.

EG     Where were you born? Any brothers or sisters?

DB     I am born in Amsterdam and I do have one brother and one sister. My brother is a DJ in the Netherlands. He's the father of four children. He's cute. He is my half brother and his ancestors are Indians from Suriname in the north of Brazil close to French Guyana.

What I really like about him is that he has to work so hard to feed his four children and all he wants to do is make music. So he has to be frustrated. I like that. Most people dig their own psychological graves, probably just to prove themselves they can climb out of it again. When we talk on the phone he tells me the twins are on his lap. There is no need for him to tell me that because the twins are always on his lap, whining loudly for candy or toys. Then my brother tells me he wants to make music and that he loves his children deeply but that he has the feeling he also should make music but that there never seems to be enough time left. This makes me grin. I always tell him I know the feeling and then we whine a bit about the speed of time.

EG     What is it like where you live? I read in your blog that you are bored.

DB     It is a small village, an ugly place where people never smile and hardly laugh. Everybody knows each other and no one wants to know me. But it is close to the beach, the seagulls are very interesting company.

EG     Why wouldn't people want to know you?

DB     You know how people in small towns are. I wasn't born here. I suppose they think I don't belong.

EG     When I think of writers from Holland or Denmark I think of dark human dramas. Do you think your writing falls into that category and if yes, is this something genetic or cultural? Are there any writers from Holland known for writing light comedies?

DB     Sure there are. The Dutch aren't as gloomy as their autumns. They laugh a lot. My writing doesn't fit in a category that isn't there. I write my stories laughing like a loony, but sometimes I write parts crying. I always have the feeling I am there. I am the writing audience and I watch the characters while the story grows and I enjoy watching them.

EG     Seagulls, herons, nightingales and all sorts of birds and animals appear in your stories. Have you ever owned a pet bird or other animal?

DB     Last week we bought a second parrot. A blue male. We had a female parrot and she was so lonely I couldn't bear it any longer. She's an old lady, and the male parrot is fresh from the egg and he can't fly yet. But they fell in love within 24 hours. They are kissing all day. They feed each other and they shriek and shout of love. I gaze at them. I cannot deny I enjoy it. The male had no choice than to fall in love with a parrot that could be his grandma. But birds are better in the sky. They are my favourite animals. I have had something with birds since I was a child. No animal calms me so much as birds do. They are like hints in the sky. I like to witness how they just live their life without thinking about the briefness of it. Birds always soar through my stories, as symbols of creatures that don't know who they are and how to escape the rigid path their own wings have to take, no matter where they would have gone if they had had a real choice. I don't think it is very different with us.

EG     What do your children think about your writing? Isn't one of your children an artist?

DB     The oldest one is a good painter, yes. I don't know what she thinks about my writing because she began to read literature for adults only recently and she didn't read my books yet. I wrote them a letter for later times. When they are older and I am no longer here, I want them to know that if a part of my writing seems to be auto-bio, it always is a mix of truth and interconnections, and then fantasy takes over the wheel. It is like reshaping a moment, a happening, a character. I make things bigger, smaller, meaner, wiser, more beautiful or more ugly than they really were. I make characters caricatures of who they really are. I want my children to know this before they read my writing, because my novel for instance is a book with cruelty in it. I don't know exactly where fiction takes over from reality. It is such a mix of the two. It is my presentation of shredded adults that have to take care of children. In my first novel the children are honest, funny, and strong. Little heroes that have to survive in a world with adults. The adults in the book are mean, frustrated, cruel and abusive. The book is a war-zone of good and bad.

EG     What do you want people who read your work to experience?

DB     Misery I use for writing was selected because I see beauty and humour in it. What would I like people to experience from it? I want them to lay back and read it, thinking, "Gory hell, after all my life isn't as bad as I thought because the life of the characters in this story are so much worse." I want them to count their blessings.

EG     Tell us about your short story collection.

DB     In Dutch it is called Alle Vogels Van De Werel which means All Birds Of The World. It was my second book. All the stories are about people who betray and manipulate each other. The characters in my stories do and say things I would never say or do. I cannot look at most people differently than as to characters that want to be the Alfa male or Alfa female.

EG     Right now could you write a brief story about this interview?

DB     I only write flash fiction to keep my blog going. I prefer to write longer stories. I never wrote a short tale about an interview, no.

EG     What makes you laugh?

DB     Children, animals, and honest people that cannot get used to the cruelty of mankind. But you know, I don't laugh about them, but for them, because naivety has a certain beauty, but it also makes me so sad.

EG     What is your greatest strength as a writer?

DB     My ability to think and feel and act from the POV of a fictional character. And that I don't make human beings look better than we are.

EG     "She stepped onto the graveled rooftop and gazed over the edge into a ravine of wet earth and clumps of grass. Last winter, a girl had jumped from the fourth floor, but survived the fall. She would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair, her limp body kept upright by a kind of leash. All she could move was her head. She used her chin, which lay lopsided on her dented chest, to operate buttons on a small panel, and zoomed up and down the street. Occasionally Donja would chat with her. The girl was always cheerful; she said that she was grateful for having survived the fall, because the force with which she had struck the earth erased her memory, after which she had found God."

"...the force with which she had struck the earth erased her memory, after which she had found God." interesting way of finding God, through loss of memory.

DB     Yes, she forgot who she really was. A suicidal. She probably believes a god didn't want her to die but to find him or her or it. You know how people are.