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From the Archives: Mystery Novelist Janwillem van de Wetering.

Mystery novelist Janwillem van de Wetering. Born in 1931, Wetering was once a motorcycle gang member in South Africa, an aspiring monk in Kyoto, Japan, and a police officer in Amsterdam. He is currently living in Maine. The Dutch author's colorful past has led him to be known as an eccentric and hypnotic storyteller whose novel "The Hollow-Eyed Angel" (Soho), the 13th in his Amsterdam cop series, is a story of crime and modern morality. (Originally aired 1/13/97.)


Other segments from the episode on January 16, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 16, 1998: Interview with Thomas Kelly; Interview with Janwillem van de Wetering; Review of the films "Afterglow" and "Live Flesh."


Date: JANUARY 16, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011601NP.217
Head: Payback
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Tom Kelly spent three years working underground in the urban mines far below the city streets. He worked with the sandhogs -- the men who built the subway, automobile, sewer, and water tunnels in New York City and the foundations for the city's bridges and skyscrapers.

Kelly worked on a particularly dangerous project -- New York City Water Tunnel Number Three. Twenty-three men were killed during the construction of the tunnel. Kelly used the money he made working on the tunnel and other construction jobs to put himself through college. He earned a BA in political economy from Fordham University and a masters in public administration from Harvard.

At the age of 35, he wrote his first novel called "Payback," based on his experiences underground. It's just come out in paperback. On this archive edition, we have an interview with Kelly recorded last year when the novel was first published. In this reading, the men are taking a train car down to where they work

THOMAS KELLY, AUTHOR, "PAYBACK": "They passed one mile into the Earth, then two miles and three. Overhead, life went on -- oblivious to their endeavors 80 stories beneath the streets and living rooms of the city. Four miles in, the train stopped. Billy and the men stepped off. The main car started back toward the shaft. As they prepared for work, the sound of the train receded and the gang was alone, as remote as anyone would ever be in New York City."

"The mule barked instructions. Billy and the gang climbed up on the jumbo drilling platform with its three levels -- three drills to a level. The drills were run by compressed air, weighed over 100 pounds each. Billy wrestled his drill into position. By the time he was set up, he was slathered in grease."

"The light was dim; the air worse than usual. Billy felt like he was breathing through wet wool. He stood a hair under six feet tall and his hardhat scraped the raw rock ceiling above his head. He hunched slightly, and with Frankie holding his drill bit to the rock face, let rip. The other sandhogs started drilling, taking up where the swing shift had left off. The howl engulfed them."

GROSS: Would you give -- give us a sense of what it's like to go down 80 storeys beneath the surface of the city?


KELLY: Well, I guess I can think about the first night I went down, and the shaft I went down the first night was only about 600 feet. But you know, you've heard about it and you know you're going under the ground. And you get on this cage with a bunch of other men, and all of a sudden you're going down and you're going down.

And you know, you're expecting it to stop and it doesn't for quite some time. And you get out -- it's rather awe-inspiring, you know. I mean, the rock down there is 440 million years old, and human beings really aren't supposed to be there. So I mean, with technology and what-not, we can go down and build these tunnels now.

But it's pretty -- and in the book, I describe early on a scene where a guy comes the first night and he's a big rough, tough guy. And he goes down on the cage and he just won't get off. That would happen on a regular basis. I mean, a lot of people don't know what to expect 'til they get down there and a lot of people just, you know, don't really want to be there.

GROSS: Yeah, you know, I like the way you just described it -- "this is a place humans weren't meant to be."

KELLY: Yeah, very audacious of us.


GROSS: So did you ever lose your confidence or lose your courage doing the work?

KELLY: You know, that's a good question. Not really. You know, it's like, you know, you talk to cops, you talk to firefighters -- I mean, you talk to people who do dangerous stuff. And the minute you start thinking "my God, this is dangerous," you're probably in big trouble.

I mean, there were a couple of incidents down there where I came very close to grievous injury, and maybe 'cause I was young and stupid, I don't know, it didn't seem to be that big of a deal. You know, my mother was reading the book, and "oh my God, I never realized that was the kind of work you were doing."


So, it's a good thing she didn't know. I would have been flipping burgers in White Castle instead, I guess.


GROSS: Well, what's the riskiest part of the work?

KELLY: You know, working in the heading where you're doing the actual mining -- you know, when you're drilling and blasting; or in second shafts. I mean, but, like I said, guys have been killed doing so many different things. You know, 'cause when you're -- when you're first tunneling, you know, the ground -- you're not sure -- you're never sure exactly how stable the ground is going to be.

I mean, the engineers come in and they -- they make assumptions, but you know, you hit areas of bad rock and, you know, and there's been some major cave-ins. There's one -- when it first started back in '72, there was a huge cave-in on the job where luckily no one was killed, but you know, they had no idea they were about to hit that rock. So, I mean, just the fact that you're going into the Earth. You're not really sure what you're gonna be hitting.

GROSS: And what are you actually doing down there? You're digging deeper and deeper for tunnels or to put supports in for skyscrapers. What else are you doing when you're working down there?

KELLY: You know, mostly I worked just doing straight tunnels. I've never worked on a major foundation for a skyscraper. I've worked on some smaller foundations. You know, and -- one is, you know, you're going down maybe 60 feet is deep, and the other you're down 800 feet. So it's really -- you know, one is really mining.

We used to have a saying "we go after the hole, not the coal." You know, it's really old-fashioned, hard-rock mining where you're really drilling and blasting. And -- although now that's been supplanted by something called "the mole" which is a big underground digging machine that has made it much less labor-intensive.

GROSS: When a newcomer was starting to work underground and wasn't sure of their footing or was lacking in confidence, would the other men pick up on that? And, what would would their reaction be?

KELLY: Oh, they'd torture you.


You know, I didn't tell it...

GROSS: Nice and sensitive. Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, you know, I mean they'd -- on the exterior, they're very gruff. I mean, I didn't tell anyone I was going to college 'til I was there for six months. That would have been the death knell. Then -- "yeah, you go to college?" -- you know. I mean, you were sort of better off establishing yourself as a worker before you let anything skip about, you know, reading books all day.

But yeah, they -- you know, it's like in most construction, you know. I used to compare it. It's almost like going, not as harsh, but it's kind of like going to jail or prison, maybe, where you know, they're going to tease you and push you and just see how much they can take. And you know -- you know, maybe they're bored and they just want to have fun with you. You know, I don't know.

GROSS: So what would have been so terrible if the guys found out that you were going to college?

KELLY: Well, it's not -- not so terrible. I mean, there were other people down there who were going to school. But you know, you want to do -- you know, there's this whole notion of, you know, the "college boy" thing where they think you're just down there interloping, and maybe your daddy got you the job or something.

So you -- I -- you know, I wanted to be established just as a worker first, and then -- and then they were great. I mean, the guys -- in particular the older guys who didn't have the chance, you know, that I had. I mean guys who, you know, grew up in the Depression and came out of high school and went to World War II or went to Korea. And you know, came from backgrounds where nobody went to college, you know.

And so a lot of them sort of vicariously, you know, lived through me in a sense, that they really were very supportive. And you know, if I had a test the next day, they'd say: "oh all right, kid, go over there and hide for an hour." You know, "read your book," you know. Which was great, you know, they were very supportive and I'll always be appreciative of that.

GROSS: Wow -- so you'd be reading 800 feet underground.

KELLY: Yeah, yeah -- trying to hide from the boss, you know. Don't tell anyone.

GROSS: Oh, that must have been interesting. So you were a worker before you were a college student. Weren't you down doing the tunnel work for years before you went to college?

KELLY: No, not the tunnels -- well the tunnels, I started right before I went to college, but I had been in working construction from about the time I was 16. So -- and I didn't go to college 'til I was 21. So I had about five years of work experience before I went to college.

GROSS: Why did you decide to go to college when you did?

KELLY: I decided I didn't want to break rocks the rest of my life, I guess. No -- you know, I -- I always read a lot and I always -- you know, I didn't come from a background where -- I mean, nobody I knew went to school. Both my brothers dropped out of high school. My parents dropped out of high school. So there wasn't like a very, you know, academic fast-track. And it wasn't 'til I had been out working for a few years and decided, hmm.

And after my father died -- my father died when I was 20 -- and all he ever said to us was "ah, get an education. Don't be like me," you know. And we kind of laughed at him. I mean, he went to ninth grade. What did he know, you know? And so I guess, you know, partly motivated out of guilt and all sorts of other feelings that maybe I'd let him down -- I sort of went and, you know, started going to junior college at night, and then realized that I wasn't as stupid as I thought I was. And you know, I started to do OK.

And then decided, you know, a lot of things. I remember reading how, you know, Jack London had found -- in his biography, when he was a young man -- he'd found that brain power lasts a lot longer than back power and gets paid a lot more. So I started to think along those selfish terms, too.

And yeah it's -- you know, the construction, and especially in tunnels, I mean it's tough, tough work. I mean, these -- a lot of these guys -- you know, it takes a very heavy toll after, you know, a number of years. So when you start to see that and start to realize that maybe you want to do other things, you know.

GROSS: You said that you realized when you were in college that you weren't as stupid as you thought you were. What made you think you were stupid?

KELLY: Well, you know, I mean, you grow up a certain way. And I think you see this -- and you know, I mean, like when I was in high school, you know, we barely went to school. We were always working. And the teachers were very fond of telling us how stupid we were and how we would be digging ditches for the rest of our lives. And the cops reinforced that. And you know, there was a lot of sort of this negative, like "oh, you'll never amount to anything in life."

And after a while, I think it kind of seeps in and you start to believe it. You know, you develop a negative self-image or a low self-esteem that, you know, some people never get over. You know, I was lucky enough to sort of step back and be able to examine that, and see what it meant and move beyond it.

But it's tough. I mean you see these, you know, kids coming up today and it's -- you know, it's sad. It's a lot of people never get past that. I was lucky.

GROSS: At first, you didn't want the men you worked with to know you were going to college. Did you want your friends in college to know that you also worked underground doing construction and mining?

KELLY: Yeah, I guess, you know, to a certain -- well, I mean I never plugged in on the whole social scene, 'cause I was a little bit older and what-not. But sometimes it was kind of fun to sort of rub it in their face a little, I guess.



KELLY: Well, you know a lot of them -- you know, there were a lot of great students, you know, in various institutions I went. But there were other ones who were just there because, you know, daddy was giving them the money and they had no conception. And it was during the whole Reagan era, and a lot of them had this very superior attitude that I found -- I don't know -- almost borderline -- wait a second, what did I find it? You know, they had an attitude of superiority that I found a bit abrasive.

And they were so convinced that, you know, they should be there. Meanwhile, they were only there because someone else was footing the bill and taking care of everything. And they would look down on the, you know, the workers in the cafeteria, what-not. So I, you know, I didn't respect that. And I felt like, hey, I'm doing my own thing. And I guess I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder which, you know, I realize later can be a negative thing. But I was lucky that I channeled it in something positive, I believe.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Kelly. His novel Payback is based on his experiences working on underground construction jobs in New York City. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Thomas Kelly. His novel Payback is based on his experiences working underground constructing a water tunnel far beneath the city streets of New York.

Part of your novel Payback is about the construction rackets. And -- how do they work?

KELLY: Well, I mean, there's so many different ways, you know. It can be as simple as one guy going on a job pulling -- there's a guy I know who told me this story. He was -- he was a carpenter shop steward on a job in New York back in the '80s. And the company was -- the contract -- the subcontractor was trying to get them to really ease off on some of the rules -- the work rules that made it, you know, a little less, in their eyes, efficient, I guess. And as far as the union was concerned, it made it a lot safer.

I don't even know the exact particulars, but he said, you know, a guy would come up to him and give him an envelope and say "here, this is for you." And he would just say "get lost. I don't want it." So they're trying to buy a guy like that off, and then, you know, he went home once to his local neighborhood bar.

And he said he was sitting there, and a gentleman walks in, an older guy dressed very nicely in a camel-hair coat, and comes walking towards him and calls his name. As he turns around, the guy pulls out a gun and points it at him, and he pulls the trigger, and like a red light comes out, and he laughs. And he turns around and walks out the -- walks out of the bar.

And this guy was maybe crazy enough or stubborn enough to still say, you know, go screw yourself. But I mean, so they can try to get to one person on a level like that. Then it goes to a much higher level where you, you know, you've got bid rigging and, you know, all sorts of stuff.

The amazing thing is probably not how widespread this is, but that it's not universal. I mean, a lot of people are very brave and just tell these people to get lost, you know. And I think they prey on the weak. So -- or -- and other times, you know, they'll get a piece of a contractor perhaps, or maybe they'll -- they'll have influence in a union and will try and create some labor strife.

But more often, the stuff comes through, you know, a contractor will get a piece of a job and then all of a sudden, you know, he'll be gone way over budget and everything else and milking it for everything he has. So I mean, it's a variety of levels.

GROSS: So what the -- what the mob is looking for when they infiltrate a construction company is money off the top.

KELLY: Yeah, you know the thing is, you're dealing with these jobs that are really -- they're hundreds of millions of dollars. They have construction loans that are probably a couple million dollars a month. And a lot of times, it's easy just to pay someone off, you know, than deal with the -- I mean, the cost of any kind of delays, you know, can far outweigh the cost of giving some guy, you know, 10 grand a week in an envelope or whatever it might be.

GROSS: So, did you know people who actually worked for the mob?

KELLY: Why are you asking so many questions, Terry?


GROSS: Oh, you just tell me if you can't answer any of this. I mean, if you -- if you're better off not.

KELLY: Yeah, yeah -- I'm not bullet proof. No -- you know, I've known people who worked with people, but I never really -- you know, it was something. There was always a guy on the job who was an ex-con who had been involved in something. But I never knew anyone who was actively doing anything in my experience.

GROSS: I'm interested in hearing a little bit more about what it's like underground. What -- what's the air like to breathe?

KELLY: You know, it varies. I mean, they're supposed to have these exhaust systems put in, and I recently went down to the second stage of the third ward tunnel and the air was better than I ever remembered it. And supposedly, they have a new fan system that works really well. And it really sort of depended on what you were doing. I mean, when you were drilling and it was kicking up a lot of dust, or after you blasted, you know, the air was very bad.

Other nights, depending on the activity -- I mean, like, when you're pouring concrete, you know, it's very hot and it's -- and the air is very tight, but you know, the air's not too cloudy. If you're doing stuff -- like before you concrete, you do something called "blowing bottom," which essentially you get these big air cannons and you mix with water and you blow all the muck. And as you're blowing the muck, it kicks up in the air and you literally can't see four feet in front of you.

And what that is -- you have to ensure a proper bind with the concrete. So you have to get the rock so it's really glistening, so there's no dirt at all. So I mean, if you're doing something like that, the air is just, you know, it's horrible. I mean, you can hardly breathe down there.

And other nights, you know, if the tunnel -- if the excavation's been done and you're doing something like concrete, and like I said, it's not as bad. So it really depended on the activity.

And then sometimes, you know, the companies wouldn't, you know, if they were vigilant and were keeping the air, you know, the exhaust systems working, you know, that made a big difference, too. Sometimes they didn't seem to care as much.

GROSS: What would you wear to protect your eyes and your lungs?

KELLY: Not much. The eyes -- I mean, if you were doing something, you know -- chipping or drilling -- I mean, you really wanted to wear goggles 'cause you get a lot of rock kicked back in your face. But it's funny -- you know, a lot of guys don't, which I think is kind of crazy. I always did. And the masks -- you really -- they give you like those cotton white masks, which I really don't think do much. They help a little bit, but in terms of silicosis, they don't -- they don't filter out the smallest -- the microns, which really do the damage to your lungs. So...

GROSS: Is there a lot of illness from working underground?

KELLY: Yeah, I mean, I don't know any retired sandhogs who aren't out on silicosis or a caisson's (ph) disease disability. And besides, I mean, everyone's got rheumatism and arthritis and, you know, just from working in the damp for so long. But the silicosis is really the most virulent and debilitating of the diseases, and that's essentially -- they also called it "white lung" disease which you get from breathing silica. And essentially, it eats the elasticity out of your lungs, I guess is the best way to describe it.

So -- and it's something you can get. I mean there were instances during the Depression when they were building some dams down South and drilling through high silica content to do tunnels, where guys died from it in a matter of months. So, I mean, it can be extremely deadly. Usually it takes a matter of years, and you end up, like I said, very debilitated.

GROSS: What's it like after a day's work, when you're resurfacing back to the ground?

KELLY: You know, it -- it always felt good coming up, you know. I -- I think like I said, you never realize how sweet New York City air can taste, you know?


GROSS: Yeah, well not many people talk about how sweet New York City air is.

KELLY: Yeah, yeah. So you would come up. And it, you know, it was -- it depended. I mean, if you were working -- I worked both swing shifts and graveyard, so a lot of times swing shift, we would come up and especially on payday we'd head down to the local bar and cash our checks and have a few drinks and swap stories and, you know, it was a lot of fun.

GROSS: What was your favorite soap while you were working underground?

KELLY: My favorite what?

GROSS: Soap.

KELLY: Soap?

GROSS: Yeah.

KELLY: You mean soap opera?

GROSS: No, I mean to get...

KELLY: Oh, soap, oh.

GROSS: ... clean after -- yeah.


KELLY: Yeah, well, they have what's called the "hoghouse." So when you come out of the tunnel, there's a shower right there. So you know, most other construction jobs, you leave and you go home. But sandhogs, it's part of the contract. There's always a locker room on site, so you would come up -- and they had this real, like horrible industrial stuff that you could basically wash a battleship with, I guess.


GROSS: Just lucky your skin can take it.

KELLY: Yeah. I might end up -- you know, guys probably got sick from that in the long-run.

GROSS: Yeah. What's it like during blasting? And how much of the impact do you feel? Maybe you could describe that whole process when you're underground.

KELLY: Sure. I mean, the blasting -- what happens is you drill and you load a shoot. And then you come back and -- it depends on how much you shoot -- but usually you pull back, say, you know, three or four hundred feet, maybe 500 feet depending on how much you're shooting. 'Cause the blast is designed in a way that, first, it blows the bottom out. It's all in time sequences. It's not just one big bang. I mean, it's hundreds of timed explosions going off.

And so it's really like a "ba-boom, ba-boom, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, boom. And it builds to a crescendo. And so you don't have a lot of -- it's designed in a way you don't have a lot of shrapnel, so you don't have to actually get out of the tunnel. I mean, it all kind of caves in on itself.

But the noise -- I mean, the first night I was down there when they blasted -- it's almost indescribable. There's no way you'll ever hear anything as loud. I mean, first of all, you're using, you know, 100 pounds or more of explosives. And then you're in a -- in a very tight space. So yeah, the sound is incredible.

And what happens is the air just gets sucked past you and, you know, from the concussion. And it's -- you know, the first time, you think you're gonna die. I mean, the whole thing's going to collapse. How could you have this much -- powerful an explosion and the tunnel still be, you know, standing afterwards? So it's a pretty overwhelming experience.

GROSS: Have you ever been working during a cave-in?

KELLY: No, I was actually hit, though, in the head with a beam that fell and was hospitalized briefly with a slight concussion. I was knocked out. I was walking down the tunnel one night nice as could be. Next minute, I know I'm on a stretcher. And what happened was they shore up the ceiling with sort of steel supports and they -- they put in, like, railroad ties, and one fell. Luckily, I was wearing a hardhat, you know, and I was only knocked out. I wasn't hurt too badly. If I didn't have a hardhat on, I probably would have been killed.

GROSS: How long were you out of work?

KELLY: Couldn't afford to stay out. I was back the next night with a stiff neck.

GROSS: Now did you think: maybe I won't go back?

KELLY: You know, thank God I was young and dumb enough. No.


No, I -- you know, I needed the money and it was -- you know, you think: OK, this happened. It means it's probably not going to happen tomorrow, you know. I mean, the one -- the scariest thing that I ever did down there was -- and I describe this -- I used this scene in the book.

We were working in a shaft and they were cutting out the shaft steel, and we were on a platform that's suspended by cables. And a piece of the steel shaft -- a piece of the steel support that was being lifted out broke off and fell.

And we were -- you know, we were in the shaft and we were on the bottom of this two-level platform, and you know, you know something's coming down and it's loud and it's screaming and it's banging off the walls. And you just stand there in those few seconds and know there's absolutely nothing you can do. And I mean, that was a pretty terrifying moment.

And you know, one guy actually that was there that night -- no one was hurt, luckily. I mean, people were banged up a little bit. No one was hurt seriously. One guy never came back and he had been working down there for 20 years. So.

GROSS: During those few seconds when you saw what was happening, did you freeze? Did you try to duck?

KELLY: Yeah, you know -- an eerie calm -- I just sort of stood there and said -- you know, I guess there's realization that you know there's nothing you can do, and you know, the one guy who never came back, he sort of took it a little worse than others. He was having -- he sort of had a reaction to it, you know. And then he left and he never came back.

But I -- for me, it was just, you know, kind of -- I kind of held my breath, you know.

GROSS: And what happened afterwards? Was this -- this sense of like ecstasy? We're still alive?

KELLY: Yeah, we hit the bar and drank pretty heavily that night, you know. It was like, wow. Yeah, it could have been a lot worse.

GROSS: Well Tom Kelly, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

KELLY: Thank you. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Tom Kelly's novel Payback has just been published in paperback. Our interview was recorded last year when the novel first came out.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Thomas Kelly
High: Novelist Thomas Kelly. Kelly worked as a construction worker for 10 years, three of which he worked on the Third New York City Water Tunnel alongside other "sandhogs," Irish and West Indian urban miners who dig soft ground tunnels in the city. He also holds a master's degree from Harvard University. His first novel "Payback" has just been published in paperback. It tells the story of two Irish-American brothers living in 1980s New York among the Irish mob and the construction workers' unions.
Spec: Books; Authors; Culture; Organized Crime; Unions; Construction Workers; Cities; New York
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Payback
Date: JANUARY 16, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011601NP.217
Head: The Hollow-Eyed Angel
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is a detective novelist who has not only worked as a cop, he spent two years studying in a Zen monastery in Japan. So it's no surprise that the bantering between the regular characters in his series, two cops and the chief of detectives, often has a philosophical edge. The author, Janwillem van de Wetering, who now lives in Maine, grew up in Amsterdam and was a child during the German occupation of Holland.

It was in Amsterdam that he worked as a cop. Most of his novels are set there. His latest novel is called "The Perfidious Parrot." Last year, I asked van de Wetering to describe his position when he was a cop.

JANWILLEM VAN DE WETERING, AUTHOR, "THE PERFIDIOUS PARROT": I was with the reserve constabulary of Amsterdam. But that's -- that's not really like an auxiliary force in the way you have it in other countries. We wore the same uniform as the Amsterdam municipal police and we had the same training. The only thing was that we worked in our free time, our weekends and holidays, and we did the whole training also in our free time.

So we -- we had regular jobs at the same time. And the reason that I got into that was -- I left Holland when I was 19. I came back when I was 34. And I got arrested by the military police for not telling the Dutch consuls in foreign countries where I was, in case Russia attacked and I have to help defend the country.

So they wanted me to join the army at age 34, when I was already married and had a child and I had a good job in Holland at the time. So, I'd rather not do that. But the choice was jail. So some lady at the office of the military police suggested that I quickly volunteer for the Amsterdam voluntary municipal police, because they definitely, urgently needed extra people there.

And once I was in the Queen's uniform as a policeman, I couldn't be in the army. So I did that, and it was -- it's funny to be -- 'cause I'm really an anarchist. And here I was in this splendid uniform with a hat and serving the Queen by upholding the law.

GROSS: You -- you studied Zen Buddhism or practiced Zen Buddhism for a couple of years at a monastery in Kyoto. Do you think that your experiences in a Zen monastery, you know, influenced your behavior as a cop?

VAN DE WETERING: Well, yes. It was all part of my general upbringing.

GROSS: Are there specific ways you think it affected you?

VAN DE WETERING: Yeah, dealing with human crises. As a cop, you always deal with the -- I remember coming home late at night and finding my wife embroidering something in front of the TV, and I'd think: where's the corpse? Where's the blood? Where's -- who's needing assistance here?

And in Zen, you also -- in training, you also deal with a continuous crisis because your teacher, if you don't have the great doubt yourself -- the great doubt about existence and about whether there is a meaning and a purpose and a pattern to life, and whether you perform in a useful part in there -- if you have that doubt that maybe there's nothing at all -- maybe it's just great chaos, a great void, an emptiness.

If you don't have that doubt, the teacher will actually put it in you and he will confront you with it every day. You have to see him early in the morning. And he says: "well, what of it?" And "what of it" he means you're on Earth and have you figured out what you're doing here and tell me. And he gives you these strange little like koans to meditate on that don't seem to make any sense, like something with being a cop when you look at the shadowy side of -- the suffering side of the -- of humanity, you begin to doubt whether there's any sense to it.

GROSS: But when you're a cop, you're kind of confronting that shadowy side day after day. When you're in a monastery, you're living in a secluded area and you're -- you know, you're through meditative practices confronting this...

VAN DE WETERING: Yeah, but you're not -- not in a Zen monastery.


VAN DE WETERING: Yeah, you wake up a three because some idiot is banging on your door and yelling at you and clapping clappers. And then you -- you have to report in the hall within five minutes and there you get beaten if you don't -- if you fall asleep.

And then an hour later, you have to see this fierce teacher who -- who is like a dragon. You know, he won't -- just won't leave you alone. He'll drive you crazy. And then you have to do a lot of labor and hard work. And it's not your pleasant little hermit's building where you sip tea and sit quietly.

GROSS: What brought you to the Zen monastery in Kyoto? Why did you go?

VAN DE WETERING: Well really, the war -- I grew up in Rotterdam in Holland from a comfortable family, and everybody knew exactly what they were doing. And we were living well. And then suddenly, there was the war. All my schoolmates were Jewish and were killed. I'm not Jewish, so they left me alone. So I had survivor guilt.

I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. They -- we did a lot of business with Germans, my father did, and there they were bombing us and trying to kill us. Rotterdam was bombed in May, 1940. It was the start of the war for the Dutch. And I was right in the middle of it.

So I -- I thought well maybe -- maybe I shouldn't accept life. But then, life was pretty exciting, too, because wars are exciting. There was all the war material, the uniforms later. There were the British planes came every day and there were big fights above the lake side where I lived. And there was -- it was a very colorful and very strange experience. So, I thought maybe I'd just hold off on the suicide and see if I could make sense of it later.

And eventually I -- after college, I went to England and studied philosophy in London. That was after a stint in South Africa where I worked for one of my father's companies for six years, and saw apartheid starting up, which was another horror.

So I went to England, studied philosophy, and I really didn't get the answers, or any answers or -- except by reading Nietzsche, who also doubts the purpose of life.

GROSS: Are you saying that you went to the Zen monastery because you were suicidal and nothing in your life -- not philosophy classes -- nothing else was helping?

VAN DE WETERING: No, no -- because my -- my suspicion was that there was no purpose and there was only chaos.

GROSS: No purpose to life.

VAN DE WETERING: Yeah. And that cheered me up 'cause if it isn't there...

GROSS: It cheered you up.



VAN DE WETERING: If it isn't there, then you don't have to worry about it.

GROSS: Right. You don't have to have a purpose or a meaning if there isn't one to be had.

VAN DE WETERING: Yeah. And you could still, just to be perverse, do the very best you can.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

VAN DE WETERING: Which is -- which is what Nietzsche I thought was propagating and I really got excited about that, and also about Heidegger and some of the existentialists who were coming up; Sartre for instance. And my teachers were just irritated by that and said: "why don't you become a Buddhist instead of prattling about stuff like that? Enter the void; enter chaos; enter meaningless, as it is actually preached there in the -- or Daoism or Hinduism."

So I though: "yeah, why not?" And so I went to -- I started reading Buddhism. And Japan seemed like a good place, 'cause someone said if you got sick in Japan, you can go to a hospital and when you got bored, you can go to a cinema. And you can't do that in Tibet or Calcutta so much. You know, this -- Japan is an orderly country.

And also, we had been at war with them, and a lot of my relatives were in Japanese camps in the Far East. So that would be another way to get to know a people who were -- we had murderous relations with just shortly before. So, I did go to Kyoto and stayed two years.

GROSS: Now, did you have to explain all this to your Zen monk? I mean, to your Zen teacher?

VAN DE WETERING: No, no, no. He was -- he was a -- he was a great guy, that's why I stayed two years. 'Cause when I came in, he said through an interpreter: "so what do you want?" And I said: "well, I'd like to know if there's a purpose to life." And he said: "well, do you think there is?" And I said: "well, I rather think there isn't." He said: "ah, that's great, then because at the end of your training, you will find that it was all a big joke anyway."

And I said: "well, concentration camps are a joke?" And he said: "yeah, maybe, you know, why don't you follow the method and come to some understanding?" And then I said -- and also I wanted -- I'd been in moneymaking businesses and I was bored with money. And he -- he was a great actor. He got up and he said: "don't tell me you don't have any money."

And I said: "no, no it's OK. I brought some money." And he said: "oh," he said, "oh," he said, "what a relief because this monastery's a very expensive place to run, you know. Things keep breaking down. They have to be fixed and I smoke a lot of cigarettes. Cigarettes are getting very expensive. If you have no money, I can't possibly have you here. I'll have to throw you out."

So I said: "no, don't worry. I have money." And then he charged me something like $6 a month.

GROSS: That's nothing, I mean, right.

VAN DE WETERING: And I realized that these guys were wise guys, you know. They were having fun with me and I liked that. I thought that was very amusing.

GROSS: So when you left the monastery after two years, did you feel any differently about the meaning of life?

VAN DE WETERING: No, I thought I had completely wasted my time. I was -- I was really depressed when I left. I -- I never understood my koan and...

GROSS: The Zen koan -- the riddle that the...

VAN DE WETERING ... yeah, that they gave me.

GROSS: ... teacher would give you. Mm-hmm.

VAN DE WETERING: And I was terrible at meditation and my legs were always hurt and I couldn't stand the food. And the only guy I really liked was the teacher, and he was -- he was dying. He was suffering from Parkinson's disease. And he was -- would have to retire pretty soon. And I thought I completely wasted my time. I left and went to South America and got a job with a Dutch firm there, and for a while I looked back thinking: "what the hell was I trying to do there?"

But then, it became clear that it had been a very meaningful exercise in meaninglessness. And I still think it's the greatest thing that ever happened to me now.

GROSS: My guest is Janwillem van de Wetering. He's the author of a series of detective novels set in Amsterdam, where he used to work as a cop.
We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Dutch-born detective writer Janwillem van de Wetering.

Well you -- in a book that you wrote about your experiences with Zen Buddhism, you said that your master, your Zen Master said to you when you were leaving: "by leaving here, nothing is broken. Your training continues. The world is a school where the sleeping are woken up. You are now a little awake -- so awake that you can never fall asleep again."

Did those words have any meaning to you?

VAN DE WETERING: Yeah, I thought it was very nice of him to say that. But -- and it would be nice if it was true. But I was more impressed by a character that he wrote for me -- a Chinese character on a piece of paper -- which -- the character for "mu" which means "nothingness" the void, which was also the subject of my koan. And he put his own name on one side and my name on the other side. I thought that was very -- a bit of a compliment that he would put me on the same -- and he had done that before.

I came -- at 3:00 in the morning I came into his room and all miserable and itchy and bad-tempered. And there he was, climbing down from his cushions in his brocade robes, and prostrating himself on the floor for me. And I said, "hey," you know. "Are you OK?" And he said: "no, no, I'm paying my respects to young Willem Buddha." And I said: "how do you mean?" And he said: "well you know as much as I do, and you've always known it. And all this -- this doubt and agony and pain that you present every day is really just a sham, you know."

And that -- that -- that sort of thing always cheered me up. I'm 65 now and I'm still around.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you ever wondered whether the depressions you were experiencing were because of what you saw during the war? Or, whether it was just something more internal about your particular mood? You know how there's all these theories about how depression is really linked to biochemical factors, and you know, sometimes you really wonder whether your world-view is based on what you've experienced or just based on your internal chemistry.

VAN DE WETERING: Yeah, but it wasn't the -- the sort of depression that you can cure with Prozac. It's...

GROSS: Right. You saw it. I mean, right.

VAN DE WETERING: I think it'll happen to any thoughtful person. Carl Jung, when he was a child -- he had nice parents and he lived in -- you know, Carl Jung, the psychologist.

GROSS: Yeah.

VAN DE WETERING: He was playing in the garden and he looked under some plants and he saw how ants are murdering a caterpillar. And then he went into that a little further and he was how horrifying nature is. You know, everybody feeds on everybody else and they're all tearing each other up, and cats playing with mice. And it will occur to anybody after a while.

And I think any thoughtful person will then start pondering these matters. And they may be depressing, but they're also extremely interesting. No, it's not the kind of depression where you think I'll just shoot myself to have it over with. I was going to shoot myself to find God and beat him up. It was a...


... it was a fine thing to do. It was an adventure, you know. I wasn't going to just lie down and give up -- not that kind of depression at all.

GROSS: What an interesting idea -- to kill yourself so you could find God and beat him up.

VAN DE WETERING: Yeah, yeah. My father was -- he actually laughed, and he was a man weighed down by Christian grief and guilt. But when I told him that, he laughed. "It was a good idea," he said. "Try it."

GROSS: What was the God you expected to find?

VAN DE WETERING: Well, what you are told in kindergarten, you know -- an old guy with long hair and blue eyes and a sort of beneficial -- and I thought he was out of his mind if he was going to allow a whole class of little school boys, even if they were from expensive families, and were taken to school in Mercedes and in Rolls Royces -- to take them to Treblinka where they were just being killed within six hours.

And he had thought of that as guidance? As a lesson? As training for our souls? He must be crazy. You know, somebody should go and tell him that things weren't going -- weren't working out. Later, I had more subtle thoughts about it.

GROSS: I want to get back to what happened to you when you were young. When you were -- how old were you when World War II started?


GROSS: And you -- you were going to a very expensive private school 'cause your father -- your father was a financier and you had a lot of money.

VAN DE WETERING: Yeah, everything was just dandy. I walked through a park to school every day. But I did get mixed up in a hunger uproar one day. I walked straight to the wrong side of town, and this was the '30s.

So I was maybe three, four years old. And it was the Great Depression and people were starving. And they were being subdued by Dutch military police with bearskins on horses; that -- that -- and they rode their horses right into these poor people, and then threatened them with sticks and sabers.

So I knew something was amiss, even before the war started.

GROSS: Right. And during the war -- during the German occupation of Holland, you said -- what? -- that all of the Jewish students in your class were taken to Treblinka, and you were the only student who wasn't Jewish.

VAN DE WETERING: Yeah, and two little boys who I always rather liked -- they were Germans who happened to be in Holland. And they appeared at school in Hitler Jugend uniforms.


And they were my schoolmates, you know. But what did they know? They were 10 and 11 years old at the time.

GROSS: So all the Jewish students taken together, at the same time?

VAN DE WETERING: No, no. That -- it went by address, if you lived in a certain part of town. But most of them would have lived in the same area.

GROSS: So every day, there were fewer students?

VAN DE WETERING: There were fewer students, yeah, and they were wearing these yellow stars and it was all ridiculous. But then later -- we lived in a big house -- a villa on the lake side -- and it was commandeered by the German army, but only half of it.

So we had these -- we were living in it and German officers were living in it. And the officers all happened to come from Dresden in Germany, and that was one day completely destroyed, I think by the American air force or by the British.

GROSS: The firebombing.

VAN DE WETERING: The firebombing. So, I saw the distress of these kids, you know, they were young -- young officers in their 20s. And the next thing, they were sent to Russia, and that was a one-way ticket, too, because nobody came back from Russia in those days.

So, the suffering was universal. It wasn't just -- you couldn't say, well, if the Germans -- the Germans are bad guys and we are good guys. It was -- was a very mixed picture.

GROSS: See, I'm -- interesting -- that as a child facing all this, what you found was meaninglessness as opposed to just a terrible fear of life and fear of...

VAN DE WETERING: No, no. I don't -- I'm not into fear. I never had it very much. I'm more adventurous. I'd like to -- I travel a lot, too. I lived in 10 different countries and I've done all sorts of things.

GROSS: One of the characters in your mystery series is a jazz musician who plays trumpet. And I understand that that's one of your ambitions -- that -- one of your regrets, actually, that you don't play.


GROSS: Why don't we end the interview with one of your favorite jazz trumpeters. Would you like to choose somebody?

VAN DE WETERING: Oh, Miles Davis.

GROSS: Miles Davis?




Is that how you would have liked to play if you could play?

VAN DE WETERING: Well, I don't want to imitate him, but I'm very pleased that at least somebody can play, 'cause if I listen to him, all my questions really fall away. Music is such a direct way, and on his level, it's just beautiful.

GROSS: Any particular Miles period you'd like to select?

VAN DE WETERING: Well, he had his own composition: "So What?"


GROSS: Of course. The perfect choice for you. We'll play So What?


GROSS: Janwillem van de Wetering, thank you very much for talking with us.


GROSS: Janwillem van de Wetering's latest novel, The Perfidious Parrot, is published by Soho Press. Our interview was recorded last year.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Janwillem van de Wetering
High: Mystery novelist Janwillem van de Wetering. Born in 1931, Wetering was once a motorcycle gang member in South Africa, an aspiring monk in Kyoto, Japan, and a police officer in Amsterdam. He is currently living in Maine. The Dutch author's colorful past has led him to be known as an eccentric and hypnotic storyteller whose novel "The Hollow-Eyed Angel," the 13th in his Amsterdam cop series, is a story of crime and modern morality.
Spec: Asia; Japan; Europe; Netherlands; Janwillem van de Wetering; Books; Authors; The Hollow-Eyed Angel
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Hollow-Eyed Angel
Date: JANUARY 16, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011603NP.217
Head: Afterglow and Live Flesh
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our film critic John Powers has a review of two new movies about infidelity. "Afterglow" was directed by Alan Rudolph and stars Julie Christie and Nick Nolte; "Live Flesh," which opened today in New York, is directed by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.

JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Back in the '80s, Pedro Almodovar hit the international movie scene like a circus pulling into a dying village. Fast, reckless and fun, he conjured up an imaginary Spain filled with psycho-matadors, LSD-taking nuns, and big penis contests.

But talents so incandescent have a tendency to fade quickly. And after his 1988 hit, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," he appeared to have lost inspiration. Movies like "High Heels" and "Kika" (ph) were slicker than his earlier work, but they lacked the old fire -- the gleefully iconoclastic sense of danger.

People began saying that Almodovar, still in his mid-40s, was finished. His new movie Live Flesh puts the lie to that thought. It's his best work in almost 10 years. Roberto Rabao (ph) plays Victor, an ardent young man who's harassing a woman, Elena (ph), with whom he's fallen in love after a one-night stand -- unaware that she thought he was lousy in bed.

When two cops arrive, he accidentally shoots one, crippling him. Four years later, Victor gets out of jail seeking something -- revenge? justice? love? Before you know it, he's sleeping with the wives of both the cops who sent him away, including his beloved Elena, who has become a social worker and married the wounded, wheel chair-bound cop.

The film is based on a novel by British crime writer Ruth Rendell, but Almodovar transforms that book's staid sense of social realism into a piece of surrealism worthy of the great Luis Bunuel. Live Flesh brings together all of Almodovar's trademarks: good looking men and passionate women; raunchy sex and casual violence; soap opera plotting and demonic laughter. And he gives them an unexpectedly resonant spin.

Offering all the pleasures of a potboiler, it's actually a fable about guilt, coincidence, and the power of destiny.

You could say the same of the latest film by Alan Rudolph -- another daring director who's fallen from favor in the '90s. It's called Afterglow and it, too, turns on adultery. Lara Flynn Boyle is Mary Ann (ph), a sexually frustrated wife who yearns to become a mother, but is rebuffed by her husband Jeffrey (ph), a corporate shark played by Johnny Lee Miller (ph).

Needing some work on their posh apartment, Mary Ann hires a handyman named Lucky, played by Nick Nolte. Lucky's the philandering husband of Julie Christie's character, a retired B-movie actress named Phyllis who turned off to her husband after their teenage daughter Cassie ran away from home.

A perfect match, the yearning housewife and the womanizing husband are soon in each other's arms -- a liaison which prompts Jeffrey and Phyllis to attempt the same thing. But the bonds of marriage run deep, as is clear when Lucky and Phyllis have dinner together at an Italian restaurant.


JULIA CHRISTIE, ACTRESS, AS PHYLLIS: You know, the hardest part of all, Lucky, is finding out, too late, that none of it lasts.

NICK NOLTE, ACTOR, AS LUCKY: Bottom's gotta blow out sooner or later, babe.

CHRISTIE: Yes, it's lights out sooner or later.

NOLTE: Yeah. But you know, the good stuff's still hiding in the dark.

CHRISTIE: The afterglow -- saw Cassie today.

POWERS: As a director, Rudolph has one of the world's most beautiful styles. His sense of color, composition, and camera movement is nothing short of exquisite. But for the first 30 minutes, Afterglow is so painfully clunky that it's tempting to walk out. Don't. For eventually, Rudolph pulls things together and the movie becomes unexpectedly poignant, evoking the melancholy radiance of love after the initial passion is flamed out.

Although Lara Flynn Boyle and Johnny Lee Miller are frankly pretty bad -- they're probably in the film to attract younger viewers -- the movie is saved by their older costars. After his goofy start, Nolte settled into one of those wounded bear roles that nobody does better. He seems to carry pain in his very flesh. And starring as a guarded world-weary woman, Christie looks more ravishing as ever, precisely because her youthful beauty now wears the eloquent etching of time.

By turns heartbreaking and corrosively funny, her performance is a triumph of economy. Without ever seeming to do anything, she manages to suggest everything. Christie's star may not burn as bright as it did in the days of "Darling" and "Shampoo," but she's proof that there is something wonderful about an afterglow.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.

Dateline: John Powers; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Film Critic John Powers reviews "Afterglow" and "Live Flesh."
Spec: Movie Industry; Afterglow; Live Flesh
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Afterglow and Live Flesh
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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