Music as Oxygen
Last week Booktunes went to see Christine Otten's De Laatste Dichters; her book on The Last Poets had been made into a play. The week before we were privileged to have lunch with her and discuss the beautiful novel she composed from her converstions with the Poets, their friends, families and other musicians. We also talked about her other novels, the role of music in her life and a couple of private things. We were pleased to find out at least two things: she has music in her veins, plus her next novel will be Booktunes material for sure.
The interview began with a confession: 'I don't even have an iPod'. Good start. We found out Christine Otten prefers to listen to the everyday sounds of nature and the city instead. Good choice. After lunch we left on our bicycles and listened very closely to the sounds of Booktunes' hometown Amsterdam.
Booktunes: Music plays a big role in your work as a writer. How does that relate to your private life?
Christine Otten: I've grown up with a lot of music. My brother played in a band, his guitar was always there. I remember being four years old and singing along with the Beatles - phonetically of course; I learned from the single my mother gave to my brother for his seventh birtday, with a record player. Pretty cool present now I think about it now. I can still sing it that way...
BT: So your first novel, Blauw Metaal (Blue Metal), must be autobiographic.
C: Except for the incest part, yes. Sorry, I need to mention it since my brother didn't speak to me for a year after publication. My dad became really ill though, which caused me and my brother to grow closer and closer. Music was always there: I quit school of acting because 'Toppop' (a dutch equivalent of Top of the Pops) was on tv on the same night, and you know what? My mother thought that was ok! From my thirteenth birthday on I had this feeling that my identity and musical preference were to be converged in to one person. It was quite an experience when I found out it was not true.. but the music stayed. At home my brother and his friend were rehearsing with their band. Again my mother was ok with it, and the neighbours too!
BT: Same here, rehearsing in the living room, and my neighbours didn't complain either!
C: People were much more tolerant back then: 'Oh that must be the Otten's, they do music and stuff.'
I really enjoyed being part of it all, letting music into my veins like oxygen. I tried to play the guitar, but didn't succeed: the F-Chord made me nauseous. Also, I lacked patience and talent, but that doesn't mean I am not a musical person.
BT: Your musical qualities can easily be found in your work as a writer.
C: Growing up with music influences your way of thinking, of using language, which happened to be my thing. Sometimes my thoughts come synesthetically - that's to say I feel them with more than one sense. I tend to convert everything in fragrances and colours and... that's how music works for me too.
BT: That same 'stream of senses' is what makes De Laatste Dichters such a beautiful read. The prose enrolls bringing strings of colours, images, smells.
C: Writing the book really cam in a rush, Like I was under the influence or something. Whenever I came up for air, I was really surprised, like 'Wow, did I do that?'
BT: Well that's good isn't it?
C: But then it gets to you: 'I can't do this again'. The best thing to do is not to worry, just go on, try something new.
BT: Like the authobiographical Casablanca which doesn't have any music in it. Has your use of music in your work changed over the years?
C: It changed. Lente van Glas is all about music, and has John Cale in it as a fictional character. It has some autobiographical elements like my obsession for music and the search for the stories behind it. I had the same kind of feeling, like I could find out more about myself through his music. I had to meet him, so I could find out more about the different worlds inside of me. When I had the opportunity to do an interview I asked him about the connection between landscapes and music. Well, he had never thought about that before.
BT: Nice point of view!
C: Yeah, we became good friends.
BT: How come The Last Poets became a subject for your novel?
C: My son Daniël was listening to hiphop a lot and it caught my interest. Without him I would have never jumped into black culture. You know what? I think this book needs more attention, it deserves a reissue with a different sleeve.
BT: Yes, we feel it deserves an international audience.
C: The problem is that people leave the book alone, while it is actually about universal things. I'd love to trick people in to it, make it more commercial.
BT: We were overwhelmed by the beauty of it, by the fact that this story that is indeed about so much more then just the history of a musical group.
C: It is because of the rush I got myself into, going to New York and arriving in the middle of the 9/11 attacks, unbelievable! Umar's daughter was in one of the towers and survived. He was in Detroit so I went there, which was really one big adventure.. the Greyhound bus.. a room full of black guys with me not knowing where I should sleep. But Umar is very smart, his connections brought me the right information to make a good story.
BT: What are his thoughts about the book?
C: The first sixty pages have been translated. Umar read it and said: 'You took some poetic license!', but in fact The Poets are really proud of the book.
BT: But what about the negative things in it?
C: It's them who told me all about it! It couldn't be more negative, all this filthy stuff they told made me fall out of my chair! ‚ÄúUmar, did you really beat up Kain with a hammer?‚Äù ‚ÄúYeah, possibly, I was so crazy at that time.‚Äù
BT: Is he also the one who used to live as a crack junkie?
C: He told me all about it.
BT: A situation that must be hard to understand.
C: Not if you grow up in a situation like his. That is what I thought fascinating about his story, I wanted to understand what goes on with one's inner self. There was also the bond between us: both our fathers had mental problems, when we were young we both had too much responsibity. We didn't have a solid foundation to build an assured attitude. But I learned to deal with it, he did not. He is a completely different person with a different character, but we found a match on the personal level there. Same goes for his sister: we are still friends.
BT: This whole episode of working on De Laatste Dichters must feel like a remarkable part of you live.
C: It was, and in the middle of that kind of madness you write a novel like that.
BT: What music would you associate with this episode on a personal level?
C: I listened to the 2001 Nick Cave album No More Shall We Part a lot. Jill Scott, D'Angelo, Bilal, The Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye; I really enjoyed the old fashioned slick and horny stuff on the radio. I listened to 'Sacred to the Pain' by Umar Bin Hassan to get into the Last Poets vibe. A pretty obscure song that could bring me to tears, really entrance me.
A funny thing is that I could only understand the literature of Amiri Baraka after getting familiar with Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme'. Baraka's prose was really hard to read, but after hearing 'A Love Supreme', I suddenly got it. Thanks to this piece of music, because of jazz, following the things being told in the last chapter of De Laatste Dichters, I knew I had to build up this book as a jazz tune. Sassin and I were talking about jazz and other things and suddenly I had this 'epiphany'.. it was such a magical moment.. under the influence of weed.. two weeks after the terrorist attacks.. everything was so intense, emotionally charged. All of a sudden I knew it. It was a beautiful moment, I wrote a poem about it.