Writers sometimes say that their characters start to lead a life of their own. This definitely has turned out to be true for Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien. We started out with a basic outline of who they were, but during the stories we wrote for The Red Man and Others and the follow-ups we’re working on, their personalities definitely have become more complex and nuanced. It’s not easy to define exactly who they are, and often it comes down to ‘Kaila would definitely do this’ or ‘Sebastien would never say that’. For Ymke, we found the one word that encompasses a lot of who she is, how she thinks and what she believes in: Northernness.

This actually came up during a discussion about a project we’ve got in the fridge, about the ornery northern Dutch writer/traveller M.S. Teenstra – and in the back of the fridge, slightly mouldy, a project about the ornery northern Dutch writer/traveller J.J. Slauerhoff. Angeline mentioned Northernness, a term used by C.S. Lewis in his Surprised by Joy, and asked whether it’d be translatable to Dutch. It’s a term that encompasses a lot, but has no strict boundaries:

Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago. …And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country…

And to go a bit deeper into the rabbit hole, Joy is understood as:

it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. …I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.

Jannes de Vries – Seagulls behind the plough

To answer Angeline’s question: Northernness can be translated as Noordsigheid, and it is applicable to Teenstra and Slauerhoff, both writers who travelled to the remote corners of their world, had experiences they could not hope to explain to others (not for want of trying), and yet could never find that single thing that would truly make them happy. Perhaps it was because searched so far that they forgot to look close by; I am reminded of John Boorman’s Excalibur, in which the Knights of the Round Table seek the length and breadth of the realm for the Grail, until Parcival dreams of it while on the verge of death. What is the secret of the Grail? The King and the Land are one, is the answer. Who does it serve? The shadowy figure asks. We may be mistaken this figure for Christ, or God, but no; when the King and the Land are one, we’re looking at a pre-Christian, rural past of agrarian cycles and customs like the May Queen and, per James George Frazer, the Sacred King, who’d take place next to the Earth Goddess for a year.

A sidestep to my dad. While we’re from very orthodox Protestant stock, my grandfather broke with the church, and my father was a Christian in name only. However, he found spirituality outdoors; even when pensioned he’d be up at dawn and on his bicycle, and could be found in the nature reserve close by, or in the polder, the land reclaimed from the sea, while the world was still asleep. This, for me, is a feature of Northernness: the spirituality of the landscape, and the way the northern soul is attuned to it. This is not something that is talked about; it’s a personal relationship. God does not live in a church; God is in the landscape, is the land. With that, the Sacred King, like Arthur, is a stand-in for that deity, but in a way all us northerners are.


One of the most popular and enduring songs in my native Gronings dialect is Ede Staal’s ‘Mien Hogelaand’. You can find the full text here, with the Dutch translation which Google will help you render in your language of choice. It’s worth listening to, even if you don’t get the words, as part of the song’s meaning is in the melody. (Hogelaand, or Highland, is what the area is called – it’s ever so slightly raised, which was a plus in bygone times of floods).

It’s the sky behind Uithuizen, it’s the little tower of Spijk,
It’s the road from Leens to Kloosterburen, and through Westpolder along the dike.
It’s the windmills and the canals, the churches and the strongholds.
It’s the land where as a child, I didn’t know of pain or sorrow.
That’s my land, my High Land

These examples are not postcard pictures. The accumulation of places, for anyone having grown up there, will go straight to the heart. Ede zooms in gradually, his broad strokes becoming more detailed:

It’s the wheat fields, it’s the oats, It’s the rapeseed in bloom
It’s the horizon at Ranum, Just after a thunderstorm

The song goes from the permanence of the landscape to the cyclical nature of the harvest, and to the momentary, to how the horizon looks after a thunderstorm. That he mentions the village of Ranum is immaterial; we from Groningen recognise the wideness of the landscape, and how that sky looks in the distance. Then, he gets personal, and places himself inside of the landscape and the song:

It’s a nice evening in May; a cow is coughing in the grassland.
I’m dating for the first time, and feel the sparks from your hand.
The wild plans that I had – Nothing will come of them,
until the night in the High Land, lays its dark cloak over us.

This is Northernness, Ede sings about, and Joy: it’s a nostalgia that lies as much in a moment as in the place. Did that moment indeed happen the way he describes, or is his longing for how he remembers it, or wants to remember? There’s a Dutch word, Heimwee, homesickness, which reaches further than ‘home’ alone. It’s a yearning like the German Sehnsucht, or the Welsh term hireath, described as ‘the feeling of longing for a home that no longer exists or never was. A deep and irrational bond felt with a time, era, place or person.’ In Groninger dialect, there’s the word wènst, as in “Ik heb wènst van die”, for which the translation “I miss you” doesn’t reach deep enough. For the Northerner, this longed-for place does exist; the villages may have changed, with shops closing and doors no longer kept unlocked, the landscape in its broad strokes is still there.

Artists from Groningen have tried to tap into this. Of a younger generation than Ede Staal is Marlene Bakker, whose Waarkhanden exudes the same heimwee, linking a personal past with the rural landscape. Its video celebrates the heavy clay of which the Groninger soil is made and which sticks to our feet (figuratively) wherever we go. From the early 1920s, inspired by German expressionists, the members of the artistic circle De Ploeg started portraying the landscape, not as it strictly was (no impressionism or realism here), but as they felt it. That Grail, which Parcival sought, is there, be it perhaps just out of reach: the Northerner and the Land are as one, and for better or worse, this is where the well of happiness, Joy, lies.

So, Northernness. That’s how we’ve decided to characterise Ymke, who comes from an analogue to the rural Dutch north. It’s still a somewhat amorphous description, but it’ll do. As a farm girl she was keenly aware of the enduringness of the landscape – the fields that had been there for generations, the paths that were trod since the first people came to the area, but also the cyclical nature of the seasons. She knows about patience, about sowing a seed and then to wait, trusting that it’ll come up much later, and about finding the brightness in the moment, the way the morning sky looks a bit different every time, the singing bird and ribbitting frog, the flower opening up and the bee with its pollen-encrusted butt. She feels deeply and passionately, yet her convictions are strong as tree roots, below the clay.


Neil Jordan – Searching In Dreams

We’re ushered into the blood-red cave that is Screen 4 of Belfast’s Strand Arts Centre, the only surviving relic in a city that once boasted myriad neighbourhood cinemas. “I wish I had a cinema like this within walking distance in Dublin,” Neil Jordan confides. The occasion is the 20th anniversary screening of Interview with the Vampire. It’ll be shown in 35 mm, not digitial. Jordan prefers it this way. 

When did you last see Interview?

Oh, it was a long, long, loooooooong time ago! 

Your first film work was as creative consultant on John Boorman’s Excalibur. Were you already interested in the fantastic earlier, in your writing career? 

No, not really. It came from making movies. Fantastic things always suited movies, it seems to me. And I probably got it from the area where I grew up; I grew up in Sligo, was born in Sligo. But I’ve also written several novels involving the fantastic as well – fantasy, folklore and mythology. 

And when you work with someone else’s stories? 

Whenever I work with someone else’s stories it’s always because they’ve had those elements in them. Angela Carter, Graham Greene, Moira Buffini, Anne Rice… I’ve always been attracted to a book, or a story, or a piece of imagination that had that strange kind of existence, both in this world and some other world. 

Do you find that you can then further influence them? 

Yes, I choose the stories that then stimulate my soul in some way, and then I respond to it, and I change it often. But I choose something that has that has that resonance. 

Compared to the many adaptations of King Arthur, not much has been done in film and TV with our Irish mythology. 

I know, there’s not really, is there. 

For instance, with the popularity of Game of Thrones, filmed around Belfast: where is our epic Cú Chulainn movie?

I don’t know why they haven’t made movies of it. There’s no big fiction about Cú Chulainn either, is there, apart from the Táin Bó Cúailnge. If it’s ever referred to, it’s in terms of satire, like in Flann O’Brien.

Also, as a character, Cú Chulainn may not be as enigmatic as King Arthur. 

I suppose Cú Chulainn’s is not as magical a story, really, it’s not about the Otherworld. I mean, it’s not about Christianity either, it’s a pre-Christian story. It’s more like the Iliad and those Greek epics. The thing is, with the Arthurian legends, you have various renditions of it since the 13th century, from Le Morte d’Arthur onwards, and they have a different position within English literature. 

Do you relate to writers like Yeats, who formed a bridge between ancient history, mythology, and modern Ireland?

Yes, absolutely. That’s the reason why I’ve done so many movies that have dealt with fairy tales, with fantasy, horror and ghost stories and things like that. But it’s something that comes from growing up very much in an oral culture, with that kind of story telling and that kind of culture – superstition was never very far from the surface.

The entire Anglo-Irish literary revival was driven by people collecting folk tales like An Cumann Le Béaloideas Éire (The Folklore of Ireland Society), Lady Gregory, Yeats of course, and Douglas Hyde. There was the exploration of the Irish folk culture at the very birth of the Anglo-Irish literary revival and the Celtic Twilight. 

So it’s been identity forming for you? 

Yeah. I think it forms every Irish writer in many ways, like Seamus Heaney, Flann O’Brien. But less so at present, because fiction has become more realistic. 

And more urban? Have rural settings and mythology lost their influence on Irish storytelling? 

Well, you do see them used in comic verse and by various playwrights like Brian Friel, and in a lot of the poetry. But there are cities now, aren’t there, and there’s violent crime, and thrilling things that contemporary fiction loves, and those are the things to write about. (He sighs.)

Though in your realistic films, like Breakfast on Pluto and The Butcher Boy, you put elements of fantasy, escapism, and also use the idea of dreams a lot, like in In Dreams

Hmmm, yeah. I do love to. And I’ve done that more in films than in the books I’ve written because films are almost perfect for exploring dreams and dream images. And I tend to be a very image-centric person. When I write a script I basically close my eyes and daydream. So it’s that kind of thing that leads to what I do. 

And your movie Ondine of course, while not a fantastical movie, but it has …

It’s a fairy tale, basically, yes.  With Ondine I really wanted to make a specifically Irish fairy tale, so I took the story of the selkie and all the legends of seals and people going backwards and forwards, and tried to situate it in the modern world. 

But the fantasy is underpinned by reality.

That was the intention.

Fantasy archetypes are most obvious in The Company of Wolves. You wrote it together with Angela Carter?

I did. She had written a collection of stories, The Bloody Chamber, with her own specific treatment of classic fairy tales. Among them Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard and several other tales from the canon of fairy tales. 

I got together with her, and we decided to try to construct a story in which other stories could appear. So we used the conceit of the grandmother telling stories to the little girl and within those stories, you have stories within stories. So, that way we managed to make a journey through a significant amount of archetypal fairy tales, all within a reworking of the story of Little Red Riding Hood

Did that give you freedom?

It was a wonderful opportunity to create every kind of crazed image one ever had, you know, put every kind of obsessive image from your fantasies and dreams on the screen. For me it was. 

And that was a delightful thing to do, and in terms of the cinema of the time it was quite unusual, because it was seen as quite daring. The script was quite – it wasn’t for little children, it wasn’t for adults, it was a horror movie, it was an erotic movie, with a young girl growing up, so it crossed all these boundaries. I was very lucky to get to make it, and it would be very difficult to at present. 

Is there a deeper truth to fairy tales?

I think what you find with fairy tales is that they’re stories that go beyond character, that go straight to some rather mythic, archetypal thing. And they get there very easily, while if you write a story yourself it’s often very difficult to get there. That’s the advantage, the function of fairy tales. 

Does that let you communicate a message?

It’s not a message, really, fairy tales come fully formed, and they strike deeper than the realistic level, the realistic surface that people are used to. That’s why I use fairy tales so much. 

What attracted you to directing Interview with the Vampire

It was the fact that vampires had never been taken seriously, and Anne Rice said: “Okay, if there is this creature that lives forever and has no pity, and lives on blood – what would it be like to be that creature?” I don’t think anybody had ever really asked that question in a piece of fiction before. I know Bram Stoker didn’t, as he presented Dracula as this outside force. 

And the other thing was that it was a really intense and exhaustive exploration of some kind of guilt that she had, and I felt that was extraordinary. She places these vampire figures in this realm in which they can question all sorts of different aspects of human life, our presumption of our moral responsibility, what it would be like to live forever, and sexuaity, because she managed, decided to write from the point of view of this undead creature. It allowed her to ask all these interesting questions, and I wanted to make a movie about it. 

Your work has that recurring motif of characters questioning themselves and their world.  

I suppose I do return to the same things in the movies I’ve made. I varied from the very realistic films like The Brave One and Angel, The Crying Game and between the fantastic things, things that have to do with otherworldly things like my last movie Byzantium, like Ondine and The End of the Affair, so I go from one to the other. But I do like stories that question the realistic explanations of the world. 

I regard stories as a series of questions, or rather as the possibility to ask a series of questions about everything, like “why are we here” or (chuckles) “what am I doing in this room at this moment?” 

Reality always surprises you, and I like to come up with stories that ask those questions.

(This interview appeared in Fortean Times 324, February 2015)