Bookpeople: Tante Hes

Back in Ye Olde Paper Newslettre, we featured an interview with one of the ABC staff members in every issue.   We plan on continuing the tradition here.  It’s been a long time in the making, but here, finally, is the first interview, appropiately with the lady who posed the questions back then.

HesterTante Hes is well-known to any ABC customer who used to frequent the basement in the old store in Amsterdam. She is a good-humored and very enthusiastic bookseller. If you’re ever stuck for what fiction or poetry to read next, all you have to do is ask! She’ll be sure to come up with three or four promising recommendations in the space of thirty seconds. You can find her on the second floor in our Amsterdam store, and occasionally in Den Haag, too.

Hester in a nutshell

Most treasured possession: Paul, my hubby (if you can call him a possession)

Favorite saying: “Or something”

Favorite food: Risotto with celeriac

Rich or famous? Rich

Favorite movie: Anything with flying dresses!

Flying dresses?

Hong Kong martial arts movies. When I see one I get totally into the main character: right then, I want to carry a spear, jump really high and beat all the bad guys, like in Saviour of the Soul. When I was 5 or 6, I really believed that, if only I could run fast enough, and flapped with my arms hard enough, I could fly. I remember running down the street, thinking “this has to be possible!”

Okay, another list. Which books would you take to a desert island with you?

* Torenhoog en mijlen breed + De zevensprong by Tonke Dragt, famous in Holland for her kid’s books.

* Het zinrijk + Uit de hoge boom geschreven by Chris van Geel because I love the way he evokes the dunes.

* Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver because she delves so deeply into people.

* The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck, for the same reason: the way he shows us people in all their humanity.

* A dummy to write and sketch in.

* all DVDs (and a DVD-player) from The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan as an ultra-cool ex-FBI agent, to see exactly what lengths someone goes to to escape from a prison-like paradise.

I also neeeeeed some music. So I have to take at least Wire‘s Chairs Missing and 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields. And In Black by Metrophase.

Have you ever wanted to write?

No, although my friend Margreet thinks that some day I will write a book for teenagers. I know I can empathize with them.

John SteinbeckIf I do write something, I want to write something sober, without adornment, even though I characteristically carry on at length. The most beautiful writing for me is when, with a few words, the writer still conveys so much, like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. John Steinbeck is a writer like that too. I love him! I’m collecting everything by him. That’s not something I normally do, but I find all his work fantastic. He’s similar to Barbara Kingsolver. They write very compassionately about what it is to be human and that life is a struggle for everyone. Absolutely brilliant.

It will be a few years before I write one book, though; I would have to edit a lot out!

What road led you to ABC?

I studied to become a teacher in textile design. During my education I worked as a bartender for five years, but after a while, as soon as a customer came in, I knew exactly he would order “half a glass of whisky, no ice and a black coffee, 3 cubes of sugar, please”. So… bartending became a bit too uncreative for me.

The RoadThen I studied to become a remedial teacher. I worked as one for about 5 or 6 years. I really enjoyed it, until one day, a new pupil came in and I knew exactly how I was going to make him laugh, and suddenly I knew this job wasn’t a challenge anymore.  But I liked my pupils a lot.

I then started at the PPI (Psychologisch Paedologisch Instituut). This is a place where kids from Amsterdam go when they’ve been kicked out everywhere else. In my time as a bartender a lot of punkers would come to the bar and I got along with them really well. But the punkers were all gone by 1998 and the job was different from what I expected, so after about a year I got a job here at the ABC, where I’d been a customer forever.  I’ve worked at the ABC for 9 years now and I still thoroughly enjoy it.

(She breaks a walnut open on the pages of a book, making your interviewer hold her breath in shock.)

Yes, well, books are items to be used, you know! I AM careful with my books.. I’ll wipe the shells off later.

What do you do at the ABC?

HomelandI sell books on the second floor, and I train new people. I’m the Fiction buyer together with Reinoud. I also buy the books for the Biography, Poetry, and Yoga sections. In the past I ordered for the Travel section, the Lesbian section, and also the Books on Writing section.

I also work in Den Haag on Wednesdays sometimes. I think I really fit in with the Den Haag crew!

You used to be the interviewer for the ABC newsletter. How did you get into it, and why did you stop?

I think I was tricked into it! I don’t remember. I do know that my first interview was with Myriam Michiels, in Antwerp at Het Andere Boek. I remember I followed her all evening with my little recorder! I really enjoyed my interviews with Jeroen, and Hans, our IT-man. I love interviewing people, and I’m good at it, too. I would love to work as an interviewer on the radio. You get to ask people questions so they manage to tell you just that bit more. I’m so curious about their stories. It’s a natural part of me. My brother is a journalist, and everyone always thought I would be, too.

I don’t like writing, though, that’s why I stopped. I’m not structured enough in the writer’s sense of the word. An interview grows and grows until I can’t grasp it anymore. And I would sit there, writing and rewriting. One day my husband came up and said, “how long have you been working on that? What, 26 hours? I think that’s enough, don’t you?” He never stops me from doing things, he’s done that maybe 3 times in the course of our marriage. And I realized he was right.

What section(s) have you come to appreciate more now that you work at a bookstore?

I find the Poetry section very surprising and fun to buy for. There’s such a wealth of great poetry out there! At first I found it very abstract, because I inherited the section from Iben, who studied English at the university. She had all that 17th-18th century stuff, you know, required literature in high school. I’d look at them and think “ugh.” But now I look at award-winning poets and think to myself, “is this interesting?” And when you do that, the section really becomes yours, which is very rewarding.

The Fiction section boosts my ego. I find it incredibly liberating to sit down with a representative from a publisher and say things like “well, if I buy 120 copies, what kind of a discount can I get?” That’s power! I never knew I had a commercial spirit! I had a creative education, and I’m not schooled in making deals, but it’s there, nonetheless. I like that.

Which authors do you admire?

Sarah WatersJohn Steinbeck. And A. M. Homes‘s short stories. Chris van Geel is a favorite poet of mine. Sarah Waters is another favorite writer. I’ve met her, twice! She was born in 1966, just like me, but she’s already written four books. I guess she can sit still. She’s the sweetest person.

I really like Rutger Kopland‘s work. I’ve read all of Diana Gabaldon‘s books and I’m planning to reread them, and reread them, when winter sets in. And I love Joanne Harris. ‘Fodder for old bags,’ my old colleague Harry used to say, ha, ha, ha. But I really enjoy books like Oprah’s books. Janet Fitch, Alice Sebold. Good books about hard times and old women!

Running WildOh, J. G. Ballard! He writes science fiction, but not with spaceships, it’s all about survival. In one of his collections there’s a short story about a man who is the only “normal” person in a world populated with people with Down’s Syndrome. And he takes care of his wife, who also has Down’s Syndrome, then waits for it to happen to him. Or The Drought, a story about a man who is alone in the desert. Everything’s dry and dead, how do you survive that? A lot of the things he foresaw in 1975 have in fact really happened, like laptops, the Internet, financial crises. One of his books, Running Wild, is very much of this time, it’s about a guarded neighborhood, with surveillance cameras and stuff, and the kids all turn into evil, nasty, thieving wretches.

A promising author is Stephen Hall, who wrote The Raw Shark Texts; I’m looking forward to his next work!  I also enjoyed Loving Frank by Nancy Horan and The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay. It made me finally read Moby Dick.

Which authors are over-hyped?

Benjamin Kunkel! Paul and I actually don’t have that many books at home, and we’re not going to expand our bookcase. We just take stuff out and sell it when the bookshelves are full. Well, next time we sell stuff I know Indecision will be the first to go. Argh, worthless, stupid book, and so childish. Not for me at all, I’m too old for it.

Miranda JulyI’d like to say James Joyce, but I read him a long time ago. I don’t remember a lot about it and I don’t want to lie. Oh yes, Miranda July! She just baffles me. She seems so empty, empty-headed…. And I suspect Philip Roth is overrated, but I must confess I haven’t read anything by him… yet (smirk)

What are you reading now?

Krabat by Otfried Preussler. And In the Country of Country, which I’m reading because of that interview with Jeroen all those years ago. It’s a biography of all these different country stars and their music. It’s great! I’m also reading the incredibly good Calming Your Anxious Mind by Jeffrey Brantley. I’m almost done with it. And there are always a few poetry books on my bedside table. Mostly Dutch, although I have to especially mention John Burnside. His spirit is similar to mine, I like to think.

What else do you love besides books?

Gijs en KoosEverything involving hands and handicraft. I would love to learn woodcutting and block printing. I love gardening, cooking, walking and being outdoors. And I adore looking at art – this could be visiting an exhibition or going to a concert. I also love cats! Two adorable kittens have just moved in with us.

Where are you in ten years?

I don’t know! I can’t plan ahead like that. But I hope I’ll be as happy at the ABC then as I am right now. Or if I ever win a million euros you’ll find me in the dunes, sketching, singing and playing my accordion.