John F. Walter is a distinguished American playwright and poet, originally from Southern California, who has been living in Granada, Spain for the last five years, working on a novel about the threat of Al Qaeda in Andalucia, as well as employing online an innovative Boston-based social networking Web 2.0 blog known as Gather.com to bring writers, poets, and artists together in a new vanguard art movement known as pre-Simulationism. Last year, Walter was diagnosed with stage IV tonsillar cancer that had spread to the throat and neck, and his prognosis seemed quite dim for survival. Walter agreed to talk with Xecutives.com's Christian Dueblin, who has known the author since they first met in a Spanish-language intensive course in Sevilla fifteen years ago.
John, you’re one very lucky fellow! Thanks to what you call your 'spiritual focus' as well as a new aggressive experimental combo chemotherapy approach and a successful operation to remove the carcinoma, you have recovered entirely today, albeit minus a jugular vein and with a scar down and across your throat to show for it. You beat the odds and defeated cancer, and while you were lying there for eight months you managed to write a book’s worth of poems, found a vanguard virtual art movement, and mentor dozens of young poets around the world. How did you manage to stay so productive and on task while suffering so much discomfort and pain during the cancer treatment?
I guess the answer is, that intuitively I knew that I needed to concentrate my mind above the distress my body was going through. I knew that if I did that, and daily expressed gratitude for the fortunate life I’d already lived and whatever life I have yet to live, I would have an excellent chance of surviving the tumor. And that’s what happened, as it turned out.
We are so glad you are completely healthy again and once again with us. Do you mind telling Xecutives.com the purpose for your trip to Switzerland?
Of course not, dear friend. I’m here to celebrate a wedding to a most beautiful, intelligent and worthy Fräulein known as Aglaja, to be celebrated in a location named Giessbach somewhere in the high Alps. This is my second visit to your enchanting little mountainous fortress of a country! (Laughs.) I'll never forget your wonderful hospitality extended to my wife and myself the first time. Let's see….We climbed the Rigi, stayed up all night listening to cows moo and watching electrical storms on a farm in the Emmental, rode up the lift of the Schilthorn to the James Bond museum, and toured some of the finest museums in all of Europe. Strike that - the best museums in the world, including New York. And of course we did many, many more things during that trip. No wonder I came back. (Laughs.)
Can you tell our readers some of your opinions and views about Switzerland as an American writer living in Europe?
Christian, I love this gorgeous special place, especially the Swiss people themselves. Your values of independence, self-reliance, civic freedom, responsibility and ingenuity are all values most Americans share, although in recent years because of our disastrous and incompetent current Republican Administration many of these cherished beliefs and attitudes have been subverted out of sheer greed, and now the rest of the world regards us very badly. I think the Swiss were very wise to stay out of the European Union when they did; like the Germans, you would have ended up paying for the lesser industrialized and thrifty countries such as Spain and Portugal to get rich by working the maladjusted system of credits, thus wasting your tax dollars in an unfair manner. I just hope the Swiss fully realize they will always do better on their own: Neutral, removed from thorny spillover European concerns, while enjoying all the benefits of the high level European lifestyle model - in comparison with the so-called 'American cutthroat competitionmodel'.
Most of us Swiss would tend to agree with you nowadays. Keeping our independence hasn't probably hurt our economy and certainly has preserved our culture the way we want it.
I have long admired your unique, practical, yet aesthetically attuned and free thinking culture very much, Christian. Some of your famous playwrights and writers, such as Dürrenmatt and Frisch, have actually influenced my own playwriting style, especially in my more experimental works. Swiss hospitality is famous as unequaled in the world. One of the most important artistic movements of the 20th Century, Dadaism, as well as the modernist enterprise were nurtured here in cosmopolitan centers such as Zürich by artists and writers such as Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, and later James Joyce and Ezra Pound. We Americans have a very favorable image of Switzerland generally. The Swiss do branding very well and Americans are beguiled by entrancing brands more than any other people and hence by fantasies of Rolexes and Godiva chocolate gold bars as much as they are by what qualities of Alpine beauty, sophistication, neutrality and fabulous banker wealth are embodied in the red cross.
So do you think few Americans who visit Switzerland come away disappointed?
Very few, and those who do are the emulator types whose expectations never live up to the reality, you know, the kind of fools burning through credit cards who complain later about the price of hotels and museums and ski lifts and things like that, then show off their new Swatch.
Tell me John, we Swiss people had some real problems with American lawyers concerning Nazi gold and hidden Jewish accounts. As a result of that Swiss banks had to pay out great amounts of cash. Swiss people have got the impression that Americans were really mad at Switzerland. What is your impression of that story?
Not true. First of all, you have to realize that the American media sensationalizes stories such as this one because of the incredible competition of the telcoms in our market. But then another story comes along and this one goes bye bye in a nanosecond. Americans are not possessed with great historical memory, generally, and aside from the public intellectuals who kept this thing a controversy for a while in magazines and papers like The New Republic, Harpers Monthly, the New York Times, etc. where this matter was blown all out of proportion - since these vast hidden Jewish accounts were never found, incidentally, even when this money was paid almost to squash the issue - the American public never paid much attention to it. Nor do I think they were ever convinced that Swiss bankers were to blame, that is to say, that they deliberately withheld money from either Holocaust survivors or their relatives. Americans aren’t mad at the Swiss people, if anything, they're downright envious.
You're not an ordinary American, in any case, are you, John? You're married to an Andalusian lady, your beloved Inmaculada, for almost twelve years, and you’ve been living in Spain off and on since I've known you over, all totaled almost eight years in Granada. Do you consider yourself just as an European as you do an American now?
As opposed to living out some kind of Hemingway fantasy as the isolated American writer living in an exotic locale? Absolutely. I love Europe, buddy. This is my second home!
Have you ever considered becoming a Spanish citizen?
I'll always keep my US passport - and I remain proud of my country, no matter what wave of anti-American feeling is currently passing through today's world, with some justification I'm ashamed to say - but I love residing in Spain and living the European lifestyle in its particular Iberian inflection. Family is still more important than personal consumption and fulfillment of one’s selfish needs. The pace of life is still more human, though globalization makes me fear for the current generation umbilically tied to their mobile phones and MP3 players.
You've been working on a novel about Al Qaeda in Spain and the spectre of Islamic terrorism in Europe for several years now. We know that police and some intelligence services caught Al Qaeda members in Spain, also in Granada where you live. Can you tell us a bit about it?
There are two ideas of what is happening concerning Islam and Spain and the terrorist attacks there. One theory is, that some Islamists want to reconquer Spain in order to recover their lost land of Al Andalus. This is what Zawahiri has said repeatedly since 9/11. Another is that Spain was the weak link in the chain when it came to European security - look at their airports still, for God's sakes, as well as the boat people coming in every day on the cayucas and pateras - and because of the presence of radical North Africans (mainly Moroccans, but also Algerians and Tunisians as well with grievances toward their dictators) it was not only the easiest and most strategic place to attack, but also could be defined as an attack on the then-government of Partido Popular and its leader, Jose Maria Aznar, who along with Tony Blair stood head and shoulders with the American president Bush in launching the war in Iraq. I happen to believe it was both things. The short term reason for the Madrid train bombings was the war in Iraq, but in the long run, as the terrorists themselves declare almost daily on their clandestine Web sites, they want Al Andalus back as part of dar Islam. I came to Spain in July, 2002, and immediately realized how vulnerable the Spanish were to the possibility of a major terrorist attack. The Casablanca bombing in 2003 made me even surer of this, and I began to write a novel about this attack taking place in Granada, which has symbolic significance to Al Qaeda as the last Islamic holdout to the Reconquista, falling to the Catholic Kings in 1492, centuries after the rest of the Peninsula. The attacks on Atocha station and its trains in March, 2004, only confirmed my prediction, as well as widened the scope of my narrative.
Are you almost finished with your book?
Yes. It should be ready to be looked at by publishers by the end of the year.
Have you enjoyed your trip to Switzerland?
What do you think? (Laughs.) No, Really, it's been absolutely wonderful. My wife Inmaculada and I spent some splendid days enjoying your hospitality and touring Basel and then you guided us around the glories of Zürich's old town. I will never forget seeing the Chagall and Giacometti stained glass windows in the Fraumünster; having a cappuccino in the Odeon café, surrounded by Swiss 'metrosexuals' and artist-types; and then finally seeing the amazing collection of paintings and sculpture in the Kunsthaus in Zürich, which is really sort of like Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art in many ways, down to its own Manet 'Lilies' room. And then going to that remarkable Ballenberg historical park in the middle of your Alpine lake district in a gorgeous wilderness, with so many different types of Swiss buildings represented from the past so as to bring it to life for future generations!
John, thank you very much for offering your time to answer my questions.
(C) 2007 by Christian Düblin. Alle Rechte vorbehalten. Anderweitige Publikationen sind ist nur mit ausdrücklicher Genehmigung des Autors gestattet.