Sunday, August 26, 2012

An update and a request

Hi there. I am still suspended from Twitter. Thank you for all the very kind comments and questions about it. It seems my account was mistakenly marked as spam. Twitter reactivated it while I was asleep and 17 minutes later, while I was still asleep, it was suspended again for the same reason. So I guess there may be automated complaints about my account being spam. It may simply be a virus of some sort, and unrelated to Stephen Leather. I've seen a couple of people speculate it may be because I engaged with some Julian Assange supporters, and that somehow they have conspired to sabotage me in this way. I doubt that one, though: if so, half of Twitter would be suspended. Anyway, I am trying to sort it out.

I can still read Twitter, and there have been a lot of very kind comments. I see a few people have referred to me as a tireless campaigner against unethical practices and that sort of thing. That's very kind, but actually I'm not: I am really very tired of all this. And I'd much rather simply write books.

But this is my profession, it affects me and readers and writers in general, and I think it's silly to try to pretend that none of this crap is happening the culture and environment has significantly changed in the last few years as a result of the internet, and I do think a lot of these issues should be addressed. This morning I read this very depressing article in the New York Times about paid book reviews on Amazon and elsewhere. Head-spinning. But I wonder if it might not be an idea that discovered (or admitted!) fraud disqualified authors from membership of writers' organizations. I also think it's shocking that Amazon didn't even bother to comment on this article, and I am guessing won't, and no doubt bestselling author John Locke will simply shamelessly carry on and not apologize for deceiving readers.

Something that annoys me whenever the subject of fake reviews comes up is people saying they are never influenced by reviews, or that they can tell fake ones very easily. Firstly, people are clearly influenced by reviews, which is why John Locke paid huge sums of money to buy them. A cheap ebook with a cool cover won't sell if there are no reviews, as it's a white elephant. But if there are 50 of them, it appears that the book is something being read and discussed by others, and so a viable prospect. Locke also cleverly realized that a lot of five-star reviews from unverified accounts would be seen through by some, so specifically requested the reviews he paid for came from verified Amazon accounts and that he didn't mind if a few were poor reviews. This clearly worked. I suspect if I did the same, and bought a ton of reviews for my latest novel, it would help it sell more copies. But I'm not going to do that, because, you know, it's fraudulent. 

I have also recently heard from authors who were riding high on the Amazon Kindle charts only to find that, almost overnight, they received dozens of one-star reviews from accounts that had previously reviewed nothing, or perhaps an electrical appliance, and that this had an effect on their sales. They dropped out of the charts, where they were very visible, and their sales slumped even more. I have also heard from authors about private web forums and Facebook groups where authors, some of them extremely successful, hang out, and that they trade positive reviews and also post negative reviews to sabotage authors who they dislike or whose success they feel threatens theirs. I guess we're looking at the tip of the iceberg here.

Stephen Leather hasn't been as subtle as John Locke, but it's clear that not all his reviews are legitimate. His new short story (featuring me as his killer, I gather) already has 11 five-star reviews on Amazon. Most of these appear to be from genuine, real people, many of whom have reviewed a lot of other books by Leather. And that's fine, of course. He has fans.

But it's also clear that some of his reviews are from people in the 'network' he described at Harrogate. Jacob W Drake, aka Whiskey McNaughton, recently publicly accused me and another writer of attempting to sabotage Leather's work on Smashwords with lower book ratings and 'troll tactics'. That's totally untrue, but it didn't take long for it to come out that Drake reviews his own books (it's a separate issue that a book with that description is for sale at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and elsewhere, considering most of these sites have policies of not publishing pornography). But Drake has also publicly boasted that he has edited several of Stephen Leather's books, and he uploaded at least one to Smashwords for him. He has also given several of Leather's books five-star reviews on Amazon. So I think it's clear that Drake is part of the 'network' that Leather boasted he has. After both Leather and Locke's admissions that they fraudulently deceive readers in this way, I find it very difficult to trust them on other matters.

I don't have any solutions. And I don't have the time to go into all this, either. And yes, it does sometimes feel like this cartoon. But please don't say 'Oh, well I have never heard of Stephen Leather, so who cares?' He's a bestselling author, has been since the 80s, is published by Hodder and Stoughton as well as Amazon Encore - but anyway this is not about the exact number of copies he has sold compared to Agatha Christie (although he has outsold her worldwide in ebooks) or his precise level of fame. Please don't try to draw a false equivalence between a writer who has admitted to fraud, bullies people online with evil jokes and racist abuse, and boasts about paying to manipulate his own Wikipedia entry, with concerned writers and readers who are trying to point out that all that is shoddy and crap and wrong, should be accounted for properly, and should stop. Please don't say this is all a car crash, or getting silly now, or it takes two to tango, or aren't we equally to blame for talking about this while these frauds just carry on merrily deceving people. Especially if you are more famous than Leather. Get off the pot. Speak out: share, retweet, blog.

Take a stand.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Some questions for Stephen Leather

If you've been following me on Twitter or Facebook, you might know that over the last few weeks I've had a monster bee in my bonnet about the best-selling British novelist Stephen Leather on account of several unethical practices he is fond of using.

This was triggered by Leather's remarkable boast at the Harrogate crime festival that he has set up a 'network' of fake identities online to promote his own work, and also relies on friends and friends of friends to do the same, using their real names or assuming others' to help him out with this. I did some digging, and soon found out quite a lot more besides, and asked Mr Leather about what I had found on Twitter. He was very aggressive, refused to answer most of my questions, and flat-out lied in response to some of them, before blocking me and going on to make veiled legal threats against me. Today I discover I have been suspended from Twitter (I'm trying to find out why right now), and at the same time Stephen Leather has finally responded, in the comments at this excellent blog post (which sets out a lot of the background and links to some of my findings). Here is my reply:

Leather: 'The problem is that I have been advised to say nothing.

But it is just so darn unfair that blogs like this have repeated allegations as fact without making any effort to check whether they are true or not. Ditto all those who pile in to comment on the allegations. It really is a mob mentality and is unfortunately not uncommon on the internet these days.'

Mr Leather, I've made every effort to check what I have discovered. I tweeted directly to you on Twitter from the beginning, asking you to answer questions about your sockpuppeting accounts. You were immediately aggressive, refused to answer my questions, lied, became personally abusive and then blocked me. You flatly denied that you were operating a Twitter account, @firstparagraph, claiming it was another writer who was a great fan of yours. You eventually changed the name of the account to @thirdparagraph and added a line in the profile admitting it is you, but you have shamelessly continued to use the account to talk about yourself in the third person as some sort of genius, and to relentlessly promote your books. You tweeted from that account earlier today: 'I just found a awesome free short story', followed by a link to one of your own stories on Amazon. You just found it, did you? Here are some other tweets you have made from the @thirdparagraph Twitter account:

'The book I would take with me on a desert island? No brainer. Soft Target by Stephen Leather.'

My favourite writer? Stephen Leather. I love his books. Stephen you rock!'

Just so we're clear: this is you tweeting about yourself in the third person. You denied you were doing it, pretending it was a fan of yours, but have now finally admitted it - and yet are still doing it.

'Pretty much all the allegations that Duns is making are untrue.'

Those modifiers don't inspire a great deal of confidence! Which allegations I have made are untrue and which ones are true, precisely? You say later that my allegations are unsubstantiated, but in fact I’ve substantiated them all. By your own admission, you use fake identities to promote your own work, which is not just unethical, but fraudulent: it's illegal in the UK. You make sick jokes on Amazon (that comment links to your own verified account). You set up two fake identities in the name of another writer – he told me this himself and I have recorded the conversation. You have posted racist abuse online – there are many elements of the posts that prove they were made by you, not least the poster’s knowledge of your address (you should be annoyed with them, surely, if they aren’t you!). By your own admission you have spent 700 dollars ‘undoing the work of a Wikipedia troll’.

'I stand by what I said at Harrogate but he has twisted and lied and stretched the truth in a way that has stunned me.'

You could simply have answered my questions when asked.

'At one point he made a defamatory statement about me on Twitter and I tweeted back that he had crossed over into libel. He then began tweeting that I was suing him.'

You tweeted at me ‘You have crossed the line into libel. Thanks.’ I took this as an indication that you were perversely pleased that I had said something untrue and damaging enough that you could then sue me. It’s a clear enough implication to anyone, I think. You also recently tweeted that you were looking for a lawyer in Sweden (where I live) who specializes in cyber-bullying - your clear implication being that I am cyber-bullying you. Good luck with either of those ideas.

'If nothing else he has so little in the way of assets that a libel action would be pyrrhic at best.'

What a cheap shot. And you have no idea what my assets are. You aren’t suing me because what I am saying is true. You'd be better served coming clean and explaining this to your readers, and of course to your publishers, who I hope would like an explanation for it. But mainly to your readers, who you habitually deceive by pretending to be other people. By your own admission.

'Since then I have just ignored him.'

Not quite true. You tweeted that I was ‘mad, ugly, losing his hair’ and called me ‘the shallow end of the gene pool’. You’ve made several other digs at me indirectly, I think. But yes, you’ve ignored my questions about your behaviour. Sure. There, we agree. However, a writer you know, Jake Drake, who has acted as an editor on at least one of your short stories and uploaded it to Smashwords, publicly accused me and Steve Mosby of smearing your reputation with fake reviews on Smashwords. Completely untrue. I wonder where Mr Drake could have got such a bizarre idea from.

'He then tweeted that he was afraid that I would send someone from Ireland to hurt him. That is a total fiction. But both these lies have been repeated as if they were fact.'

But I was afraid of that. I had read an interview with you in which you boasted about knowing 'half a dozen IRA guys' and 'some big-time drug smugglers', and coupled with your habit of abusing people online with virulently racist abuse and sick jokes, and several other things I’ve read and heard about you from Steve Roach, who warned me not to mess with you as you are 'powerful', and from several former colleagues of yours, such as the nature of that 'minor transgression' you committed as a young man, I was genuinely spooked by the thought you might send a racist hoodlum to have a go at me. I’m still a little spooked at that thought, in fact. As I type this, my account has been suspended from Twitter, apparently because I have been hacked. It could all be coincidence, but again, you were following my tweets and I was accusing you of lots of things. You could have answered. You chose not to, I think, because Twitter makes it very hard to answer direct questions. On a blog you can finesse your answers a lot, as you are doing.

'What I said at Harrogate was then twisted to say that I had opened fake Amazon accounts to criticise the work of other writers. That has been repeated many times and is not true.'

I haven’t said that, though frankly I do wonder what triggered the one-star review I just got from a ‘Mike’ on Amazon, especially as the last book he reviewed was one of yours, which he gave five stars.

'Duns phoned a friend of mine and spent almost an hour getting him to try to criticise me. He taped the call but still ended up twisting what was said. I have a full four-page statement from that friend about the way Duns behaved. I also have a letter from him saying that in no way does he regard me as having bullied him.'

That may be, because Steve Roach was very anxious not to upset you in any way. I’m hardly surprised, seeing as you spent over a year bullying him online. He sees it differently now, and is indeed even on friendly terms with you and grateful to you for help you have given him since your vendetta ended, but he didn’t see it like that at the time at all. He said to me that a year ago he had felt just as I did now, furious and wanting to see you account for your actions. He told me he had found himself attacked in all sorts of forums, had all his books slammed by you on Goodreads, that you named a sleazy villain after him in one of your books, and finally he discovered you had set up a Twitter account in his name to promote your own books, at which point he caved. Before that, he told me on tape at great length, he felt angry, upset and totally powerless: he complained about your behaviour to Goodreads and Amazon, and got nowhere.

UPDATE. Steve Roach now accepts that Stephen Leather did bully him, and in fact continued to do so even after I made this public. See this posting by Leather on his then-public Facebook wall, in which he published an email from Roach and mocked him:

'Over the past three weeks Duns has posted hundreds of malicious and abusive tweets about me.'

I haven't posted hundreds of tweets about you, and I don’t think any have been abusive. You’ve posted plenty of personally abusive tweets about me and others, often in the precise tones of a playground bully. Your mocking my lack of assets and sales figures in this response of yours is also for no other purpose than malice.

'He has appealed to his friends to join in and several have.'

Sigh. I haven’t appealed to anyone to be malicious or abusive against you, on Twitter or anywhere else. As above, you have in fact been provably malicious and abusive towards me: I've screengrabbed every one, incidentally. 

I have tried to get this story wider coverage, because you’re a bestselling author and I want you to be held to account for your fraudulent and often very disturbing behaviour.

'Duns took screenshots of my Facebook page and tweeted them.'

I tweeted one screenshot of a statement you made publicly on your Facebook wall – it was public when you made it, which is how I could screengrab it. I'm not going to apologize for doing that. You were boasting about paying 700 dollars ‘undoing the work of a Wikipedia troll’! Wikipedia is not a paying encyclopedia, and the way it works is by voluntary contributors who try to gather the most accurate information; there is a policy for getting rid of vandalism and trolls, and it doesn't involve payment. You’re a bestselling author (as you so often remind people) so I think you have an even greater  responsibility to act ethically because your fans, some of whom are also writers, may try to emulate you. So instead of getting upset that I posted this incriminating evidence about your unethical behaviour, it might be a better idea if you explained it. Who did you pay 700 dollars to at Wikipedia, and to do what, precisely? Why didn't you go through its procedures, which are free? Why do you think this is acceptable at all? I don’t think I need to justify exposing this statement of yours in the public domain: I think you need to address why you did this.  

'He tweeted personal details of my address.'

This information was and is in the public domain, Mr Leather. I found it on this website listing it as a registered address for you as a company director in 2010. I was looking for it because the same address was mentioned in this racist message from an abusive Yahoo forum poster who had posted under the names 'Big Nick Palmer', ‘stephenleather’ and 'Joe King' a year previously, in 2009. Although it is in the public domain, your address is not all that easy to find, so the fact that ‘stephenleather’ knew your address a year before you used it to register for a company is a piece of evidence that you and the virulent and abusive racist ‘Big Nick Palmer'/‘stephenleather’/'Joe King' are the same person. Added to this, Big Nick Palmer'/‘stephenleather’/'Joe King' shares several views you have expressed on your blog and in a 2010 novel, is white, British, your age, posted to a writer’s blog about Amazon’s Kindle forums, which you frequent, and yet never mentioned he was a well-known writer and had still not revealed that fact three years later there or anywhere else. All of this suggests either a series of coincidences running into odds of billions to one, an extraordinarily elaborate smear campaign against you three years ago that never resulted in any connection being made to you by anyone or, of course, that it is you. I'm sure that Yahoo would be able to confirm whether or not the poster in question has an IP registered anywhere near your homes in the UK or Thailand, but it would be far easier if you simply answered my question: did you make racist posts as 'Big Nick Palmer' aka 'stephenleather' aka 'Joe King' on Yahoo’s message boards? Yes or no? Try not to skirt it. It’s important.

'He has made countless unsubstantiated allegations and offensive comments to the point that I have to avoid Twitter most of the time, a great pity as that was my favoured way of talking to fans.'

You mainly use it to talk to yourself, in fact, as by my count you now have very few genuine followers, perhaps as low as a few dozen. Between March 1 2012 and March 11 2012 your Twitter account – the one under your own name, not your sockpuppets under the names of writers who have irritated you and who you wish to put in their place – received an incredible 26,500 new followers. You received on average 2,650 new followers every day, for 10 days straight. Then that stopped, and your account continued as normal. Did you buy these followers? If not, how did you not even remark on the extraordinary number of new followers you were getting every single day, and who then suddenly stopped arriving in such numbers? Surely your much-vaunted social media expertise would have told you this was unlikely to be above board.

'Duns claims to be a journalist.'

No, I am one. I’ve been published by most of the British broadsheets, and my next book is investigative journalism crossed with history.
'He also claims to be a writer.'

No, I am a writer, and have worked as one full-time since 2008. I’m just at the start of my career, really. You can try to belittle me as much as you like, but I’m published by Simon & Schuster and Penguin, and my first three books are currently under development as a TV series at the BBC. Youve missed several other things here, but not everyone is as obsessed with sales as you are, and it’s not the only way of judging a writer’s worth. I’m not in the least envious of you. (I think you mean envious, not jealous, but I'm not jealous of you, either.) And, of course, one of this is relevant to the issues under discussion.

'A writer by the name of Steve Mosby has been heaping abuse on me too, He is fond of calling me a bully (based mainly on the allegations that Duns has made).'

It’s plain as day you are one. You’ve just very pettily listed my and Steve’s book sale figures to try to cow us. You’ve made several abusive remarks to people on Twitter about this topic. You've called me mad, ugly and the shallow end of the gene pool, and have made similarly offensive digs at Steve.

'If anyone has been a bully it's Duns and Mosby.'

Really? You're a victim? Pull the other one, it's got a sock on it.

'Mosby alone has blogged on me FOUR times and has sent more than a hundred tweets slagging me off. Duns sends dozens of abusive tweets about me every day, including sme that are very personally offensive.'

Blogging about you isn't bullying. I haven’t sent you any abusive tweets. I have repeatedly tried to get you to answer my questions.

'But it is the posting of my personal details on Twitter that worries me most.'

You posted your address online yourself, as part of an abusive racist diatribe, Mr Leather. This information is also in the public domain.

'I would be grateful in future if you and the visitors to your blog would refrain from commenting on untrue and unsubstantiated allegations.'

They’re true, and I’ve substantiated them. You need to answer to them.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Being Jean-Claude (from 2003)

He was once one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, commanding six million dollars a film. These days, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s flicks go straight to video. But the Muscles from Brussels isn’t worried – as he tells Jeremy Duns, he has a higher calling

"You’re going to be a very good father," Jean-Claude Van Damme tells me. "Better than lots of people." Thanks, I say. "Worse than lots of people, too," he continues. He puts a hand on my shoulder. "But you’re going to be on the high side." He pauses dramatically. "And you’re going to have more than one kid."

My wife is eight months pregnant and I’m chatting about it with the Belgian action star, father of three and part-time prophet as we sip espressos on the balcony of his room at London’s Philippe Starck-designed Sanderson Hotel. It’s taken me three weeks to arrange the meeting: I’ve spoken to Van Damme’s agent, assistant, sister and mother, and followed him by phone and fax from California to Moscow to Cannes.

Van Damme has been getting around: in recent weeks, he’s announced that Kylie’s buns of steel are a result of the exercises he taught her on the set of Streetfighter (this is, after all, the man who once claimed he could crack walnuts between his buttocks); been reported as under consideration for a starring role in an English National Ballet film of Swan Lake; and said to be considering an offer to spend a week in the French version of the Big Brother house.

But, despite the publicity, things haven’t been going too well for the self-proclaimed "Fred Astaire of karate". A decade ago, he was one of the planet’s biggest stars, commanding $6 million a film. But now, like Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone and Stephen Seagal, Van Damme is discovering that his kind of testosterone-laden action flick is no longer in fashion: his last three have gone straight to video.

He wasn’t always the muscleman, of course. The boy who was born Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg in 1960, in the Brussels commune of Berchem Sainte-Agathe, was, by all accounts, shy and sensitive. He liked to read comic books, and would admire the physique of superheroes like the Silver Surfer. When he was 12, his father Eugène, a florist, took him along to the nearest karate school. "He was weak, short and wore glasses," says Claude Goetz, a burly man in his sixties who still runs the school, "But he was keen to learn."

Goetz put the boy onto a rigorous regime that set him on his way to a pumped-up physique. But Van Damme wasn’t all brawn. While working in his parents’ shop, the teenager had noticed an attractive older woman who came by regularly. She ran a ballet school around the corner; he enrolled.

"When he turned up at my school," says Monette Loza, "I had no idea he was the Van Varenbergs’ boy. But he was extraordinarily flexible - he could do the splits, which is quite rare in a man. I said to him ‘Finally! Someone comes into my school who I can really make into a dancer.’ ‘I don’t want to be a dancer,’ he replied. ‘I want to make lots of money.’"

Loza, who had had a brief career as a singer and performed on French TV with Jacques Brel, says he made the right decision. "Dancers’ careers don’t last long," she says. "Jean-Claude was clever – he was ambitious, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He would come to my class, do what he had to do, then head off to the gym."

Van Damme kept up the ballet for five years and, according to Loza, could have become a professional. But his sights were set on America: after a karate contest in Florida and a visit to California’s famous Gold’s Gym, it was all he could think of. He left school and, with his father’s help, set up his own gym in Brussels, the California. He was 18. An admirer of Chuck Norris, who had parlayed his job as a martial arts instructor to the stars into a successful film career, Van Damme would tell people who visited his club that, one day, he too would be a movie star.

In 1979, he went to Hong Kong to try to break into the burgeoning martial arts film industry there. Nothing came of it, so in 1981 he moved to Los Angeles with $2,000 in cash. He worked as a chauffeur, carpet-layer, bouncer and pizza delivery boy, sleeping in a rented car and showering at the gym, before a chance meeting with Norris led to a bit part. In 1983, he adopted the surname Van Damme, after a family friend. Shortly after, he landed a small role as a gay martial arts expert in Monaco Forever but, five years after leaving Belgium, he still wasn’t much nearer his dream. He’d regularly call his parents and Goetz to update them on his progress. "If things didn’t work out," says Goetz, "we were going to open a chocolate shop in Brussels."

But Neuhaus and Godiva were not to have a new rival. In 1986, Van Damme made a move that was to become Hollywood lore: spotting the influential action film producer Menahem Golan leaving a restaurant in Beverly Hills, he aimed a 360-degree kick at him, stopping just a hair’s breadth from his face. Golan gave Van Damme his card, and told him to come by his office the next day. The meeting led to Van Damme’s breakthrough: Bloodsport, in which he played real-life underground martial arts champion Frank Dux. The film was a surprise hit, making $35 million from a budget of just $1.5 million. A string of others followed, and Van Damme started earning serious money: a million dollars for Universal Soldier in 1992, $3 million for John Woo’s Hollywood debut Hard Target in ’93, and over $6 million for the following year’s Streetfighter. The puny boy with the glasses had become one of the world’s biggest movie stars.

Yet even as his career was sky-rocketing, Van Damme was in trouble. His first marriage had ended in 1984: before long, he had two other failed marriages behind him, and had wed former model Darcy LaPier. In 1996, Van Damme admitted he was addicted to cocaine, and checked into the Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital in LA: he checked out after a week. LaPier filed for divorce, claiming that Van Damme had physically abused her under the influence of the drug, and had threatened to kidnap their son Nicholas and leave the US.

Van Damme’s annus horribilis was 1998: he was back on cocaine, was beaten up by one of his former stuntmen in a topless bar in New York, and was ordered by a Californian court to pay LaPier $27,000 a month in child support and $85,000 a month in alimony. In 1999, he remarried his second wife, Gladys Portugues, a former bodybuilder. He was fined for drunk driving in 2000, but he seems to have settled down, shooting four movies in the next three years.

Which brings us to today. Van Damme has promised on the phone he will tell me things about his life he hasn’t told anyone before, so I’ve prepared a list of questions covering everything from his childhood to his struggle with drugs.

Things don’t go quite as planned. As I enter his suite, his assistant, an attractive American in her early thirties, is about to leave. He kisses her goodbye on the lips, then turns to me and grins.

"Do you fuck around?" he asks.

I shake my head.

"That’s good," he says. "You shouldn’t. I fuck around." He laughs. "Not really, of course."

"Nice way to start the interview, Jean-Claude," says the assistant.

Van Damme smiles boyishly, and asks her to order some coffees for us on her way past reception. "And cookies." He points at me. "This guy’s too skinny."

We head to the balcony. Sporting a crew-cut and tan, he looks in good shape, and younger than 42. He’s wearing a grey sweatshirt, dirty white trainers, and a pair of stonewashed jeans with the number 7 down one leg – part of his own Dammage 7 collection, launched in 2001.

Then he lights a cigarette and tells me that he doesn’t want to discuss "anything physically real".

It’s hard to describe what happens next. Van Damme loves to talk, but it’s stream-of-consciousness stuff, and his English is often hard to follow. For much of the time, it feels as if I’m not there.

"You know, I have to be very aware of what I say to you," he begins, with an ironic smile. His emphasis is deliberate: Parlez-vous le Jean-Claude?, a book of carefully chosen extracts from 20 years of interviews with him, is a runaway best-seller in France. The word that crops up most in it is "aware", and it has made him an object of ridicule in the French-speaking world.

"A guy like me, when I say something to people, I’ve got nothing to gain," he says. "I get into trouble, because I speak too fast and I don’t explain myself too well. But now I became better. It took me a long time because, you know, when you leave school at sixteen and you have your own way of talking…" He tails off.

Van Damme claims that the media has misrepresented him. "They cut me, left and right," he says. "Like butchers. Why butchers? Because butchers are killers."

I can see his point: his sentences sometimes go on for 10 minutes, making him hard to quote. As he winds up a long monologue on the "speed of thought", I decide to risk a question on the physically real. "I spoke to your former ballet teacher…" I begin.

"The problem is – I’m gonna cut you – all those people I met in my life, they’re past. The present is all that counts. Those people you spoke to met me when I was 15. But let’s say something happened to me. Something wonderful. And since then, the man changed, okay? Wow. But he was educated that way. But he remembers stuff. And, in fact, even when he wants to remember something now it doesn’t come until it’s supposed to come." He slaps his head. "Now I knew it."

So you’ve changed, I say.

"Completely. And I wrote a script."

The script is called either The Choice or The Tower, and it’s Van Damme’s obsession. "It’s what keeps me alive," he says. It’s about a professional motorcyclist who has a crash and slips into a coma, where he discovers himself inside a seven-level tower he has to move his way up. Van Damme has been working on the project for six years, and plans to direct and star in it. After a long, abstract explanation of the plot, he gives me a broad grin. "Wow," he says. "Profound. You see, if you want to do an interview with me, you have to spend three, four days. Because then you start to know a person. After this meeting, we can go on the street and talk normal. Listen, sometimes I smoke, I train every day, I go three hours to the gym. My favourite ice cream is vanilla. I can say that – it’s more nice for the people, because it’s more about the physical, here. But I’ll prove it to you. I’m on paper here. I believe in my stuff."

He returns to the plot of his script, and there are some interesting thoughts beneath the twisted grammar and leaps of logic. I’m especially struck by his idea that any moment from our past can revisit us to guide our actions. I tell him it reminds me of the Russian-Armenian mystic Gurdjieff’s explanation of vivid childhood memories as "moments of consciousness". Hey, if you can’t beat ’em… Van Damme is fascinated by this. Gurdjieff was right, he says: our past is the key to our evolution.

"Look, I’m still on a huge process of learning. Life. Myself. Remembering. You. Love. Bigger. Faster. Smarter. But everything what you’re doing in life, what I do in life, is also attached to what we call our past life. I was born skinny, and I was laughed at in school, you know – I was with glasses and I didn’t speak well. I was having a lithp. Big lithp – I was talking like that." We laugh at his joke.

"Plus I lost my few first girlfriends. I was so much in love with them, only with a kiss. And you know, at that time, sex was not existing – strong Catholic family. So I was waiting, waiting, afraid to do, and nothing happened. And I was hurt, big time. So karate came to my life. And I became very good. Very strong. And guess what? Ladies came at me! More than enough. Too much! Then I go to America, with this package called muscles," – he hunches his back in the classic body-builder position – "Carapace, the turtle, you know? It’s my cover. And I show that to people, and with that I become a star. But now I’ve got to say ‘Wait a second – what else can I do in my life? I show and show and show, but it’s still on the low shakra, on the primal way.’"

He started having these thoughts while using cocaine. Instead of using the drug to party, he sat at home in his room, contemplating suicide. He quit coke, he says, because he realised that he hadn’t yet created anything. "You just created an illusion," he says, recounting his dialogue with himself. "What you think is real, it’s not real. You have to create inside you, JC. You have to go inside and ask the question to yourself ‘What do you want in life?’ You cannot talk to yourself, JC. You’re scared to think you’ve got something powerful inside you who can tell you what to do, who knows every answer in the universe? But you have to believe in the question, knowing the answer is already in your head. So I take a different stage to create a movie where I’m gonna try to do something very special."

Understandably, he’s worried how his fans might react. "My people are from the street," he says. "Those people made me. So if they hear me talking about the universe, this and that, they think ‘This guy is fucked up.’" This is why, he says, the film will start from the mundane and gradually move to the mystical. "I will take them through different levels. Then if they don’t like it, they can walk back. But they cannot refuse me, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Those are my people and I am your people, guys! I’m still the guy if I see a person crossing the street or a young guy getting hit for his lunch box at school who’s skinny like I was, I will go and fight the group and say ‘Guys, give back the food!’ Because I’m still a hero. A real hero. I mean, somebody gets attacked - I’ll protect. I’ll do my best. I’m for real, okay? I’m not made of cable."

I tell him that perhaps a spiritual action movie is just what his fans want. Look at The Matrix. He doesn’t like the comparison.

"The background of The Tower will not be sci-fi," he says. "It will be made of wood, stone, trees, water – elements. Earth elements. And lots of wisdom. We’ll have a gnome in the tower. An old person. A gnome."

I notice he says "we" a lot. At one point, he proclaims "The most important people are the gurus", and I ask him if he has one. "Of course. My guru is someone very close to me, someone I speak to every day. But if I say that in your newspaper they’re going to think we’re having sex or something."

I assure him I can avoid that insinuation. The good thing about having a guru, he continues, is that he has someone who can listen to him "from the heart" – and who can correct him. "I make notes like this," he says, showing me a pad of paper. "I have something to add to them now, in fact. Today, because of you, I just saw something." He’s talking about Gurdjieff. "This guy doesn’t know shit about the script, but he remembers his destiny," he says, pointing at me. "He told me the answer without knowing it! How did you give me the answer?" I have no idea, I say, already imagining my name on the film’s opening credits. "We all have a path. The path is perfection. We’re all here to search for perfection, to be able to cry without tears. Being able to compress your emotion to one point."

Monette Loza told me that she found you very self-contained, even as a teenager.

"What does that mean – ‘self-contained’?"

I tell him, and he starts writing down my definition. "A very beautiful word," he says. He tells me he was in love with Loza. "I was 16, 17, and she was 40. But to be as in shape as an 18-year-old at her age, it’s very sexy. Also, when a woman is that age, you can talk with them. You can have dinner for two or three hours before love-making. And talk about life. And the wine."

As we’re clearly now in physically real territory, I ask him about his plans. He says he's yet to be approached by English National Ballet, and that he's now too old for ballet, anyway. Hell, which has also been titled The Shu and The Savage at various stages, and The Order, which features Charlton Heston as his father and was shot in Israel, have both been released on video and DVD, but his agent has told me that The Monk, in which Van Damme - rather implausibly, I’d thought prior to meeting him - plays a Shaolin monk, may not see any kind of release. Van Damme admits he’s done "a few shitty movies" – he tears into last year’s Derailed, in which he played a secret agent battling terrorists on a train – but says he’s excited about upcoming projects: After Death, a revenge thriller directed by Ringo Lam (Maximum Risk, Replicant), and Lone Wolf, "a cool story – very commercial", which he won’t discuss more for legal reasons. After that, it’s The Tower/The Choice. What about the remake of The Great Escape he’s mentioned in several interviews? His plans to make a Jacques Brel biopic? Or the long-rumoured sequel to Streetfighter, which both Holly Vallance and Dolph Lundgren have been connected to in recent weeks? His eyes harden: "The plan is what I just told you."

Eventually, his publicist appears by the table, and I realise we’ve been talking for nearly two hours. Van Damme looks like he could carry on for a few more, but I feel drained. He wishes me luck with fatherhood, which brings me back to earth. As we shake hands, I start worrying about how I’ll break the news to my wife: we’re going to have more than one child.

First published in The Bulletin, May 30, 2003.