Saturday, January 23, 2016

Interview with Bob Van Laerhoven – A Writer's Philosophy

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Bob van Laerhoven is a Flemish author whose 30+ novels have been published in Belgium, France, Canada and The Netherlands. His 2007 novel Baudelaire's Revenge was the winner of the Hercule Poirot Prize for the best crime novel of the year.
There are some basic rules known authors recommend to all aspiring writers out there, but for the most part every one of them has his or her own unique method of doing things. Good authors are the ones who have managed to develop a system that works for them, and there is no insight greater than the one their personal experience can provide.

Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present an email interview we conducted with famous Belgian author Bob Van Laerhoven, discussing his opinions and philosophies as a writer, as well as his best-known, sensational novel, Baudelaire's Revenge. See the world of literature through his experienced eyes, and enjoy!

Q: Where you already a writer in your school years? How good/bad at it were you?

BvL: A devilish question indeed. I’ll explain why. The need to write stories came to me when I was about twelve. In retrospect, it was strange that even at that age, I was fascinated by war as a theme, not knowing that so many years later I would become a travel writer in conflict zones for 13 years. I was the second son of hard working parents. There were no books in the house to speak of, but my mother was a cleaning lady in a mansion where two rather old and very nice people lived.

I used to bring my mother her lunch box, and Maria and Paul noticed that I was very interested in their library, a “noble” room filled with a pipe-stand and white and brown leather-bound books. They gave me the permission to borrow them if I took good care of their condition. I did, and so I read all the great nineteenth-century Russian, French, and Scandinavian writers. Of course, at that age, I didn’t understand everything I read, but I was like a blotting paper soaking up all these wondrous sentences, places, emotions.  They became a kind of whirl-wind in me, whispering that I would like to be an author someday.

That "someday"  couldn’t come soon enough, so  when I was about thirteen, I started to write a story about a young boy in our village who experienced all kinds of exciting (and in retrospect, totally impossible) adventures during WW2. In the evenings, I read my pages of that day aloud for my mother. She was usually ironing at that time of the day, and I remember her reddish face behind the steam that came from her ironing board, while she uttered encouraging “oohs” and “aaahs.” I forgot what happened with my story, or if I was able to complete it.  The years have shattered that memory in the wind, but not my mother’s reddish face…

Q: What is/are your favourite book(s)?

BvL: Oh, I have so many authors I look up to, but a few have truly branded my heart, like John Cheever with his diaries and his short stories, like the Italian author Curzio Malaparte with "The Skin," like Louis de Bernières with "Captain Corelli’s Mandoline," Vikram Seth with "An Equal Music," Sebastian Faulks with "A Possible Life," Robert Harris with "Archangel,"...

I can go on for hours like this. Hours? Days! Weeks!  Flaubert, Kafka, Windsor Chorlton, Julian Barnes, André Baillon, the brothers De Goncourt….O-oh, don’t get me started... Graciliano Ramos, the diaries of Sergej Prokofjev (who was a composer, but also a brilliant diary-writer) Ay, ay, I really have to stop now, or I’ll dive in my library – I have one of my own now, dear Maria and Paul in heaven -  and will not surface for a long time... I possess thousands of books, and so many masters…

Q: When and how did you realize you wanted to be a published author?

BvL: I’ve completely forgotten. But I guess the need was there from the very start, although I think I didn't dare to recognize  the urge. How could a boy from a working family, living in a small border-village of The Netherlands and Flanders, ever become a published author?

Other boys dreamed of becoming a pilot, a sailor, a F1-driver, things like that. I soon learned to keep my dreams for myself. I grew up in a rather rough neighborhood and it was better to keep a low profile if you read books. You could get bullied mercilessly. Later in life, I’ve noticed that border regions often have a violent undercurrent...

Q: What sort of an experience was it to write publish your first book?

BvL: I was only eighteen when a small publisher in the north of Flanders edited Phobie (Phobia in English), my first novel. And it was our friendly neighbor Paul who introduced me to the publisher. When he had read Phobie, an outburst of existential Angst mixed with a plot circling around drugs and personality-disorders, set in student’s circles at the university town of Leuven.

I had to make everything up. It was beyond my reach to become a university student. Due to my tender age, Phobie was received in the Flemish press with a lot of clemency. I never have been able to summon up the courage to read the damn thing once it was published. Never.
But the first barrier had been slain, and there was no way back... At least, not in my eyes... I didn’t know how many difficulties lay in wake for me...

Q: What genre are you drawn towards and why?

BvL: From the beginning, I liked  "mixed genres." I mean: I read the great stylists, but also the suspenseful storytellers. I saw the difference between those two categories, but kept thinking they had both their merits and downsides. I also particularly liked memoirs, biographies, and ego-literature.

When a novel takes me by the throat, for whatever reason, I’m not going to analyze why. I just dive in and simultaneously keep an eye open for things to learn. Due to my "mixed" upbringing in the vast land of literature, I wrote epic novels from the beginning, where the fate of characters is matched with great tumult in the society she or he lives in.

Q: Do you find any authors particularly inspirational?

BvL: I like daring authors who don’t write “by the book.” The Danish author Peter Hoeg with "Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow" is a good example. Or for instance "Perfume" from Süsskind. The British author Windsor Chorlton with "Rites of Sacrifice" is another one. Again... I could go on for a while, but the common rule is that authors who are "different" usually draw my attention and inspire me.

Q: Do you have a process for generating ideas when writing?

BvL: No. It sounds old-fashioned I’m afraid, but I write what is given to me. I don’t generate ideas, I receive them, and I’m thankful for that. Sometimes, I want to go against the direction the story is leading me, and almost every time I slump in a dead-end alley and have to backtrack to the lead of the yarn.

After many books – I’ve published more than 35 in The Netherlands and Belgium – I’ve learned to wait for a certain "openness," a state of mind whereby something whispers in my head. Okay, that will sound gothic in many ears, but I can’t phrase it otherwise.

Q: How do you deal with writer's block?

BvL: Never had one... until now. I haven’t been writing for three months due to health problems as a result of my travels in Africa. (No, it’s not HIV J). I don’t lack the ideas, but I can’t find the energy at the moment. Sometimes, readers forget that, although you’re sitting down, huge loads of energy are consumed when writing a novel. The concentrating brain devours a lot of glucose and exhaustion lies in wait at the next corner. For the moment, exhaustion is in the corner where I stand. I wait and hope. Shouganai, it is like it is.

Q: What are your future ambitions in terms of your career as a writer?

BvL: I used "Shouganai" with a purpose. At my age, 62, my ambitions are rather “low profile,” except for one thing.  "Return to Hiroshima," the English translation of one of my novels, is now complete, and I would be so happy when I could publish this novel – which I consider one of my best - in the US.

It’s a complicated, very noir, cross-over between literature and the mystery genre, set in Hiroshima in 1995….Peter Riva, CEO of the literary agency International Transactions Inc. has accepted the manuscript for representation... So, fingers crossed... have been made to endure

Q: When can we expect your next novel, and what would it be about?

BvL: I hope that "Return to Hiroshima" will be published in 2016. To make things easy for me, I’ll give you the translated blurb text of the Dutch version. For an author like me, who writes multi-layered novels, it’s always extremely difficult to condense a story of about 400 pages into a few lines. My editor from my Dutch/Belgian Publishing House Houtekiet can do it much better. So, here it is:

Japan, 1995. Fate brings a number of people together in the city of Hiroshima, but with dramatic results. Xavier Douterloigne, the son of a diplomat, returns to Hiroshima, where he spent his youth, to come to terms with the death of his sister. Inspector Takeda finds a deformed baby lying dead at the foot of the Peace Monument, a reminder of the city’s war history. A criminal, said to be the incarnation of the Japanese demon Rokurobei, mercilessly defends his criminal empire against his daughter Mitsuko who he considers insane. Hiroshima’s indelible past simmers in the background. Clandestine experiments conducted by Japanese Secret Service Unit 731 during WWII leave a sinister stain on the reputation of the imperial family.

Questions about Baudelaire's Revenge

Q: Today most detective stories are set in modern times; what made you choose the 19th century?

BvL: Historical fiction gives an author so many literary possibilities. I can use real historical characters in imagined situations, fictional characters in documented historical situations, and fictional characters in fictional situations, yet in the context of a real historical period, to name just a few of them. Of the more than 30 books I’ve published, only three of them are historical fiction. I don’t choose the epoch, the epoch chooses me. I have noticed that, probably due to the period in which I was a travel writer, many of my books have war as a background.

It’s also the case with Baudelaire’s Revenge: it’s 1870 and the Prussian armies besiege Paris. I’ve been in the by Serbian militias besieged town of Sarajevo in the nineties. Everyday conditions there were gruesome, especially for the poor, but in nineteenth century Paris, the gap between rich and poor was even bigger than in our times, with all the horrible results that are described in the book.

Q: Did Baudelaire have an important influence on you as a writer?

BvL: Yes, he did. I don’t possess the poetic talent, but I’ve always admired poets. Baudelaire is one of the greatest, not only in his style, but also in the way his metaphors lead the reader on a rollercoaster of “forbidden passions.” Baudelaire was a wreck of a man with sadomasochistic tendencies and he tried to sublimate them in his poetry. Reading Baudelaire is touching the lure of depravity but at the same time the longing for purity. Such contradictions  have always fascinated me.

Q: What made you choose Les Fleurs du Mal as the killer's signature, and what does it symbolize within the story?

BvL: Depravity can be gruesome but also, at first sight, in a sly way alluring. Those who dwell in the dark want to shine in the light. Beauty needs its counterpart, but the attraction between immorality and morality is like those of magnets that repulse each other when the power field between them becomes too intense.

The killer, just as Charles Baudelaire, seeks a way out of his delusional world, and, desperately, follows a depraved path to do that. Les Fleurs du Mal is written on that tightrope where light and darkness meet each other, and create beauty, but also its counterpart, its shadow, its gruesome desperation...

Q: What made you focus more on the negative aspects of Parisian society at the time?

BvL: We’re living in a world where we can see that the gap between rich and poor is growing stronger with each day. We can also see growing stresses emerging in our societies. Nationalism, extremism, and religious fanaticism are destabilizing our democracies.

The Parisian society in the 19th century was facing the same problems, but because the time was rougher, the tensions and the contradictions were bigger and led to a vile and bloody civil war. I felt that I had to show these negative aspects to shine a clearer light on the behavior of my characters, which is often shocking to our modern eyes.

Q: What would you say are the major themes of the book?

BvL: The beauty of language coupled in a strange way to the depravity of the soul. The strange dualism in each one of us, the feeling that we are not alone in our head.The shameless and totally irrational  chasm between the haves and the haves-not.

How could the haves in “Baudelaire’s Revenge” think that they could go on with their orgies and festivities when the haves-not were starving and literally had to eat their own dead? How could they think that they were so high above the stinking and bottomless agony of the working class of that days that they would never pay the bill for their behavior? Some readers will think that the poverty I describe in Baudelaire’s Revenge is exaggerated. It is not. Everything is based on meticulous research.

Q: Were you trying to achieve something concrete with the book, perhaps send a message?

BvL: Novels are not a good medium to send political or social messages, but they can reflect truths that have been proven again and again in history. One of these proves is that the result of too much distance between rich and poor will undoubtedly lead to massive violence.

And what do we see in the world around us? Liberal Capitalism has created an inhuman world, where refugees starve to death while CEOs and sport heroes – to name just two categories - are paid enormous wages. Don’t the politicians see? Don’t the politicians hear? Don’t the politicians feel?  Baudelaire’s Revenge says: "A hard rain is gonna fall."

Q: Was there a lot of research involved in writing the book?

BvL: I don’t write  many historical novels because I’m a maniac when it comes to research.  I’m currently writing a novel set in Berlin in 1922, and, for sure, it will be my last historical novel.  The research for Baudelaire’s Revenge, Return to Hiroshima and The Shadow of the Mole turned me into a wreck...Or... Well, let’s say nearly J...

Q: Where did you get the inspiration for the characters?

BvL: Any novelist who is true to himself and open to readers will admit that his or her characters are always a mix of themselves and people they know, people they read about, people who they just see in the waiting room of a dentist, strolling down the street, and so on ad infinitum. 

A novelist mixes things up, mingles reality with fiction, and sprinkles his fiction with reality. And what is the result of that impossible stew? The kind of novels wherein the characters open portals to inner worlds we didn't know we possessed.

Q: Is there anything you would change if you were to write it again?

BvL: Héhéhéhé, I never reread  a novel when it’s published. I will polish and polish again, I will write draft after draft, until I’m satisfied,before publication, but when the novel is on the market, I turn away and never open it again. I do this to protect myself, because I’m sure I would see things I would do a little - just a little J - different today.

I’m an over-sensitive man in many ways. That is not a blessing, it’s a burden. But it is a burden that I happily carry, because I hope it will help me changing my scope during the coming years. Instead of dark and foreboding, I would like to end my oeuvre with a few hopeful books. Faith has chosen me to chase the shadows in the labyrinth of our minds and souls, but now it is enough. If some more creative years are given to me, I want to go searching for the light in my literature, as feeble as it is...

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