Kev’s Author Interviews Presents:
Bob Van Laerhoven
Province of East-Flanders – Belgium
A Short Bio
I’m a professional full-time Belgian/Flemish author who has (traditionally) published – ehm, I forgot the exact number: 34? 35? – , okay then – a lot of books in Holland and Belgium. Some of my literary work has been translated in English, French, Italian, Russian and Norwegian.
From 1990 until the end of 2003 I was a travel writer visiting mostly war-torn countries like Somalia, Bosnia, Lebanon, Kosovo, Mozambique, Burundi, Liberia, Gaza,Sudan and so on…This period has definitely a big influence on my outlook on the world and on my writing. Although in everyday life I love humour and see myself as an affectionate partner, father and grandfather, I am convinced that we humans live in one of the “22 Buddhist hells.” Therefore, my novels tend to be very noir, shocking even. I must confess that they sometimes even shock myself.
There is a chasm between the writer and the man. I’m almost 62 now. I don’t travel anymore. I’m retired and live a secluded life in a small village on the countryside of Flanders with my partner Caroline, a hippo therapist, and our four horses, our darlings and treasures, whom I love to death. I’m at least four hours a day in the company of our loved ones – we have everything at the house: meadows, paddocks, stables that are always open, a paddock paradise race track and so on – and for the rest of the day I write my novels and stories. I notice that it’s getting harder. How many books are still left in me? In my mind circulates the number three, but since a Flemish author and a good friend of mine recently published a novel at 75, I’m piqued…So, we’ll see what the future brings…
Kev: What is your latest book about, Bob?
In Holland and Belgium, two months ago “The Shadow of the Mole” was published. Currently, the novel is being translated in English and should appear on the English reading market in 2016, since the novel is set in Bois de Bolante in the wild Argonne-region in 1916. At that time, the war in the trenches is dirtier than ever. French “sappeurs” find a unconscious man in one of the old coal tunnels they want to use to ambush the Germans. Quickly, the man is nicknamed The Mole. He claims he has lost his memory. Moreover, he is convinced that he is dead and that an Other has taken his place.
Front doctor and psychiatrist-in-training Michel Denis suspects that the strange behaviour of the man is a result of shell-shock. But the mystery deepens when the Mole starts to write a story in “écriture automatique,” set in Vienna and Paris between 1895 and the beginning of WW1. Michel Denis, himself traumatised by the recent loss of an arm at the front, becomes fascinated by The Mole and will do everything to unravel the secrets of his patient. This is not another novel about WW1, but a thrilling and disturbing literary study about where, how and why reality turns into delusion.
Kev: Who or what influenced you to write it?
Ah, nice question. I am considered as a somewhat “maverick writer” in Holland and Belgium because I have established – at least, others say so – a very distinctive and “personal brand” of cross-over between literature and the mystery novel. My emphasis is on style. I like to read the elegant literary novels of Curzio Malaparte, Julian Barnes, André Baillon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and so on, but I also like suspense novels now and then. So I try to write suspenseful literature in which I try to be as stylish as my well-loved masters.
The Italian author Curzio Malaparte has influenced me a lot. He wrote in a fascinating, surrealistic, yet very enthralling, way about WW2, and this fine stylist has given me the courage to write “The Shadow of the Mole.”But, of course, in the end, the novel, and all my others, is supported by the thousands of novels I’ve read in my life. I could give you hundreds of names, but the gist of it is this – I try to write daring and ambitious novels, not for my own ego, but for the ethics that have been drilled into me: always do your utmost best, always try to surpass yourself, and my opinion that real literature is an art, not a diversion. That doesn’t mean I despise books that are entertaining, on the contrary, but in these days the emphasis lies too much on amusement or thrills. In my opinion, literature is the best tool we humans have to try to understand ourselves – and especially our aggressive and greedy side – via stories, the eldest communication of mankind.
Kev: Did you do any specialised research for your story?
It’s because of my intensive and energy drenching research that I quack over here in Flanders to everyone who wants to listen that “The Shadow of the Mole” will be my last historical novel. Don’t get me wrong – I love research, but I’m beginning to notice that my energy is not what it used to be. The reason for that is a mixture of age and of the number of books I’ve written and published. This said, over here I’m known for the thoroughness of my research (said he, blushing). I like to see every detail checked and double-checked…Puf puf puf…It’s a labour of love….Makes you want to flee to the pub and order a few Trippels, as we call our world-famous, heavy monastery beers.
Kev: What challenges did you face while writing the story?
Too much to recall them ! But, okay, I’ll take the nastiest one.
Because there is a story-in-the-story, I needed “bridges” between the two so that they are not apart – in spite of the utterly different story lines – but complement each other. Another thing was, that, in order to be truthful, I had to remain within the borders of the psychiatry of that time. Everything was different in 1916 – the way man and woman interacted, their social status, the way officers dealt with their men, the way people talked to each other. I was searching for “the real flavour” of that time, but I also had to make adjustments to make my story palatable for modern readers. If I had completely reproduced the style of the conversations as they were held then, they would’ve had an aura of pompousness, so I had to find the fine line between authenticity and good literary writing.
Kev: Who is the protagonist?
The young medical doctor Michel Denis who recently has lost an arm in a heavy shelling attack and is waiting to be replaced. But for now, he has to stay at the front because at that moment the war was raging so mercilessly that the French troops had to wait before being relieved. Meanwhile, Michel Denis concentrates on the strange case of The Mole, who is considered to be a faking deserter by the military brass. Denis’ relation toward the war-nurse Marie Estrange, which was tentatively blossoming before the physician was wounded, is troubled and muddied by Denis inability to accept the fact that he has lost his right arm.
Kev: What would you say is the protagonist’s greatest weakness or obstacle and why?
His pride and his shame for being invalid as he calls it.
Kev: What would you say is the main antagonist’s greatest strength?
Denis is smart enough to know that his ego cannot accept that he’s missing an arm. He tries to fight himself and fails over and over again, but he doesn’t give up. There is a innate readiness in him to better himself, no matter how hard it is.
Kev: Could you provide a short passage from your book to give us a taster?
This is the Epilogue. Please remember that the English has yet to be edited. The translation should be ready end of 2015.
Before they descended into what they called Satan’s lair they murmured, with their heads bowed, a prayer to La Sainte Vierge*, their voices soft and solemn like when they were children. In shadows, their lanterns enthralling the dust into a golden mist, they hacked their way into the earth.
Jean Dumoulin used to hum softly but melodically during his work in the tunnels. His fellow diggers had nicknamed him “the canary.” Lately, Dumoulin crooned the most raucous beer hall songs he knew for the unmitigated insane reason that the 13th French Infantry Regiment had received the audacious orders to dig tunnels under the German tunnels at the spot that everybody in the Argonne-region called Fille Morte.
That day, February 26, 1916, Jean Dumoulin had turned to inventing his own songs. Since the impendence of German tunnels, he sang in his mind. Jean liked to surprise himself with the words that formed themselves in his mouth. They made him feel different, not a 26-year-old French soldier clawing away in the mid and the near darkness, but a classic Greek poet, posing with a lyre on a mountain top overlooking a shimmering sea.
Dumoulin was crooning Ma bouche sera un enfer de douceur/tu crias ton armée de douleur* while he used his pick axe to clear the rubble around the entrance of an old mine gallery they had discovered. He pondered which verse would come next: ton amour armé or ton amour blindé?*
It was then he saw the body lying in the gallery. From time to time, when they were grubbing, a shovel turned up a half-buried body. They couldn’t always tell if the stiff was German or French. Frequently, all that was left was a rotten lump of meat. In spite of the stench and their revulsion, the sappers would try to identify the body. Who else would do it? They thought of all the missing men and the uncertainty of their relatives and loved ones and searched the body for anything that could lead to its identification.
“Nom de Dieu,” Jean Dumoulin hissed over his shoulder to his companion Guillaume. “Another stiff. Hope this one doesn’t break in two like the other one.” Nobody had seen the mummified corpse of a miner, perished years ago in the coal mines, actually breaking in two when tunnel diggers brought it to the surface, but the story was legendary and if you denied it you were a pooper.
Cursing under his breath, Jean moved forward. When his hands touched the body, he jerked away as if someone had stabbed him.
(Translation of the French in the text)
• The Holy Virgin
• My mouth shall be an inferno of sweets/You will cry your army of tears.
• Your armed love or your blind love
Kev: When you write, do you write off-the-cuff or do you use some kind of formula?
No formula at all, I’m a “pantser” as they say in the USA. I sit down and start to write, not knowing what my inspiration will bring me. I like it that way. I know that some bestselling American authors use a story board, but I couldn’t write that way. I’ve done it once when the Belgian Television asked me to write a script, and once was enough .
Kev: How do you deal with writers-block?
Until this day, I haven’t had to deal with this spectre. There are good writing periods and lesser writing periods but I try to keep an even keel about it and to keep my mind open.
If the brain is open, it will receive. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had novels that withered away during the writing process. It happens sometimes and I still don’t know why. But I keep these unfinished manuscripts and I’ve already noticed that – sometimes many years afterwards – I can finish them or can use parts of them in a new project.
Kev: Preference for writing: Day or Night, Bob?
Ah, give me the darkness in the oak before my window, so that its leaves are turning forever like pale elves in the night.
Kev: What is your process for editing your work?
I usually do three versions on screen, and invariably my last version is done with the pen. I’ve learned that the screen is too “forgiving”. When you do your last edit with the pen, you get impatient, so you will delete more. Almost every time that’s a good thing. Nevertheless, you should also be on your guard to not edit your novel to death. The flesh must be there, it just may not become obese…
Kev: How do you come up with your book covers?
Eh, I don’t. My publisher(s) rule that department . I have some saying in the matter but in the end it’s the publishing team that chooses. And I like that. I already have enough problems to find a catchy title, and I’m far from an expert in ascertaining the visual impact of a cover.
Kev: Do you think the book cover is important?
Yes, I do, and therefore I leave it to specialists. I already noticed that in the States there’s a different “culture” of covers. That said, the cover of “Baudelaire’s Revenge” by Pegasus Books is also considered over here in Europe as very stylish.
Kev: Which publishing platform do you prefer and why?
Ehm, publishing platform? Don’t forget I’m old-fashioned . Although I can see the advantage of e-books, I remain a lover of paper editions and of good brick-and-mortar book stores where the owner is a reader himself, pours you a cup of coffee, and gets you excited about a title. But I must admit that I also regularly order from online bookstores (blush blush….) If you mean by “publishing platform” which one I would use to self-publish, the answer is simple: I don’t know. I haven’t done any self-publishing up till now. That doesn’t mean I won’t consider it in the future. Having been a professional writer for so long, I can clearly see that the market is very rapidly changing. But for now, I shy away from self-publishing. It seems such a huge and difficult task.
Kev: Do you face any daunting obstacles during the publishing process?
I know – because other people have rubbed it in for years – that I’m writing an unusual genre, because I’m pushing the envelope of the mystery genre. In Belgium, one of the reviewers wrote once: “Van Laerhoven scouts the very outskirts of the suspense genre.” It’s the truth. I don’t follow the rules. When, for instance, I have the gut feeling that a monologue – one of the great traditions of the 19th century novel and a vehicle to show off your style – is necessary in my book, I do it, thereby violating willingly the “show, don’t tell”- rule. Are we artists or are we producers of texts that are solely written to please/please/please? Why can’t a novel, within certain boundaries, be a confrontation, a challenge? I, for myself, like a challenge. “Nice books” sell. Books that are a confrontation sell too…But a bit harder and slower. Still, with my “complex” novels I’ve been more than 25 years a fulltime author. And I survived! (barely, but let us keep this a secret )
Kev: What methods do you use to promote your work?
Promotion/promotion/promotion: it seems that nearly all the writing blogs in the USA focus on promotion. Blech: boring.
I promote erratically and on impulse. I’ll never send a tweet à la “Buy my book”. I’ll send a tweet stating: “Flemings love to guzzle beer. But they have writers too! I’m one, published in the US….(and so on). Or I’ll write: “Archimeda can’t read my books but she can read my heart.” Archimeda, a Persian full bred, is one of my beloved horses. Gna gna gna – she has an intelligence that is not so easy to match because it works differently than ours.
But where was I? Ah yes, in the end, I’m afraid I don’t do that much promotion, but I like giving interviews like this, it’s a nice way to interact. I also like to conduct a correspondence with foreign writers to compare experiences. For instance, the Belgian and Holland market is way different from the US-market.
Kev: Do you have any advice for new authors?
Read/read/read. And not one genre, for God’s sake. Mix things up. Read every genre, even the ones you don’t like. There is no better learning experience.
Work/work/work. Don’t be satisfied with one version. Write two, three, four. Explore your limits.
And then: be edited. Sure, it hurts to see your darlings being strangled by some text vandal you’ll love to hate, but let these cuts sink in and you’ll see that 95 percent of the editing makes your work better.
Kev: Which social media platforms do you use the most?
As I stated before, I use social media very erratically. And impulsive. No planning, no “management” of tweets or Facebook messages.
For instance: I don’t have an “author page” on Facebook, just a “Bob Van Laerhoven”- page. Why? Because I’m a human being, thus there’s more to me than my authorship and my books.
Furthermore, I don’t want to harass no-one by asking them to “like” me or my books. If they like me, they just have to buy one. Furthermore, I find it very relaxing to post crazy messages now and then, in a mishmash of English, Flemish and French with sometimes a touch of Spanish. These messages are often totally unrelated to books. I also like to laugh with myself. But if you want to send me a message, please go ahead, I always answer personally.
YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/bobvanlaerhoven1
3D-“Parisian” Inkflash-room for Baudelaire’s Revenge and Dangerous Obsessions: http://inkflash.com/BobVanLaerhoven
I must admit that lately I also begin to use the “Author Central” feature from Amazon and that I am a bit (not a lot)more active on GoodReads, although the latter is a bit cumbersome to navigate in my opinion, but then again, do not forget that I’m an “oldie” and thus “digitally challenged.”
Kev: Is there anything else you would like to add?
I sure do like to add my newest publication in English. Very recently, The Anaphora Literary Press launched the collection of short stories “Dangerous Obsessions”in paperback and e-book in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia.
I’m not a regular short story writer, I’m a novelist at heart. But the short story is a great way to hone your stylistic abilities. I use different styles in the 5 short stories of the collection, but it’s visible, in rhythm and tonality, that the same author is at work. I consider “Dangerous Obsession” to be an excellent introduction to my theme(s). Almost all of the five stories have war as background and are set in different countries and time-slots: the French-Algerian war in Algeria in the fifties, a rough Peruvian border-town where stealing is a deadly art, a gypsy populated concentration camp in WW2, the uproar in Belgian Congo in the sixties, and the civil war in Liberia in the nineties. And just like always, these stories are a mix of literature and suspense. Two of them have originally been published in magazines – the literary magazine Conclave, a Journal of Character and the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
I think that in the future I will try to publish more of such anthologies, linked by a certain background but featuring different styles. In an age in which people have – so the ‘experts’ say – more limited spans of attention and crave diversity, a short stories anthology may cater to them. In each case, it’s a great way “to test the waters.”
Links to “Dangerous Obsessions”:
Website Anaphora Literary Press: http://anaphoraliterary.com/?s=Dangerous+Obsessions&submit=Search
Amazon USA: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00JP4KO76
Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00JP4KO76
Amazon Canada http://www.amazon.ca/s?_encoding=UTF8&field-author=Bob%20Van%20Laerhoven&search-alias=digital-text
Amazon Australia: http://www.amazon.com.au/s?_encoding=UTF8&field-author=Bob%20Van%20Laerhoven&search-alias=digital-text
In September of this year, short stories of mine will appear in the international esteemed UK literary magazine Wasafiri and in the anthology “Brussels Noir” in the famous Noir-Series of Akashic Books. At the moment, I’m pitching “Return to Hiroshima,” a new English translation of one of my novels. You know, Kevin, if I can sell that one and later on “The Shadow of The Mole”, my work will be accomplished for me. I will be a happy man, and everything that follows after that will be a bonus…
BOB VAN LAERHOVEN, EVERYONE!