Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?
In the past six years, since my work was translated and published in English, I began to realize that, in spite of mass and social media, people often don’t know very much about habits, ways of thinking, cultural preferences, et cetera, abroad. I’m a Belgian Flemish writer and, in interviews, I noticed that many of my interviewers, especially Americans, but also Australian, Canadian, and Indian book bloggers, thought that Belgium is a French-speaking country. In reality, Belgium is a country with two separate regions: in the northern part Flanders one speaks Flemish (Dutch), in the southern part Wallonia one speaks Walloon (French).Some of my interviewers didn’t even know that Belgium existed and thought it was another word for Brussels (Belgium’s capital).
Such realizations lead to modesty: if we know so little about each other, we must be very careful with our prejudices and opinions in general. For instance, lately, I hear so many preconceptions about fugitives, and I think that this is a dangerous trend. When we are impressionable, it’s easy for populists to narrow our minds and to create an enemy image of “the other.” And now, to (finally) answer your question: I’m a Flemish author trying to get his literary oeuvre “out there,”which isn’t so easy when you belong to a small language community of about 5 million people. It can be done: look at the Norwegian writers, for instance. But I talked to one of them lately and he was very enthusiastic about the Norwegian government subsidizing translations and promoting Norwegian authors abroad, which is much less the case in Flanders.
Nevertheless, I’m not complaining: with two novels and two short story collections published in English, and parts of my oeuvre translated in French, Spanish, Swedish, Polish, (Brazilian)Portuguese, Russian, and Italian, I’m faring quite well, thank you.
Are there any poets or writers who influence you? How so?
When I started writing, I wanted to become a poet, but, after a while, I had to admit that my poetic talent just wasn’t good enough and that I was a much better novelist. But I couldn’t give up my love for poetry completely, so in some of my novels,poets play an important role. Let me just give you three examples. In my novel “Baudelaire’s Revenge” (published in English in 2014) the famous French “doomed poet” Charles Baudelaire is the main character, although he has been dead for three years when the novel starts (1870). In “Dossier Feuerhand” (The Firehand Files, 2017, not yet translated) it’s the Flemish Dada-poet Paul van Ostaijen who carries the weight of the plot, and in Alejandro’s Leugen (Alejandro’s Lie, 2016, first draft of the English translation is finished), one of the most important roles is for the Chilean poet and singer-songwriterVictor Jara. Those three, plus an endless row of literary novelists, have been my guiding lights, and when I reach to their knees, I’m very happy. I don’t write thrillers, I write cross-over novels between literature and the suspense novel, so the result is something different, something readers often don’t expect. Critics sometimes remark that my novels aren’t very commercial because they are complex, but I think that many reviewers underestimate the modern reader. Let’s say that I try not to...
Let's talk about your novel! What is it about?
Over here, in Flanders, “Return to Hiroshima” was called the “most complex Flemish literary suspense novel ever”.So, it’s not easy to describe in a few words what the novel is about. Inevitably, when you write a novel with the iconic name “Hiroshima” in the title, the story will touch the unimaginable destruction that the atom bomb “Little Boy” caused in 1945. But “Return to Hiroshima” is also about the Japanese society in the nineties, trapped in a severe economic crisis, the foreshadowing of the worldwide recession and bank crisis that hit the western world in 2008.The story deals with a wild, tense, and dangerous father-and-daughter relationship, with organized crime in Japan, the psychological roots of the warrior code “bushido,”and the widespread longing of the Japanese people to evolve one day toward a “super race.” It’s about a lot more, but I think you can already see by now that it is a true kaleidoscopic novel, branching out into a lot of topics, but also trying to present a truly noir and suspenseful story.
Who do you think would like your story and what kind of readership are you aiming for?
You know, only once in my life, during a period of great turbulence, I have written books with an audience in my mind and aiming for a clearly defined readership. I was divorced for the second time, but this time my ex-wife and I had children in their teens, and I wanted to be there for them not only as a loving father but also as a provider.So, I wrote a series of thrillers with Flemish/South-African half-blood commissioner Peter Declerqwho teams up with the Brussels inspector Samantha – Sammy – Duchène. Peter and Sammy conduct international investigations in South-Africa, Burma, Algeria, Congo, and Israel. I published the series in the nineties when the interest in cosmopolitan thrillers influenced by literature was in its peak in Belgium and Holland. The five books sold well, and afterward, I returned to my “normal” way of writing: patiently waiting until I was “abducted” by a theme, a setting, characters, and began to write without knowing what the result would be, for whom the novel was destined, or who would like my story. And I will keep this profound non-commercial way of writing, deeply influenced by the Muse that grabs me, until I die.
What is the message you are trying to get across in your book?
I am fascinated by the darkness that lurks in our souls. How is it possible that mankind can inflict such horrors on itself? My whole oeuvre is an attempt to understand the Human Condition, but I must admit that, after more than 40 books, I am still baffled by the contradictory impulses that govern us. How is it possible, for instance, that in the 21st Century we keep on being ruled by clan-feelings and blood ties, while we should understand that humanity must learn to think and act globally or we will perish? Why do we choose leaders who can’t muster the intelligence, the courage, and the empathy to work for the good of all of us? Why are we so power-driven and short-sighted that we are busy destroying the world we live on? My novels are meant to be parables, dealing with the profound,mysterious workings of our minds and our feelings.
What is your writing process like?
That’s an easy one...Although, maybe not, it’s easy for me but hard to explain.
A first sentence is “given” to me, and I start writing without knowing what the outcome will be. During the first draft, my only obsession is: go on, go on. I don’t re-read what I’ve written the day before. I plow on, very well knowing that there are messy parts and loose ends in the first draft, but before I start editing I want the whole story to be “complete.”I work as a sculptor: first, he has the rough stone which he transforms into the silhouette of the form he wants to give it, and when he has that overall image, he starts chiseling the details of his work of art.
So, when the first draft is complete, only then I start the editing process, which consists of re-writing, re-writing, re-writing. A whole lot of work, but my mind is at ease then: I know that I have my story and that I only must polish it up and make it beautiful.
How did you go about getting published?
That’s also easy. Or, eh, again maybe not. When my first manuscript was ready, I sent it to a few publishers. Two of them were interested. I chose between those two, and from then on, the only thing I ever did was sending manuscripts to Publishing Houses, asking to be published. They usually did. Two of my manuscripts were failures and were never accepted although I rewrote them many times. In the end,I realized that they’d taught me even more than the manuscripts that were accepted and then polished up by an editor of the Publishing House.
What plans do you have for the future of your writing?
I’ll be 66 within a few months and I’m feeling that my passion for writing is slowly diminishing. Oh yes, it’s still there, but the inner fire that made me publish more than 40 books doesn’t possess the same power as in the past. That has to do with age, but also with the fact that being an author nowadays is not what it was 40 years ago when my work was first published. To this old writer that I’ve become, everything seems nowadays a bit superficial. The pace of publishing has grown, the stress of having a strong social network also. Reputations come and go so quickly in modern society, and superlatives are being sprinkled around far too carelessly.
Because I led a somewhat unusual life for an author – I was a traveling author in conflict zones between 1990 and 2003 – I sometimes feel the urge to write my autobiography, but I don’t know if I still got enough “oomph” in me to do it. For the moment, I’m trying to promote my translated books – I have been translated in nine languages now – and since I’m not very apt or quick in self-promoting my work, it takes a lot of my time, which I don’t like, but it is like it is. Meanwhile, I’m trying to pick my memory and to collect as much material as I can to write that last book eventually. In my autobiography I would like to analyze the years that have gone past, the lovers that have gone down lover’s lane, friends and foes who came and went, and myself, changing over the years, searching for inner peace, and everlasting love.
Many thanks for joining us Bob - what an eventful life you must have led!