Halloween Extravaganza: INTERVIEW: Bob Van Laerhoven

Meghan: Hi, Bob. Welcome to Meghan’s House of Books. It’s a pleasure to have you here today. Tell us a little bit about yourself

Bob Van Laerhoven: A little bit? That isn’t easy: I’m an old geezer of 66 now, but I’ve lived a rather hectic life. For instance, I’ve been in long-term relationships with four women – for me, long-term is more than five years – who’ve taught me so much and to whom I’ll be forever grateful for their grace, their strength, and their wisdom. I, the stupid male that I was, always thought that I could win the battle with them, but they beat me hands down. When they left me, I shed swimming-pools full of (crocodile?) tears but also felt stronger and wiser. None of the four ever treated me badly when we separated; we remained friends the best that we could. Apart from that, I’ve been a father of three children – now all in their thirties, going on forty – who saw his kids grow up, being a full-time author who worked at home. I was lucky that I only had children with one partner and that, as a worker at home, I could take care of them, which has again taught me a lot, like, for instance, the art of negotiating ☺.

At the same time, I could give in to my adventurous side by being four times a year a travel-writer voyaging to mostly conflict zones. Traveling in dangerous conditions needs perfect preparation and limited in-and-out. For my photographer and me, that limit was around two weeks, so that I was never long away from home, although I traveled frequently.

I was a travel writer from 1990 until 2004, when, at almost 51, I quit because I became more and more anxious that, ultimately, something nasty would happen. I was scared, and everybody knows that scared people attract violence, so I decided to stop. In these thirteen years, my nerves had endured an overdose of stress, I guess.

A few months later, I met my fourth and current partner, a wise woman who is an equine therapist and who introduced me into the wonderful world of therapy horses, mirroring the deepest yearnings of one’s soul, if you know how and where to look. Being a male who’s used to be impressed by feats of physical strength, I was weary and afraid of these dazzlingly beautiful animals at first, but Caroline taught me how I could gain their trust and trust them back. They’ve become my darlings, and each day is another day of learning from them.

My life has been somewhat of a roller coaster, yes, but all the good and the bad that happened taught me something and thus was worthwhile.

Meghan: Is there anything about writing that you find the most challenging?

Bob Van Laerhoven: Well, yes, there is something, everything as a matter-of-fact. Writing takes you into a strange place, where “you” are subordinate to a greater power, a Muse if you will. It will guide you, whether you want it or not, along certain paths, into stories you could never have dreamed off yourself. It’s quite challenging to find the right mind modus that helps you to ride the inspirational wave. When you have finally found that right mind-track, you write, and you write, and suddenly, you finish the story in the first draft. You’re overwhelmed with yourself (how did you do that?) but then begins another hard part: the technical side of the whole affair. And that means polishing over and over again until you think that every word is in the right place, that every sentence has the correct rhythm. And while you do that, you know that perfection in this world doesn’t exist, and your heart drops a little, but you keep on pushing against the boundaries of your talent to become the best author you can be.

Meghan: What books have most inspired you?

Bob Van Laerhoven: The inspiration came – and comes – in waves. The science-fiction novels I loved to read when I was seventeen to twenty surely inspired me because of their audacity ‘to go where no-one has gone before’ (if my memory of Star Trek-quote serves me well, which I doubt ☺). Even then, The more literary writers in the genre, like the poetic Roger Zelazny, interested me more than the others. Later in my life, I became a fan of nineteenth-century French and Russian writers, like Proust and Baudelaire, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevski, who taught me “how to dance with words.” And, still, later, I began to read more and more cross-over novels between literature and the suspense genre and knew that this was the road I had been seeking for a long time.

Meghan: What makes your books different from others out there in this genre?

Bob Van Laerhoven: I mostly write multi-layered literary novels with a hefty dose of suspense. When I published in Flanders, Return to Hiroshima in 2010, one of the reviewers wrote: “Return to Hiroshima” is a complex and at times, gruesome story, cleverly composed by an author who creatively – and originally! – explores the boundaries of the thriller genre.” Since then, I tried to push those boundaries even further, and what I write now is literature, spiked with noir elements. I honestly believe that I’m an author who consistently tries to write literature that, at the same time, is thrilling. My other in English translated novel, Baudelaire’s Revenge is, in fact, an homage to that brilliant, nineteenth-century French poet, but at the same time, it’s a dark and thrilling novel.

Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?

Bob Van Laerhoven: At the moment, my English editor Carly Rheilan and I are working on the English translations of two novels. The Shadow Of The Mole is situated in the Argonne-region of France during WW1. The novel was published, with great artistic reclaim, in The Netherlands and Belgium in 2015.

Here’s the translation of the Dutch blurb:

1916, Bois de Bolante in the barren French region of Argonne. The war in the trenches is raging fiercer than ever. In a deserted mineshaft, French sappeurs discover an unconscious man. Very soon, the troops nickname him The Mole. The Mole claims he has lost his memory, and he’s convinced that he’s dead. He asserts that an Other has taken his place. The military brass considers him a deserter. Front physician and psychiatrist-in-training Michel Denis suspects that the odd behavior of his patient is stemming from shellshock and tries to save him from the firing squad. But the mystery deepens when The Mole’ starts to write a story in écriture automatique that takes place in Vienna and Paris between 1875 and the start of WW1. Michel Denis, himself traumatized by the recent loss of an arm, becomes obsessed with The Mole and does everything he can to unravel the patient’s secret.

When, how, and why shifts reality into delusion? The First World War is a staggering background for this thrilling tableau of loss, frustration, anger, sexual secrets, and cautiously budding love.

And last but not least, we’re preparing Alejandro’s Lie for the English reading market. The novel, set in the fictitious Latin-American country “Terreno” in the eighties, refers to the famous seventies Chilean protest-singer Victor Jara and general Pinochet’s brutal and bloody junta.

Here you have the English translation of the Dutch blurb:

Terreno, 1983, Latin-America. After a dictatorship of ten years, the brutal junta, lead by general Pelarón, seems to waver. Alejandro Juron, the guitarist of the famous poet and folksinger Victor Pérez, executed by the junta, is released from the infamous prison “The Last Supper.” The underground resistance wants Alejandro to participate again in its fight. But Alejandro has changed. Eaten up with guilt by the death of his friend Victor Pérez, whom he has betrayed to his tormentors, Alejandro becomes the unintended center of a web of dramatic intrigues, culminating in a catastrophic insurrection. Alejandro has to choose between his love for Beatriz and his need to flee the country. The consequences are disastrous.

For a writer in a small language community like mine – Flanders only has five million people – it isn’t easy to venture in the English reading community, but with my two novels “Baudelaire’s Revenge” and “Return to Hiroshima” and my two collections of short stories “Dangerous Obsessions” and “Heart Fever” I enjoyed already some modest successes, so I hope that the next two novels will do even better.

Meghan: What is in your “trunk”?

Bob Van Laerhoven: Aside from noir novels, I’ve published in Flanders now and then literary novels with a high percentage of autobiographical facts, like, for instance, Seven Letters To My Call-Girl, Black Water, and The Woman Who Loved Dante. Now that I’m getting old, I notice that my stamina is no longer sturdy enough to crank up enough energy for writing new noir novels. Don’t underestimate the kind of energy writing a novel demands. So, I think I played it smart by proposing to a brilliant young writer-friend of mine to write a book of letters together. We’re sending each other letters with a great variety of subjects, and we’re very frank. For instance, I’m not holding back the jealousy I feel toward him for being such a productive and versatile writer, who – and this is even more important – is surfing on the crest of his creative powers. He’s twenty years younger than I am, dammit! ☺. I love this project. In letters, you can vary your style; you can tackle any subject you like; you can gossip as much you want, et cetera. We’re hoping to finish the first draft of our book of letters at the end of the year. Then comes the fun part again: polishing, polishing, polishing. And after that? I don’t know. Maybe, I’ll hang my pen in the willows. Or I write a tome of 700 pages…

Van Laerhoven is a 66-year-old Belgian/Flemish author who has published (traditionally) more than 45 books in Holland and Belgium. His cross-over oeuvre between literary and noir/suspense is published in French, English, German, Spanish, Swedish, Slovenian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Russian. A Chinese translation is currently in production.

In Belgium, he was a four-time finalist of the ‘Hercule Poirot Prize for Best Mystery Novel of the Year’ with the novels Djinn, The Finger of God, Return to Hiroshima, and The Firehand Files. In 2007, he became the winner of the coveted Hercule Poirot Prize with Baudelaire’s Revenge, which, in English translation, also won the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category ‘mystery/suspense’. His first collection of short stories, Dangerous Obsessions, published in the USA in 2015, was chosen as the ‘best short story collection of 2015’ by the San Diego Book Review. The collection has been translated into Italian, (Brazilian) Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish. Return to Hiroshima, his second crime novel in English, was published in May 2018 by Crime Wave Press(Hong Kong). The British quality review blog Murder, Mayhem & More has chosen Return to Hiroshima as one of the ten best international crime novels of 2018. MMM reviews around 200 novels annually by international authors. Also in 2018, the Anaphora Literary Press published Heart Fever, his second collection of short stories. Heart Fever was one of the five finalists of the American Silver Falchion Award. Laerhoven was the only non-American finalist. The collection has been translated into Italian and Spanish. A German translation is currently in production.

Meghan: Where can we find you?

Bob Van Laerhoven: Website ** Facebook ** Twitter ** Instagram

Return to Hiroshima

1995, Japan struggles with a severe economic crisis. Fate brings a number of people together in Hiroshima in a confrontation with dramatic consequences. Xavier Douterloigne, the son of a Belgian diplomat, returns to the city, 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 Hiroshima’s war history. A Yakuza-lord, rumored to be the incarnation of the Japanese demon Rokurobei, mercilessly defends his criminal empire against his daughter Mitsuko, whom he considers insane. And the punk author Reizo, obsessed by the ultra-nationalistic ideals of his literary idol Mishima, recoils at nothing to write the novel that will “overturn Japan’s foundations”….

Hiroshima’s indelible war-past simmers in the background of this ultra-noir novel. Clandestine experiments conducted by Japanese Secret Service Unit 731 during WWII become unveiled and leave a sinister stain on the reputation of the imperial family and the Japanese society as a whole.

Baudelaire’s Revenge

It is 1870, and Paris is in turmoil.

As the social and political turbulence of the Franco-Prussian War roils the city, workers starve to death while aristocrats seek refuge in orgies and seances. The Parisians are trapped like rats in their beautiful city but a series of gruesome murders captures their fascination and distracts them from the realities of war. The killer leaves lines from the recently deceased Charles Baudelaire’s controversial anthology Les Fleurs du Mal on each corpse, written in the poet’s exact handwriting. Commissioner Lefevre, a lover of poetry and a veteran of the Algerian war, is on the case, and his investigation is a thrilling, intoxicating journey into the sinister side of human nature, bringing to mind the brooding and tense atmosphere of Patrick Susskind’s Perfume. Did Baudelaire rise from the grave? Did he truly die in the first place? The plot dramatically appears to extend as far as the court of the Emperor Napoleon III.

A vivid, intelligent, and intense historical crime novel that offers up some shocking revelations about sexual mores in 19th century France, this superb mystery illuminates the shadow life of one of the greatest names in poetry.