Today, I have an exciting interview with Flemish author Bob Van Laerhoven. He’s an award winning author who has published many various books in many countries. Now, his Hercule Poirot Award winning crime novel, Baudelaire’s Revenge, has published in English! You can read my review HERE and also there are TWO copies up for grab by clicking HERE for the Rafflecopter!
Hi, Bob! Welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I’ve been excited to read your thrilling novel now that it has released in English, after publishing as an award winning novel in 2007 in Belgium. How has the revitalization of the novel in English fared for you?
Bob: Hi, Erin. First and for all, thank you for having me in “Oh, for the Hook of a Book.” You’ve used the correct word: it’s indeed a “revitalization” of the novel, also due to the excellent English translation of professional translator Brian Doyle, in so far that Italian and Russian translations are in the making, now that the novel is available in English which, as a language of a vast community, is easier to translate then my mother tongue Flemish.
Baudelaire’s Revenge is viewed in most countries – A French translation is published in France and the French speaking parts of Canada – as something “different” from the average thriller for it’s a “cross-over” between literature and the suspense novel. At the same time, it’s also a much researched historical fiction book. For American readers, this can definitely be an “exotic” roman noir.
Erin: It certainly has many multiple layers and dynamics. Come in, have a seat, and choose your drink of choice. I have iced tea, since summer has arrived, but hot tea is still brewing as well. Or maybe you’d like a little more warmth in your drink, I can add a splash or rum or make a cocktail? I’ll put out the tray of Speculoos (which for readers is a spiced cookie), which are still warm from the oven.
Bob: Being Flemish – oh Dionysus, god of wine, pleasure and the theatre – I wouldn’t object to a splash of rum and a few pieces of Speculoos, which we call over here Speculaas. Or maybe you have one of our famous Monastery Beers? You haven’t lived if you haven’t tasted a true heavy Flemish Monastery Beer! 🙂
Erin: The beer sounds exciting to try! We can have some of both!! Now that we are settled, let’s begin with some important questions. My son, Nassem, who is also a young writer, international relations, and history fanatic, has written some of them as he is also much interested in your writing and life.
Q: Baudelaire’s Revenge has a focus on the haves and have-nots of Paris in this era. Do the same themes in this novel still apply to the modern era when it comes to the income-inequality gap in many nations around the world?
A: Very important question, convey my gratitude to your son Nassem. From the beginning, I wanted to write a “modern” – theme-wise – historical novel. The old, somewhat over-used adagio “History repeats itself” is, sadly enough, in many aspects still true. When I started writing Baudelaire’s Revenge I wanted that the inequality between the haves and the have-nots played an important role in the novel and served as a mirror for our times wherein tension, anger and outrage concerning the ever-growing gap between rich and poor is mounting almost all over the world. In a way, Baudelaire’s Revenge, with its extreme chasm between nobility and the working class, serves as a warning for modern times.
Q: In Baudelaire’s Revenge, the murderer is obsessed with Charles Baudelaire, leaving lines from his poetry on the victims. Is your writing influenced by the poet Baudelaire and by the atmosphere of Paris itself?
A: I was seventeen when I read Charles Baudelaire’s poem anthology Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) in an archaic Dutch translation. Living in a small village near to the Dutch border, I began to dream to visit Paris and – at that tender age – to read the poems with their wonderful rhythm and eerie atmosphere in French. After a while, I could lay my hand on an original French edition and began to read it at night, in bed, with a flashlight and a dictionary French-Dutch… A lifelong fascination had begun, strengthened later when I visited Paris a few times…How modern the city has become in comparison with Charles Baudelaire’s 19th century, the savoir vivre and the typical French atmosphere is still very much alive.
Q: While we are talking about Baudelaire himself, he used a lot of controversial themes in his work, including death, corruption, and lost innocence. Was he persecuted by the French government during his life due to this and is his poetry still relevant to today?
A: Baudelaire chose the title for his anthology for a reason. He knew that the censorship of that time would react, which it did. Les Fleurs du Mal were forbidden, the poet was locked up for a short time and had to pay a fine. Thereafter, the anthology was published in a censored version. Needless to say that the Parisian readers flocked en masse to book shops which sold the original uncensored version “under the counter” J. Baudelaire’s theme, the lurid mixture of Eros and Thanatos in his verses, will forever be relevant, I suppose. He scouted the dark recesses of our minds and he did that in a most beautiful language: the ugliness of the subject and the flow of the splendid language give these verses an exceptional timeless quality.
Q: Baudelaire’s Revenge largely is a hybrid of mystery and poetic writing. There is a historical element in it too, however, so what kind of research did you do to bring to life 1870’s Paris? Does the historical setting influence the plot all its own?
A: You know, in modern eyes, this novel may seem “extreme” here and there, but the historical setting has been researched thoroughly and at great length. Don’t forget this was a time of war and brutal social unrest. It was also a time of different mores: socially, individually, philosophically , artistically and sexually. Paris was a seething city at that time where the boundaries of civil society were violently broken. That atmosphere had a profound influence on the novel. The story is fictitious, of course, but a lot of historical details are very true.
Q: What is your writing style like? Are you a plotter (using an organized method) or a pantser (write by the seat of your pants)?
A: Héhé, nice question, I like the word “pantser”, and indeed I am one, for sure. I’ve published more than 30 books in The Netherlands and Belgium, but I only used an “organized” method once or twice. For the rest of all my books, I relied on my capricious Muse….Exhausting but exhilarating :), I can tell you….
Q: I know you have written many other wonderful novels in Belgium and Holland. What are some of those novels about? Do you write various genres? Are any others published in English or accessible to us in the U.S.?
A: I publish suspense novels with a literary flair and literary novels with a suspenseful flair. For the moment, two other novels are nearly ready in an English translation: “Return to Hiroshima” which is set in Hiroshima during the nineties of the previous century with “Little Boy”, the atomic bomb dropped on the city during WW II, as the starting point for the plot. I think “Return to Hiroshima” is one of my most ambitious novels. Then there is “The Shadow of the Mole”, set in 1916 in the WW1 front lines of the Argonne-region in France, but also in various other periods in Vienna and in Paris. Both books will be ready for submission in September of this year. Let’s hope there will be room for some more, because, due to the fact that I’ve been a travelling writer in mostly conflict-ridden countries for thirteen years, my novels have the tendency to be qualified as “international.”
Erin: Really looking forward to reading them!
Q: If you wished for another of your books to be available to English readers that aren’t, which ones would they be and why?
A: In the nineties I published a series – the only series I’ve ever published – of five novels that could be labeled as “detective novels”. The South-African half-breed (half Flemish/ half black South-African) commissioner Peter Declerq and his sidekick, the Flemish inspector Samantha – Sammy for friends – Duchène form an interesting duo that takes on adventures in many parts of the world: Congo, South-Africa, Algeria, Myanmar, Israel and so on…So, the make-up of the series is “classical” but the settings are not. I really enjoyed writing that series, which had a lot of success over here, but I stopped it because I didn’t want to become a writer “out of habit” and I changed my next novels drastically :). That could be viewed as a not too commercial attitude :), but artistically it was the right thing to do.
Q: I did note somewhere that you like to tackle social issues in your fiction. Is this due to your time writing as a freelance journalist and writer in various countries and during conflicts such as in Bosnia?
A: I come from a poor Flemish family. I’m a self-made writer. So, yes, I’ve always been interested in North-South contradictions and the social upheavals due to inequalities in society. The mechanism of war fascinated me for a long time, so I choose to go and look at it from as close as I could get. But after all those years, it still remains a mystery, a dark and foreboding one. It’s no coincidence that I tend to explore the uglier side of human nature. I’ve seen it in many frightening ways.
Erin: That is really why I chose myself to study Journalism. Though a risk, I wanted to be near the war zones and see what the people surrounded by war experienced. Alas, I did not go and had children, but now my son is very into international relations, so I suppose I’ve always followed it. I, too, like to analyze human nature but mostly end up asking why? to so many things.
Q: How much of your life experiences in your traveling dots the landscapes of your books? What are some instances you can tell us about that spurred sections within books or ideas for fiction writing?
A: You know, I always took care not to “mix” actual things I’ve witnessed in my fiction. I will use – and have used – various “moods” I’ve encountered and, when creating characters, I will pick some aspects I’ve seen in people when I was travelling. They call my books “violent”. They are, but not in a cheap way. They represent, in the form of a suspenseful tale, an investigation of the why, the what and the how of violence. I think that’s important. I myself encountered violence in my tender youth, I know what it can do to people.
Q: Can American readers follow anywhere your amazing non-fiction pieces, essays, or books about the social climate and injustices present in the world? These pieces are so important, thank you for writing them and telling stories others don’t.
A: Alas, no, those non-fiction pieces are not available in English. Please don’t forget that I’m getting old now 🙂 and that for the past ten years I hardly travelled at all. I was a travelling author between roughly 1990 and 2003. I wrote many pieces about my wanderings and the countries I visited but I largely stayed away from publishing them in the form of a book. They were “snapshots” of what was going on there and then.
But I did publish Srebrenica. Witnesses of Mass Murder in 1995 in the form of a book, after having witnessed in the Bosnian town of Tuzla the arrival of the survivors of the massacre of the inhabitants (Muslims) of the enclave Srebrenica. Tuzla was being bombed by the NATO-planes then, it was a very hectic place, but the exhausted people from Srebrenica who trickled in small groups into the city after having crossed tens of kilometers of very rough, hilly terrain, were jubilant that they had survived the mass-killings of the troops of the Serbian general Mladic. At that time, I was the first in Europe to report this massacre in a book and in the beginning nearly no-one believed me…Until, after the war, the mass graves of Srebrenica were found…
Q: What are one or two of the favorite places you’ve traveled to? What is your favorite place to write about and why?
A: You know, although bristling and not always very safe, I truly liked Cape Town in South-Africa for its fascinating mix of black and European culture and its vigor. I always said I would’ve liked to write a novel in Cape Town to see how it would’ve influenced my style. Fate has decided otherwise, but Mosque, one of the novels in the series I mentioned earlier is situated in Cape Town.
Q: What is your favorite food of choice from anywhere you’ve traveled?
A: Ah, now you’ve wakened gluttony in me! 🙂 I truly adore Indian and Thai food, almost every South-Azian style, but at the end, no one can tip the Indian food. Don’t forget India is a vast country and the cooking styles differ hugely per region, so you never get bored. 🙂
Q: Closer to home, we have Dutch heritage and are always interested in learning more about the area. I hope to visit one day. What is your favorite part of the areas of Belgium and/or Netherlands?
A: In The Netherlands, Amsterdam still has that almost “magical” appeal (I nearly wrote “mushroom” appeal 🙂 ) although the city has lost some of its “hippie” flair of the sixties and the seventies. It still is a great place to visit though.
In Belgium, I would strongly advise you to visit Ghent and Bruges. Bruges is world-famous for its historical buildings, but Ghent, also a very beautiful historical city, is – in my eyes – a bit more “authentic” than Bruges which has become very touristic.
And don’t forget to try our chocolate, our waffles, and – here I go again – our wonderful beer (not the plain ales, mind you, but the heavier stuff :)). If you have Dutch heritage, then maybe you’ll recognize this : “Welkom in mijn huis”. Welcome in my house. Drop me a mail whenever you would come over…We’ll visit Ghent, I’m living on the country side with our four darlings, our horses, but close enough to the city…
Erin: I will take you up on that! Sounds wonderful!
Q: In regards to fiction, even though your U.S. release was written many years ago, what are you presently working on, if anything? If not, what ideas do you have that you are contemplating writing?
A: In the past ten years, I alternately published historical novels with present-day novels and now I have the impression – nothing more than that for the moment – I would like to “end” my career with a novel set in the future. Not a pure science-fiction novel but more a social-fiction book. And I guess the main theme will again be social injustice.
Q: Where can readers, writers, and international relations pioneers contact you?
A: I have a website in three languages: Dutch, French and English. The link of the English version is: www.bobvanlaerhoven.be/en. From there on, you can mail me or find me on Facebook or Twitter.
Erin: It was an honor to interview you today, Bob. I applaud you for all your efforts overseas with refugees and your writings on social issues and beyond. I look forward to hopefully reading more of your work in English, or else, I’ll need to hire a great translator! Best of luck in all your endeavors!
Bob: Erin, it was an honor for me to be interviewed with such a complete array of questions. I hope there will be another time when “Return to Hiroshima” or “The Shadow Of The Mole” is published in the States. Now it’s my turn to wish you great success with “Oh, for the Hook of a Book.”
Erin: Absolutely, would love to have you back again!
Baudelaire’s Revenge, Synopsis~
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.
Praise for Baudelaire’s Revenge~
“[An] intense historical crime thriller. The intricate plot, menacing atmosphere, and rich evocations of period Paris have undeniable power.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Vigorous. A finely-tuned balancing act between style and content. Add to all this the extremely convincingly painted tragic characters and the multitude of mysterious figures, and what you get is a winner who gives added luster to this jubilee edition of the Hercule Poirot Prize.” (The jury of the Hercule Poirot Prize)
“Van Laerhoven packs much complexity into 256 pages, giving this historical mystery the heft of a far longer work ( …) The book’s main preoccupation is the conclusive demonstration that everyone is guilty of something—the only mystery is, to what degree? The flowers of evil, sketched in lurid botanical detail…” (Kirkus Reviews)
“(A) decadent tale….Commissioner Lefèvre’s philosophical discussions with artists and poets and a creepy Belgian dwarf are fascinating….” (NY Times Book Review)
“Published for the first time in English, this roman policier isn’t so much a straight detective story (although there are two detectives in it) as an evocation of a mind-set that now seems extravagant: the 19th-century poet’s fascination with sex and death. It’s no wonder this title won the Hercule Poirot Prize: the author is Belgian, as is the prize, and the twisted plot is as complicated as Agatha Christie’s most convoluted mystery. Mystery aficionados will love this pastiche of Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe.” (Library Journal)
“(A) gritty, detail-rich historical mystery novel involves the reader in a subtle narrative web. This complex mystery from an award-winning Belgian author joins history and literary history to create a sly, smart revenge tale.” (Shelf Awareness Pro)
Watch the Book Trailer~
Buy the Book~
Author Bob Van Laerhoven, Biography~
Bob Van Laerhoven became a full-time author in 1991 and has written more than thirty books in Holland and Belgium. The context of his stories isn’t invented behind his desk, rather it is rooted in personal experience. As a freelance travel writer, for example, he explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from the early 1990s to 2005. Echoes of his experiences on the road also trickle through in his novels. Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar… to name but a few.
During the Bosnian war, Van Laerhoven spent part of 1992 in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Three years later he was working for MSF – Doctors without frontiers – in the Bosnian city of Tuzla during the NATO bombings. At that moment the refugees arrived from the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. Van Laerhoven was the first writer from the Low Countries to be given the chance to speak to the refugees. His conversations resulted in a travel book: Srebrenica. Getuigen van massamoord – Srebrenica. Testimony to a Mass Murder. The book denounces the rape and torture of the Muslim population of this Bosnian-Serbian enclave and is based on first-hand testimonies. He also concludes that mass murders took place, an idea that was questioned at the time but later proven accurate.
All these experiences contribute to Bob Van Laerhoven’s rich and commendable oeuvre, an oeuvre that typifies him as the versatile author of novels, travel stories, books for young adults, theatre pieces, biographies, poetry, non-fiction, letters, columns, articles… He is also a prize-winning author: in 2007 he won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best thriller of the year with his novel De Wraak van Baudelaire – Baudelaire’s Revenge.
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