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Interview: November 1, 2013

Former international trial lawyer Antoinette van Heugten retired to pursue a full-time career as a novelist and penned her debut novel, SAVING MAX. Now she returns with her second book, THE TULIP EATERS, in which readers are introduced to Nora de Jong, who is determined to discover the identity of her mother's killer and the whereabouts of her missing infant daughter. In this interview with’s Terry Miller Shannon, van Heugten opens up about how her parents’ participation in the Dutch resistance during World War II inspired her to set parts of her novel during that time --- and how it didn’t hurt that she had spent time in her 20s at the Netherlands War Institute, researching that topic. She also talks about how she treasures the humanity in even the most seemingly despicable character in THE TULIP EATERS and how writing the story affected her own emotional landscape. Where did you find your inspiration for writing THE TULIP EATERS?

Antoinette van Heugten: My parents were Dutch and fought in the Dutch resistance during World War II. Although they did not speak of it often, as children we heard stories of how our grandmother hid a Jewish boy in the cellar, how my mother transported microfiche on her bicycle, and how my father had blown up munitions depots. We also were made well aware of the hardships their families and others suffered during the five years of Nazi occupation, particularly the starvation conditions during the “Hongerwinter” towards the end of the war. As such, I have always had a personal as well as a historical fascination with that time period. My parents’ heroism, demonstrated when they were only teenagers, was my initial inspiration. Reading the diaries and letters of so many Dutch people during the war inspired me further.     

BRC: What kind of research did you do, particularly in regards to Dutch Nazi sympathizers during World War II? How much did you know before you began, and what did you learn along the way?

AVH: When I was in my 20s, I received a grant to research the Dutch resistance movement at the Netherlands War Institute (then RIOD, now NIOD) in Amsterdam. My original purpose was to publish a nonfiction paper on the subject, but after two years I returned to the States, went to law school and into law practice instead. Years later, after writing SAVING MAX, I came across boxes of my research and notes about the diaries I had read at NIOD, about the lives of those who had experienced the Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, and found myself drawn in once again by that time and place and the social, political and moral issues it presented. Of particular interest, and a historical element that plays a large role in the novel, is the fact that there was a significant Dutch Nazi party in the Netherlands (the “NSB”), which peaked at approximately 100,000 members during WWII. This is not a well-known fact outside of the Netherlands --- I certainly wasn’t aware of the extent of it before I began my research --- and yet it was an integral element in day-to-day life for my parents and other Dutch citizens during the war.    

BRC: Your descriptions of Amsterdam are so detailed and vivid. How much time have you spent there? Did you live there during the writing of this book?

AVH: I lived in Amsterdam for two years while I did research at the Dutch War Institute. I did not live there during the writing of the novel because I wrote it 30 years later! I did spend three months before writing the novel in Amsterdam once again to confirm my research and soak up the local color.

BRC: Your two novels, SAVING MAX and THE TULIP EATERS, are totally different books, yet they share a common theme of desperate mothers who go to great lengths in their attempts to save their children. Why does this resonate with you in such a way that you wish to explore it through your writing?

AVH: As in SAVING MAX, I was that desperate mother of an autistic child (and two others) whose behavior was out of control and who had no option but to take him to a psychiatric hospital for assessment. As with many mothers of special-needs children --- or of any children --- I would do whatever needed to be done to help my child, regardless of the consequences. This is the source of the passion I felt while writing both novels.

BRC: I see from your book's dedication page that your parents fought in the Dutch resistance during World War II. Did they talk to you much about that time? Did they keep journals?

AVH: My mother spoke about the war when asked, but my father did not. That was the past, it was over, subject closed. I’ve always had the impression that he was forced to do things during the war that he struggled with later. Although he did not speak of his experiences, he read every book written on the Second World War. Perhaps it was a way to try to understand his role in the history of the time. My mother was very emotional about it. “All those poor boys,” she would say, often crying. “All lost.” Unfortunately, neither kept a journal. 

BRC: I was struck by your description of Nora's upbringing in an "undeniably Dutch home," which included prompt dinners consisting of an unvarying menu, immaculate housekeeping, thriftiness, the speaking of Dutch and a yearning for privacy. I couldn't help but wonder if this also described your upbringing.

AVH: You’re not far off! Both of my parents worked, but dinner was on the table by 6:30 p.m. (under my grandfather’s disapproving glance when it wasn’t 6:00 sharp). We ate meat, potatoes, vegetables and applesauce. I don’t know where the latter came from, but it is common in Holland. My mother was not an immaculate housekeeper, what with a full-time job and three children, but everyone else I know in Holland is. Unfortunately, Dutch was spoken in my home only between my parents when they wanted to discuss things they didn’t want us to hear! I actually studied it at the University of Texas and then really learned to speak when I moved to Amsterdam. And, yes, the Dutch are private. I’m an exception, always opening my mouth when I shouldn’t!

BRC: With this novel's back-story, you're shining a light on an aspect of World War II that many people are unaware of (your preface, about the starving Dutch eating frozen tulip bulbs, was electrifying). Have you always been interested in history in general, or are you more intrigued by certain periods?

AVH: I have always been interested in history and was an American Studies major in college. Before deciding to go into law, I debated becoming a history professor. With Dutch parents, I have always been particularly interested in European history, but lately I am intrigued by the fascinating histories of Turkey, Italy and Spain.

BRC: Two characters, Nora and Ariel, are in desperate straits for different reasons. Did Ariel reveal himself to you immediately, or did you work to refine his motivations and actions as you wrote?

AVH: Ariel is the character that developed and changed most as I wrote the novel. I eventually realized that he is a victim --- of his father, his aunt and his circumstances --- and the unwilling perpetrator of a terrible crime. It is the humanity I like in Ariel, his moral struggle between giving Rose back to his mother and honoring his father’s dying wish.

BRC: Speaking of Ariel again, he is a complex character in that many of his actions seem utterly despicable, yet he's not a wholly unsympathetic character considering his circumstances. How difficult is it to birth a character that teeters on a tightrope between likable and contemptible?

AVH: It was difficult to create Ariel in the beginning --- I think he was a breech birth!

I did have to be careful to make sure the reader understood that Ariel was basically a good man in terrible circumstances, driven to do the horrible things he did as a result of his fear and desire to please his father, who never thought highly of him. In his conversations with Amarisa and his wife, I think his character was properly revealed, his stubbornness in resisting his aunt’s outrageous demands, his more tender conversations with his wife, and his love for Rose.

BRC: THE TULIP EATERS is intricately wrought, in that you reveal secrets, mysteries and characters' pasts bit by bit, weaving them together. I suspect forming these puzzle pieces into a smooth whole must be a difficult accomplishment. Did you set out to write the story this way? Was it an organic process that sprang to life as you wrote, or did you have to outline or revise extensively?

AVH: Al Zuckerman, my agent from Writer’s House, has always insisted on outlines that evolve over time. Typically this takes months of our going back and forth, anticipating pitfalls, delving deeper into characters’ motivations, and ensuring that the plot is both gripping and credible. With this kind of preparation, the novel flowed fairly easily. After a 70-page outline, I would hope so!

BRC: I'm curious about the Dutch War Institute in which Nora spent so much time attempting to research her parents' lives. Is this a real building in Amsterdam, and if so, is it used to store historical documents?

AVH: It is indeed a real building and a real organization. After the war, a Dutch Cabinet minister, Loe de Jong, made it his life’s work to found the Dutch War Institute, to request and collect thousands of diaries and journals from those who kept them during the occupation and to make this oral and written history available for generations to come. I actually met Loe de Jong in 1978. My physical description of the War Institute is fairly accurate, although I didn’t go crawling around in the basement or offices in the middle of the night!

BRC: It seems this story could have been told in more of a straightforward mystery format regarding the puzzle of Anneke's murder and also the identity and motivations of Rose's kidnapper (although, of course, other intriguing mysteries do remain far into the book). Why did you choose to reveal so much right away?

AVH: As the novel is a thriller, not a mystery, I found it important to begin with the shock of the murder and the seemingly incomprehensible kidnapping of Rose. It was also necessary to establish at the outset that the protagonist was Nora, not Anneke. I felt that because Anneke was not going to appear in the novel again except in memory, which I believe heightened the tension in Nora’s search for the truth, it was best that Nora bear the burden of investigating and determining what Anneke’s motivations and actions had been.

BRC: THE TULIP EATERS puts readers up close and personal with nightmare situations. Did immersing yourself in this story affect your emotions (maybe by making you more fearful or sad)?

AVH: It did not make me fearful, but often during the writing of the novel, I did feel sad. It was inevitable that I would think of my mother and father and the hardship they suffered. It brought to mind photographs of my mother, so emaciated you could count her ribs, her legs toothpicks. Immersing myself in that time was thus often painful.

BRC: Can you tell us a bit about this book's path to publication? For example, how long did it take you to write it? Had the idea been percolating for a while before you began the writing process?

AVH: I had actually written a different form of this novel many years ago. It had to be ripped apart and changed entirely, but the general idea was there. It took me about a year to write, primarily because I did a very thorough job of going back into my research, updating and checking it. 

BRC: What are you working on now?

AVH: What fun! I’m working on the sequel to SAVING MAX called FINDING MARIANNE. As you may remember, Marianne escaped from the courtroom at the end of the novel. After two years, she’s back and as evil as ever. Can Danielle, Max and Doaks find her? Will Marianne get her just deserts? Stay tuned!