We talked to Dutch author Jeroen Windmeijer. His book St. Paul’s Labyrinth will be out on August 31st in the US, Canada, Great Britain and Germany and will be published by HarperCollins Publishers. His new book The Pilgrim Fathers-conspiracy was published in the Netherlands on August 7th at HarperCollins Holland and is the final part of his Leiden-trilogy. We talked to the man behind the stories and sat down with the Dan Brown of The Lowlands.
FOR FANS OF DAN BROWN, JAMES SWALLOW AND TERRY HAYES
A shocking secret that has been buried for centuries… When university professor Peter de Haan attends a library event, he has no idea of the dangers that await him. As part of the library collapses, a hidden tunnel is revealed. Inside cowers a naked man, covered in blood. Then Peter receives a mysterious text message – the hour has come… When Peter’s colleague Judith disappears, he realizes he has been drawn into a plot with consequences deadlier than he could ever have imagined. He has 24 hours to find her, otherwise she will be killed. As Peter investigates, he uncovers mysteries that have been hidden for years. But following his every footstep is an underground society who will stop at nothing to keep their secrets hidden. Will Peter save Judith in time, or will his quest end in disaster?
Why did you become a writer?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, ever since my childhood. At primary school I had ‘pen pals’ as it was called back then with whom I wrote weekly. I liked it– and I still do; trying to put your thoughts on paper in a sensible way, to describe an event or to define how you felt. Through my high school time I kept journals. From my student days I started to travel a lot. This was of course all in the pre-Internet era, so I wrote long letters home and always kept a travel journal. Sometimes it was purely therapeutic though. So far away from home you felt lonely and lost on your own, I just tried to flee into writing. It was a lifeline with the people at home. But I always had fun purely in writing itself, as an activity, trying to find the right words for the thoughts in your head and the feelings in your heart.
Only when writing on my thesis – I promoted on an anthropological study of an Indian population in Ecuador – I started to write fictional stories. I think I needed to counterbalance the strictly scientific nature of what I was writing at the time. Everything you claim in your thesis should be substantiated with literature references and footnotes of course. I started writing stories just to feel the freedom of fiction. Within the logical boundaries of your story you can actually write whatever you want. In the beginning I wrote about things I experienced myself, like every beginner I suppose. I remember deleting a paragraph because what I had written didn’t correspond to how it really went. In the middle of this act I stopped and thought, does it matter? That was really a breakthrough moment for me. I wrote two novels in the time after that, but never did anything with it.
What is your favorite place to write?
My wife and I both have our own study at home, completely decorated to our own taste with our own books. She is a translator of Turkish literature, she has six or seven books on her name. My room is filled with books on religion and philosophy, with a huge decoration on the wall of the mosaic depiction of Jesus from the Aya Sofia. This is where I like to work, mostly with quiet classical music in the background, often the Matthew–Passion of Bach, and with burning incense sticks. It smells a bit like a Catholic Church, hahaha. I also bought that real church incense.
For some years we have a vegetable garden on the outskirts of Leiden with a gazebo, where you can cook and sleep, there is running water, everything except WiFi. From spring onwards I like being there. I like to open the doors and look at the green garden where it is a hustle and bustle of birds, butterflies and bees. Every now and then I take a walk or take time to remove some weed. Every so often I have to take care of my own bees, because I am a beekeeper. It keeps me beezy, hahaha.
How close to the truth do you want to write?
My stories could be true, I want the story to be set in a recognizable world. If the main character turns right and crosses a bridge, that bridge has to be there in real life. We made a tour for all three books, so you can walk through the city with the main characters from my books. It’s guided with historical information, so you can actually learn something. We are looking to develop an app with Izi.travel, so it will available free of charge. By using the app you can walk through Leiden and get information on historical places, but you can also hear me read out from the book when a certain scene takes place on that spot.
Furthermore, as a writer, I like to play a game with history, otherwise you might as well write a non-fiction book. For every book I made an intensive study of my subject for about half a year: St. Peter, St. Paul and for my new book The Pilgrim fathers. What I then try to do is to fill the empty spaces, which every history has, in a fanciful yet plausible way, what if… I received a nice compliment from a Leiden professor of New Testament, who read The Confessions of St. Peter. He wrote: ‘Your version of the story is just as (un)plausible as the official version’.
Are you worried that you elaborate too much?
After six months of study I wrote the first version of the book in half a year, it ended up to be about 500 computer pages! About 20-25% of St. Paul’s Labyrinth for example was taken out, a tricky part of the writing process. My editor at HarperCollins Holland is ‘strict but righteous’ I always say. In the end I have the last say as a writer, but in general I bow to her experience and for her great insight into what a story needs in order to be well told. Also I have a very good editor, Lidia Dumas, who is extremely clever, both at the level of detail as on the broader lines.
I tend to elaborate. There are people who find I elaborate too much, but then I think, maybe my book just isn’t for you. In The name of the Rose Umberto Eco also wrote pages about medieval knight orders and religious quarrels – which is not appreciated by everyone. But by far most people can appreciate this in my books, just because this takes my thrillers above the average level I think. I read a lot of thrillers, but often I find them ultimately a bit disappointing. Yes, on the last page you discover that the butler did it anyway and you did not expect it at all, but after you close the book, then what? You’re entertained for a while, just like a Hollywood movie, but I want more out of a book. And I also want to offer my readers more than a few hours of entertainment. Maybe you could better describe my books as ‘Art house Books’, maybe it’s a bit more difficult than the average book, with some more digressions, but in the end you’ll get something out of it too – and I offered an exciting story.
Is it difficult it to write a story that is partly fact and partly fiction? Or do you like the freedom as an author to take on the facts?
I don’t know if I could write a proper historical novel, I would probably still feel too contained, too little freedom. I do like to take a historical event as a starting point and think about what could have happened. Or what has actually happened, but never made it to the history books, or has been swept under the carpet. For a long time I have been walking around with the idea to write a novel about the last days of Jesus. The stories of the New Testament as a starting point, but then give my own spin to it. Just retelling the story that is already known, I would find that boring to do. But a certain starting point such as the story around the apostle Peter or the history of the Pilgrim fathers gives me a much needed framework in which my invented story is set.
But to answer your question, yes it is liberating as an author to take on the facts, but within certain limits. I think it’s great as a writer to notice that the story is going a certain direction. At times you have the idea that the story guides you and that you just have to type it. You let yourself be carried on the stream – literally a flow – and sometimes you get really surprised where the story is going.
Do you want to make your readers to think for themselves?
Yes. I am a high school teacher in Leiden, I teach social doctrine and religion, although I am not a religious person myself. I am a teacher in heart and soul, I also want to teach as a writer. I always want to learn something when I’m reading a book, learn something new. When I look back at my three books now, I think the common ground is that I want to show the power of stories. In the end everybody loves stories. Even a busy classroom goes quiet when you start with: ‘There once was a king who had two sons…’. Because these pupils also feel that the king is dead and therefore a problem arises: who will become the new king? The need to tell stories and to listen to them sits in our DNA I think. From the earliest history of mankind, people gathered around the fire to listen to each other’s stories.
I also would like to say that something doesn’t have to be the truth to be true. I can watch a movie and get moved by it, but of course I also know that it’s actors who have remembered lines by heart written by someone else, that there are cameras around, microphones, lamps, etcetera. But it doesn’t stop me from having tears in my eyes, because it was about something I recognized from my own life, something that appealed to me. It’s not actually true, but there was a certain truth in it. The same goes for a song, a poem, a play. That’s why it’s not important for me, for example, that Jesus has really done and said all these things as described in the New Testament. The fact that he existed at all is in fact a non-issue. With his life and his stories he is a source of inspiration for billions of people, for two thousand years. A story like the Parable of the Prodigal Son is and remains brilliant, no matter how often you read it. It is a story that grows on you, just as all the stories of Jesus do – you always read something in a new way, depending on the life stage you are in.
As far as I am concerned, you are totally mistaken if you are going to take those stories literally, like: it happened like so and so, so that’s how it’s meant to be. If you do that, you’re convinced that you have a reason to address people who do not share your interpretation, which is the only correct interpretation, and eventually even use show of force – for they are wrong and you are right. This is a source of intolerance, which is at the root of many of the problems we are facing in the world at the moment.
How do your pupils view your books?
In general, my pupils are not very involved, hahaha. What most pupils want to know is how much I make. Or why I still teach when I also make money as a writer. Students are allowed to read my books for their list and some actually do that. I already had a view messages via messenger, just before their oral exams, with questions such as: ‘What genre are your books?’ or ‘What are the main themes in your books?’. That’s funny of course. There won’t be many writers you can approach just before you oral exam. In addition, pupils sometimes come to me with one of my books asking to sign it for one of their parents or for their grandfather.
Is it easier to look objectively at the past without the ballast of faith?
‘The ballast of faith’’ sounds so negative, but it’s true that you are more free reading the Bible if you are not religious, I think. It’s easier to ask certain uncomfortable questions because you don’t have to be afraid that an equally uncomfortable answer has everlasting consequences for your faith.
The Bible is full of contradictions. According to the evangelists Lucas and Matthew Jesus was born in Bethlehem, according to Marcus and John he was born in Nazareth. These two facts cannot be reconciled in any way. So if you believe that the Bible is the literal word of God you have a problem. If you see it as a literary work that ultimately is written by people, you can accept that writers make mistakes. Take the genealogy of Jesus for example: entire lists of names are constructed from Adam and Eve to King David up to Jesus, to prove that Jesus, according to prophecy, truly descended from the house of David. But that lineage runs through Joseph, who evangelists claim was not the father of Jesus. So that genealogy is right off the table. For centuries theologians have gone out of their way to get this explained, but in the end you can’t. Like Noah’s Ark, as soon as you take those stories literally you really have to let go of common sense to make sense of it. Acclaimed Dutch author Maarten ’t Hart wrote about it in Wie God verlaat, heeft niets te vrezen (Whoever leaves God has nothing to fear) and De bril van God (The spectacles of God).
The Confessions of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Labyrinth are about the origin of a world-wide faith and its misconceptions. Why did you this choose this story?
In the case of The Confessions of St. Peter, for example, it’s fascinating that halfway through the story in the fifth Bible book The Acts of The Apostles the main pupil of Jesus suddenly disappears from the scene, without saying anything about what happened to him. The official story is that he went to Rome and was eventually crucified upside down. The church of St. Peter is said to be built on his tomb, fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy about Peter. Peter was actually called Simon but Jesus gave him a new name, ‘Peter’ meaning ‘rock’. ‘On you I will build my community’. But there is no shred of evidence that Peter has ever been to Rome. The only source is a apocryphal book, The Acts of Peter, which also talks about talking babies, flying people and talking dogs! Fik Meijer has written a beautiful book about it, Petrus (Peter). I find it fascinating that this story, which is arguably 100% legend, is widely believed and has become the basis of a global belief, Roman Catholicism, which is currently being adhered to by more than one billion people.
Or Paul, without whom Christianity would have remained a small sect in Palestine, which would had probably disappeared after 70 A.D. when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. He is the first to put the Christian ideas on paper and focus on the non-Jewish world. Mind you, they are his ideas because he has never met Jesus and moreover, Jesus was not at all interested in non-Jews. He proclaimed things Jesus as a Jewish rabbi would never have supported such as releasing the food laws or no longer requiring circumcision.
I therefore find it interesting to dive into those histories, because they are taken for granted by so many people, while very little is left of it if even a little bit on the surface of it scrapes.
The Pilgrim Fathers-conspiracy tells about a defining period in history, in which Leiden plays an important role. Not everyone is familiar with the fact the Pilgrims lived in Leiden, does that also give you extra motivation?
Yes. Last summer my wife and I visited the US with our daughter so I could research my new book on the Pilgrims. We visited Boston and the Plimouth Plantation, an open-air museum where they reconstructed a village as it should have been around 1620 – inhabited by Pilgrims who set foot on land nearby. The people I talked to knew the Pilgrims fled from England because they were persecuted and moved to the Netherlands because of their faith, but not many people knew they had lived there for eleven years (1609-1620). Many of the values the Pilgrims took from Leiden and from the Netherlands became the foundations of the United States, such as freedom of expression, religion and press, civil marriage, separation of church and state. There are also strong indications that the meal of Thanksgiving is inspired by the courtesy meal held in Leiden after expelling the Spaniards in 1575 – in modern day Leiden on October 3rd we still eat stew and herring on white bread, a custom to celebrate the liberation of Leiden.
The common theme in my book is a document found in the archives of Heritage Leiden and Surroundings. An anonymous Pilgrim recounts the time of the Pilgrims in Leiden, where I give my own twist to that story.
So I would like to tell people something about the history of the Pilgrims – and to the English and Americans something about the role that the Netherlands, and especially Leiden, played in this whole story. The book is going to be translated into English so that it is well available to a wide audience as in 2020 it will be the 400th commemoration year of the departure of the Pilgrims from Europe and their arrival on the coast of Cape Cod.
Could you also write a story about the Spanish occupation(s) of Leiden, or is this too obvious for you as someone who lives and works in Leiden?
No, not too obvious. There is a lot of history and lots of drama, so there is plenty to write about. Maybe I should try it, thanks for the suggestion, hahaha. But I don’t know if that’s my area of expertise. It has to be historically quite accurate, that would limit me too much. I already get mails from people saying it’s not right to let someone ride a horse in St. Paul’s Labyrinth with his feet in stirrups, because they only came to custom so many centuries later. Your words really are put under a magnifying glass and everyone who has devoted his or her life to that little piece of history immediately has something to say about it!
Your books are being translated and published in foreign countries and there’s even talk about a movie.
It feels very unreal. Especially since I combine it with a job as a teacher – I actually started working 3 days a week instead of 4. One moment I’m in front of the classroom, the next moment I have a photo shoot or I have to pick up my tuxedo for a posh book event. Also there will be translations that are going to published this summer: The Confessions of St. Peter in Czech and St. Paul’s Labyrinth in English, to be published in Canada, the US and Great Britain. St. Paul’s Labyrinth is also sold to Germany. Furthermore, audio books are made, there are those apps and indeed the film rights have been sold. I’m not really used to this and I hope that I will never become blasé by the success. In the meantime I just keep on writing, because that’s what I really enjoy.
Imagine you are Indiana Jones, what is your Holy Grail?
Ever since I was a student I read a lot about aliens, UFOs, extraterrestrial civilizations, etcetera. This has always fascinated me, it is a kind of modern mythology in development. I was always big fan of the X-Files and I watch documentaries on Discovery Channel about kidnappings by aliens, UFO sightings, theories about how man is brought here with spaceships from other planets. So for me, as Indiana Jones, the Holy Grail would then be discovering the definitive evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life. And then of course be kidnapped myself, hahaha. Although I would probably not be so heroic, because I don’t even dare to go on a roller coaster in a theme park!
Cites are always evolving. What’s your take on how we have to deal with historical sites. Much of the hidden past gets lost due to construction sites. Should our history be better preserved or is it enough to do inventory and documenting it?
We live in a very densely populated country so it’s really hard to do it any other way. In Leiden you literally have to put a spade in the ground to find something archaeological. This is also such a wonderful story: last month Leiden archaeologists did a great find during an excavation on the outskirts of Leiden, on the site of the old university Student Centre. First year students of archaeology participated. And what do you think? On the very first day of her first practical session, a first-year student finds two seventh-century skeletons, complete with a sword and jewellery. Fantastic! That immediately is the peak of her carrier of course, she could quit right now, hahaha. It won’t get much better than this I’m afraid. And I have been playing football there for years, while 6 feet below us laid these skeletons.
The finds are taken out, with the earth around it, to be carefully investigated elsewhere. I think it’s beautiful that archaeologists have the time to do their research first. You just can’t turn the Netherlands into an open-air museum.
You are being compared with Dan Brown. Was he also your inspiration?
Absolutely, I’ve read all of his books. His latest book, Origin, was just a huge disappointment: Robert Langdon is in a museum where a murder is committed and together with a very pretty woman he knows only just to escape while a Catholic assassin is chasing him. I had to look on the cover every now and then to check I wasn’t reading the Da Vinci Code!
But I admire the speed of his books, every sentence makes sense. Everything is for the good of the plot. I always find the themes that he is interested in interesting myself. However, sometimes I find he’s just bashing faith in general and Christianity in particular. I try to avoid that. Therefore I thought it was so wonderful that a review in the thriller guide by Dutch newspaper Vrij Nederland (Free Netherlands) wrote: ‘(…) more subtle than Dan Brown and with more respect for religion’. But his books, and religiously tinted thrillers from other writers, have definitely been an important source of inspiration for me and still are.
How do you write? Do you have an idea where you want to go or will it reveal itself when you’re writing?
For all three books I have been doing research for half a year. I read many books or reread them, browsed on the internet and watched many movies, or watched documentaries on YouTube or presentations by rabbis or theologians about faith. The idea with which I am going to do the study matures more and more until I arrive at the moment that I am ready to start writing. So far I had the end of the book in my head and also the starting scene, but for the road in between I still had to work it out. The story grows organically, through writing, and one scene evokes the following. I write very quickly, sometimes a chapter of 10 or 15 pages in one day. And if everything goes well, you feel like you are on a good track and you are propelled by the inner logic of the story. The farther you get, the fewer side roads you take, but I always managed to find a way out. And often you can use things you have written down before! When you rewrite, you throw away a lot and you can write more specifically for clues in your book because only you know how the story ends.
For the first time for my new book, which is taking place in Bolivia, I made an actual schedule: three parts of eight chapters each and with every chapter a short description of what is going on. My way of working is somewhat inefficient and it provides my editor a lot of extra work because of it, after the first version a lot has to be reversed. If you think better about what you want to write in advance, you may have fewer paths that lead nowhere. I don’t know yet how that is going to work out. Eventually every writer has his own way of working. Some are jealous of my big production on one day, but those are people who write one page that is right. In the end you may have spent the same amount of time, but each according to its own pace and plan. This fast writing, where my fingers sometimes can’t keep up with the pace of my thoughts, is perhaps what works best for me, we’ll see.
In The Confessions of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Labyrinth you do not hesitate to question facts that have been taken for granted: you systematically refute the facts we adopted to be the truth and you question the foundation upon Christianity was built. In your story the basis of modern Christianity is actually the result of revenge by a man who got rejected by a woman. How do people respond to your stories?
I work at a Christian High School with quite a few pious colleagues and I have many pupils with a Christian background. Those colleagues also like to read my books, some have even given away my books as a present, sometimes even to their own pastor. Or there are biblical reading circles that read and discuss my books, as a study and as entertainment. The story of St. Paul, who wanted to take revenge on the Jews, because the daughter of the high priest had rejected him, is not something I made up myself. In a second-century gospel of the Ebionites – which, according to many scholars, are the real Christians, namely Jews who accept Jesus as a teacher without believing that he was God – this story is already there!
It’s not my intention to unmask people or to put them on the spot. I also notice the reactions. For example a mother came to me after an parent-teacher evening to tell me that my book had ‘confused’ her, but that her faith still stands proud.
People also see that I’m not out to ridicule Christianity. I myself am endlessly fascinated by Jesus and I can always read about him, both in the Bible and in books about him. I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of Jesus.
The Pilgrim Fathers-conspiracy takes us to America and other exotic places. What is your goal as a writer?
I still have large pieces of novels on my computer that I never finished. For sure I have four, five books, of some I have written about 30-40 pages, of others well over 100. But they are quite different from what I have published so far. No thrillers, more novellas or novels. Because I am of course now known first and foremost as a thriller writer, I would like to leave them there for now. It may also be confusing if you suddenly come up with something else.
‘History is written by those who are victorious.’ Do you want to set something straight with your stories?
In general the losers leave no writings because they are literally buried, or because their version of the truth is simply lost in the bigger story of the winner that eventually becomes the truth. I would indeed like to show with my stories that for every history we know – and I am focusing first and foremost on the Christian story – there is also another side, which is often less well-known.
Christianity was the winner of the battle, but there were countless many religions in the Middle East at that time who knew a god who died in the spring – usually around March 21 – and then was dead for three days. Then he stood up again and people celebrated that he had come back to life. In many cultures people made breads or biscuits in the form of their god who then ate them to get part of his strength. They drank wine that symbolized his blood. Nature seemed dead, but it had come to life again! The God, often a corn god or another vegetative God, had died as a grain seed in the earth, but had come back above the ground and brought forth new grains in the form of corn flasks. Because that grain was ‘sacrificed’ – it had died in the ground – the people could eat again and they could live.
It is remarkable if you declare your version of the story – Jesus who died and rose again in the spring and his followers eat his body and drink his blood – as the ‘truth’ and all other versions are proclaimed to be myth. That is the same as when someone who believes in Santa Claus is telling someone who believes in the Easter Bunny the Easter Bunny does not exist.
The Christian version of the spring story was going to dominate, but it was only one of the stories that were told then. By accidental circumstances, such as the genius of Paul and the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity, it has become a worldwide religion. We could have had a completely different god worshiped in the West, like Mithras for example or Osiris, who will say?
The Pilgrim Fathers-conspiracy is the end of the Leiden-trilogy. Do you have any ideas for a new story?
Yes, at the moment I have two ideas for a new trilogy. I have reached a contract with HarperCollins for three (!) new books for the next series. For me it’s really great the publisher has such a great confidence in me!
I gave them three synopsis and all three books will be played in Latin America, where I have lived for years, as a student, as a PhD candidate and later as a tour leader. The first book is about Bolivia and has sacrifices as a theme, sacrifices to Mother Earth but also sacrifices in a broader sense of the word. The second book takes place in Guatemala and the third in Mexico. I have already worked out the ideas, but I’ll keep that for myself for now… Then there is a trilogy that is situated in the Middle East: Egypt, Israel and Turkey – which I have also worked out more or less. I have plenty of ideas, it’s time I don’t have enough of.
(cover photo: HarperCollins Holland)