One writer’s success story – Thomas Olde Heuvelt

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The novel written by Thomas Olde Heuvelt was published in Ukraine in 2017. It is his first book translated into Ukrainian. It is a horror novel that tells the story of a supernatural power which haunts American suburban town, terrorizing local people. The novel has spread across the world, well-received by critics as well as by giants of the world literature. The rights to it were bought by Warner Bros. Stephen King and George Martin expressed positive comments about the book, calling it «exceptionally original» and «maybe the best horror novel of 2016». Community talked to the author; learnt how to write books so that the reader is thrilled; why literature is also a business; and what an editor is able to offer to the young writer.

— What is the book about? Is it about the witch or the human society?

On the one hand, it is a supernatural horror story, about a town that is haunted by a 17th century witch, whose eyes are stitched up. It manages to scare a lot of people. But, on the other hand, it is also a story about how society deal with the unknown. It is not about the supernatural evil, it is about the human evil.  I am very interested as a writer in the dark parts we have in ourselves and also in questions such as “What if your village is haunted by this supernatural presence and you cannot leave, because if you leave, the curse makes you kill yourself. How would you react?”. We all would like to believe that we would stay rational, wise and not turn into animals. But we can never really tell if we would stay rational. A real good, creepy story is not only about the supernatural, witches, demons. It is about people.

— It is thought that there are real writer’s feelings and situations within books. Are there any real people or characters?

Yeah, my grandmother was a witch! (laughing). Every character has in a way some part of you in them. If I look at myself, I relate the most to the son, who wants to go out of the curse he is an idealist. He is very progressive, he tries to be good to people. I relate to that a lot, because I am an idealist. I like to reach out basically and try to make the best out of life.

I’m from the Netherlands, and the Netherlands is a very down-to-earth country. I would say if a 17th century witch with her eyes stitched appears in the corner of your living room, any sane person would run away screaming. But any Dutch person would hang a towel over her face and read a newspaper. So I came up with this character butcher’s wife. She wants to be on a witch’s good side if something bad happens so in order to do that she sacrifices this little platter of homemade pate for her every Wednesday.

— How long did it take for you to write this book? How did you organize your time?

I am a full-time writer. Every moment of the day I live in a story. When I wake up, when I go to bed – I live in a story. It is in my head. Friends of mine describe me, when I am in that process, as that I am there, but I am also not there. Part of me is in my own book. You know that you are really on a good track with a book, when it consumes you. And if it happens to me, I also know it will happen to the reader.

But «HEX» was very brief. I wrote it in four and a half months. That’s was great. I lived in my story with characters I’ve created. Though I didn’t know how story would end. I had a sense of idea of where I am going. The one rule in town is never open your eyes. So you know as a writer that at some point this will probably go wrong. But I didn’t know how, I didn’t know when or who would do it. But you have this faith that things will fall in places. That’s what happened.

— Do you write something now?

I have been working on my new book for three years and it is still not finished. It is the modern twist on the possession story, with the exorcist, and the person who is possessed. But I’ve always thought it would be fun to change the whole narrative of the possession story. It is always about religion this demon possessing a person, and there is a priest coming in to exorcise. I thought something else could possess a person as well.

I am a mountain climber. I feel mountains have a soul in them. Many climbers have mentioned that. I thought it would be a good idea, if you had a mountain climber, and there was a horrible accident. He comes back, nearly killed, and he has taken something down from the mountains. There is this force of nature raging inside of him, and it changes him.

“HEX” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

— You wrote your first book at the age of 18. What did inspire you?

It was always a part of me to become a writer. I remember, I was 11 years old and I’ve read all scary children’s books, like «Goosebumps» and also my uncle told me a lot about witches and etc.

So this was the end of the 90s and a height of Stephen King’s popularity. My mom didn’t let me read his books, because she thought it was too scary for me. But I knew all the blurbs by heart, and in my head stories came alive. I remember telling myself back then: «That is what I want to do when I grow up. I want to be like that guy. I want to write books and spread them all over the world». So I set up a goal to reach the level of King and started to work hard in that direction. But in some time I understood that this goal is unreachable. Because Stephen King is pop culture phenomenon. He is one of his kinds. So whenever I gained success, I was never really happy about it. But I do believe that when you reach out high, you can make beautiful things happen. And with the way HEX is spreading now it is now in 26 countries I get all these amazing experiences like going to Ukraine. That motivates me.

— Who else is your favorite writer? Who do you read now, for example?

I love writers who have a strong voice that when you read a sentence, you immediately know that these are they. Like Chuck Palahniuk, for instance, or JohnathanSafranFoer. You can learn a lot from this kind of writers.

Also I like stories that move you, that make you laugh, that make you cry, that really make you scared. Because these are the stories we really remember the most. My favorite novel of all times is probably «Life of Pi» by Yann Martel. Great movie as well, but the book is even better. It is so wonderful, because it tells the story of this boy on a raft in the Pacific Ocean, with a tiger on it. And then for the last ten pages it tells a different story, more horrible story. And the book asks you a question, «Which story was better? Which one do you want to believe?” And of course everyone would want to believe the beautiful story, the one with the tiger. That is a really strong book.

— But is the new novel going to be more psychological or more of a magical realism?

It will actually be really dark. There will be a strong psychological counterpart, yes. But most of it is just going to be a really scary story. I just like it, it is what I do. But the fun thing is that HEX and my other stories not only reach out to audiences who read horror stories. Many people, who normally wouldn’t read a story like that, have been in touch on Instagram or Facebook, or emailed me saying «I normally don’t read those kind of books, but I really enjoyed HEX». Just because, as I said earlier, it has a strong psychological layer to it. And that apparently appeals also to audiences who read other literature.

— You have a lot of awards. What do you feel about it? Does it affect you?

Not so much. I won the Hugo award with the story of magical realism. It is about a guy who is heart-broken after the relationship ends, and his world is turned upside down. It is a love story. But still, it appealed to the science fiction audience and won the award.

Don’t get me wrong, the silver rocket looks shiny on my desk. But what I am more thrilled about, it is every time when I manage to make readers laugh, or cry, or make them scared. I get so many messages from around the world now that people have to sleep with their lights on after reading. That is just as good as an award. Because the story is nothing without a reader.

— «HEX» will be a serial. How do you see it? Will you have a chance to take part?

I am really excited about this, because Gary Dauberman he is the screenwriter from «It» is currently adapting the book in a screenplay. I want this to be a dark, but also a funny series. I would want it to have this «real» feeling. Not the Hollywood style – completely polished cinematography. I’d like to have a real feel of it.

And I’m involved. I’m a consultant in the whole process. But I wouldn’t want to mingle. Because anytime writers get involved in their movies, it usually doesn’t really work. I strongly believe that you have to do what you are good at.

— Do you have an agent? How did you manage to go worldwide?

In the Netherlands we don’t work a lot with literary agents as well, cause the market is very small. But I have discovered that in order to reach beyond the borders, to sell HEX to countries around the world, I needed a literary agent, because I couldn’t do it myself. I won an award in the Netherlands for the short story that is written in Dutch and the award gave me some money. I invested the money in the translation. Then I went to Britain and sold the rights to the story. That story was picked up on in America, and it spread, and it got more attention. So by investing in my career and in myself, and by going out to America and to Britain all the time to conventions, I established a network. Then, when I won that Hugo award, there was much more of interest to me. And I got a literary agent, she managed to sell HEX to 26 countries. And when HEX came out in America, Stephen King mad very positive twitt about it, which was one of the most amazing moments in my career till that point, cause he was my childhood hero.

So I strongly believe that if you want to reach out beyond your own boarders, you actually have to go out and build that network like in any business in the world basically. You have to build it up yourself. Being a writer is not only sitting at home typing up stories. It is also creating as much readers as you can get all around the world.

— Tell us about your working experience with publishers and editors.

My first two novels in the Netherlands were published by a really small publishing house, and they didn’t get a lot of editing because they didn’t have people for it. My third novel was picked up on by Holland’s main publishing house of thrillers. They published Dan Brown, Stephen King – big authors. I sent my manuscript to the editor who really liked my previous two books. He sent it back to me in a week with an email attached and. It was said in it, that he generally liked it, but… and then pages of very negative comments. Then I opened a manuscript box, and it was literally black with his notes. Sometimes there were crosses through pages. I called him up and I asked, why he didn’t  like it? And he said, «No, I loved it. And that is why I put so much attention to it, because I wanted to make it better». Every writer, at some point of their career, needs to have that process of being taught how to make your work better, how to improve yourself. A good editor will do that. 20.000 words were crossed out from that book. I learnt so much from it. A good editor will make your words better.

— What is literature for you in general?

It’s conveying emotions in a shape of a good story. Good story touches you and reaches out into your heart. And when it is a good story it will stay there, and it might actually change you, because it makes you think. But before it makes you think – you need to be moved by it.

There is this piece of literature from the Netherlands, it’s called «The Evenings» by the writer Gerard Reve. It is a book about nothing. These are five days of nothingness. It was written in late 40s or early 50s and it is considered to be one of the biggest pieces of Dutch literature. When you give a kid a book like that, and I was given that book when I was 15 it completely destroys your appetite for reading. My teacher called it celebration of nothingness. But I want to celebrate something, not nothing!

That is why the appetite for American literature grew inside me, cause American literature is always plot-driven, but there is an idea also.

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