Antoinette van Heugten was already an expert on the impact of WWII on the Netherlands before she decided to write The Tulip Eaters, but when she came upon a box of her old research she knew it was the perfect backdrop for this story. Van Heugten discusses with Zola her latest mystery, being an international trial lawyer, and the difficulties of raising children with special needs.
Zola: Inspired by your real-life experience as the mother of two autistic children, your first book Saving Max is about a single mother of a boy with Asperger syndrome who becomes the primary suspect in a murder. Your latest book The Tulip Eaters focuses on a mother whose baby is kidnapped amid a 30-years post-WWII anti-Nazi revenge scheme. As a mother yourself, how would you describe the experience of writing the maternal strife of having a convicted or kidnapped child?
Antoinette van Heugten: As I of course had no idea what it feels like to have a convicted or kidnapped child, I was obliged to tap into my own emotions and experiences. I think what made those emotions and images in the The Tulip Eaters ring true were the many events I experienced as the mother of special needs children. At so many times in their lives, you feel as if you have no control over their future, no ability to ensure their well-being. You are in unchartered waters. As Saving Max was based in part upon my son’s stay in a psychiatric hospital, the terror of having him isolated from me for the period of his assessment is an emotion that is unfortunately readily and easily summoned in my other works. The wonder and joy of it is that I can write and express those emotions in fiction.
Zola: In an effort to uncover the reason behind her mother’s murder and daughter’s kidnapping, The Tulip Eaters‘s protagonist Nora travels to Amsterdam in search of evidence at the Dutch Institute for War Documentation. Did you spend time there yourself to conduct research about WWII Holland for this novel?
AvH: When I was in my twenties, I received a grant to research the Dutch resistance movement at the Netherlands War Institute (then NIOD, now RIOD) in Amsterdam. My original purpose was to publish a non-fiction 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”), peaking at approximately 100,000 members during WWII. This is not a well-known fact outside of the Netherlands, and yet it was a very real element in day-to-day life for my parents and other Dutch citizens during the war.
Zola: Before publishing your first novel, you were an international trial lawyer, practicing all over the world for 15 years. Did you ever deal with cases similar to those you’ve written about in your novels?
AvH: My practice had nothing to do with what I now write, but being a lawyer has been invaluable to my writing. It took center stage in the court scenes in Saving Max and actually directs a linear thinking I otherwise would not have had.
Zola: When and why did you decide to make the career transition?
AvH: I decided to stop practicing law because I remarried. My husband has two sons, one of whom is autistic, and I had my Asperger’s son. Whatever the myths are, it is not possible to dedicate yourself to a special needs family and practice law, at least not how I practiced. I do not regret a moment of it. I had a wonderful career and my sons are now in their twenties and doing very well. I am very fortunate to be alive to see it.
Zola: Recently there have been reports of random child kidnappings in Europe. Did any of these real events influence your novel?
AvH: I’m sorry to say I had no knowledge of these events when I wrote the novel. My focus was on the past and my research at the Dutch War Institute and the experiences of the Second World War.
Zola: The Tulip Eaters is set in Houston, Texas, your hometown, and the Netherlands, where you used to practice law. What do you feel your novel gains from being set in two places you know so intimately?
AvH: I believe setting is something I treasure whenever I read the first page of any novel. I feel that an author can only write a place she knows. The disparate environments, Houston and Amsterdam, present, I hope, a compelling juxtaposition for the story I told.
Zola: In your blog, you’ve written that you use the Stephen King method to cure writer’s block—putting yourself in a chair and hoping the work will follow. Do you write every day? Did you experience any tough bouts of writer’s block while working on each of your novels?
AvH: I believe every writer experiences periods of inactivity. I refuse to even say the words “writer’s block,” which I think is a self-fulfilling prophecy! Yes, I write every day. Is it brilliant or even inspired every day? No! But Stephen King is absolutely right. Writing is a discipline as well as an art. You sit. You stare. You think. And you write. If you fail to do those on a daily basis, you are not a writer.
Zola: While you’re currently working on a sequel to your first novel, Saving Max, can we expect more historical fiction from you in the future? Are there any other genres you’re keen on writing some day?
AvH: Oddly enough, I think of The Tulip Eaters as a thriller, not historical fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed the research and historical aspects of the novel and hope that I find another period in time that equally fascinates me. The research I did for Saving Max, however, was equally compelling. At heart, it is the research that drives my characters and creates them, that shapes the tale I feel compelled to tell. And yes, I believe I will write in other genres. Who knows? That is what is so lovely about the writing life!