Today I am taking part in the blog tour for HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Today I’ll be sharing a Q&A with the author, who has kindly answered some questions that I posed to him. When I was offered a chance to take part in the tour by Hodder & Stoughton, there were two things that immediately drew me to the book. Firstly, the fact that it is written by a Dutch author and popular in my adopted second home country, the Netherlands. And secondly… well, just look at the blurb:
Whoever is born here, is doomed to stay until death. Whoever comes to stay, never leaves.
Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a seventeenth-century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Blind and silenced, she walks the streets and enters homes at will. She stands next to children’s beds for nights on end. So accustomed to her have the townsfolk become that they often forget she’s there. Or what a threat she poses. Because if the stitches are ever cut open, the story goes, the whole town will die.
The curse must not be allowed to spread. The elders of Black Spring have used high-tech surveillance to quarantine the town. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town’s teenagers decide to break the strict regulations and go viral with the haunting. But, in so doing, they send the town spiraling into a dark nightmare.
And if somehow that’s not enough to convince you that this book is wonderfully spine-tingling, then take a look at this TERRIFYING trailer for the book:
Freaked out yet? I’m pretty sure I’ll be sleepless again after watching that – because the book certainly kept me wide awake… I’ll be sharing my full review tomorrow, but today as part of the blog tour I have a small Q&A with Thomas!
Q&A with Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Rinn: Why was the book moved from The Netherlands to the USA in the translation?
Thomas: I love the fresh perspective that comes with reading fiction from different cultures. Being Dutch, about 90% of all the books I read come from abroad, as The Netherlands is such a small country. Sometimes I even want to be taught about these cultures. The Kite Runner gave me a much more nuanced view about Afghanistan than Fox News. Murakami taught me more about Japanese customs than any sushi restaurant I’ll ever visit. But there’s also a limit to what I want to be taught. Some books I just want to read for the fun of it. The thrill. Or the scare. And I realized my novel, HEX, was such a book. My favorite comment from Dutch readers is that it makes them sleep with the lights on (Rinn: Me too…). I have literally hundreds of those. I could care less about what the story taught them about social values in communities or the depravity of mankind, as long as it gave them nightmares. Some literary critics will probably shoot me for this statement, but there’s nothing wrong with a good scare every now and then, right?
To thoroughly scare readers, you have to create a perfect sense of familiarity in a story and then rip it to pieces as soon as they’re hooked. And here’s where the Dutch setting became problematic, once the book was sold to publishers in the US and the UK. If I’d read a horror story set in, say, rural Azerbeidzjan (Azerbaijan), I’d be worrying all the time about what the place actually looks like, what’s the norm for these people, what are they scared of and oh, by the way, how do you even pronounce their names? Bang! Familiarity gone, and a missed opportunity to make me scream at night. I imagined it would be the same for British and American readers when they read about a Dutch setting. I mean, how do you actually pronounce Olde Heuvelt? (Rinn: Having lived in the Netherlands, I would’ve loved this book set there too. But I completely understand your reasoning, it would definitely make it difficult for readers who aren’t familiar with the country. Maybe I’ll get myself a copy of the Dutch version!)
That’s why I decided to change the setting. And I had tremendous fun doing it! It was an exciting creative challenge. I had a book that I loved, I had characters that I loved, and here I had the opportunity to relive it all, without having to face the horrors of a sequel.
Rinn: Did this have any big effect on the story?
Thomas: It’s still the same story about a modern-day town haunted by a seventeenth-century witch. One if its strengths I think is the utter Dutchness of the book. The secular nature of Dutch small-town communities and the down-to-earthness of its people, for instance (Rinn: I can definitely vouch for the down-to-earthness of the Dutch!). If a sane person sees a seventeenth-century disfigured witch appear in a corner of the living room, he runs for his life. If a Dutch person sees a seventeenth-century disfigured witch appear in a corner of the living room, he hangs a dishcloth over her face, sits on the couch and reads the paper. And maybe sacrifices a peacock.
The new version left all of that intact. It’s a remake, an enhanced version, a HEX 2.0 if you will, with all new rich and layered details, culturally specific legends and superstitions, but without ever losing touch with the Dutch elements of the original. Katherine Van Wyler, the original Dutch seventeenth-century witch, came to the new land on one of Peter Stuyvesant’s early ships. The rural town of Beek became the Dutch trapper’s colony of New Beeck, later renamed Black Spring. The Dutch characters became Americans, but with the down-to-earth quality of the Dutch. The dishcloth stayed. So did the peacock. I think it has become a better book.
Rinn: What were your inspirations behind the legend of the Black Rock Witch?
Thomas: I wanted to write a story about a witch ever since I was traumatized by Roald Dahl’s book The Witches, and the 1990 movie adaptation of it (Rinn: Ahh they were both terrifying!). The moment when Anjelica Huston, the Grand High Witch, takes off her mask… gosh, I was seven years old, and I didn’t trust any women for the next six months. Imagine what my winter was like, with women wearing gloves all the time. I saw witches everywhere. Then I watched The Blair Witch Project when I was fifteen, and of course, the scary part there was did you did not see the witch. Katherine van Wyler, the witch in HEX, has influences of both (Rinn: I did wonder if there was an element of Blair Witch – it certainly had the same effect on me.). Of course she has this horrible, disfigured face because her mouth and eyes are sewn shut… but for exactly the same reason, you never really get to see her. If you can’t see someone’s eyes, you’ll never know what they think. That makes her so scary.
Rinn: What gave you the idea of mixing technology in with the supernatural?
Thomas: It kind of follows naturally, if you have a town that needs to hide a dirty secret like this. I love the practicality of it. The witch keeps popping up randomly in public spaces, and there’s always a chance of outsiders spotting her, so the HEX service workers have all these props and scenarios ready. Like the elderly choir that surrounds her and walks along wherever she goes, practicing hymns. Or the construction shed if she stands at the side of public roads. And you gotta be on top of her to make it work. You gotta be fast. So everybody in town has a special Hexapp on their iPhone, which has GPS, and they’re obligated to report immediately when they spot her. I’d personally love to have an app to report ghost sightings.
Rinn: Was it difficult to write a book with such a large cast, and still bring each resident of Black Spring to life?
Thomas: I deliberately avoided to use a large cast in order to make the town come alive. Stephen King is a master in doing so – some of his novels have more than twenty point-of-view characters. But the downside of that is that often, the more POV characters you have, the less attached you feel to them as a reader. I think King’s novels that tell the story from only one or a few point-of-views, are his strongest, and much more emotionally gripping. So in HEX, I tried to paint the town from the perspectives of only four characters, two of them from the same family. This gives the reader a lot more space to start caring about these people, which is one of the most important things if you let bad things happen to them. (Rinn: To me the cast felt quite large, even with just a few POV characters – quite a few named residents and very minor characters, but maybe it’s just my perspective!)