Where did the idea for Superhelden.nl come from?
The idea for the series has a lot of different origins. I am of course crazy about superheroes. I own over 10.000 Marvel comics and as a kid, Spider-Man was my hero. I got bullied a lot in school and always dreamed I had the power to overcome my tormentors.
But my favourite heroes are the X-Men, not because of their powers, but because of the group dynamic. They don’t necessarily like each other, but do have a common goal. Except when they don’t, and then they fight each other. Both as a reader and as a writer I am fascinated by that.
Another huge influence is Orson Scott Cards Ender’s Game. As much as we all hate child soldiers, the book asks the question: if the future of the planet depends on training kids as soldiers, is it validated then? Is it okay, then?
The fourth book is partly inspired by the first season of Homeland—what if someone you trust is possible a traitor?—and partly by Silence of the Lambs, where Mr. Oz, the imprisoned Big Bad from the first trilogy, acts as a kind of Hannibal Lecter in that he assists the main character Iris in battling The Lioness (the new Big Bad), but of course has his own agenda. The fourth book is also partly inspired by the second book of Dune and by Star Wars, where the hero (almost) becomes the villain when taking over.
The fifth book will be a reverse prison break movie, an Ocean’s Eleven meets The Rock (the one with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery), where the team reunites after not trusting each other and they try to get the island of Pala back.
The name Pala comes from the book ‘Island’ by Aldous Huxley by the way.
Which of the characters from the book would you love to meet?
My favourite character of the books is Fiber, a foul-mouthed hacker/fighting machine, but I’m not sure I would like to meet her, as she is not the most sympathetic person on Pala. Same goes for Mr. Oz, the broken genius who’s manipulating the kids and the world.
So, with them out of the way it’s got to be Iris, the main character of the books. She is a lot like me: social, but doesn’t get too close; intelligent, but also impulsive and with a short fuse. Off course, I don’t have a photographic memory like she does. (I am actually quite jealous of that power.) But we’re both natural leaders and we both resent that sometimes.
When do you write?
In the morning I take my kids to school, and when I come back, I write or do research (preferably both) until 2:00pm. That’s when I have to pick my kids up again. My wife works fulltime for Shell, so I cook, clean, and do the groceries.
What do you do when you don’t have any inspiration?
I’m from the school of Stephen King: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Writing is my occupation. It’s what I do. It’s how I earn my living. So I write. I write every weekday, and I just start where I ended the day before. What I do—and now I’m giving you a trade secret—is imagine (actually, more like live) the scene I’m going to write that day when I’m in the shower. I walk along with the characters, listen to what they say, and pay attention to what they think. Then, when I start writing, I have a sense of what I’m going to do.
What books did you read when you were a kid?
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende was and is one of my favourites, as is his book Momo (also known as The Grey Gentlemen or The Men in Grey). But the scariest thing I ever read as a kid was Krabat by Otto Preußler, coincidentally also a German writer. That book taught me that children’s books can be scary, don’t have to be gentle, and don’t have to have the happiest ending. Kids are far more capable of dealing with tragedy and cruelty and loss than adults.
I’m not saying my books are tragedies, but I am definitely a cruel writer. (Evil laughter.)
When I got older, I read the big three: Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein. I read Dune and The Lord of the Rings. And of course the master himself: Stephen King. Nowadays it’s Neil Gaiman, Pratchett, John Green (he’s awesome), Paul Auster, David Mitchell (in my opinion the best writer in the world and one of the kindest) and Haruki Murakami. But also Lee Child, Jim Butcher, John Scalzi and other, more genre-style writers. I don’t care if something is considered high literature or popular fiction, I just want to be hooked.
No YA or children’s books?
Yes, of course. The aforementioned John Green, my own colleague and towny Anna Woltz, Gideon Samson and Edward van der Vendel, who are among the best we Dutch have to offer. I also like Miriam Mous and Corinne Duyvis, who are two of the few writers in the Netherlands who work in the same genre as I do, the sort of science fiction thriller the English and Americans are masters in. I think the first two books of The Hunger Games are great, I love Kate Griffin (and Claire North) and Patrick Ness.
What do you want to accomplish with your books?
First and foremost: to entertain. I write page turners, with cliffhangers and turns and twists. I try to get my readers emotionally involved, I want them to really care about the characters, to really care about what happens to them.
But that doesn’t mean my books aren’t about things. They are about technology and how technology changes not only our future, but our present. They are also about equality, about being the best version of yourself and realising you will never be perfect.
Is it true you have a chip in your arm?
Yes, that’s true! (More about that on this page.)
Did you know the ending of the trilogy when you started writing, like JK Rowling did when she wrote the first Harry Potter?
I did, but it did change. The ending I had in mind wasn’t powerful enough, which resulted in a book that didn’t have enough at stake. I rewrote the third novel completely (which took an extra year), just to raise the stakes. It worked, because the third one is considered the best, the most thrilling, and has an unexpected ending.
And then there was another.
Yes, I didn’t want to write a fourth (and a fifth) one, just because the books where very successful in the Netherlands and Germany (not that I complained). I didn’t want to write a sequel just for commercial reasons. But during a holiday, the story continued in my head and I realised I wasn’t quite finished yet.
Will there be more?
That depends. If there’s a demand, I know exactly what’s going to happen in book six. But it will be something different, not a continuation of the first five, more of a spin off. If you’re into comics, then Superhelden.nl/Pala is The X-Men and the next series will be The New Mutants, with older kids who survived the fifth book as mentors for new, younger kids.
The kids who survived the fifth book? So nobody is safe, then?
In my books, nobody is ever safe, you know that. (laughs)
(Thanks to Mathilde Talens who conducted this interview live at the Donner Bookshop Rotterdam.)