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'Leuven seemed the perfect setting': American author William Zink's Belgium-inspired novel
"This book is warmly dedicated to the people of Belgium", begins William Zink's fifth novel, Eddy and Julia, a drama set among the landscapes and cafes of Belgium.
The American author's visits to Belgium inspired him to write his latest novel, in which Eddy, a young American with a faulty heart, tired of endless operations, travels to Belgium to live out the last few months of his life. But his plans are derailed when he meets Julia.
What brought you to Belgium?
My wife’s father was born in the US. But his parents, my wife’s grandparents, weren’t happy in the States and they moved back to Belgium when he was young. When he was 17 he enlisted in the US Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and then the push to Berlin. After the war, he came back to the US and moved to Ohio, which is where my wife and I both grew up and still live. My wife reconnected with her father’s family about 10 years ago, and since then we’ve been over to Belgium a few times. Last year we brought our two daughters along. We really want them to have a deep, long-lasting relationship with their Belgian family.
Did you know anything about it before you arrived or was it a complete discovery?
I knew two crucial things about Belgium: it was the home of world class beer, and it was a great cycling country. Being an amateur brewer and cyclist, I was anxious to explore both. I’ll never forget sitting outside a cafe in Leuven on my first trip, watching cyclists glide down a ramp and into what I thought was some sort of tunnel. After a few days, I asked my wife’s cousin about it, and was astonished to hear it was a parking garage for bicycles. That just blew me away.
You see students cycling to school, people riding to work, or going to get groceries. It’s part of the Belgian psyche – it’s in your blood. The whole cafe scene immediately struck me as something I wanted to immerse myself in. There’s a connection with history and culture in Belgium that Americans don’t have. Of course, I’m speaking generally, but it largely holds true. Belgium’s youth seems to weave an appreciation of their past into the present, which I find refreshing.
How was the experience? What was it about Belgium that you enjoyed?
Last summer we stayed with relatives just outside Ghent. I’d go on morning runs with my daughter and her boyfriend past farms, an old windmill, and through the village. We saw the Tour de France as it moved through Ninove – a real thrill for me, as I’m a huge fan. We visited another relative at their country house – a stunning setting among these amazing gardens – and were fed course after course of home-cooked Belgian dishes. We went to many homes and listened to wonderful stories, some of which I could only partly understand. The recurring theme here is family. Family, history, the continuity of the past with the present. And oh yeah, there’s the beer. There seems to be an endless number and variety, and someday I’ll try them all. My favourite is Witkap Pater Stimulo.
How is Belgium different from America? Do you see similarities, differences?
The most obvious difference – I’m speaking of the people, here – is that Belgians are way more knowledgeable about current events, they read much more, and most that I’ve met are moderate in their political views. You can meet anyone in any situation and engage in an intelligent, worthwhile conversation.
Art and artists play a big role in the story.
Most of my good friends are artists. I went to art school in college and I approach writing the way an artist does, not always how the typical writer does. Artists find their way into many of my stories – not by design, but naturally. But all you have to do is open your eyes standing in the Grote Markt and art bombards you. It seemed obvious to make it a part of the story.
How did Belgium inspire your latest book?
Sometimes there’s an idea or vague mood in the back of your mind, and you know it’s going to turn into a story, but it has to be the right time. On my first visit, the first time I sat down in one of the cafes in the Grote Markt, I knew I’d write about it. The story already in my mind was rooted in pain and despair, but I didn’t want it to be too dark. By setting it in and around Leuven, among a group of expats from various countries, there’d be a vibrancy to it. The melancholy would be subdued and not overwhelming.
I also wanted it to be a realistic fable. I find theatre to be more compelling than most fiction, because it’s lean, there’s not a lot of extraneous filler, and there’s a point to the journey. That’s missing in a lot of modern fiction. People remember symbols and codified embodiments of common human traits. That’s why mythology and religious writings are filled with them. I wanted to create a story in this vein. Leuven seemed the perfect setting. It’s mysterious and dreamlike, especially at night.
What's the book about? What do you hope the reader will take with them?
A twenty-something American from a big brewing family travels to Leuven to die. He's had a heart condition since birth, enduring numerous operations, and instead of facing yet another one, he decides he's had enough. He's estranged from his parents, has no friends to speak of, and has never been in love. So, he spends his days cycling and sitting in the cafes with his expat friends. He's at peace and surprisingly content, that is until he meets Julia.
His plans vaporise in an instant and he's forced to decide whether his love for her is worth returning to the treadmill of operations and recovery. Things get considerably more complicated, culminating in a bike race through the forests in the Ardennes where their love, and his redemption, hang in the balance. I think readers will be able to relate to the characters. Pople are complex, and so the characters in my stories are, too. They’re flawed, every one of them. But each has redeeming qualities and likeable traits.
Is it important for the reader to see something of himself in the characters of a novel?
Yes. Readers are smart. They know when they’re being talked down to. But I don’t usually have a problem with that because I never feel above the reader. The things I write about are common situations and challenges we all face, only they might be set in Leuven instead of Cleveland, Ohio.
Are the characters based on people you met while in Belgium, or did you create them from your imagination?
Characters can’t be entirely invented, not if they’re to be believed. But I don’t necessarily take an entire person and use them in a story. I take pieces of several people and make them into one. Then, over the course of writing, they become someone wholly unique and not at all who I thought they’d be.
You call Eddy and Julia a "literary love story". What do you mean by that?
The term "love story" can imply a multitude of things, not all of them accurate or complimentary. The industry likes to pigeonhole writers and books. I call Eddy and Julia a literary love story to distinguish it from a romance novel. On the subject of sex in love stories, romance novels treat it in a juvenile way and most “serious” novels poke at it with a yard stick. I’m baffled by both. Sex is an integral part of most adult relationships. As a writer I’m interested in the reality of any situation – describing it truthfully and elegantly – and that includes sex.
Photo: Octavian A. Tudose. Sorry! Our prize giveaway has now closed and the winners have been notified.