Where it begins
‘Everyone knows your second one is the most difficult.’ Oops. Your debut has come out, it was well received, thousands of copies were sold, the unreachable seems to have been reached, and then this is the news you get: ‘You’ll fall into the deep Black Hole.’
At the Gouden Strop award ceremony, June 2006 (rightful winner: Charles den Tex for De macht van meneer Miller) I meet them all for the first time, the celebrities of the genre, my fellow nominees, all previous winners. ‘Best not to win the Strop with your first one,’ they unanimously advise me, as if agreed upon.
The lesson I learned from writing The Cassandra Paradox was that I had made it far too difficult for myself. I had not written one book, but three. Little did I know. Now, sixteen months later, with the release of my second one, Britannica, I have to conclude that I have learned that lesson anew.
'When writing, there must be some artificial self-confidence: I have to be completely convinced of my own genius, otherwise it will not work,' says the writer with the most misspelled name in the Netherlands, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer. ‘But yes, when finished I think: where did my masterpiece go? Who changed it into this?’
Words of comfort – both recognizable and painful.
For the Friesch Dagblad I am interviewed by Peter van den Hoven. He asks me about my next book, can I reveal anything? Sure I can, I reply, something about the Balkans. His article headlines: 'Willem Asman on The Cassandra Paradox: Creation at the Edge of the Uncomfortable.’ A direct quote, Peter assures me. Wisdom I stole from David Bowie, who taught me that creativity starts where it hurts.
Where it begins
My first ambition for Book 2 is Bowie style: I don't want cell phones or internet. Not a Cassandra sequel or prequel, but 'something completely different'. My blind FBI wiseass Stan Bronsky is the Cassandra hero that survives the longest, until he disappears from Book 2 (not from my thoughts) during the last round of rewriting in April 2007.
Halfway through 2006 I have written a hundred pages of a classic epic story. A fellowship, a quest, a medieval setting, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, King’s The Dark Tower, combined with Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, you know the drill. I have no idea what my heroes are supposed to be doing. They meet, tell each other stories about their past, but “we” know they all tell lies.
I keep puzzling for a while, revisit James Clavell, Follet’s Pillars, discover the furious Geuzen by Louis-Paul Boon, study the history of medieval Europe, until I get hopelessly entangled in popes , antipopes and crusades, the modern Clash of Civilizations, inverted. My writing has once more become pushing and pulling, hard labor. Screechingly it comes to a halt, comes to a sharp halt. It is backstory Carnival in Hell.
At the New Year's reception of De Bezige Bij, February 3rd 2006, I arrive on time (which means just after Harry Mulisch, yes, the brand new debutant knows his place). When Robbert Ammerlaan congratulates me on the first Cassandra reviews, and cautiously asks if I have an idea for Book 2, my answer is: 'Book 2? Already finished. When do you want it?'
A bad guy to the rescue
The image is strong, as if etched upon my mind: Slobodan Milosevic in the dock in The Hague. Seemingly unmoved he listens to the terrible charges against him: genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity. He is the first former head of state brought before a UN tribunal. ‘What’s your opinion about the result?’ asks the anchor, the ESPN-question. Of course at this point in time it is all speculation, answers the reporter on site. ‘The trial can take many years.’ Years? I think. How so? That man is guilty, right? Everbody knows that.
So far so good.
This, my first reaction, scares me more than I could have imagined. Because the trial has yet to start. And isn't a fair trial one of the founding principles of our rule of law? Innocent until proven guilty? I resist the temptation to blame the media, and wonder about the basis for my judgement. It can’t be my expertise, since I don't know the first thing about the Balkans, nor do I have the slightest idea about the difference between Kosovar Albanians, Croatian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs.
Finding him guilty, is my preliminary conclusion, says more about me than about Milosevic. Because it makes me feel comforted. It implies I am one of the good guys. We, us, let’s say the West, no let’s say the civilizes world, is threatened by what happened in former Yugoslavia, then surely we should fight the enemy. Fight for what we believe in. With all means necessary.
They are the bad ones, we are the good ones, I am ashamed to admit this is the only answer I have. But somewhere in my abdomen a fearful foreboding stirs. Now that the question has been asked, it will not go away. But do I really want to know the answer?
Where 'it' begins
Those who delve into the history of the Balkans will inevitably pass Sarajevo, the city where Archduke Frans-Ferdinand, crown prince of Austria-Hungary, was murdered on June 28th 1914. According to the books, Serbian terrorists committed the murder. Austria-Hungary, the cursed dual monarchy, the pitiful remnant of the once glorious Habsburg Empire, has been waiting for an incident like this for years and retaliates. The situation escalates, the European superpowers allow themselves to be completely surprised. The murder leads to World War I, which ends with the humiliating peace that paves the way for Hitler. At least this is what happened according to my Encarta (2006 edition), my Winkler Prins (1973 edition), and the online Encyclopædia Britannica.
And this is also how we learned it: terrorists start a war (wrong!) that ends with peace (good!) thanks to our allies (supremely good!). My Book 2 is not at all about 1914 and a galaxy far far away. But it is about the here and the now.
When reading about the murder, you don't have to be a seasoned thriller writer to smell a rat. 1914 is two years after the Turks were expelled from the Balkans after five centuries (!) of Ottoman rule. They were thrown out by an unlikely alliance of so-called 'dwarf states' (Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece). Is this really just a matter of terrorist attack / retaliation / escalation / war / peace / Hitler? I find many questions, few answers and the answers are too good to be true. Maybe nothing is true, and not even that, as Multatuli said (or maybe not even that). I need an eyewitness.
The arrival of Michaël Stefan Ritter
A retired Oberinspektor named Ritter, formerly Head of the Serious Crime Division of the Sarajevo Police Corps, has the same questions as I do - or so it seems at first, Ritter also has a number of surprises in store for me later on. I meet Ritter on the night before the murder. He has a boss and a successor and a grandfather. He's childless, orphan - and does he have a fiancé? His name is familiar to me, could he be grandfather tot our Ridder in The Cassandra Paradox?
Either way, Ritter investigates the murder, reads the file, interviews witnesses, and eventually discovers ... Yes, what?
In the first version of Britannica, a widow sees the motorcade with the Archduke approaching from the window, but just at the supreme moment she is briefly distracted. Thereby Ritter's first witness to the crime has completely missed the event that will change the course of history. His second witness is a blind old man on a bench on the bank of the Miljacka.
Sounds like cheap cliffhangers, but the truth is: I do not invent these witnesses, at least not consciously, actively. They 'happen' to me, I literally come across them, letter by letter on my laptop screen. On my best days, I can enjoy this non-intentional state immensely. Compare it with a walk through an unknown landscape. Or with discovering a new country, a new city. Having to reach a destination, or thinking you’re lost, or fearing it will maybe start raining soon - those thoughts will only distract me.
The secret of writing, for me, is to remain humble, because the trace is already there, I just have to find it. Or rather: I am looking over the shoulder of the actual tracker, my Oberinspektor. I sometimes think I write two books: the first for myself, in which I search for the discovery of the trail, the light switch in a huge darkened maze. The second eventually appears in the bookshop, but only after a lot of work during rewriting. Because my 'secret' is of course also my pitfall. In the words of Kees van Kooten: ‘I am my own banana peel.’ What is this nonsense about being a humble tracker – what happened to the seasoned and ambitious writer?
The track becomes the fuse
What also helps: unexpected help in unexpected places. During the summer of 2006, Michel and Hester give me Barbara Tuchman's The Zimmermann Telegramm. At the last minute, Tuchman completes my jigsaw puzzle around the most powerful country in the world, from Habsburg via the British Empire to the US. And when I tell Jacqueline de Jong which track I'm on, she'll give me David Fromkin’s The Last Summer.
I will get lost many times, in the enormous web of facts that I build and destroy and rebuild Britannica , but Fromkin will remain. ‘1914 was the germ cell of the modern age,’ he writes, quoting Thomas Mann, who called World War I the beginning of so much ‘that has barely begun’. The trail my fictional Oberinspektor follows turns out to be a fuse that links all the great conflicts of the past century - and the bad guys of the Balkans with Hitler, Saddam and Osama.
'Stories lead to stories,' Paul Joosten sums it up. That's how it is with me, and with Ritter. If I have done my job well, you are - just like me at the time - curious about how he will end. Right or wrong? Is there a third way? Let me tell you this: in my first draft of the manuscript, Ritter literally stood in line for months at the platform of the Sarajevo train station, waiting to buy a train ticket to Switzerland. I had no idea why he just couldn't get it - how hard could it bem buy the damned ticket! A year after the murder I met him again with a group of midshipmen who want to improve the world in a Viennese brothel (their preliminary conclusion: the world is waiting for a strong leader), another year later he visits a soldier with (fake?) amnesia on the Western Front, and in a long flashback I see him in London a year before the murder. But I couldn't get him off that platform in Sarajevo. It took months to realize that he had no business in Switzerland, and presto, in a second he bought a ticket to his real destination. Ritter's platform was for Britannica what the riverbank was to Cassandra.
Also in my first draft a journalist in New York in 2006 researches four old diaries. My journalist is childless, orphaned, has a friend, a job, a boss he hates. The journalist becomes a judge in my Book 2, a book about right and wrong. 2006 becomes 2001, pre-nine-eleven. The judge’s boss: Rudy Giuliani.
Where it ends
How dies Britannica end? Good or bad? Could there be a third way? Will all questions be answered? That judgment is up to you, my dear reader. I tinkered with and polished up the Prologues and Epilogues for as long as De Bezige Bij allowed me. The Britannica manuscript I delivered in late summer 2006 has four eyewitness diaries, three of which will not make it into the final book. In addition I will delete 60,000 words of explanation, side stories and false leads.
There is nothing wrong with thorough research, but there is with my tendency to show all those educational facts and parallels in the book. Showing off, Mac calls it. Nice for the world championships erudite word-knitting. 'Very good, but top heavy,' is the Pieter Swinkels’ opinion, the editor-in-chief who faces the impossible task of replacing my Jacqueline de Jong. The love, patience and attention with which he, Karin, Yvette, Anne L., Nanda and everyone else at De Bezige Bij work with me and my Book 2, equals the way they helped improving The Cassandra Paradox.
Britannica is finished. I know where it ends for me: with a suitcase full of New Year's resolutions for Book 3. Did I tell you Book 3 is the hardest book to write? Don't believe everything I tell you. (More on Book 3 later.) Britannica is finished, and of course it is not finished at all. For me it is, but for the book the journey is only beginning now, who knows, towards a platform near you.
How it continues
First copy – May 24, 2007
Until the very last minute, there are discussions about Britannica's cover – the threatening sky contrasted with the horse's butt, the Twin Towers – and an express courier brings it in at ten past five, fresh from the binder.
We sing for Pieter Swinkels, it is not just Britannica’s but also his birthday.
Book 2 in my hands. I smell it, feel the cover, rub my fingertips over the gold foil overlaid letters. I did it - again.
A snack, a drink, a speech, congratulations, family and friends celebrate warm, beautiful moment.
Youngest daughter shines with pride.
I forget to breathe, a familiar feeling: full and empty, last farewell and first meeting, beginning and end, all in one. As of today, the book is no longer mine, but the reader's. As if to underline that, the first review is out: HP / De Tijd gives Britannica four stars. ‘Asman knows how to convince and how to move.’ Once in a while the word artist pauses and so does this review, in which Marcella van der Weg describes it as ‘A story about friendship, loyalty and the relationship between fathers and sons’.
The first copy is for my father. He jokingly shows me his three page speech consisting of nothing but blank pages. Later I will see pictures of myself at this moment: little boy doesn't know what to do with his hands. Two masters of words speechless.
The dream, repeated
A million people in the Netherlands alone seem to dream of what I am now experiencing for the second time: a book written, a book published. See, there it is. My words, black and white, again, forever somewhere.
Are dreams untrue, as the cliché says? If so, we have ourselves to thank for it. We humans are like Abeltje: the elevator buttons that are allowed do not satisfy us for long. Whoever has A wants B, and vice versa. If you are not careful, a wonderful dream will become reality, business as usual, and writing will become a job like any other, routine – an entitlement – and the absence of a review or a reprint or a nomination will become theft.
In May 2007 I therefore intend to take nothing for granted, to mindfully be aware of everything that happens, and to experience the reception of my Book 2 intensely and uninhibitedly, all the highs and lows, whatever will come, as if it were my first time all over again.
That resolution saves me - after a swear or two, fair is fair - when Britannica is not nominated for the Gouden Strop.
The big advantage of Book 1: you are fresh, you don't have a name, no reputation yet.
The big advantage of a reputation: you fit into a box.
The big disadvantage of a reputation: you fit into a box.
The big advantage of Book 2: we can compare.
Different, to start with, is that this time I will not appear in January, traditionally the month after the month before, but in June. June is traditionally Month of the Thriller in the Netherlands bookstores. The competition for a place on the shelf, shortly before the summer holidays is brutal, not to mention the battle for the sparse columns of thriller reviews in the press. The Cassandra Paradox received twice as much attention in daily and weekly newspapers than Britannica.
To compensate, we have the internet. Gijs Koorevaar has the scoop again. With Cassandra he thought I was a bit of a peculiar one, I think, but this time out conversation is pleasant, almost relaxed.
Also new: Britannica features in De Bezige Bij’s Readers Club of the Month. If maybe I can come up with some intriguing questions. Hmm. Can I maybe?
Feeling like an evil schoolmaster, I read the questions from my predecessors, Tomas Ross, Amos Oz, Jan Siebelink, Erwin Mortier, Khaled Hosseini. ‘Is it rude to give someone a book and ask later if he liked it?’ And, about Joe Speedboot, but hitting home: ‘Do you think the book ends well, or not?’
Over Mac’s shoulders, from a safe distance, I read the last chapters of Britannica. What an unbelievable experience. With Book 1, almost three years after finishing it, I still haven't succeeded reading.
When the men from leezen.tv come by, I read out aloud publicly from my own work for the first time.
Also new is the attention on the radio. For example, I am a live guest on Salto FM, and for two weeks I can be heard every other day as a guest judge on the pleasantly slow program called Plein 5.
Another first: a real school extract of Britannica is published on collegenet.nl. ‘You should not overthink this book,’ it says. The first time I hear that.
By the grace of Book 2 there are also the first cautious interpretations of my 'oeuvre', Asman's Collected Work. Noblesse oblige, Rob van Dijk, my high school Dutch teacher, makes the first attempt: ‘a fascination for power, magic and distrust’. HP / De Tijd: ‘Asman does not shy away from the grand gesture.’ NRC: 'Asman must be careful with holistic abracadabra.' Peter Gielisse from lezen.tv: 'Asman sees connections that others don't see, like he knows more than the rest of us.'
The excitement is no different when the first pile of Britannica is spotted on May 31 in the AKO of Amsterdam Central Station.
And the discussion about my denouement is no different. Ezzulia kicks off, calling Britannica a 'mighty epic', but pulls off a star for the final act. Friend Leon Buijsman confesses that he cursed for two days after reading that ending.
VN's Detective and Thriller Guide completely misses this point, as their reviewer cheerfully reports having put Book 2 aside after reading no more than a few chapters. Still, I am promoted from 1 to 2 stars and voted the highest ranking Dan Brown clone.
At the other end of the spectrum is Gert Jan de Vries once again. My first comparison to master of the genre John le Carré.
While we're on the subject of closures: in the summer of 2008 Pieter Swinkels and I take stock of the first year of Britannica. We agree that we expected more from it. It was well received, sold above average, and yet ... What could we learn? Was it the date of release? The dark, full cover? Nine eleven?
We can't figure it out, find it difficult to say farewell to the book, more difficult than was the case with Book 1.
Perhaps it is an omen when Radovan Karadzic is arrested in Belgrade in July, and several readers tell me that they have taken up my Book 2 again.
Britannica – how it continued, in short, will be continued.
(WA, December 2008)
Post Scriptum: in 2019, Britannica is re-released as e-book by Gloude Publishing, including audio edition by Kobo Originals.
'Asman breathes intelligent new life into the thriller genre. He sets the bar at the level of John le Carré and actually manages to sail over it in one piece.' – NRC, Gert-Jan de Vries
'Asman knows how to convince and how to move.' – HP / De Tijd, Marcella van der Weg
'Monumental. Bold. Excellent! ' – lezen.tv
'Asman is an intelligent storyteller. His starting point is original, his style clever, his use of language neat and expressive. Britannica is a beautiful book that is constantly stimulating. A high-quality thriller. Smart and exciting from start to finish.' – Crimezone
'A mighty epic.' – ezzulia.nl
'Britannica, Asman’s second, is rock solid again.' – plantagebooksandmore.nl
'The story unfolds at breakneck speed. Asman knows how to fascinate the reader.' – Metro
'Asman lets the reader travel through modern world history and ingeniously ties Slobodan Milosevic, Kaiser Wilhelm II and nine-eleven together. An intriguing, exciting book about right and wrong in history.' – zin.nl