De Cassandra paradox
An exquisitely mannered man with Arab appearance walks into a Miami police station. He confesses his plan to commit a terrorist attack. He was told to report here, he claims, although he does not know by whom. In a shopping bag he has proof: a picture of the Empire State Building and a drawing of what appears to be a bomb.
Moments later, a White House spokesman appears on television. He states that sixteen arrests have been made in the past two weeks. In all cases serious criminals and terrorists voluntarily surrendering themselves to the authorities for reasons that have yet to be clarified. No further details are provided. From that moment on, a thrilling and chilling story unfolds – inside the world of international power and politics after nine-eleven.
The Cassandra Paradox is an ingenious, ambitious and relevant thriller. In this remarkable debut, Willem Asman combines his love for film, dialogue, antiheroes and conspiracy theories into a thriller of international style, inspired by Ludlum and Forsythe, with unmistakable accents of Crichton and King.
Where it begins
The secret of writing, says Stephen King, is to begin. For me, it begins after fifteen years of Oracle. As if I do not dare to open my eyes after climbing a mountain, afraid of the space. What else can I do? ‘Depends on what do you want,’ is Mac’s question, hers is the first and simplest of them all, and the most difficult to answer. It is the question that will change everything. ‘I don't know,’ I say. Mac, by the way, is convinced that I do.
‘What would it be if you did know?’ asks René Kuiper - an unexpected question. Pieter Hemels has no doubts: ‘You can do anything, Willem, the question is whether you believe it yourself.’
I start making a list, with on the left the things I did and on the right the things I haven’t tried yet. To the left it says writing and speaking, words. To the right: opera, theater, fairytales.
I'm making up bedtime stories for my children. They are huge fans of me inventing stuff on the fly, they like it even better than being read to, no matter how enthusiastically I keep promoting Paul Biegel's The Latest Stories of This Century.
Once upon a time there was a knight, I tell them one night, the victor of countless battles. One day the war ends, the knight returns home, nobody in his home village recognizes him anymore. The End.
My youngest daughter is cheering in her bed. My son continues to puzzle, as if nothing can surprise him. My oldest daughter says: ‘It can't end like that, Dad,’ criticism I'll have to get used to.
The next day I start typing up this fairytale in good spirits. Words appear, black on white. As invented yesterday, the knight goes to war, since fighting is all he ever learned, it is all he knows to do. As the years progress, his prowess and weapons become more and more formidable and daunting. Then he starts his journey back home, all still according to plan, until halfway, he reaches the river. Wait a minute. The river? I never invented a river. Deleting does not work. Nor does inventing a bridge. Whatever I try, the river is there to stay. My first fairytale, made up without difficulty and told by heart, keeps going completely awry on paper. Where does that river come from? That river has to go! It takes until 2003, after a trip on a ship (with friends in unexpected places) before I understand how to proceed with my knight, and what the river was trying to tell me, if only I would listen.
To do Without exception, my superiors and co-workers thought my writing was beautiful, although it could often be more succinctly beautiful. The original manuscript of The Cassandra Paradox is nearly a thousand pages long. I had not written one book, but three. Little did I know. I start with assignments to myself. The first assignment is not to comment on myself on every word. The first sentence could always be better, sharper, funnier, clearer, and the first sentence is the most important until you have the first sentence, then the second is the most important. In other words, it was not only me learning to begin, but me learning to keep going. I remember the first time I crashed through the four page barrier. The magic ten, then sixteen (exhausted, not having slept for two consecutive nights).
Jigsaw pieces These assignments create a story about four chapters long about an American senator who is being blackmailed - or so he thinks. This is followed by a long chapter about a German engineer who is hired (by whom?) to inspect a mysterious structure (is it a bunker? A luxury resort?) at the foot of an Andes mountain. Then comes the first story that I dare show to Mac: a young woman in a mysterious cult where no talk is allowed. Who is that young woman (she has no name)? Where does she come from? Was she kidnapped? Good questions, but I have no idea; everything is a cliffhanger and so everything is nothing. I invent two detectives to sort it out for me, one a rookie and one seasoned, of course. Their names? Holt and Ridder, the original title to what will eventually become The Cassandra Paradox (Holt = runs, Ridder = knight). They sit together a lot, in traffic jams, in the pub, in a sandwich shop, and speak in a tragicomic staccato secret language about anything and everything, except about the job. We should not be t surprised when Holt resigns from the force, but it is a jolt from the blue for Ridder. It is not until months later that they agree to meet, so Ridder can get answers to all his questions. In the final scene I have written for them, they face each other across a busy intersection in the center of the city, just before the Meeting in Which All Will be Revealed. They see each other, wave, the pedestrian light changes to green, Holt crosses. A driver of a delivery van is not paying attention, he is lost, is blinded by the sunlight. Through his eyes we see how Holt is hit by his car and dies on the scene.
In that period I also participate in the Harry Mulisch imitation competition in Vrij Nederland, with a drawn-out childhood memory and a metaphor about a spider and a fly and a web, a short story titled The Fall. ‘I'm going to win that competition,’ I tell my mother. She is a huge fan since she spoke to Mr Mulisch in a restaurant once about The Discovery of Heaven and responds by saying: ‘sure.’ My mother was a master at being sincere, supportive and caring, and simultaneously voicing her doubt, between the lines, no charge. Nobody won the competition, by the way. Three entries, including not mine, receive an honorable mention, but the remaining submissions, according to the judges, were considered below par.
In the meantime my self-assignments continue, filling a folder on my laptop. When I notice my characters have a preference to think, I set myself up to do a chapter of dialogue only. Then comes a chapter in which there should be no thinking, nor dialogue, nor explaining – in short, my first action sequence. I force myself to describe landscapes (still not my favorite part of the job), the taste of food and drink, and the appearances and attitudes of pedestrians. Later, Jacqueline de Jong, JdeJ, my wonderful editor at De Bezige Bij, will notice that there is a lot of frowning, sighing and rubbing foreheads going on.
The Cassandra Paradox could already be discovered there, in that folder full of jigsaw pieces, seemingly unrelated fragments, mysteries and riddles without a solution. It begins, as King says, with beginning, but for it begins every day, every sentence anew. And with trying to understand the voice of unexpected rivers.
What’s next In January 2003 I decide two things. Both understandable, only one of them smart. The right decision is to write a book. The other decision is that the book has to be about the young woman, a senator, two police officers (one of whom has since been killed) and a mysterious bunker / villa / temple at the foot of the Andes mountains – and oh yes it has to include about a spider, a fly and a web. In front of me lies a pile as thick as two telephone directories, separate chapters never intended to be a book, without any plot or coherence, or even a common style. For example, I have four I-characters. On top of the stack is a picture I found on the internet; a river – a river of course – meandering through endless blue-green rainforest.
I go to work, inspired by wise words of my icons. Like Freek de Jonge, who says that the story is already there, and that the narrator can only ruin it. Stephen King’s Omit needless words. Or the sculptor who claims that the statue is already there, all you have to do is chop off the superfluous. For a year I insist my book will be ready next week.
The decision to write a book was distinctly different for me than the decision to want to be published and read. A year and a half, four versions and as many titles later, I send my manuscript to some friends and relatives, asking them for their comments. They form the First Readers Club of The Cassandra Paradox. With their comments I write the version that I eventually submit to three publishers. Two offer me a contract. When I enter the hall of the wonderful De Bezige Bij building, my choice is made. ‘That’s a good spot for my picture,’ I say, half joke, half hubris to publishing tycoon Robbert Ammerlaan.
Jacqueline de Jong has some ideas for shortening my book, a thousand pages is a bit too much, she warns me I should really only understand them as ‘suggestions only’. I know, I reply, the rule of thumb, I learned from King, is scrapping about ten percent per version. ‘Bring it on,’ I say, ‘don’t be careful with me.’ Little did I know.
Ultimately, on her advice, I will delete 130,000 words. And in hindsight I'm glad I did. But to be honest: only in hindsight. There have been times when I imagined setting that wonderful De Bezige Bij building, filled with idiots who did not understand a thing about writing, on fire. During one of those rewrite-depressions I came to Hemels van der Hart to talk about a campaign. ‘Don't throw anything away,’ says Pieter. On the spot he pitches the idea for a website and an online “deleted pages”-campaign.
By rewriting my book under Jacqueline de Jong’s guidance, my book has become more accessible, smoother, faster and (interestingly enough, given the drastic cuts) more complete. The story is now much clearer to me. But of course precious details, complete characters, and ten whole days disappeared from the manuscript. That's why the online campaign was much more than that – a fitting tribute to my darlings.
(WA, November 2005)
How it continues
The second edition of The Cassandra Paradox will be published in March 2006, two months after its release, the third edition in June. My book is nominated for De Gouden Strop 2006, award for best suspense novel of the year which is won by Charles den Tex for De macht van meneer Miller, and for De Diamanten Kogel 2006, won by Felix Thijssens for Het diepe water.
Ten thousand copies of my debut are sold during 2006, where the average for a thriller by a native speaker – if we ignore bestselling authors Ross, Noort, Verhoef and others for the sake of convenience – is around two thousand. Is ten thousand in line with expectations? Didn't I expect to actually achieve Dan Brown numbers? ‘Next time you just have to write a Kluun,’ someone said to me recently. I did not write a Kluun, nor a Dan Brown.
I now understand what I am asking of my readers. Looking back, my debut has two kinds of readers: those who don't like it and put it away screaming after no more than eighty pages (including the Detective and Thriller Guide of Vrij Nederland), and those who can't get enough of it ('although the way it ends could use some work, Asman ').
The view Ten thousand buyers. That is at least ten thousand readers. The Excelsior soccer stadium sold out three times. In January 2006, when a hundred were piled up at my house (a pile of course shaped like a pyramid, thanks to W&I) I shed a tear – and the magic of words fails me. And yes I did smell the paper. Ten thousand, that's a hundred times that pyramid.
According to Renate Dorrestein, a million Dutch people dream the dream I am living: to write a book, being published, receiving rave reviews, reprints, nominations and resulting in sales to be proud of. If you're not careful, the dream becomes entitlement. The human need for ever more, better, bigger, happier, smarter – out of curiosity, or greed, or believing in progress – is in my opinion one of our most amazing and yet terrifying qualities (one of the themes of Casandra, indeed). René Kuiper once told me about the mountaineer who climbs all his life, to higher and higher peaks but forgets to enjoy the view, so I cannot claim I haven’t been warned – and there I sit, enjoying RESERVED FOR MR. ASMAN sign in the front row at the presentation of De Gouden Strop, between MR. ROSS and MR. DEN TEX. Although of course I expect to win, the debutant has his speech prepared: ‘At last!’
If you pay attention and take your time, the view is everywhere. The memory of my first photoshoot is unique: it takes professional photographer Mark Kohn hours to make me look threatening and omniscient. Also unique is the moment at bookshop Jacques Baas ("thriller about nine-eleven has its world premiere in Driebergen", writes De Nieuwsbode) where I am recognized in public for the first time. On Sunday, January 22, 2006 I see myself "in the wild", appropriately between a stack of Kings and a stack of Ludlums (in the AKO at the trainstation of Alkmaar). An unknown lady in the Bijenkorf in Amsterdam picks up my book, leafs through it, puts it down again, strolls away, returns, picks it up again and finally actually pays for it – the first live buyer, spotted on January 30, 2006. Eyewitness to that thrilling fifteen minutes: my father.
In the category unique, because unexpected: In the summer magazine of the ECI I am listed number 1 in the “Top Ten Literature”, with a certain W.F. Hermans as runner-up, and Gerrit Komrij finishing fifth. At the beginning of February 2006, my brother-in-law would like to see how my book looks at Donner's in Rotterdam. The book is nowhere to be found, he takes out his phone to send me an alarming text message and comes across two towering displays at the exit, full of my book (I am Donner's Literary Choice of the Month). Not to forget my first foreign review (Omrop Fryslân), and the two pages in the English-language Dutch Crime Writers, promotion aimed at the Anglo-Saxon market.
A former colleague draws my attention to the audio CD of my book. I hear my own words, somewhat surprised. Finally, last but not least, unique and unexpected: a father who pre-orders the book twice on this website for the birthday of his twin daughters Helene and Fleur.
The breakfast of champions The Cassandra Paradox is fiction. It describes a ruined temple at the foot of the Andes mountains, a British archaeologist, an American statesman in a wheelchair, a charismatic professor, a crazy scientist, a secret CIA investigation, power politics after nine-eleven. In short, it's not about me at all. But rarely have I produced anything more personal than this book. The warned me in advance that a book can simply disappear straight from launch into oblivion. And that thrillers, especially thrillers not written by an Anglo-Saxon or a Scandinavian, rarely receive serious press coverage.
After the book is released on January 19, 2006, an unreal radio silence follows, in which I really wonder whether if and why I wanted attention in the first place. Then the rave reviews follow, one after the other.
Once the book is in the shops, it is no longer the author's, but the reader's, I learned from Stephen King. I also remembered the words of Bouke de Boer, who said that failure does not exist, only feedback, and that feedback is the breakfast of champions. So I can even take the bad reviews, such as the 1 out of 5 in Vrij Nederland. Because at home, sitting at the breakfast table, I have a view of the words by Rinus Ferdinandusse, framed.
(WA, May 2007)
Post Scriptum: The Cassandra Paradox will be reissued in 2019 by Gloude Publishing, including audiobook by Kobo Originals.
In the press
"An abundant book, convincing, erudite and intelligent, proving an unprecedented ambition of authorship" – NRC Handelsblad, Gert Jan de Vries
"The Cassandra Paradox is thrilling, smart and often quite subversive. Not an everyday combination.” – Het Parool
"The writer is not your average man in the street and doesn’t hide that fact, but fortunately he presents it with care." – Trouw
"The plot of this Cassandra story is based on such an thrilling and at the same time boarded-up contrarian tunnel thinking that, paradoxically, every ordinary blue bean turns out to be a dazzling flare." – Rinus Ferdinandusse
"Astute, cleverly constructed. A universal, passionate thriller, impossible to categorize." – Crimezone
"Dutch-language thriller writers are not known for their affinity with adventure novels. This is understandable insofar as the author has to come prepared to hold his own in this field, where one construction error is enough to cause the ingenious structure to collapse. It is remarkable that it is a debutant in the thriller field that ventures into this endeavor. And even more remarkable, that he fulfills his task with brilliance and conviction ... Willem Asman convincingly distances himself from the escapism that too often characterizes the adventure genre." – Jury report De Gouden Strop
"A welcome newcomer to the thriller market. A relevant and remarkable thriller." – De Telegraaf
"A powerful, original and exciting debut." – BN de Stem
"With his novel Asman shows himself to be ambitious. And rightly so: why put the Dutch flatlands into words when a world can be imagined. " – Nieuwsblad van het Noorden
"For his guts alone, Asman deserves to hit 100,000." – Carp.nl
"A writer who is not afraid to be dashing, demonstrates versatility, knows how to build tension, and who proves to have an experienced writing hand from the start. An unmistakably unique voice. A dazzling story. Unusually challenging." – Friesch Dagblad
"A contrarian thriller of international ambition." – ECI Magazine
"A successful debut." – Maxim, July 2006:
"The type of book that turns certainties upside down. A good read.” – nu.nl
"A Dutch Stephen King." – boekennieuws.com
Online promos launch unknown thriller (Adformatie, January 26, 2006, by Jeroen Mirck)
In less than two months, the totally unknown thriller The Cassandra Paradox by the equally unknown writer Willem Asman was launched. Prior to publication, the book reached more than half a million potential buyers via online commercials.
How to sell a totally unknown book by a totally unknown writer well before the book is published? It almost sounds like the plot of a thriller, but in reality the ambitious goal is to launch such a thriller. Two months ago, nobody knew the debuting writer Willem Asman, but hundreds of thousands of internet users have since come into contact with his debut The Cassandra Paradox through online commercials.
"We created this campaign because we wanted to know whether commercials on the internet actually have an impact," says Pieter Hemels of communication agency Hemels van der Hart. "What is the impact of a television campaign on the internet? It ran two months before the book's introduction: a campaign for a book that doesn’t yet exist, from an unknown writer. The question was: can you get the market moving?"
For Asman’s publisher De Bezige Bij, Hemels van der Hart developed a communication plan in which the website of The Cassandra Paradox is central. The book (about 500 pages thick) consists of 53 chapters, but was originally much thicker. Asman delivered a first manuscript of a thousand pages, which he eventually shortened by two thirds. From the outtakes, the author selected 53 passages – “deleted chapters” – that were published online in the same number of days before the book launch.
Video news In addition to the usual free publicity, an online newsletter and a banner on the thriller site Crimezone.nl, the success of Cassandra’s introduction depended largely on online commercials. To this end, a collaboration was sought with Zoom.in, market leader in the field of video news in the Netherlands. "You can place a commercial before their news items, but this usually concerns direct response campaigns," Hemels explains. "We wanted to see whether you can also build a brand through those commercials: can you bring emotion across the stage and immediately convert it into desired behavior?"
The Cassandra Paradox campaign started on November 27 and ended 54 days (and as many pre-published deleted chapters) later on January 19, the book's release date. Every day a different promo was programmed, each time with a quote from the chapter that appeared online that day. Hemels and De Bezige Bij are very satisfied with the results. "The commercials were viewed by a total of 565 thousand people," Hemels proudly reports. "More than fifteen thousand people have visited the website and read the stories. Paradoxically, people hardly order the book via the website, but go to the bookstore for it. The bookstores have pre-signed twice as much as normal, with no extra action on the part of De Bezige Bij. "
The most viewed were of course the commercials on the largest news site, NU.nl, followed by Telegraaf.nl and @home. "The question is, of course, whether that has an impact," says Hemels. Looking at clickthrough rates, he finds that a total of 1.78 percent of all people who saw the campaign "made the effort to visit the site”. The channel with the best return was Elsevier.nl (2.44 pc), followed by @home (2.28) and Telegraaf.nl (2.1). Hemels: "Any more questions on impact? Of every 40 people who saw the commercial on these sites, one went through to the site. If Hak achieved that with a TV commercial, the peas would be sold out by February until the end of the year. "
Grateful victim A remarkable feature of the campaign is, of course, the willingness of author Willem Asman to turn deleted parts of his brainchild into online teasers. "I really liked doing this," Asman admits. "Writing is scrapping - to kill your darlings. This is a tribute to my darlings." Asman (46) was a grateful victim to undertake this experiment anyway: no history in the literary field, having previously worked in a management position at Oracle. The online campaign does not seem to bother his literary career switch, because on the day of release, it turned out - including reservations - that 2.5 thousand copies of The Cassandra Paradox had already been sold. The apparent instant success was immediately given a statement during the book launch by thriller expert Rinus Fernandusse, who delivered a jacket quote and a festive speech. The title of this newcomer reminded him of Dan Brown, but - as the former Vrij Nederland editor-in-chief joked - "apparently that is the way we do things since The Da Vinci Code".
The Complete Paradox (by Pieter Hemels, Director Hemels van der Hart, 2006)
Traditionally, the online advertising market has been the domain of direct response campaigns. Click rates of 0.3% on banner campaigns ensure that in our thinking online advertising leads to instant response. But can brands be build on the internet? Can we bring emotion across and immediately convert it into desired behavior?
The appearance of Willems debut thriller, The Cassandra Paradox, offered us the unique opportunity to prove how to build a brand online. So we did a pretty extreme experiment and created an online campaign for this remarkable book. Please note: a campaign for a totally unknown book by a totally unknown author, which did not yet exist when we started the campaign.
We opened on November 27, 2005, 53 days before the book's launch date of January 19, 2006. For 54 days (including the launch date itself) we broadcasted commercials via Zoom.in, with a central thesis from the story, which, when you click on the corresponding banner, brings you to Willem Asmans website. Where you can read more from and about the book. Paradoxically the website offers chapters that are ultimately not in the book.
In this unique campaign we made use of the opportunity to place a commercial prior to news items on the internet via Zoomin.tv. It allowed us to broadcast a television style campaigns on the internet on a large scale. The big difference with television is that we are certain that every commercial broadcasted via the internet is actually viewed. After all: people click on a news item, then they wait a while for the news video to be downloaded and in the meantime they will see the commercial. So no coffee break, no long blocks, no estimated viewing figures: just rock-hard contact. But: does that also score? Does that work? Does it have an impact?
Rarely has a debut been so well known long before the official launch. Almost 600,000 people have seen a campaign for a book that does not yet exist. More than 15,000 people have visited the website and read the stories. And even after the launch of the book, the figures do not lie. In the meantime (we are writing summer 2006) the book is already in its third edition. And we are also seeing increasing online promotional attention for books around us. It strongly seems that brands and emotions can also be conveyed via the internet. In fact, the behavior shown exceeds our wildest expectations ...
A paradoxical campaign: The Paradox of TV Commercials on the Internet. The paradox of the IT director who becomes a writer. The paradox of a campaign for a book that does not yet exist. The paradox of a campaign theme with the unpublished pages of a book. The paradox of a campaign that is 53 days earlier than the product is in the store. The paradox of themed campaigns on the Internet. The paradox of offline campaigns using online.