Interview with Hilde Vandermeeren

Date: 28 July 2021
Interviewer: Vanessa Joosen
Transcript: Cédrique Caethoven
Copy-editing: Kato Borgmans
Photo: Phile Deprez
Translation: Lindsey Geybels

VJ: I had inferred from older interviews that you wrote certain books with a specific age in mind, but apparently, it’s more nuanced. I’ll ask the question broadly: In what way did you think about the age of the potential reader while writing children’s books? Sometimes, we see that this evolves over an author’s career, and we find that interesting. I’m curious about your experience.

HV: I’ll actually break down that question because I can indeed talk a lot about it. Maybe first: “Have you ever consulted your children?” My honest answer is no. I’ve never asked them, “Do you think that’s okay?” Or, “What would someone your age like to write about?” I have brainstormed Vlaamse Filmpjes with my daughter, but I don’t find that representative.

I find that interesting because collaborative brainstorming is also part of our research. We can discuss that later.

Have my children played a role in what I wrote and for what age I write? Indirectly, yes, and that brings me to the nuance. When my youngest daughter was about seven years old, there was a birthday party coming up, and the thought crossed my mind: “What if no one comes?” I probably wouldn’t have thought that if I hadn’t been in that situation with a daughter. It turned out fine; children did come, but that was truly the seed for Van een kind dat tikkertje speelt met de wind (From a Child Playing Tag With the Wind). I also stumbled upon something very interesting. It’s a picture book. Most libraries classified it as a picture book or a book for preschoolers, but it’s not a straightforward book. I think it was categorised under nine-plus in the Children and Youth Jury. They didn’t think, “Who should read this?” For example, I saw that as a story to read, but I didn’t have a specific age in mind. My sentences were simple, but not like how I had to write in De twaalfde man (The Twelfth Man). I thought, “Okay, I’m also working on a picture book.” This means that the illustrations will add value. Somewhere, that’s already in the back of my mind. Another factor influencing how old my child will be—and I’m letting go of my concrete daughter here—is that I want to address fantasy, and I use my education a bit for that. Fantasy is a normal part of a child’s development, and the imaginary friend is part of that. It’s normal up to the age of seven or eight, so I make my child seven years old with an imaginary friend, and so on. That determines my age, and I don’t even remember how old my daughter was. I didn’t need that anymore, but I get touched by something as an author. I saw that appear in the news again years later. “No one came.” It was a photo of a mom who shared her sad daughter, and I thought, “That’s my story!” It’s actually true, but that’s because of my children. If they ask, “For what age do you write?” Then I say from five years to strictly—in library terms—twelve years.

What I can’t do as an author is the teenager, the young adult, the twelve to fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-year-old. I tried that once, and I said, “That’s not for you, Hilde.” I felt that, but then I could write for adults again. It’s very odd. Why is that? I can explain why I love writing for young children, and it has to do with a worldview. They look at the world with a fairly innocent gaze until eight or nine years old, allowing you as an author to create humor because you have layers. The child sees it literally, interprets something like this, and the adult sees it differently. You have layering in your book and humor. There are misunderstandings, but not the straightforward ones, rather the intriguing ones. That’s what I feel. Until the age of eight, I can still use that innocent child, that child’s perspective, the limited cognitive ability. From the age of ten, I feel that children should not be underestimated in their cognitive thinking, in everything they understand, and then the misunderstandings due to the childlike, not childish, gaze are no longer present in my works. Hence, I remember my publisher saying that there were almost no books left for the target audience (another library term) between eight and ten at one point. Many authors couldn’t find the tone, the age, because they didn’t appeal to young readers or beginning readers but also not to stories for ten plus. In ten plus, as an author, you can already use many difficult words, longer sentences, complex situations, but that’s not the case in that middle group. I remember Rebecca Van Rechem telling me, “Hilde, it’s kind of your strength. We miss those books from eight.” For me, it’s related to that age. I found that so nice. They are still children. You can infuse humor into that. You can include tragicomic situations. The conflict with the world of adults, the layering, and so on, are all present there. That was interesting for me. That’s it for the second question.

Do I take age into account? That’s yes and no. For example, Krullen (Curls) is truly without an upper limit. I think it’s a book that adults should read together. Did I make Van een kind dat tikkertje speelt met de wind easy? No. I thought, “That’s my story, with the imaginary friend and the mom who has to choose.” Actually, it’s a challenging book, but it looks like a picture book. The same with Krullen. It’s about cancer, but that word is not there. If children are not guided, they won’t understand what it’s about. I didn’t make concessions and say, “Oops, that’s for a younger age. I have to put cancer in there.” That’s a step too far. I thought, “The suggestion remains,” and that’s also the strength. That’s also the risk in some cases, that some children without guidance might say, “I don’t understand what this is about. I don’t like it.” There’s also no upper age limit for that book, but for example, Operatie Bernie Buiten (Operation Bernie Outside) is a book where there is one. It’s very eight-plus. There’s humor in the tragicomic things: a misunderstanding about Isabel, who she is? The innocence is there.

That’s the dog if I remember correctly.

Yes! [laughs] The dog. That’s the misunderstanding. That too imaginative part where fantasy runs away with those children, you can still incorporate that. The fears of children are also a very fascinating thing. What’s going on in that little head? Through that fantasy, that becomes more vivid. Het kistje van Cleo (Cleo’s Little Box) is ten plus, and I knew that too. My sentences were, for example, longer than in Operatie Bernie Buiten. This is because I thought, “Eight years is too young. They can’t all understand what’s underneath.” I must say, eight years is on average too young, but there are always readers who can read it or readers who read it later, who are thirteen years old. Age is relative. You always have to appreciate children who read books they supposedly aren’t ready for, but conversely, I always say to a thirteen-year-old, “Are you reading a book for ten plus? Great.” I mean, you’re reading a book. Just to be clear, but then I am aware of that. They can handle longer chapters, longer sentences. It’s ten plus. In that sense, I am concerned with the theme, the number of characters, and so on. The first reader, the beginning reader, is still a separate category. I know there is also a lot of discussion about how short a book should be, the reading technique versus the story, and so on. I took that into account in my growth book, for example. It starts very modestly, and then we climb. Then it becomes more difficult because there was demand within the genre. I wrote De twaalfde man very spontaneously, and they just said afterward: “That’s for that level”. I feel that coming in the back of my mind. I don’t have to make sentences or subclauses of ten, twelve words. The publisher had said, “Okay, that fits.” It was actually a bit of freedom.

A few books preceded Krullen: Een vroege zomer (An Early Summer) and Een huis om in te verdwalen (A House to Get Lost In).

I describe Een huis om in te verdwalen as eight plus. I have the same feeling about it as with Operatie Bernie Buiten. For example, there’s also a little sister in it, and the word is not there, but she is ‘different’ or ‘not like the others.’ The words ‘mental limitation’ are not there. It was a choice. Actually, I’m already asking a lot from the eight-plus readers, but you can feel it through the game. They play hide-and-seek, and the little sister stops without saying it. Then you already feel: “Oops, she’s not like someone else,” but there’s also humor in that, the tragicomic. The worldview through the gaze of the children, I was able to write that fully there too. Een vroege zomer is ten plus. That’s also about a slightly more difficult theme, actually. It’s about a premature birth, a young teenager who doesn’t want a little brother, and then things go wrong. In terms of theme, I felt it was for ten plus, a bit like Het kistje van Cleo.

How did you come to write children’s books? What was the impetus for you for those first books?

Vlaamse Filmpjes preceded them. I think my first one was in 1997. It already dealt with a quite difficult theme. It’s called Glimwormen (Glowworms), but it’s actually about child abuse. It’s already a fairly daring theme, but these are themes that touch me. Sometimes you also have to dare to say, “Look, it’s a difficult theme, but maybe it’s okay to write about it.” 1997 is already a while ago. It’s not about breaking taboos, but because it touches me. I think I wrote many Vlaamse Filmpjes and then just started thinking, “Why not a book?” I started with Vlaamse Filmpjes because it was more manageable in terms of volume. It was combinable with my children, with my work. I then wrote a first manuscript, and that’s how I got in touch with Rebecca Van Rechem. Since then, I’ve caught the bug. Why children’s and youth books? I’ve always been a voracious reader, even as a child. So, I have a lot of love for books. I never, never, had the thought that it’s inferior for children. I did get feedback from other people: “When are you going to write real books?” [laughs] That’s also something about ‘real’ books. [I have] a lot of love for children’s and youth literature from my own reading history but also as an author. I think many of my books, or at least some, have no upper limit, like the ones I mentioned. Van een kind dat tikkertje speelt met de wind, Krullen, but also, for example, De twaalfde man. It’s still published after twenty years because it’s actually about what happens on a football field with parents. Now it’s about little footballers, but it can be about anyone. Actually, it has that ageless quality.

You could say it’s also a book for adults. Is that something you consider when you write, that adults also read?

I don’t actually take that into account in the sense that it doesn’t affect how I write. I would phrase it differently: I would love it if adults read along. I often say this during lectures. I encourage it, regardless of whether it’s for ages eight plus, ten plus, or a picture book. Once, I read a chapter with my youngest daughter, and she continued reading. Encouraging children to read by reading along, reading aloud, and discussing it should happen even more. I did that as a mother myself, and during book fairs, some parents would say, “I read your book.” Sometimes, it was for the Children and Youth Jury. They would express how much they enjoyed it. I’ve had that happen several times, and it brings joy. I don’t do it for that reason, but I find it wonderful when it occurs.

You’re also a psychologist, and that’s interesting for our research. What do authors do to understand what children and young people can handle, what they like to read? What resources can they use to write stories that resonate effectively with children? Have you been able to draw from your psychological background while writing?

Actually, a lot. It’s specifically the ‘child, youth, and family’ education (because as a clinical psychologist, you can choose to specialise in adults), so I’ve had a lot of developmental psychology. It covers everything within normal development. For example, what are children’s fears, their fantasies, magical thinking, and so on. I find all these aspects to be a rich source because they are normal parts of development, but I can also empathise well. What does it mean to be anxious within normal development, and how does that translate to my protagonist? What does it mean to be lonely? In all my books, I never started from a real person. There are authors who do, but it’s true that my environment, newspapers, and things I see inspire me. For example, De twaalfde man is truly inspired by an article where young footballers were on the field, and their parents said, “Score, score, and for every goal you score, you get a hamburger.” Those hamburgers are in the book. I was indignant about that. So, real things do come into play, but my characters aren’t real children whom I need to write my book. Because of that, I don’t need to look up what falls under a certain age group. For example, questions about what they can handle. There was also a part about children who are different. At one point, an interviewer said to me after my seventh book, “Hilde, you seem to like writing about children who are different.” At that moment, I wasn’t aware of it, and then I thought, “Yes, Een vroege zomer – a child born prematurely, Marthe in Een huis om in te verdwalen,” and then I thought, “Ah yes, there’s also a book about a child who can’t stand the light.” I never consciously thought about it; it’s just there in me and comes out in various ways. It’s also about starting with characters who are interesting because they face obstacles; they don’t have it easy like other children. I find that very interesting. It’s also universal because it’s something that continues to happen, and apparently, I truly consider it an important theme. It’s not to convey a message but to say, “Look, these people also have the right to be in books.” This helps the background of understanding cognitive development, emotional development, motor skills, what they can do, what a child’s communication is like at a certain age. For example, if you give a three-year-old a lot of dialogue, it has to be accurate, and sometimes, they can’t do it yet. You almost have to write wrong words. I try to stay away from that, but if it has to be realistic, you actually have to write the way they speak. My background helps me in the sense that I have to do less research, but it also inspires me. What exists regarding fears, developmental disorders, and so on. It’s not to name them but to open the door. Why can’t someone like that just play along? Marthe joins in, but that’s not the story’s focus. I received the word and image prize for that in the Netherlands, and I thought that was great. I didn’t even know that organisation existed, and they said, “We chose your book because she just participates.” She’s not the other; that’s not my theme. My theme is that they have to move. I thought at the time, “Great, someone understood that well.” That’s a very nice memory.

You also do research. How should I imagine that? Does it also have to do with that psychological background, or is it a different kind of research?

Yes, my education is already many years ago, so it’s not bad to refresh that. Are there new views on a particular subject, new information or research? Certain things change, or the approach to them changes. For example, I looked for testimonials about children who can’t stand the light, and you can find those nowadays on the internet. You go to specialised sites. You also look up what that means scientifically so that what you write about it is accurate. I do indeed conduct research. I don’t know everything. It’s a starting point, and if I don’t know something, I do research. It helps that you already understand certain terms.

Is it mainly about specific fears or conditions or about children and cognitive development in general?

I never look up anything about that because I feel that, as a mother and through my education, I somewhat know what to expect or what I can write about. That’s why I never found the categorisation into age groups difficult. I know there’s a difference between reading ages eight and ten. The length of chapters, length of sentences, complexity of themes, characters, etc., naturally come quite easily. I don’t write that down; I’m aware of it while writing.

Have your children ever read your books?

[laughs] I have two daughters, and one has always been more of a reader than the other. I never forced them to read my books. In the beginning, especially when they were younger, they sometimes read them spontaneously or took them to class. I never enforced it. I remember that a book was missing from my desk, and my youngest was reading it. What I also noticed, as adolescence approached, was that I didn’t have books for their age anymore, and that reduced their reading. Then, I turned to my adult books, and I never said, “You have to [read this].” They’re proud of it, but not like, “I’m going to read everything you write now.” When they did read it, that was nice. They always attended book presentations, even the ones with dolls and such. We shared that as a family.

Do your own memories – of concrete situations or just your childhood in a broader sense – play a significant role in writing?

I don’t think consciously, but I think that’s always unconsciously present for every author. It’s not like I say, “I experienced that at the age of seven, and now I have this story.” I can’t provide a single example. I never moved. Yes, once, but not to the extent that it was an inspiration. My children are not football players. Perhaps it’s important to say that I – unlike some people – don’t need my own life to write what I write. When I wrote about that dog, we didn’t have a dog yet. It has to do with empathy. It’s not so much the education. There’s something behind it. That’s the empathetic ability that I hope I have. The empathetic ability is separate from my study because I don’t think it’s a necessity to write children’s books. Empathetic ability is needed to empathise with my character, regardless of who is reading it. My main character is gentle, but you have to know how old they are. For example, ten or six. That’s through empathy. What do they think, what do they feel, what are they occupied with? It’s a combination of my empathy and my education.

Was the oldest book of yours that we found, Gloeiwormen, from 1997 the first work you wrote?

A Vlaams Filmpje. That was 23 years ago. Everything started with that in the sense that it was the first product published by a regular publishing house. There are many more Vlaamse Filmpjes. I think I’ve written at least ten more, but I haven’t kept track.

How did writing Vlaamse Filmpjes start?

For that, you have to go back, I find, for myself. I know I’ve always loved reading, and that’s the origin of everything that has happened so far. I have a twin sister, and we always went to the library together; we took the maximum number of books we were allowed, which was six at the time. We went home, read each other’s books, and a week later, we were back there. We didn’t realise at the time that it wasn’t like that for others. We thought it was normal to love reading. You also disappear into that world. Many authors say, “[As a] child, reading yourself to later create a world where a reader can disappear and you can also disappear while writing.” So, the roots of everything I find related to language, how stories are constructed, etc., lie in loving to read. You absorb that unconsciously. In my childhood, I never really asked myself whether there are people needed who are somehow involved in writing those books. Only in high school did I think, “Ah yes, there’s a whole world outside of just those books.” The times have changed completely now; I’m talking about 40 years ago. Children today have the chance to learn that there are people behind those books, entire publishers, illustrators. It’s great that they see those people in the classroom. I find that very important. I never saw that, but I always kept on reading. To this day, I read every night; I find it very calming before I sleep. Why are words and language interesting to me? That’s where it began. Before that, maybe there was some natural talent, but it’s not like reading was a family activity. It’s a talent, I can’t explain it well. It’s something that touches me, reading. I can’t do anything else. I can’t sing, I can’t paint, nothing else related to art, if I may call it that, or related to a profession, actually. So, dealing with language and everything related to making stories, reading, being moved by stories started there. And then you’re eighteen, and you have to choose a direction. I was actually, but I don’t allow myself to say it, very good at Dutch. I remember someone in class asked, “What are synonyms?” and I was the only one who knew. I thought, “So confronting. Apparently, that works,” but no one ever told me, “Here, study a field where you might do something with language.” It was a choice between biology and psychology. I did Latin-Sciences, many years ago, and none of the teachers said, “Hilde, there’s also a language-oriented education.” At that time, I hadn’t made the connection yet, and I studied psychology, enjoyed it. I still notice that it’s an added value, not a necessity but an added value, for everything related to writing. Characters, character development, … It’s strange to say, but in the last year of my psychology education, I had to do an internship, and within a minute, I actually started writing stories, short stories that I thought, “Okay, for a magazine. Will it get published? I don’t know.” This was before 1997.

What kind of internship was it, or did it have nothing to do with it?

It had nothing to do with it, or not directly. It’s never that I drew inspiration from it. Those were heavy stories in the mental health care department in Leuven. I think my brain needed creativity to find balance because I had also noticed in myself that in your last year, you only really understand what it means to be a psychologist. Theory was all well and good. I had followed teaching, and that was also fine, but then came the problems. Those problems do enter your room, your mind, and I also thought at that time, “Is this something for me, every day?” No one tells you that either. You can have all the distinctions and whatnot, but you also have to be able to put those stories aside. That is never mentioned anywhere. Maybe it is now, but it wasn’t then. At that time, I thought, “Interesting, but Hilde, do you want to do that?” You have to think about that. I then rolled into education, where I was actually very happy with all my knowledge. Everything I had learned, I had seen in my classroom. That was a good redirection. I was never going to be a psychologist, but feeling, referring, discussing with colleagues in a working group was something for me. I also founded the student guidance then.

What age group did you have in class?

I had high school: the sixth and seventh years of vocational education. I had consciously chosen that. I taught social skills (an applied form of psychology) and also internship guidance when they were going to be childcare workers. I remember in the year of my appointment, I said to the principal, “I consciously choose vocational education.” He fell off his chair and said, “I’ve almost never heard that. I love hearing that teachers want to go there.” It’s actually a very pleasant field. I also enjoyed teaching. That’s when, I think, that creativity began. You can’t stop that. It started like this: “I’m going to try that once.” I had seen that you could submit Vlaamse Filmpjes; it was for a competition, and I said, “I have nothing to lose. This is relaxation. This is also doable.” I didn’t have children yet at that time. In 1997, it was published, and my oldest daughter was born. That worked too. We were setting up everything anew, and everything comes at you, a house, etc. Then writing was silent for a while because in ’97 and ’98, my children were born. The reality of life sets in. For a while, it was just making sure you could do your regular work, take care of your two children, and your house, etc. [laughs] When that settled down a bit, I wrote a few Vlaamse Filmpjes and just thought, or maybe my husband said it once, “Why not a book?” To which I said, “Why not?” Always try because they’re not going to knock on your door. Then the book was circulated, and that was to Rebecca Van Rechem. I have such good memories of that. There was Davidsfonds then: “Hilde, we would like to talk to you sometime. We see potential, just a little change.” That was about Een vroege zomer. It’s not based on reality, but it is dedicated to people who have lost a child, to our friends. That came to me, and that was my first book. Then, at Davidsfonds, I was always allowed to do my ideas. They didn’t say, “You have to write that.” Then a picture book, Krullen, came fairly early, and then Een huis om in te verdwalen. At some point, I wrote De twaalfde man. Rebecca regretted saying, “Hilde, we don’t do first readers here at Davidsfonds, but I get along well with Bart Desmyter from Eenhoorn. You know what? I’ll propose your manuscript.” That was also good there, but Rebecca regretted it because I had won the Silver Griffel with that book, and suddenly it was also a longseller. It’s still being sold now, and I find that unbelievable. Rebecca could laugh about that. It was also very nice that it was done across publishing houses. I appreciate that immensely. I then had two publishing houses: books for first readers at Eenhoorn and then the other books at Davidsfonds. I was also asked once for something educational in the Netherlands, but it was so strict. I found that really difficult. They were books that combine both difficulty levels. It has a specific name.

Tijgerlezen (Tiger Reading)?

It’s possible, sure. That also has a specific name in the Netherlands. It’s less common here, but the story isn’t told in two versions. It becomes more difficult. The idea is nice that someone can read it together with someone else, but I didn’t find it that easy to do. So, I continued writing my children’s and youth books. I always enjoyed that until 2015. At that point, I felt that everything I wanted to say about themes that touch me had already been told. I sensed that. Besides the accessible books that were out there, I felt that I had already addressed being a single parent, this and that, and then I thought, “Better to end on a high note.” Several publishing houses were interested at that time, and I felt it was better to stop than to go along with something that wasn’t really there because you have to create, and an author who has reached their peak and doesn’t produce an impact with books isn’t necessary. That’s my opinion. So, I stopped.

Could that also have to do with the fact that your own children were teenagers then?

It’s entirely separate. For example, I was writing for teenagers, an audience I thought, “Let me try this,” while they were still in elementary school. I also felt that from ages five to twelve (with some overlap), it worked for me, and I said, “Hilde, this isn’t for you.” I can let that go happily, just like I say, “Poetry is also a separate genre. Let people who are good at it handle it,” because I don’t think I should force myself into it. I did continue to write Vlaamse Filmpjes. I found that enjoyable and valuable because it’s a mini-story for children for whom a thicker book might be a bit challenging. I consciously stopped children’s and youth literature, and I thought, “Why not try writing for adults?” At that moment, I also thought, “I don’t know where I’ll end up, or if it’s going to work.” It’s like debuting again, even though you have such a portfolio of international books and literary awards. Granted, you might be read more quickly with that first letter because there’s already a resume, but it’s not a guarantee. I also aimed high and thought, “Why not try my first approach in the Netherlands?” I think I wrote to nine publishing houses, and some time passed. I think I was invited to four publishing houses, three of them in the Netherlands, but I hadn’t written to all of them. I made a selection: two in the Netherlands and two in Flanders. I went to them, and the best connection was with Querido (now called Volt) because they said, “We believe there’s something here, and we want to help you grow.” That was fantastic because that was my request. I also had a publishing house that said, “It’s fantastic. It’s ready. We’ll put a cover on it and launch it,” and another publishing house said, “We’d like a few more words, up to 100,000, because that sells better.” I politely said, “Thank you, very interesting, but that’s not what I want.” So, I was very selective. It wasn’t even about the financial conditions because that’s not my strong suit, but it was about, “Where do I feel at home?” and that was at Querido because they help stimulate it: “How can your book be even better?” That was with Josje Kramer, who is now with novels at Querido. That’s how I ended up in the adult circuit. I have noticed, and I’ve seen it with other authors too, that it’s not an advantage to come from children’s and youth literature. It’s like a ball and chain because some people like to say (not everyone, it was a minority): “In the first two books, we feel that she has still written children’s and youth books.” That took a while. With the third book, I stood up for myself, and I never heard that again. Unfortunately, you have to shed something, because you have to prove that you can also write ‘real books’ for adults. For some, you have to prove yourself extra, not only if it’s your debut but also if you have a history in children’s and youth books. Even qualitatively, it’s an extra critical look for some, like, “Will he or she be able to do it for adults?” I’ve seen that with other authors too. Not everyone succeeds; it’s really something else. At some point, I was on my way, and those young adults, those thirteen-plussers, I leave happily to others. I don’t know why exactly. I’ve analyzed it myself. It has to do with the innocence of children, as I mentioned. There’s humor in it that you can’t use for teenagers, and then with adults, everything is possible. There, I feel free again, but with those in-between things, it’s difficult.

Do you feel that you were able to bring a lot from writing for children into writing for adults? You just said, “It’s really something else.” How do they relate to each other?

Actually, there are a lot of similarities but also differences. The similarities are: you have to do equal character development, and you have to build a story that stands. I also tried to find themes that touched me for my children’s and youth books. What touches me, what can I write for adults so that it’s not just exciting? These include many psychological conditions that aren’t well known. I find that intriguing. This also makes people not always know what they’ve done, and how does that work with unreliable narrators, with suspense arcs, with dosing information – which is important in thrillers. What’s more challenging? [laughs] It seems logical, but the volume. My children’s and youth books were at most 80 pages in book print – I won’t be far off – while you’re dealing with around 300 pages for adults. I felt that. You have to think very carefully about how to keep it exciting, intriguing enough, and keep all the balls in the air. And then, composition techniques really come into play, especially with suspenseful books, making it not easy at all. That is often underestimated. I also took a course in screenwriting. That helped with Aristotelian structure, for example. I thought, “Wow, interesting,” because I even applied that to a few children’s books. “Ah, interesting, here a twist could happen, here could be a hook, …” I always kept the door open for unexpected ideas, characters that came along. I’ve always done that; it was never predetermined.

Did you not work with a scheme then?

Mine was just one A4 sheet, and it actually worked well. It reminded me of my internship during my last psychology course, the final year of psychology. I had to map out conversations for psychiatrists for team meetings. How those went, and I said, “Such a detailed report, I’ll visualize it: all the connections between things, the bottlenecks, difficulties, connections with school.” I could explain it so easily. I remember a psychiatrist saying, “Hilde, so interesting! I’m going to do that too when I have to explain something to the team, to ask for feedback, …” That was clear to me, and I actually do that now. Where are the possible relationships, where is a mystery that can still emerge, storylines, tensions, dark spots, what happened that I need to know but can only tell later, and so on. So, in a way, I took that idea with me. What are the differences? The volume means you shouldn’t underestimate it. You have to have a story that stands, that has a certain number of words, and that is time-intensive. When people ask, “How long does it take you to write a book?” For my children’s and youth books, it was roughly a month, two months, and for my adult books, I always say, “It’s a literary pregnancy of nine months.” It’s also not every day. There’s some other work in between, but it still builds up. That has helped me a lot, both in developing characters and building the plot, but also that I could take all of that with me. I didn’t have to start from a blank page in that regard, but there was something about the target audience and the whole new world that comes with it. The world of children’s and youth books itself was then cut off. They’re not the same people, the same connections, but I found it fascinating that I could do both.

What things have you taken from writing for adults and the screenwriting course to children’s literature?

I had already written a number of books at that time, and I found that an interesting course. I think I applied it to Operation Bernie Buiten, the structure and a turning point halfway through the story. I thought, “I’m going to work towards that.” In the beginning, I make sure that a small bomb drops so that the story starts, all those things. I thought then, “Why didn’t I know this earlier?” On the other hand, I’ve sometimes written stories again, thinking, “I also need to dare to throw that overboard sometimes.”

Did you attend any courses – additional training, for example – before that?

No, actually not. Unless I forget, because here and there, I did attend a workshop. I also found during the playwriting course that it wasn’t for me. That’s something else. I didn’t see those people standing on that stage like that.

Was the playwriting course the same as the screenwriting?

It was the same person who gave it, but they were two different courses. Playwriting wasn’t as long; screenwriting was ten full days in Leuven. I found that very interesting because if you don’t know something, you can’t apply it. If you know it, you can choose whether or not to apply it. It’s absolutely not that I then went about it technically, not that, but, for example, for screenplays, that’s necessary. One page is one minute. It has to be much tighter, but you can take elements from that so your story doesn’t swing in all directions, which is a risk for people who are beginners. They want to tell this and that and that, and it goes all over the place. They no longer know: “What do I want?” With the course, you get good advice, like “What does the main character want?” Those are good questions that I still ask myself. So, it has been instructive. I was happy with that.

Going back in time: as a child, you read a lot, but did you also write as a child?

Yes indeed, I had forgotten about that. Yes, very much. I read a lot as a child, but I also liked to write short essays, and I remember that when the teacher said, “Now you can write a short essay,” it was ‘yay’ for me, and others were like, “Huh, the others don’t seem to like it.” My sister was also like, “That’s strange.” Both of us found it enjoyable. For me, it went like this: when the teacher said that, it was ready the next day. It wasn’t a burden; it just came out that way. I remember my sister even saying in high school, “Wait, I’m going to write a bit for you guys.” She wrote three like, “One for this one, one for that one, …” It didn’t cost us any effort, and we enjoyed it. I’ve been writing poems since I could write. From the first grade, but I did throw them away.

Ah, too bad. I always say in this kind of interviews: “Don’t throw anything away.”

No, I know. I tell that to the kids during the lectures too.

You mentioned essays. Did you ever write more spontaneous things, or sometimes something longer? Or was that mainly for school?

Mainly for school because then – it’s really forty years ago – children weren’t stimulated as much. Story contests, like there are now, didn’t exist to that extent, or at least not where I was. I didn’t grow up in a big city, but in a small village. In high school, I did participate in a story contest. It was in the fifth or sixth year of high school. You only had to describe a photo within an hour. I found that creativity-killing. Outside of that, not really. I also never wrote diaries.

You debuted with a Vlaams Filmpje. Was that through a contest?

I’m not sure anymore, but I know I saw that passing by: “Participate in (I think that still exists) the annual contest for Vlaamse Filmpjes, send in so many words by then.” and I thought, “That’s clear.” You could choose the theme, and I thought, “Who doesn’t try, doesn’t win.” That’s a motto I’ve followed a lot. I have nothing to lose, at most a no. “Okay, you tried.”

Why did you choose a children’s book as your first book?

It had nothing to do with my children because it was written before I had children. I was pregnant, but that had nothing to do with it. It was actually, I think, achievable for me in terms of volume and practicality. Plus, it was also a bit of my modesty that I thought, “I’m not immediately aiming for a novel.” I was still searching. What do I want to write, and how does that work, building a story? That’s new, so I thought, “A Vlaams Filmpje is achievable in volume and clear for me.” That was really my springboard. “Hilde, just start with children’s and youth books. Something you choose in volume, and then continue with adult books because no one has asked for that.” That came from myself, again like, “Why not?”

Really fascinating, and thank goodness for those Vlaamse Filmpjes for many authors.

Yes, that has been good. My husband read them. Many people actually know about them. It must have been more common in the past.

Has your husband also written for Vlaamse Filmpjes?

No, he only read them as a child. That was fun. It was kind of the stimulus for that very first written work. He is my first reader. You probably hear that a lot. He has proofread almost everything I’ve written.

Is he the first reader for all your works?

Yes, even for my children’s and youth literature because that interests him too. He teaches psychology and tries to get students interested in children’s and youth literature in general because many people there go into the educational sector, become teachers. He also has a connection with children’s and youth literature and doesn’t find it inferior at all, on the contrary. That’s not because of me; that’s his mindset. That’s why he has always read along. He has a sense for characters and story development. He also reads a lot of novels, literature, and my thrillers. He doesn’t read thrillers himself, but he can read along. That also has its advantages.

You have had a career of quite a few years. You started in 1997, and the last book was published in 2019. There’s about twenty years between them.

I think Meedogenloos (Ruthless) was published last year. That was the last one, in 2020, with Walter Damen. It’s Rusteloos (Restless) in 2018, Bodemloos (Bottomless) in 2019, and Meedogenloos in 2020.

I also have Moord in de wijk (Murder in the Neighbourhood) here.

That was published in 2019. It’s a ‘Wablieft’ book, also interesting. That was at the request of the publisher.

More than 20 years then. Do you feel that your own age (age-related experiences, getting older) has played a role in your writing?

I have never been aware of it as long as I was writing children’s and youth books. Until 2015, I didn’t feel that my children, who were teenagers at the time, had prevented me from writing books for ages eight, ten, … Or vice versa, when my children were babies, I didn’t write about babies. I could let that go. I actually let go of my own age, but I must say that I used to think, and this may sound strange, that a 40-year-old character in a book was old. Now that I have reached the blessed age of 50, I think much more: “Oh, so interesting that characters can also play a role who can refer back, who have experienced something.” Ultimately, I was also a child, but that has never played a role in itself for my children’s and youth books. By having children, sometimes being afraid as a mother of two daughters, fears of “Where are they? Is everything okay?” I think I can now describe that perfectly in my books. Walking on the street as a woman – I have never experienced anything, but knowing what it’s like when there are footsteps, crossing the street, footsteps following, one more time, … I think: “These are things that you can describe very authentically because you have experienced something. You have lived, you have age, …” Now, that is also gradually coming. Friends also experience all kinds of things, with children leaving home, … That makes your own life experience richer and more mature, and actually, that is not a disadvantage to writing adult books. Suppose I ever write about grandparents, I do think that the age can add a dimension to develop authenticity, credibility, diversity of feelings for your main character. It’s never me, but you can make them more real by putting a fragment of yourself in them, and with getting older, I do indeed think: “Okay, those characters are younger than I am.” That is really confronting. It has nothing to do with writing but with aging itself because those journalists often put your age there. I don’t need that anymore, [laughs]. Now, I am more concerned with that. It is a confrontation with your own age. You have to give those characters an age. You identify a bit with your main character, otherwise, you can’t get away with it. The confrontation with aging is somewhat confronting on the one hand, but on the other hand, there is also maturity and a greater baggage that you carry.

Do you feel that you can write about older characters better now than before?

I think I am going to feel more confident. You can express it a bit modestly. You know what can play around certain ages. For example, people separating. I don’t necessarily have to have experienced that myself, or in my close surroundings, to be able to write about it, or I would have had to experience a lot for those more than 50 books.

Yes, especially for all those thrillers. [laughs]

Yes, luckily I haven’t experienced all of that, but it does create awareness. For example, I can perfectly try to imagine myself as a mother, how it is when you are alone because I am a mother. I have never been a single mother, but then I come back to that empathy. If you have had a crying baby or they are always quarreling – I can perfectly write such scenes that I think: “Wow, that won’t be easy.” It’s not a disadvantage.

On the flip side: do you find it, now that you are getting older, more difficult to write about children or characters that you realize are significantly younger than you?

Writing about children is the opposite. For example, De toeschouwers (The Spectators) begins with a fragment from the past about someone, without knowing who it is, in an orphanage. I start boldly. Actually, in Stille grond (Silent Ground), I also start with children. I think you won’t find many openings of Flemish crime authors where they start with children. It’s actually daring because you have to prove that it’s not a children’s book, but I find the opposite. I miss children in crime novels. All these people are walking around, but where are the children? They don’t necessarily have to be threatened there because that’s a cliché, but where are the children? I try to depict people who sometimes have families or sometimes struggle with things that are not only exciting but also give a dimension to the character. So, in certain books, not always, I portray children. Stille grond is about twins at the beginning, but one disappears. I can then disect that, describe what it does to the parents, and so on. I think I will never omit describing children in my crime novels because I feel that something is not right if there are no children present. As an author, you choose to describe a world without children because that might be an easy choice because talking to adults has to be authentic. They can’t be mini-adults. I can do that. That is, again, my advantage as a children’s and youth author. If you have written more than 35 children’s and youth books, you can’t get rid of that. I’m not afraid of dialogue between children and adults. I find that an added value, even for the crime novel as a whole. When I look at my adult characters (it’s my age as I get older), I might write about grandparents and children or parents and children because I wouldn’t be myself if there were no children involved. Regarding those main characters, I think that maybe, if the cravings really come back to me, I could write a book about someone who is indeed 50 or 60 years old. While I could never have imagined that when I was thirty years old because that is such a different world when you are thirty years old as an author. You are writing children’s and youth books. If you had said then: “You might one day write a book with a fifty-year-old, sixty-year-old protagonist,” I would have said: “Wow, I don’t know.” While now I say: “That is getting closer. I don’t rule that out.” You get closer to your own here and now.

I find it super interesting that you mention there are so few children in adult books. You conducted research on the relationship between children and old people in youth books and then also looked for equivalent case studies in adult literature. You have to search extensively before finding a book where an older person plays a significant role and also has grandchildren, and where that relationship is genuinely present in the book.

Yes, those books talk about it: “He has two children.” That is said, but they are not there. Then I think, purely as an author, that some authors are afraid to credibly and authentically describe a conversation with and the behavior of children because it’s not easy. A second thing, now hypothetically, but what I think could be an obstacle – and then we [come to] the image of children’s and youth literature, which we both naturally don’t say that way – is being afraid to [write] a piece of children’s and youth literature at the moment when [children] come up with ideas or imagine something in an adult book. I think that might be a part of not being able to do it because I have read dialogues where I think, “No, a 4-year-old would never say that.” That’s enough to close a book. In movies, too, I sometimes think, “Wow, what a very wise child.” It can be portrayed that way. Maybe some have tried it and said, “I’ll stay away from that.” Plus, there are prejudices. I think of what they said about my first two books: “Yes, yes, we’ll see that she is a children’s and youth author,” and then I think: “How do they see that?” That’s a prejudice. After the third book, that was never the case again.

It’s probably the idea.

Yes, and there aren’t many people, I think, who do both equally and can. Some try it with one book, in both directions.

Yes, or authors of young adult novels. You see that a lot, but that is something else, of course, than in your case where the ages are much further apart.

For me, it’s an added value, writing children’s and youth books, for everything. Also, regarding film scripts, if that were ever the case.

Those novels for adults were partly inspired because you felt that what you had to say for children and youth was already largely done at that time, and you still wanted to write. Am I paraphrasing that correctly?

Because I didn’t want to repeat myself in the themes that touched me for children’s and youth literature. I felt that physically: it’s been good. I don’t have to care about those asking parties, “another book, another book.” I said: “Sorry, it’s not in me right now.” I feel good about that choice. Ending on a high note is also something. It was good, and now it stops for children’s and youth books. That is now six years ago, so 2015.

It’s sometimes challenging to deduce that from the dates the books were published because if you look at the list, it seems like you had a period when you wrote the two in parallel. Was that a clearer break in the writing process?

That was also the case. I was in my transitional phase then. It’s true. It was indeed two years. In 2013, my first thriller – or crime novel – was published, and my last children’s and youth book in 2015. I spent two years wondering, “What am I going to do, in which direction am I going, what am I going to do with my career?” I didn’t decide that overnight. That choice came in those two years, and Wolken boven Waterdorp (Clouds Above Water Village) was my last children’s and youth book. I already felt then: “Hilde, it’s been good, and now focus indeed on thrillers for adults.” That was really okay for me. It was so clear. I have always followed my gut feeling in that as well. It was not based on others. I went on what I wanted at that moment and also a bit, but that is secondary, giving readers what they deserve.

Yes, and did you then hold off on the offers or questions you still received for a while?


But you did work for a while with different age groups simultaneously?

You have to take into account the preparation of that book from 2013, a literary pregnancy back. I was writing that in 2012 and a bit in 2013, so maybe take about three years. That overlapped.

I wanted to briefly go to the publishers then. You already mentioned that when developing those thrillers, you consciously chose a publisher who really wanted to think along with the book. Did you talk a lot about age, about the target audience with your publishers of children’s and youth literature? Were you sometimes asked by your publisher to adjust things, or did you consciously talk about it?

Actually, I think so. In that sense, for my children’s and youth books, I always had those categories in mind: the picture book with an upper limit, then first readers, then eight plus, ten plus. On my site, my books are also listed that way, I think, or they were once classified that way. For myself, it was a bit of clarity because I then said the number of chapters, length of chapter, length of sentences,… When I said: “I think that’s an eight plus book,” that was always fine. The publisher never said: “Yes, but I’m going to say it’s for ten plus,” and I said no. I never had to give in to that. I also never had to change sentences, but with the beginning readers or the first readers, it’s all a bit more subtle and difficult. You have to, for example, process feedback like, “These sentences are too long for us.” They had checked that, but it still worked. It wasn’t that I could no longer tell my whole story. With De twaalfde man, my Sprookjesgroeiboek (Fairy Tale Growth Book), or my Griezelgroeiboek (Horror Growth Book), it also had to grow, and that had to be right too. If you tell people: “It gets more difficult,” then you have to make that come true. Only I have always felt that everything with first readers, and Rebecca also said that, went well for me. I saw that for myself, and I actually liked doing it a lot. I never thought: “Oops, I won’t get that in there at all.” That was already at the beginning: not too many characters, not too difficult first names that have to be repeated ten times. That went fairly naturally. I never felt trapped, thinking, “I have to write within a strict framework now.” Otherwise, I would never have wanted that.

Have there ever been discussions about how to present certain themes for a specific age group?

Actually, never [laughs]. If a publisher were to tell me now, “Hilde, this is how you should present themes for a certain age,” I would feel trapped and even block myself. Because I think I have always felt that well, but I am also [laughs] highly sensitive by nature. That is not always an advantage. Everything then hits harder. Everything comes in more sensitively, and it also succeeds in writing that more sensitively, like “How can you put difficult themes in a digestible way for children?” I also find being suggestive always super important. You don’t have to describe that scene for that reason. You can articulate what happened in that scene. I don’t find that an added value, explicit scenes, not even in my thrillers.

The opposite can sometimes provoke discussion too, that it is sometimes said, “It might be too suggestive.” I try to imagine how those discussions take shape. Now, I actually hear from few authors that there is much debate with publishers about this.

It is actually a bold theme, but my first Vlaamse Filmpje, Glimwormen, is about child abuse. That’s how I made my debut, and it was actually a daring choice then, in the year 1997. It was also presented subtly so that you know, even the ten-year-olds (that’s the target audience for the Vlaamse Filmpjes), what happened there but without having to include explicit scenes. You don’t need that to tell a reader, even if it’s a ten-year-old, what a terrible thing happened there. I think the feedback I got then, which had nothing to do with age, was: “Maybe put it in a middle-class family and not in a more marginal one.” To which I said, “Great, thanks for your tip,” because since then I think: “Why did I indeed put it in a marginal family? No, I should have known that.” That was just a small adjustment. I would find it very difficult to make concessions if publishers were to say, “You can’t write about that.” I have never had that because I might avoid certain themes or explicit actions. I don’t know.

Have you had a lot of contact with readers of your books? Have you learned things from that, or sometimes received surprising perspectives?

Yes, definitely. There were contacts in the form of getting an email from a child, but also at the book fair. I have seen that evolve. I have experienced the time when my children were running around, turning the wheel for a euro at the Jommeke stand, and so on, and the children standing in front of us asking, “Can I have an autograph?” A mom saying, “He read it, you know, he read it,” and I would say, “Wow, it’s great that you read that,” and then he reads ten more books. Such contact, but that has decreased in recent years: “Where are the children?” They are probably all sitting in hall West, hall 4, … [laughs] My children did autograph hunting, but I have seen that decrease over the years, and consequently, the contact as well. Is it the children? Are the parents bringing fewer children to certain halls? I don’t know. I won’t judge, but I have seen that change a lot. So the contacts at the book fair, the children who ask you something once, who say, “I read it,” disappeared. We also had teachers. That’s also nice. “We read it in class.” Contact also came in the form of lectures. There was a time when I still did that fairly often, not anymore. That was very interesting. They always asked: “Should they read your books beforehand?” and I said, “No, I actually want to get them excited by letting them taste bits, by acting scenes, by letting kids come forward, and when I’m gone, let them read.” Analyzing and discussing a book after reading it, I find it the worst thing you can do at a lecture. I always invited kids up front, and there were also very nice things happening there because those were very spontaneous things with the children. When I left, I heard a lot: “Your books have been gone from the library for weeks.” I think, “That’s why I came.” It wasn’t like, “We have to read this and we’re going to discuss it, and the teacher will ask questions about it.” I always said, “No, they can read but they don’t have to.” I revealed a bit of the different genres of my books, which everyone could relate to, boys, girls, or whatever. So there were many encounters with children, and what you do feel then is that the more accessible books sometimes find their way to children of all kinds of reading levels. The time of reading, especially for those seven-, eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds, is diverse within a class, and I always said, “It’s not bad if someone takes a book that says, for example, eight plus.” When I was giving a lecture to ten-year-olds, I was very vigilant: “Great, you have a book.” I mostly leave out the age because they read. I am also always like, “Choose what you want to read from these books, what you are most interested in.” That is still the best way to keep them reading. For example, almost all my books have been read by the Children and Youth Jury. Usually, the less accessible books are in there. For example, Van een kind dat tikkertje speelt met de wind or Krullen. [Krullen] is about cancer, but that word is not in there. It’s a sad book. A child can never, and that was never the intention, read that without feedback or help from adults. There is layering in it that adults will read differently than the child. There are a few more books like that, and then you get the sessions where children can come to you, and one example (I will never forget) from Krullen was: “What did you think? Is it a good book?” “No, because it’s sad.” I found that cute and instructive, but that’s how children reason. Then you come to the important task: they can think that. I will never say, “Yes, but you’re not allowed to think that.” Young children think completely differently than adults, and I find that very interesting. I also used to lead children’s and youth lectures in small groups. It was so interesting. “I don’t like it because the cover is ugly.” [laughs] But really!

I have also guided that. I always asked, “Can a sad book also be beautiful?” and then they start reasoning and discussing.

Yes. It’s such an example: “It’s not a beautiful book because it’s sad.” [laughs] That’s why I didn’t avoid those themes. Somewhere, it’s that innocence, that honesty of children that I actually appreciate a lot.

Have they sometimes come up with surprising interpretations or surprising questions about your books?

I think so, but I can’t think of any right away. What you do have in lectures: “I have experienced that too,” and then you have to be careful that kids don’t reveal too much to a whole group. I have also had that, children who really say, “I have experienced that too,” or, for example, parents shouting at that little footballer, the recognizability of moms and dads shouting on a field. You also feel that there are many things children experience that can be made discussable through a book. That’s not our task, but you feel that that’s a catalyst that a TV or a screen won’t replace because the imagination is still in those books. There are drawings, but actually, kids have to imagine the actions, what is happening there. On TV, it’s served to you. He does that, he looks like this, the environment looks like this. You don’t have to think; the imagination is actually absent. In a book, it is present, and that’s why I think they can sometimes identify even more. “Oh, that boy looks like me, or that girl who is lonely there,” or “Oops, I was that yesterday too.” The chance of identification is greater, I think, through the medium of books, even with illustrations, than a TV where everything is pre-cut. That’s something we must not forget. Teachers, but also parents, must continue to promote that.

You also get a lot of reactions from adults. Have you sometimes taken them into account when writing, that children’s books are not only read by children but also by adults? Have you also tried to address them with your books?

I actually never consciously took that into account or that I would write differently because an adult is reading along. I have always said, even from eight plus, ten plus: “Leave the door open for everyone.” For example, in Het kistje van Cleo, there is a scene, written from the eyes of the child, where the mom makes the choice that if she doesn’t like someone, she gives the bag with a broken ear, and if she likes someone, she gives another one. The child knows that. I did get reactions because it was a social worker who came – the child also calls it something else. I got a reaction from someone who was a social worker and had read it along with his or her daughter. They said, “That is so recognizable, the hostility. You’re a stranger, and you’re going to tell them how to raise their children. The feeling of the people, how you portrayed that, is exactly what I experience in my job.” That’s the layering. A ten-year-old gets stuck at the level of “Ah, the bag, one with the ear and one with the broken ear,” and not that layer of “How would it be if a social worker came here? Would it be like that too?” Then I do feel that the layering makes adults read something else, and that makes me happy, like, “Ah, I’m on the right track.” I never wrote that with the thought that someone who is a social worker would read it, but when you get that reaction, you think: “Oh, I had indeed put a bit of layering in there.” The child sees something, but actually, it’s about much more, an intruder in the family. I find that super beautiful. Also, in general, people who are grateful that certain themes are discussed.

I was glad to read that the itch had returned to you. [laughs]

Yes, but not for children’s and youth books.

Ah, not for children’s and youth literature?


But it could come back after a while. I also spoke with Joke van Leeuwen, among others, and she says that it works in cycles for her. It came back for her, so I remain quietly hopeful.

[laughs] That’s good! Who knows? To be continued!