- Interview by Scott Butki
Well, talk about taking an old, sometimes tired, genre, and giving it a new twist – author Bavo Dhooge has certainly done that. While this is the author’s first book to be translated into English, he’s written 100 other books and is a best-seller in Belgium.
In his new book, Styx, a police officer chases a serial killer….at first, it doesn’t sound like the most novel concept in the world. Dhooge, however, quickly brings in the more unique aspects of his narrative. The killer, dubbed “The Stuffer,” removes his victims’ organs and fills the resulting cavity with sand, turning murdered bodies into art displays. As an even more creative touch, the protagonist dies early on… which normally would make this a quiet book, or with one changing protagonists, right?
Instead, Bavo takes it a new direction: For unknown reasons the police officer returns as a zombie to continue the hunt. Now that’s how you add a new twist to the genre.
I took advantage of the opportunity to interview this author. Among those praising him, Richard Kadrey, author of the Sandman Slim series, describes the novel as “a taut detective story with dash of Surrealism. Imagine Dashiell Hammett sending Sam Spade into a dark, off-kilter world of artists, zombies, and serial killers.”
Scott Butki: How in the world did you come up with a story so creative from the unusual villain to a cop turned zombie?
Bavo Dhooge: This may sound unbelievable, but there are a lot of autobiographical elements in Styx. It all started one morning when I woke up, 40 years old, looking back upon my life so far. Because of a sports injury I literally felt like a zombie, with an incredible pain in my hip, a big midlife crisis, a broken marriage, a wonderful son growing up (whom I had to let go) and a general feeling of “Is this all there is?”.
In short, I felt as if the first part of my life was over. Okay, I wasn’t dead, but it was time to take a look back and ask myself what I accomplished, what I did wrong and what I could do better in the future. Also, I had written about 85 novels by then, all of them quite different from the usual typical detective story.
I always wanted to write an ordinary police crime novel with two inspectors, but somehow during my career I always ended up with something else. This time, I told myself, I would stick to the concept. So I started with the setting: the Belgian beach capital Ostend, Queen of the Sea, because of its rich tradition, but also because of the fallen empire, the lost “grandeur” and the dark, obscure death hanging around.
Many of the wonderful buildings and monuments in Ostend, built to honor King Leopold II, were in fact “sponsored” with blood money, coming from the slaves and the plantations of the Congo in the 19th century. Apart from that, the location perfectly suits the character of the “good” zombiecop, in the sense of getting a second chance.
When I started writing, I suddenly came up with the question: “What if… someone could get a second chance and become a better dead person than he was alive?” In life, Styx is an aggressive, corrupt and unfriendly inspector, who gets shot by the serial killer “The Stuffer” whom he is chasing.
But then he returns from the dead to crack the case and capture the same guy who killed him. That was the starting point. From then on, the melancholy of the dead character Styx (realizing that in life he all took it for granted) overtook the writer as well. Therefore I gave Styx the ability to travel between life and death (according to the myth of “Styx,” the dark river), and also between the Ostend of today and the Ostend of the Belle Époque of the 19th century. That way, another element joined in: Ostend was the place to be for the Surrealists and what is more surreal than a man who gets shot, but resurrects like some sort of zombie Christ?
So, in all, it’s all about the character of the bad human being, turning into the good zombie, alone, without any other fellow zombies, which makes him somehow very humanlike again (because maybe we are all alone in this world and when things get rough, we all suffer from an existential feeling of loneliness).
SB: Is this the start of a series or a stand alone? Is this your first novel featuring Rafael Styx?
BD: This is the first novel featuring “Styx.” It’s likely to become a trilogy. The second one, Styxmata, came out in my home country Belgium last summer and the last one, Styxmania, still has to be written.
SB: I understand you’ve written more than 100 stories each starting with the letter s. Why the obsession with ‘s’? And do you plan to continue with s as a letter in your titles? Are all of those books crime novels?
BD: I’ve been a professional writer for 15 years now and at the start of my career I soon came to realize that I would write very different books. In fact, every new book is a chance for me to reinvent myself, busting out of the box of a crime novelist. I’ve written novels, science fiction, horror, crime novels, historical novels, surrealistic novels, young adult, youth, children, etc. For me, this is very liberating and inspiring, but for the reader it’s sometimes difficult to follow all those different books.
Therefore I came up with a gimmick, the letter ‘S’ for all my titles. It’s like a stamp. In fact, after a few years I got a funny nickname here in Belgium: they call me the ‘S-Express’. By the end of 2016 I think I will have about a 100 S-novels. After that, it’s time to reinvent myself again, so then it’s time for something else. Apart from this gimmick, half of my novels are crime novels. But I do have the feeling that people can recognize my style: it’s pretty film noir, lots of (dark) humor, crazy characters and some kind of “less is more” form of action writing.
SB: With that many books under your belt where would you suggest American and other readers new to you begin?
BD: My core business, if you could call it that, is a series of crime novels (stand-alone books, but each one set in LA). Here in Belgium they call it the LA-series. Those crime novels won me three different important prizes here in my homeland and reviews compare those crime novels with the works of Tarantino, “The Sopranos,” the Coen Brothers and the late Elmore Leonard. They are comical crime novels, written in a film style with a lot of humor, very character driven.
I hope and think maybe this series is ready to be translated for the US market. In fact, one of them, called Santa Monica (winner of the Hercule Poirot Prize 2013) has already been translated by my American friend, Josh Pachter (who also collaborated with me on Styx). I certainly hope my agent will try to make this one and the rest of the series work, because I strongly believe there is an American audience for it.
SB: Can you tell me about the films you directed?
BD: I studied for four years at the Film University in Ghent and graduated as a film director. My graduation project was a short film, selected for the International Film Fest of Ghent. After that I worked for five years as a copywriter in the advertising world and writing screenplays for documentaries. But beside that, I also wrote screenplays and madesome short films, some of them based upon a couple of surrealistic stories I wrote. Think of Kafka meets Charlie Kaufman. Six shorts are collected as “Seven Awakenings in the Life of an Extraordinary Man.”
They are in English and can still be found on the internet (YouTube). I also wrote three film scripts, all based on my books. One of them, “Smile,” was even sent to Hollywood. It’s about a well-known comedian (who plays himself like Bill Murray or Ben Stiller) who is very depressed, but wakes up one morning with a strange smile upon his face that won’t disappear.
The Italian comedian/actor Roberto Benigni was very interested, but because of production company troubles, the project didn’t get a green light. And last but not least, the television rights of the Dutch version of Styx have been sold to Warner Belgium, so there’s a big chance there will be a Dutch television series about Styx, set in Ostend (12 or 13 episodes).
SB: Has being a film director helped you as a writer? In what ways?
BD: Yes. I wrote an article for Medium.com last week about my routine and writing process which is very similar to that of making a movie. Of course I read a lot of fiction but I also try to keep up with books regarding storytelling. Because of my background as director and screen writer, I use the same steps when preparing a movie.
In the preproduction phase, I think about an idea, then pitch it to people as if I am going to sell the novel to myself as an agent. Then I write this pitch down in one sentence, create a mood board with pictures, references, etc. I think of a title, with a baseline and a slogan. I set out the main theme, the other themes, the “wants” and “needs” of the characters. Then I write down a summary of 3 pages, make a bio of some characters. What follows then is a treatment of 30 pages, putting each chapter (before it is written) down in one pitch/sentence. Beat it out, as they call it. And so on.
The more I write, the more I realize that thinking about what you are going to write is much more important than the writing itself. So yes, it helped me very much. If you want to know more about the writing process, take a look at this article.
SB: Did you decide this would be your first novel in English before or after you wrote it? Why did you pick this one as your first book in English?
BD: No, actually, the plan was to make my US debut with one of the LA novels. But one day my American agent asked me what I was working on, and when I mentioned the pitch “Zombie Cop VS Serial Killer,” he immediately thought: maybe we should go for that one! I’m aware that fantasy and zombies are hot now in the States. On the other hand, I’m not really a fantasy writer (or reader).
I prefer crime novels and science fiction, but talking about Styx, it was clear that this novel is so much more than just fantasy, it’s a crime novel about a zombie cop and about the human condition. I hope the reader will see it that way. I don’t have anything against fantasy, but it would be strange for me to be considered a fantasy writer when I’m strictly not. So, I had just finished the Dutch version of Styx when the deal with Simon & Schuster was made. It happened very fast.
SB: Who are some crime writers you like and would suggest others out?
BD: Oh, the list is endless, but here are some writers who are on my personal wall of fame (which is actually in my writing apartment): Elmore Leonard, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Georges Simenon, mostly hardboiled fiction. But apart from them, also on the wall are novelists: F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Fante, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Philip K. Dick, Paul Auster, Graham Greene, Philip Roth and Edgar Allan Poe. I now notice that most of them are all dead and gone, but just like Styx, I try to keep them alive!
SB: Was it hard to limit yourself to just one joke about the band Styx?
BD: Not so hard, because honestly, I don’t know the band Styx so well. Here in Europe, they are not well known. The song from Massive Attack however (mentioned at the very end of Styx) was a great hit here and it fits perfect the atmosphere and mood of the whole novel, I think.
SB: With 100 plus books, I have to ask – how do you crank them out so fast?
BD: Well, I have my own method and routine, quite similar to the process of writing a screenplay. I recently wrote an article about it: ‘The Secret of the S-Express: How to write 100 novels’. Click here to read this piece.
SB: Was it cool getting an endorsement from the author of Sandman Slim?
BD: Yes, of course, it’s always encouraging to get some positive feedback from readers, but also from fellow writers, although I’m not familiar with his work. Maybe I should, but again, just like with the band ‘Styx’, he’s not so well known here in Europe, maybe that’s a shame. But I’ll certainly will try to read some of his works and I’m very grateful for his quick and nice response!
SB: I enjoyed the book. Nice job finding a new twist on an old genre.
BD: Thanks for mentioning this! I do my best 🙂
You can find copies of Styx on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.