A New Novel, Coming To Life

Bob Van Laerhoven Author Interview

The Shadow of The Mole follows the intertwining stories of a man who believes himself dead, who is writing a story he claims is being recited to him, and the doctor caring for him during WWI. What was the inspiration for the setup of your story?

From 1990 to 2003, I was a freelance travel writer in conflict zones worldwide: Somalia, Liberia, Bosnia, Serbia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, Mozambique, Kosovo, and Burma(Myanmar)… to name but a few. I stopped when I was fifty and began to suffer from strange psychic symptoms. I struggled with the impression that something invisible followed me like a shadow. A leering, threatening presence mocked me, whispering that I wasn’t an actual human, just a walking mummy and that a terrible death would be my fate. So, of course, I sought professional help and soon learned that long periods of stress can produce all kinds of unusual mental phenomena. Intrigued, I began researching Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I learned that PTSD, even in Roman Times, was documented and that, in WW1, soldiers who showed signs of PTSD usually ended up in front of the firing squad as cowardly deserters who pretended to be lunatics.

And then, I stumbled across Cotard’s Syndrome, sometimes also called “walking corpse syndrome.” When I began to read about it, it was as if a cold finger prodded me in my neck, and I smelled the energy – still far away – of a new novel, coming to life.

In 1880, the French neurologist and psychiatrist Jules Cotard was the first to describe and analyze the psychiatric syndrome he called Le délire des negations (The delirium of negation). I read about different symptoms and cases, but the ones that I found highly fascinating were patients who were convinced that they were dead. One of them was a young man who told everyone that he was a corpse and that his ‘self’ (sometimes, he said ‘soul’) was standing behind his right shoulder.

That night, I had a nightmare in which a ‘gypsy’ played a frightening role. That made me think about thirty years ago when I published ‘Feria,’ (Funfair), my third book, a short story collection about the Romani – gypsies – a people of wanderers with a unique culture and myths of gods and demons that I found fascinating.

Subsequently, by chance, I read stories about soldiers in WW1 trenches who reported about ‘presences,’ benevolent or malicious, materializing during intense fighting. New trends in psychiatry and psychoanalysis didn’t limit these symptoms to stress or cowardice but, hesitantly, began to search for malfunctions in the brain and childhood traumas in Freud’s psychoanalysis, often of sexual nature.

Thus, puzzle after puzzle, the hidden entry in my subconsciousness opened itself slowly and gave me access to writing “The Shadow Of The Mole.” The road to completion took me three years, sometimes stumbling over wondrous details, sometimes following dead-end forks in the journey before I once again found the “silver thread beneath my feet” (Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf). Buffeted by doubt, despair, illumination, wonder, and hope, I wrote like a mole, rooting deeper into my story…

When you first sat down to write this story, did you know where you were going, or did the twists come as you were writing?

Being a full-time author for over 30 years, I have published ( traditionally) more than forty books in Holland and Belgium, and each novel started with only a hunch, a flash of intuition, and a first sentence. Each time a first sentence of a book came to me, I knew that I was on my way and that I more than possibly would finish the novel, trusting the inspirations that would materialize when the story developed itself. Often, I felt a pass-through for insights given to me.

This ‘method’ was not always foolproof: sometimes, I made useless detours, or, on other occasions, I resisted an inducement because I was afraid of the artistic, commercial, or personal consequences. When this happened, I noticed that the story fell flat or just plain stopped, so I had to give in and sought for a style and an element of mysterious opaqueness to incorporate the inducement in my story. For instance, there is a family secret of sexual nature in “The Shadow Of The Mole” that plays a big part in the story, but I didn’t want it to be in the readers’ faces, so dispersed in the novel, you can find allusions, hints, metaphors. This mysterious atmosphere plays an essential part in this novel.

What were some themes that were important for you to explore in this book?

During my years as a travel writer, I noticed how war and violence could turn humans into terrible creatures committing horrible atrocities. Why and how does conflict trigger such savagery in us? And why don’t we learn from warfare in the past? For instance, in the nineties, I witnessed the Bosnian war’s ruthlessness, and now, thirty years later, I see the same horror in the Ukrainian conflict. Nothing has changed…Correction, something has changed: the weapons used on the battlefield have become even more sophisticated, deadly, and destructive.

Must we conclude that war alters something in the chemistry of our brain, or do we have to turn back to the old belief that humans can be possessed by demons who thrive on endless suffering? Hidden in “The Shadow Of The Mole” lies a possible and chilling answer.

What is the next book you are working on, and when will it be available?

I’ve chosen the working title “The Firehand File” for my next novel. Again, it’s a historical novel, this time situated in 1921 Berlin, the European “capital of sin.” In Flanders, critics described “The Firehand File” as a “worthy successor to “Baudelaire’s Revenge,” my first novel in English translation (2014), which won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best suspense novel of the year in Belgium, and the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category “mystery/suspense. “Baudelaire’s Revenge” has been translated into English, French, and Russian. The novel centers around the poetic oeuvre of Charles Baudelaire, one of the greatest nineteenth-century French poets.

Likewise, the plot of “The Firehand Files” has a lot to do with the poetry of the Flemish Dada poet Paul Van Ostaijen who lived for a while in Berlin. Once again, it is a complex, thrilling, historical novel noir.

Maybe, it’s better that I disclose the first draft of a blurb. It will give readers a condensed picture of the novel’s soul.

Berlin is a city of extremes. Political violence plagues the streets during the day. A serial killer whom the media call “The Skinner” roams the streets at night. He is suspected to be a rabid World War I veteran, but he remains untraceable.

In this human pressure cooker, the relationship between Paul Van Ostaijen and his impetuous girlfriend, Emma Clément, is on edge. Like hundreds of thousands of others in Berlin, they live in poverty. They are addicted to cocaine and other drugs, while Van Ostaijen is convinced that the artistic Dada movement, rejecting the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest, would change the world.

On a drug-induced whim, Van Ostaijen steals a document titled “The Firehand File” in the apartment of the spy Elise Kraiser. He finds the title “dramatically poetical.” Who could foresee that the poet, doing so, would set in motion a series of dramatic events that shed surprising light on a politician who is rapidly gaining influence?

His name is Herr Adolf Hitler.

The Firehand Files was one of the five finalists of the 2018 Hercule Poirot Prize in Belgium. I hope to see the translation finished this year and that Next Chapter, my publisher, will find it a worthwhile novel.

I sense that “The Firehand File” will be my last novel. I turn seventy this year, and my health is waning, so I’m preparing myself for the most fantastic adventure of all: death and the afterlife.

Author Links: GoodReads | Website

The Shadow Of The Mole is a finalist in the Best Thriller Book Awards 2022 in the Historical Fiction category on BestThrillers.com
The Shadow Of  The Mole is the Gold Category Winner for “Historical Literary” in the 2022 Historical Fiction Company Book Of The Year Contest

1916, Bois de Bolante, France. The battles in the trenches are raging fiercer than ever. In a deserted mineshaft, French sappers discover an unconscious man and nickname him The Mole.
Claiming he has lost his memory, The Mole is convinced that he’s dead and that an Other has taken his place. The military brass considers him a deserter, but front physician and psychiatrist-in-training Michel Denis suspects that his patient’s odd behavior is stemming from shellshock, and tries to save him from the firing squad.
The mystery deepens when The Mole begins to write a story in écriture automatique that takes place in Vienna, with Dr. Josef Breuer, Freud’s teacher, in the leading role. Traumatized by the recent loss of an arm, Denis becomes obsessed with him and is prepared to do everything he can to unravel the patient’s secret.
Set against the staggering backdrop of the First World War, The Shadow Of The Mole is a thrilling tableau of loss, frustration, anger, madness, secrets and budding love. The most urgent question in this extraordinary story is: when, how, and why reality shifts into delusion?

About Literary Titan

The Literary Titan is an organization of professional editors, writers, and professors that have a passion for the written word. We review fiction and non-fiction books in many different genres, as well as conduct author interviews, and recognize talented authors with our Literary Book Award. We are privileged to work with so many creative authors around the globe.

Posted on January 25, 2023, in Interviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: