Monday, September 8, 2014

Finding the Demons of Ghent

This weekend, I dragged my passport out of its seclusion in a lonely corner, blew off the dust and cobwebs and set off for Brussels for the Belgian launch of my latest book, Demons of Ghent. 

Demons of Ghent was published in June and I had a UK launch event at Blackwell's Bookshop in Edinburgh, but I really wanted to do something in Belgium too, because the book is set there. July and August were not the best time to do this because many of the expat population are away on holiday, so I decided to go in September instead. I managed to set up some bookstore events and a radio interview but I'm very pleased to say that I also had time to visit Ghent to see some of my very favourite book locations, and to do a bit of exploring in some new places too.

The interview (on Friday) was with Brussels-based Radio X, and I'll post details of how to listen to that once it has been aired. After that, I headed off to Ghent for the afternoon. I'd been debating with myself whether I should go and see my old favourite places in Ghent, or see something completely new; in the end it was no contest and the old favourites won out. I can never resist paying a visit to this place:

Sint-Baafs Cathedral! That's a photo from a previous trip, by the way. The church is currently covered in scaffolding whilst renovation is carried out, so you can't see much of the glorious gothic architecture. The photo was taken from the Belfort tower on the other side of the square. If you have already read Demons of Ghent you will know that both buildings feature in the opening scene. 

The cathedral is home to the glorious fifteenth century artwork that is the Ghent Altarpiece, sometimes known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The altarpiece also features in my novel, so I  went to have another look at it. I can't post any photographs I'm afraid. Although photography is forbidden in Sint-Baafs, it is possible to take discreet photos of the interior if you are not abashed by the numerous signs telling you not to, however, it would be much more difficult to get any of the altarpiece, and considering its rarity and beauty I think it makes sense not to drench it in the light of a thousand flash bulbs. You can see it online here:

I did however get a photograph of this painted panel, which was at one time considered a seemly subsitute for the original one of an entirely naked Eve! This hangs in the nave of the church and not in the small secure room which houses the altarpiece itself. 

Again, if you have read Demons of Ghent, this painting will ring a few bells! 

After visiting the cathedral, I went up the Belfort tower, which I found (having a complete terror of heights) quite as horrifically vertiginous as last time. It was fabulous when I was researching the rooftops of Ghent, because it was a superb view over them, but this time I really couldn't face doing the entire circuit of the outer arcade! It makes me feel weak at the knees. I identify very strongly with my heroine, Veerle, but I certainly don't have her amazing head for heights. 

Anyway, I did get a photograph of myself (and the book!) next to the great bell Roland, that is mentioned in chapter 1 of Demons of Ghent. 

A big thank you to the British tourist who kindly took this photograph for me - I don't think I could have taken a selfie here as I would have needed arms six feet long to get the bell into the picture!

Next, I walked to the Gravensteen castle, which also features in the book. The Gravensteen is also covered fairly liberally with scaffolding right now, so I didn't take many new photos of the exterior. I did however get one of me standing inside the fireplace that features prominently in chapter 27:

Again, I had to impose on the kindness of another tourist to get the photo. Ironically, since I can make myself understood in French, German and Dutch, I managed to pick someone who spoke Spanish!! Sadly she managed to cut my feet off in this photo but I didn't have the heart (or the linguistic skills) to ask her to take another one. You'll have to imagine my feet. 

Whilst I was in Ghent I also tried some cuberdons, the locally-made conical sweets; in fact, I saved them and ate them at the top of the Gravensteen. I reckon you can't do much that's more typically "Ghent" than that!

I also had some double-fried frietjes (a.k.a. chips) with a dollop of mayonnaise. Very tasty! The only thing I didn't manage to do this time was to drink a glass of bessenjenever in one of the bars overlooking the canal - I've promised myself that for another day.

On Saturday I went out with Flemish friends to see Beersel castle. I'd never visited it before so it isn't featured in any of my books, but I'm sure Veerle would have enjoyed poking about in it. I certainly did. The castle is ruinous in places and it is not furnished but personally I actually prefer that to visiting somewhere that has been assiduously restored. I like to furnish and people the place with my own imagination! You can certainly do that at Beersel. There are all sorts of spiral staircases, vertiginous walkways and dark little rooms to explore. 

(Staircase photo by Marc Vastesaeger)

On Saturday evening I had the first of my launch events, at Waterstone's on Adolphe Maxlaan in Brussels. I talked about the reasons why I found Ghent so inspirational, and read from the book. I also answered a lot of questions - it was a very busy event! It was brilliant to have such a good audience and I was especially touched to see two friends who had travelled all the way from Ghent for the evening to be there. They showed me around the city when I was researching the book, and the one small example of Ghent dialect (in chapter 36) was given to me by them. 

On Sunday I had a second event at Treasure Trove Books in Tervuren. When we lived in Belgium, we were thrilled to have an English-language bookshop practically on our doorstep, and Treasure Trove have hosted several other books event for me, so it was great to launch the book in the shop. 

The Treasure Trove team had created a really fantastic display to tempt readers (above). Judging by some of the questions I got at this event, it's interesting for readers who live locally to pick out the real life locations in the books in this trilogy. Demons of Ghent is, naturally, mostly set in Ghent, but there are references to other places such as Overijse, where Kris lives, and Veerle's unnamed village near Tervuren. I have never named the village in the books because I thought that the residents of a small Flemish village might not appreciate having it reinvented as the scene of a horrible killing! But anyone who knows the area can make some fairly accurate conjectures about the various locations. 

After the event I spent a bit of time in Tervuren enjoying the atmosphere of the festival that took place this weekend, but all too soon it was time to pack and get back to the airport. I'm pleased to say that I shall be back in Belgium next month for the British School of Brussels' Book Week, so I'll have another chance to stock up on cuberdons and perhaps a bottle of bessenjenever! 

Meanwhile, I'd like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who made this such a great weekend! Big thanks to Genevieve and the team at Waterstone's Brussels, and to Jane, Jennifer and the team at Treasure Trove in Tervuren. Thanks to Noreen Donovan of Radio X for interviewing me. Thanks to Marc Vastesaeger for showing me the beautiful castle at Beersel! And the biggest thanks of all go to my stalwart friend Gaby who not only offered me her guest room for the duration of the trip but also drove me around all over the place. She even drove me through the honking and swerving chaos that is driving in Brussels and managed to find a parking space not 100 metres from Waterstones, which is an almost unbelievable feat! 

Finally, thanks to everyone who came to the events! 

Above: Gravensteen selfie!