There are a number of things that pop into my mind when I think of the Netherlands or Dutch history. First of all - windmills, the slow and steady turn of the old sails as they grind the flour to make those delectable pastries, the flaky and sugary texture as it touches your lips sending one into a moaning mess of pleasure, ignoring the calories running to your hips as your tastebuds dance in rapture. Or perhaps the clank of the wooden clogs jumps to your mind as you see blonde, busty women in little maid outfits such as I now wear for Oktoberfest, and while not likely historically correct, it is still what first jumps to mind.
Second to that is Amsterdam, and all its red light fun! One of the (if not the only) places in the world where cannabis and prostitution are legal. The home of live sex shows and the ‘Red Light District’ a place where, if one is so inclined, can for 30 Euros, find pleasure in the arms of a willing woman before talking the walk of shame, the whistles and cat calls following you as you exit your lovers door and zip up your fly, all before the eager eyes of the tourists smoking and drinking in the cafes.
Yet like any place or moment in time, it was not always as you see it today.There is a dark and somewhat chilling history surrounding a place that is now known to house such willing pleasure. A murky past during the Holocaust, Anne Frank’s diary is a chilling reminder of that, as well as the poverty that was faced by the lower and middle classes in the days gone by.
For some reason when I think of the struggles of poverty, I conger up images of Oliver Twist asking for more, his smudged cheeks and tattered clothes at the forefront of my mind. Was this always the case? I don’t know but I wanted too. It was then I found a fellow author, R. A. Padmos who actually writes Dutch historicals. She was kind enough to lend me some insight by allowing me to review her latest manuscript, UNSPOKEN. She was also nice enough to allow me to interview her, see below;
You’ve set your latest release UNSPOKEN in 1935, in a unnamed ‘Dutch city’. What motivated you to write about that time and place?
R: Simply told, it’s where I grew up as a child in the sixties, my own grandparents are roughly of the generation of the main characters. Though the characters, and their story, are of course as fictional as can be.
What research did you undertake and did you try to focus on the history and accuracy of the time, or did you let your creative mind as an author rule the world you produced in UNSPOKEN?
R: I actually didn’t have to do much research for this story. As I child and teenager I heard countless stories of my grandparents about the Depression and the German occupation (they always called it “the war”) And what they most talked about, of course, were the details of daily life and how they managed with a growing family and my granddad out of work half the time.
As for the gay part: I always thought it’s important for any gay person to be aware of our history, so by the time I was ready to write this story, I had most knowledge I needed already in my head. It goes without saying that this is a work of fiction, not one of science, and I’ve taken some liberties for the sake of the story.
You main characters resolve around the Dutch working class, with your hero actually commenting on how close he and his family were to starvation, how his body looked malnourished. Why did you choose to focus on this class of people adverse to the commonly portrayed gentry, like so many other authors?
R: I come from a working class background. I studied social history. And as a gay woman I can’t help but notice that working class people seem to be underrepresented in (romantic) historical gay fiction, except as “rough trade” or as more “authentic”, but also somewhat primitive “real” men, observed and lusted after by the more refined, but also less manly middle and higher class men. Both, of course, tell only half of the truth.
As for the poverty: the Doffer family manages to keep themselves fed and clothed, thanks to Marije being a hell of a housewife and Stefan handing over every cent he brings home. But it’s on a level that’s always one or two steps away from real hunger. Things like paying the rent on time, making sure the family was properly dressed was a matter of pride. There didn’t seem to be much envy of what the middle class could afford, but to deteriorate to the level of the ones who had already given in to their poverty was a constant fear. You don’t want to know how often my grandmother corrected even the slightest improper or incorrect use of language of her children and grandchildren, and she had left school when she was 13.
At first the German occupation didn’t seem so bad and even with a complex system of rations, there was enough food for everyone. But that changed after a while and became downright dramatic during the winter of 1944, when no food, fuel or medication was allowed into the western part of the country as retaliation against a big railway strike against the Germans. Later the canals and rivers were frozen and it was simply impossible for the inland ships to get food to the people, even when the Germans allowed it.
The relationships in your story UNSPOKEN are so complex. You show us the struggle the hero found when he discovered desires towards another man. Did you find this aspect difficult to write, weighting the ‘expected’ behaviour for a man of the time in addition to the hero’s love and responsibilities towards his family and devoted wife?
R: You’re right, they are complex, because reality is complex. Homosexuality was for the most part invisible in those days. There was a strong idea that a homosexual man was essentially female in nature, so any man who didn’t recognise himself in that picture might well have thought he couldn’t be “that way”. Combine that with the tendency for working class men to marry young and it’s no surprise Stefan finds himself in a marriage without even having the slightest idea about his true sexuality until he actually meets a man he feels so attracted to. He learns there’s a huge difference between the amicable, but essentially passionless relationship with his wife, and what he feels for his male lover. He fights that knowledge, but in the end, there’s no denying the facts.
What have you found, as a published author, to be the hardest hurdles in writing an historical romance?
R: In this case, translating very specific Dutch situations and words into something outsiders hopefully can relate to. Not only the physical stuff, but also the way of thinking, the culture.
I wonder if we, with internet and TV making homosexuality so visible for so many people, can truly understand how deep and total the silence was for the majority of (working-class) gay men. For that reason, I can’t say in honesty that Stefan is bisexual or gay-for-that-one-man. Had he been of his grandchildren’s (my) generation, he would have known as a teenager, experimented a bit with a few boyfriends (perhaps even one time with a girl) to finally meet the love of his life. And I bet he and Marije would have been the very best of friends.