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Thriller writer Jeroen Windmeijer: books have their own truth

With cultural anthropology alumnus Jeroen Windmeijer, Leiden has added another writer to the fold. Following the success of his religious-historical thrillers, he has been able to call himself a full-time writer since 1 January 2019. ‘Not a true story but still true.’

Every day, Jeroen Windmeijer (1969) sits in a rented office on Rapenburg and writes. From nine to five. This reveals his view of inspiration, which he thinks Picasso expressed so well: inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. ‘I don’t believe in inspiration suddenly taking hold. If I veg out on the sofa, nothing will happen.’ Windmeijer’s first three historical-religious thrillers were set in Leiden. He is now working on a second trilogy, this time set in South America. Part one has already been published. He thinks he’s now managed to shake off Dan Brown, with whom he is often compared.

How to become a writer

How do you go about becoming a writer? Windmeijer had always written stories, for instance during his PhD. In his dissertation, every word had to be justified. ‘I enjoyed the freedom of writing stories as a contrast. And when I read a really bad Dutch thriller in 2013 that had sold tens of thousands of copies, I decided I could do better.’

A Dan Brown fan, Windmeijer thought it would be fun to set a similar story in Leiden. So he did.

Windmeijer debuted in 2015 with De bekentenissen van Petrus (The Confessions of Peter). Thirty publishers turned up their noses, but Leiden publisher Primavera Pers thought it had potential. The book immediately sold well, outside Leiden too; over 12,000 copies have now been sold. His second book, Het Pauluslabyrint, (translated in English as St Paul’s Labyrinth), was published by HarperCollins Holland, a branch of one of the biggest publishers in the world, interesting therefore if you want to break into the international market. Which he did: the book has been published in English, Czech and Italian, and a German version is coming up. His third book, Het Pilgrim Fathers Complot (The Pilgrim Conspiracy) completed the Leiden trilogy.

He is now working on a second trilogy that he has decided to set in South America, in Bolivia, Peru and Guatemala to be precise. The first part, De Offers, is already in the shops. He also wrote a short prequel describing the period before the start of De Offers, begins. Publishers sometimes publish the first pages or chapters of a book as a teaser. The prequel served the same purpose: to whet the reader’s appetite.

Love of Latin America

Windmeijer is now working on part two of his Latin American trilogy. Part one, De Offers, is set in Bolivia. From a young age, Windmeijer had a thing about Latin America. ‘While the other children at primary school were giving talks about their pet rabbit, mine was about the Incas. I don’t know where the interest came from; it just was.’ No surprise, therefore, that he chose to study cultural anthropology.

Jeroen Windmeijer
In South America, with a copy of De Offers.

Windmeijer studied and did his PhD in Leiden. His PhD research was about the groups of Ecuadorians that cropped up all over the place in the Netherlands around the year 2000. They played music and sold products such as jumpers. ‘The Ecuadorians all came from the same valley, Otavalo,’ Windmeijer says. Once the novelty had worn off, the groups disappeared again from the Dutch streets. Back in their own country, they turned to producing and selling hand-made products.

As a student, Windmeijer loved travelling, regardless of how much or little money he had. He tried to pass all his courses in one go so that he could set off to South America for two or three months to immerse himself in the culture, sometimes for no more than ten euros per day.

But being in South America wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies. For his graduation research, Windmeijer spent six months in an Indian community in Bolivia, on the banks of Lake Titicaca. ‘For the first three weeks, none of the Indians would talk to me. They didn’t trust me, thought I was a civil servant who had been sent to spy on them. It was winter, bitterly cold and I felt so incredibly lonely.’ Until, when he’d been there for three weeks and was on the point of calling it a day, he finally got to eat, drink and be merry with the people. ‘I was so drunk they had to carry me out. But the ice was broken.’

Fascination with religion

Religion also plays a key role in his new trilogy. Windmeijer is fascinated by religion, the figure of Jesus in particular. He grew up in Pijnacker, in a Catholic family, when Dutch society was still compartmentalised. He went to a Catholic school and a Catholic football club. Like many teenagers, he lost his faith, but his keen interest in the phenomenon persisted. Windmeijer reads all that he can get his hands on about religion, and reading the New Testament has become a set routine before he goes to bed. ‘Each time, I read the stories I read something different.’ But he’s no longer religious. ‘The story about the son of God who dies in the spring and comes back to life three days later, like Christ, is something you come across in many religions from the Middle East, just like the child that brings light on 25 December. And then there’s the almost universal myth of the dangerous child: the child that will threaten the powers that be and must therefore die. How can you then say that your religion is the only true religion?’

Jeroen Windmeijer
As an undergraduate, on Witte Singel.

Short-lived conversion

But his faith suddenly flared up again while he was a student. Windmeijer: ‘I had a real revelation.’ When he was 22, he was cycling in nature when he suddenly burst out crying while consumed by feelings of intense happiness. The source was, he felt, Jesus, and he joined the Baptists. ‘I was very devout and tried to convert other students.’ But then he went on an internship to Bolivia, where Catholicism is mixed with other influences such as a belief in Mother Nature. There he saw a priest scolding the couple that he was staying with. Saying that it was their own fault that they were poor and their crops had failed, that it was due to those pagan influences. ‘Something inside me broke and I once again bade farewell to my faith. For good, I think.’

Despite this, Windmeijer spent a year visiting various religious and spiritual meetings in Leiden, together with Jos van Duinen, and this resulted in the book Wegwijzers, which they published in 2018.

Jeroen Windmeijer
Signing sessions are part of the job...

The teaching profession

After his PhD, Windmeijer lost his way for a while. It wasn’t a very happy time. He started teaching Dutch as a second language. But as his pupils were illiterate in their own language, learning Dutch was such a difficult mission for them he began to feel despondent. To feed his intellect, Windmeijer decided to start studying again – world religions – where he was taught by his former peers. That was an odd experience. He stopped after a year because studying was difficult to combine with work. But not until he had first gained a teaching qualification in religious studies. That was alongside his qualification in social studies that he had already earnt together with one in cultural anthropology. He could make use of the religious studies qualification at Visser ’t Hooft Lyceum, a Christian school in Leiden. For 12 years, he put his heart and soul into teaching at the school. Until he decided to become a full-time writer at the start of 2019.

Jeroen Windmeijer
More wise words from Picasso: everything you can imagine is real.

Not a true story but still true

Windmeijer believes in the power of stories. He used them to seize the attention of his pupils at Visser ’t Hooft, and now does the same with his readers. He believes that many aspects of his life have come together in writing his books: academia, a fascination for religion, teaching and a love of travel. For his books, he always begins with research. He travels to each place that will figure in his book, even now when the backdrop has changed from Leiden to South America.

What he describes has to be right. This isn’t to say that everything actually has to have happened. ‘I want to use reality in my books to teach my readers something, but at the same time I want to create a wider story.’ He doesn’t think it is a problem that he sometimes wrong-foots his readers. There really are underground passageways in Leiden, but they don’t form such an extensive system as De bekentenissen van Petrus might suggest. And the document that plays such a major role in The Pilgrim Conspiracy doesn’t exist. ‘Something doesn’t have to be a true story to be true,’ he says. ‘You have to seek the truth within the story.’

Windmeijer is married to Turkish translator Hamide Dogan, who studied Turkish in Leiden. They have a daughter together, Dünya, who is now 13.

Who: Jeroen Windmeijer (1969)
Degree: Cultural anthropology (1989-1994) and propaedeuse in World Religions (2006-2007)
Student association: Augustinus
Favourite spot in Leiden: Hortus botanicus because it’s beautiful in all seasons. An oasis of calm in the midst of the city.

Jeroen Windmeijer
Jeroen Windmeijer in South America as a student.

Text: Corine Hendriks and Marieke Epping
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