An interview with Josh Pachter, translater and co-writer (with Bavo Dhooge) of Styx

Please welcome Josh Pachter to the blog! He’s the translator for Bavo Dhooge’s new book, Styx, as well as co-writer, and he kindly answered a few questions about the collaboration, and more!
Will you tell us a little about Styx?

Once upon a time there was a commercial for Cert’s that went “Cert’s is a candy mint! Cert’s is a breath mint! Cert’s is two, two, TWO mints in one!” And I think of that when I’m asked to describe Styx: “Styx is a cop book! Styx is a zombie book! Styx is two, two, TWO books in one!”

In present-day Ostend — a beach resort on the Belgian coast — a serial killer the press has nicknamed “The Stuffer” is terrorizing the city, slaughtering young women and posing their dead bodies in public places as if they were exhibits in some sick sculpture garden. Raphael Styx — a bad man but a good, though corrupt, cop — is in charge of the investigation. He catches up with the Stuffer — who pumps three bullets into his heart, killing him. But Styx is resurrected from the dead, a moldering zombie, and he resumes his pursuit of the murderer, a pursuit that takes him from the present day back into Belgium’s Belle Epoque, where the original Surrealist painters provide him with clues to the Stuffer’s identity.

How did your collaboration with Bavo Dhooge come about?

I’ve been writing short crime stories for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and other periodicals since the late ‘60s. I also happen to be fluent in Dutch, so in 2002, when EQMM began featuring a translated story in every issue, I was asked to serve as a sort of unofficial “scout” and official translator for stories by Dutch mystery writers. In 2011, I learned that Belgium’s Flemish writers also write in Dutch, since that opens their potential readership up from the two million or so people who can read Flemish to the 20 million who read Dutch. I researched Flemish crime writers, found Bavo and asked him for a story, and my translation of his “Stinking Plaster” was published in the September/October double issue of EQMM. (By the way, “Stinking Plaster” is EQMM’s November podcast, read by me. If you’re interested, you can listen to it here.)

Bavo, meanwhile, is a publishing phenomenon in Belgium. Since his first novel came out in 2001, he’s written nearly 100 books — mostly crime aimed at adults but also some kid’s books, nonfiction, novelizations, you name it. With one exception, all of his titles have begun with the letter S, and he’s published so much so fast that the Belgian press calls him “the S Express.”

In 2013, Bavo wrote a draft of a zombie cop novel he thought had potential for the American market, and he wound up with an American agent, Peter Riva. Peter felt the book needed more than just a translator, and since he and Bavo both were familiar with my work as a translator and a writer, they asked me if I’d be interested in coming aboard. As it happens, I wrote a series of stories with other writers in the ‘80s, so I’ve had quite a bit of experience with the collaborative process.

I read Bavo’s manuscript and agreed that there was room there for me to do more than simply translate it. The three of us spent some time talking about how exactly we saw the process of a collaboration working, and once we agreed on the details Bavo and I buckled down to the task of turning his original Dutch manuscript into a book that was ready for an American release.

Styx was originally published in Dutch. What kind of changes had to be made in translation for a book like Styx?

Well, for starters, Bavo and I agreed that — although the novel certainly qualifies as both a crime story and a zombie story — what it really is at heart is a tale of redemption. Raphael Styx is a bad man who loses his life but by the end of the book has become a better man than he was at the beginning. And I felt that the character as Bavo originally wrote him was just too dark — so dark that readers wouldn’t care whether he found redemption or not. So part of what I had to do was lighten him up, not so much that he would no longer be in need of redemption, but enough so that readers would be able to root for him to come to grips with his demons and rise above them.

Also, Bavo was originally trained as a filmmaker, and he thinks in very cinematic terms. In a way, he reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock, who would fill his films with effects that carried the viewer breathlessly along but that on closer examination didn’t always exactly make sense. There was some of that in Styx. In the book’s opening scene, for example, we meet the Stuffer digging a hole on the Ostend beach. It’s a really creepy, chilling scene — but ultimately there was no explanation in the original manuscript of why the hole had to be dug. It’s such a vivid scene that I didn’t want to cut it, so I had to figure out a sensible reason for the killer to devote his time and energy to digging that hole in the sand.

Will you tell us more about the collaboration and translation process?

Bavo and I worked really easily together. Of course he’s in Belgium and I’m in northern Virginia, so everything had to happen via email. We probably exchanged four or five emails a day, five or six days a week, for six months. I bombarded him with questions and suggestions, he answered the questions and either approved or disapproved the suggestions, I sent him each chapter as I finished with it for his comments, and we’d go back and forth until both of us were satisfied. He gave me a pretty free hand to do what I thought needed doing, and for the most part he agreed that my ideas were worth incorporating. There were a couple of cases where we disagreed, and when that happened he always had the final say. After all, the story and characters were his, not mine.

Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong translations, but mostly I find that I don’t enjoy translated fiction. It all seems to come out sounding sterile, lifeless. But a story is more than just its characters and events. Every piece of fiction also has its own heart, its own soul. And for me, the most challenging — and the most enjoyable — part of translating is preserving that heart and soul, capturing not just the original author’s ideas but his voice. Fortunately, Bavo and I have similar warped senses of humor, similar outlooks on life, so in my contributions to Styx I was able to be faithful to his voice while also making the book sound like something I would have written, if I’d written it on my own.

Styx straddles the line between suspense and SFF. What do you enjoy about reading, and writing, in both genres?

I’m not sure “the line between suspense and SFF” still exists. A story is a story, and labels like “suspense” and “science fiction” and “fantasy” are just shortcuts designed to make it easier for readers to choose from amongst the zillions of available titles. I like reading about interesting people in interesting places who are confronted by interesting challenges — and your mileage may vary, but I like it better when they deal with them successfully than when they fail. I don’t really care if the challenge is solving a murder or surviving a crash landing on an alien planet or getting through to a rebellious child — if the people are believably drawn, then I’m drawn in, and if the locations are authentically presented and integral to the telling of the tale, so much the better.

This probably explains why most of my own writing has been in the crime genre, and also why so much of my fiction has been set outside the US. Interesting challenges with which to wrestle, interesting arenas in which to set the wrestling matches … now if I can only come up with a cast of interesting characters, I’m ready to rumble!

What authors or novels have influenced you the most?

This is a thought-provoking question, because I can read it in three different ways:

What authors or novels have influenced me the most as a person? There was a period in my 20s when I read a lot of “woo-woo” stuff — Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Richard Bach’s Illusions, Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan series, Alan Watts’ The Book, Jane Roberts’ Seth Speaks, Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man and The Book of est, Sheldon Kopp’s If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him — that got me thinking about what the heck I was doing with my life and led me to make some significant changes in who I was and how I was operating in the world. I don’t know if I could read those books today without gagging, but at the time they affected me more deeply than anything else has, before or since.

What authors or novels have influenced me the most as a writer? John Updike and Ray Bradbury taught me that prose can be poetry. Elmore Leonard taught me that less is more. Lawrence Block and Ed McBain taught me about dialogue. Paul Theroux taught me the importance of place. Everything I’ve ever read has taught me something, even if it was only “don’t go there, girlfriend.”

What authors or novels most influenced me to become a writer? Richard Deming and Frederic Dannay. In 1967, I was 15, and I read Deming’s story “Open File” in an EQMM anthology. It was a police procedural at the end of which the cops failed to solve the crime they were investigating. When I finished the story, I thought there were enough fair-play clues presented that the solution was obvious, so I rewrote the ending and mailed it off to the magazine. A couple of weeks later, I got a handwritten response from Fred Dannay, EQMM’s founder and editor and one-half of the writing team that published as “Ellery Queen.” I no longer have that letter, but I can remember Mr. Dannay’s last two sentences word for word — if I close my eyes, I can still see his letterhead and handwriting — “Have you ever considered writing a detective story yourself? Seems to me, Josh, if I may, you should!”

What do you like to see in a good story? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?

Asked and answered, counselor — well, at least the first part of the question. In terms of the second part, I don’t often pick up a book if I’m not interested enough to read it all the way through. But stilted dialogue and pages of description of the furniture might convince me to give up….

What are you currently reading? Have you read anything recently that you’d recommend?

I spent three years in Amsterdam in the early ‘80s, and that’s where I learned my Dutch. I never took a lesson — my textbooks were comic books featuring the adventures of Asterix and Suske en Wiske. Last year, the Belgian company that publishes Suske en Wiske asked me what I’d charge to translate one of the 200-some titles in that series into English. Half-kidding, I said I’d do it for a complete run of the books. To my astonishment, they agreed, and I’m now about a quarter of the way through them.

Actually, a lot of what I read these days is in Dutch. Many of the authors I’ve translated for EQMM have sent me copies of their novels, so I’ve been reading books by Michael Berg, Hilde Vandermeeren, Dirk Vanderlinden, René Appel, Nicolet Steemers — and lots more of Bavo’s stuff. I’d recommend much of it, and I’m hopeful that American publishers will agree that the current interest in Scandinavian crime stories has paved the way for a wave of Dutch and Belgian novelists.

In English? Oh, gosh, I’ve got a lot of books lying around, and what I read depends on where I am. My bedtime book is my friend Art Taylor’s new On the Road With Del and Louise. My living-room book is Louis Sachar’s Fuzzy Mud, which my daughter Becca gave me for my birthday. My kitchen book is a collection of the pieces Bill Elder drew for the first 23 issues of Mad Magazine. In the car I have William Least Heat Moon’s classic Blue Highways, which I’m reading while I wait for my twice-weekly physical-therapy appointments. (Torn rotator cuff. Ouch!)

What’s next for you?

Bavo and I are discussing the possibility of a sequel to Styx, since there are some questions left unanswered at the end of the first one. Michael Berg wants me to translate his Golden Noose winner, A Fatal Night in Paris, and Dirk Vanderlinden wants to work with me on American versions of his Vandiesel Company thrillers.

Back in the ‘80s, I wrote those collaborative stories I mentioned earlier, and I’ve always thought it would be cool to collect them into a single volume. Earlier this year, Wildside Press published The Tree of Life, which brought together all 10 of the Mahboob Chaudri stories I’ve written for EQMM and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Wildside’s John Betancourt and I have been talking about following it up with a book of collaborations to be titled Partners in Crime. With that in mind, I’m discussing doing new ones with Art Taylor, with my friend and colleague Kathryn O’Sullivan, and with my old pal Les Roberts (who writes the popular Milan Jacovich series) — and I’ve just finished one with René Appel, which will appear in EQMM sometime next year.

And it’s hard for me to believe this, but the 50th anniversary of the publication of my first EQMM story is coming up, so I’m toying with the idea of a sequel featuring that story’s protagonist, now 50 years older and looking back at a long-ago murder he realizes was incorrectly solved.

Meanwhile, I’m eagerly looking forward to the reaction to Styx (which was published on November 3) and less eagerly looking forward to rotator-cuff surgery (which is scheduled for December 21).

In the words of the late great Roseanne Roseannadanna, “It’s always something!”

Keep up with Josh: Website

About Styx:
From the #1, award-winning Flemish crime writer, an atmospheric, genre-busting crime novel about a cop who comes back from the dead to track down the same serial killer who shot him.

A serial killer is on the loose in Ostend, Belgium. Nicknamed The Stuffer, the mysterious killer fills his victims full of sand and poses them as public art installations—and the once idyllic beach town is in a panic. The fact that Rafael Styx is on the case is no comfort. The corrupt, middle-aged cop has a bum hip, a bad marriage, and ties to the Belgian underworld, but no leads. And if he wants to catch the killer before he’s replaced by the young, ambitious, and flamboyant new cop, Detective Delacroix, he’ll have to take matters into his own hands.

When a chance encounter puts him face to face with The Stuffer, Rafael’s life is cut short by a gun to the chest. But the afterlife has only just begun: Styx wakes up a zombie. Gradually he realizes his unique position. Not only is his body in decay, now that he exists between life and death, he can enter a “different” Ostend, of the Belle Époque in all its grandeur. There he meets the surrealist painter, Paul Delvaux, who gives Styx his first clue about the killer.

With a fresh lead and a fresh start, the dirty cop decides to change his ways, catch The Stuffer, and restore his honor. But as his new hunger for human flesh impedes his progress, he’ll need his old rival, Detective Delacroix to help him out. Only one thing is for sure, even death can’t stop Styx from catching his own murderer.

Complex and compelling, full of suspense, action, and black humor, Styx is an exciting thriller with an intriguing protagonist and evocative setting.

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