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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Robert Loewen talks about the inspiration behind his debut fiction novel, The Lioness Of Leiden.

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Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed Robert Loewen about his life and career, what inspired his debut novel The Lioness Of Leiden, and his creative writing process.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

Robert Loewen on The Table Read Magazine
Robert Loewen

I am a retired lawyer specializing in litigation at an international law firm for over 36 years. I have always been good at persuasive writing, but as someone who loves storytelling, I yearned to write fiction. I was lead articles editor at the Southern California Law Review; clerked at the Ninth Circuit (Judge Walter Ely) and US Supreme Court (Justice Byron White); and wrote thousands of pages of legal briefs. The Lioness of Leiden is my first foray into fiction.

Reading Never Goes Out of Style

When did you first WANT to write a book?

The best answer is that I have wanted to write THIS book since the 1980s. I knew that my wife’s mother, Hetty Kraus (1920-1994) had been active in the Dutch resistance, but she usually found it too painful to discuss.

Then, during the 1980s, Hetty returned from a trip to Africa and invited my wife and me to dinner. Her favorite souvenir from the trip was a bird’s nest, shaped like a boot and woven with dried grass—a beautiful work and engineering feat. As a lawyer, I raised a sceptical eye.

“Is this legal?” I asked with a teasing smile. “What did Customs have to say about it?”

Hetty threw back her head and laughed. “Smuggling a bird’s nest past US Customs is child’s play compared to slipping hand grenades past the Nazis,” she said.

Hetty proceeded to tell us a story about the time she smuggled hand grenades out of The Hague toward war’s end. We were on the edge of our seats.

In Lioness, the hand grenade story begins on page one, the Prologue, and concludes in Chapter 21.  Since that day, I have wanted to write Lioness to preserve Hetty’s legacy, but I lacked the time until my retirement at the end of 2014.

When did you take a step to start writing?

I started writing in 2015. Although I read some books and articles about writing fiction, I mostly dove into the deep end, which initially led to results that were not too satisfying to me. So I found an editor, who helped me a lot. But she got sick, and I tucked the book away for a couple of years to see if she would recover. When it became clear that my first editor could not continue, I found a second editor, Julie Gray, who is a Los Angeles expat in Tel Aviv. Things took off from there.

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How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

Just over eight years, but I wasn’t working on it the entire time. I completed the first draft in under a year, but it was way too long. I received some advice from an agent to eliminate the back story and begin with the German invasion of the Netherlands, which I did. The next draft was much improved.

In September 2020, I found Julie Gray. We spent the next year together to bring the novel close to where it is now. Greenleaf Book Group accepted the novel for publication at the end of 2021, and we spent the next six months polishing the book up for publication. After that, there was some down time while we waited for the ARC and later, the final print version, which is ready now.

Launch date is set for April 4, 2023.

What made you want to write The Lioness Of Leiden?

When I returned from Vietnam in April 1972, Hetty (who was then my girlfriend’s mother) threw a welcome home party for me. This was unusual in those days; veterans like me were disparaged for participating in an unpopular war, and it would be years before anyone said “thank you for your service”. I asked Hetty why she was making such a big deal about my return.

She teared up and said, “Where I came from, the boys never came back.”

This was my introduction to the fact that Hetty had fought in the Dutch resistance. While she seldom spoke of those days, I slowly learned about her role in WWII. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a novel about it until I heard the hand grenade story. After she died, we discovered writings in which she told anecdotes about her life during the war, and this convinced me to proceed as soon as I retired.

What were your biggest challenges with writing The Lioness Of Leiden?

I was good at persuasive writing, which was a big help, but I needed to acquire the specific skills needed to write fiction. Writer workshops, books and articles, and the amazing Julie Gray were my resources. I had to learn most of it from scratch. Dialogue was a challenge, but I also needed to learn how to build conflict into every scene, develop the characters in a believable way, and keep the reader turning the pages. I feel like I accomplished this, but none of it was easy.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?

As mentioned above, my protagonist is based on my mother-in-law, who was age 20 when the war began and 25 when it ended. When I knew Hetty, she suffered from PTSD and survivor syndrome because the war extracted so much personal sacrifice from her. We were fortunate that Hetty was unashamed in discussing her sex life, which made it possible to build into the character a personal life that went beyond her role as a courier for the resistance.

The Lioness Of Leiden by Robert Loewen on The Table Read Magazine
The Lioness Of Leiden

Hetty was a complex woman, and I built some of those complexities into my main character. My wife believes that I captured the essence of her mother, and others who have read the novel with fresh eyes like her very much.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?

Two Germans are the primary antagonists in my novel—Orpo Lieutenant Gerald Hess and SS Major Felix Jacek. Neither character is based on a real person. Instead, they were necessary to build the stories suggested by Hetty’s remembrances. In my view, people are capable of both good and evil. A conquering army founded on totalitarian principles opens the door for the worst side of a person’s character to come out, and this was true of Hess and Jacek, who choose evil because they can. Hetty and her friends choose to become heroes because it is the only option as they see things. This does not mean, of course, that the protagonist is 100% good or that the antagonists are 100% bad.

What is the inciting incident of The Lioness Of Leiden?

The invasion of the Netherlands on May 10, 1940 is the inciting incident. Before that date, most people in Holland believed they would be safe from the pending war because the Dutch government told them their country was protected by a neutrality agreement with Hitler. After all, the Netherlands had successfully remained neutral during WW I, and many believed they could get the same result with Hitler.

Before the invasion, people in Holland were mostly concerned about ordinary things. Hetty had fallen in love with Karl, and just before the invasion, Hetty and Karl had sex for the first time. But they had a fight that both regretted based on Hetty’s concern for the danger to Karl from his involvement in the air volunteers. This fight remains unresolved, but during her work for the resistance, Hetty gradually comes around to Karl’s viewpoint.

What is the main conflict of The Lioness Of Leiden?

The fight between good and evil. Although the Nazis assume a bullying presence, they give the Dutch people an out: cooperate, and they will be treated well. Many of the Dutch take them up on that offer, but Hetty and her friends in the resistance choose the opposite road, recognizing that they must stand up for their country. There are a number of sub-conflicts as the characters must choose their own paths.

Did you plot The Lioness Of Leiden in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?

I would call it writing freely. My initial goal was to create vignettes that represented the stories that Hetty had told. Later, I integrated them into a continuous story.

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Lioness Of Leiden need?

I had a great developmental editor, Julie Gray in Tel Aviv, who had worked for many years as a script reader and editor in Hollywood. She taught me a master class on how to write fiction. Her editing style allowed me to be myself, but she taught me techniques that I used to hold readers’ attention. The publisher assigned additional editors, but by the time I got to them, we were fine tuning an intact story.

The #1 Writing Tool

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

Start late, leave early. Each scene begins with the main action, leaving to the imagination what has come before. “Leave early” means to end each scene with a mystery; if the reader wants to find out what happens, they need to keep reading. Julie Gray taught me this, and it improved my work product considerably.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I have in mind both a prequel and a sequel to Lioness. The sequel would tell about Hetty’s life after the war. She marries Walter, who she meets in the last chapter, and they move to Colombia, South America, where they build a farm and live happily with their two daughters for several years. But the government takes their farm, Walter and Hetty divorce, and Hetty takes their daughters to California to start a new life. I’m glad she did.

The prequel will be based on the life of Hetty’s grandmother. Hetty’s grandfather was the governor of an island in the Dutch East Indies, and the stories arising from colonial times are fascinating. Her grandmother makes an appearance in Lioness, but I excluded early back story about her that would make an excellent prequel I think.

Hetty and her grandmother were alike in many ways. Hetty’s mother and my wife are similar in a different way, and the psychological background of these generation-skipping personalities would be an interesting study.

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Yes, I am proud of it. My main goal was to preserve Hetty’s legacy because her daughter loved her. To do justice to her story, I needed to write a novel that people want to read. Judging by early comments from book clubs who have read the advanced version, mission accomplished.

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