Both from Ghent, Belgium, Herbert De Paepe and Els Depuydt have cowritten four highly acclaimed thrillers. They’ve been nominated for both Belgium’s Diamond Bullet Award and Holland’s Golden Noose Award. Their work first appeared in EQMM in May 2016, in translation from the Flemish by Josh Pachter. Their latest story in translation, “End of the Line,” appears in the Passport to Crime Department of EQMM’s current issue (September/October 2018). De Paepe and Depuydt have come to be among the mystery field’s notable collaborators, and in this post they talk about some of the circumstances that make their collaboration unique.—Janet Hutchings
When we began writing together in 2005, we embarked on a tremendous adventure. We had already been a couple for thirteen years, and we had both always written, but we’d never published—Herbert due to a lack of discipline and Els to a lack of self-confidence. One warm summer evening in our garden, over a bottle of red wine and a good dinner, we decided to try writing together, and that’s when the magic happened.
We had no children, two incomes, and not a care in the world, so we traveled a lot in those days, long journeys to faraway countries: Brazil, Ecuador, South Africa, China, Egypt, New Zealand, and Australia, to name only a few. We dove into the histories of ancient cultures, met people with strange customs and of all colors, walked on mountain paths and among wild animals.
So international thrillers seemed an obvious genre choice for us. We both loved to read, but we read different types of books. Herbert is a comics and science-fiction fan, Els prefers classical literature. In thrillers, our tastes met. We also loved television series like Lost, Deadwood, and Prison Break, Scandinavian crime series, and movies with strong plots. We agreed that our thrillers should be exotic, overwhelming reading experiences, filled to the brim with suspense. We wanted to create a villain who was more evil than Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, and so Andries Swartwater was born. Our debut novel was a mixture of our travel experiences in Africa, the history of southern Africa, and a huge amount of devious imagination.
We spent great evenings composing the story, creating characters—sometimes based on people we’d actually met—and deciding what twists and turns the story should take and which character should be the next victim of our vengeful serial killer.
The book—Mensenvlees (Human Flesh)—was a success. Two more thrillers followed, both with Andries Swartwater returning as the principal villain. We seemed to have a unique voice. We didn’t write standard whodunits, with a corpse in the woods and a detective with marital problems and a drinking habit. Instead, our novels are rollercoasters of action, emotion, and suspense. Readers praise our sense of place, and tell us that reading our books almost feels like watching a movie.
Over time, we grew more experienced and developed a good routine for our writing. Weekends, we’d sit together over our bottle of wine and dinner and plot out our next story. With strict discipline, we assigned ourselves particular tasks for the coming week: write a scene, research background information, review each other’s drafts. Sure, sometimes we argued about the evolution of a character or the believability of a story turn, but overall we had a lot of fun. During the week, we worked independently. Then, the next weekend, we’d repeat our routine—again and agauin until we had a completed manuscript.
After finishing our 1,300-page Swartwater trilogy, the next highlight in our career was encountering Josh Pachter. Josh translated our short story “Garage 27,” which was published in the May 2016 issue of EQMM, introducing us to the U.S. audience. Josh has become a friend, and we look forward to working with him again in the near future.
Eventually, though, our personal relationship changed. The books had nothing to do with it. After twenty-two years as a couple, we broke up. Not with a smashing of doors, not with feelings of hatred or the wish never to see or hear from each other again, as you too often see when lovers end their romance, but with the sad realization that we simply couldn’t go on any longer as a couple. We made one last trip, a long-planned journey to our beloved city of Galway on the West Coast of Ireland, a place that has marked most of the major milestones in our lives: our first experience with living together, numerous writing trips, and, at last, the place where it all ended. We spent a week there, talking endlessly, trying to figure out if maybe there was some future left for us as a couple . . . but the outcome, unfortunately, was negative. Sometimes, you have to make painful decisions, and this was one of those times. We knew that, in the long run, it would be better for both of us to split up, while maintaining an everlasting friendship and wishing each other nothing but true happiness again.
Those were difficult times, but the urge to write and the passion for literature didn’t leave us. We never stopped writing, not even in the early painful days after that final trip. Our fourth thriller, Highway 245, was entirely written post-breakup. It is situated in present-day California, with flashbacks to Northern Ireland during the bloody era of conflict known as “The Troubles.” Ever since we wrote it, we have referred to our own relationship problems as “The Troubles.”
We haven’t changed our modus operandi. There is still wine, and there are still dinners. The only thing that has changed is that we need to check our calendars now; getting together has become more like a business appointment.
And, yes, we both have found new loves: patient, understanding partners who know that writing as a duo will always be part of our lives.
We are working on our fifth thriller as we speak. Els published a solo novel (Mia) last year and is working on a second one, and our personal story has served her as inspiration.
Life isn’t a fairy tale, so our story does not end with “And they lived happily ever after.”
But one thing we know for sure is that we will continue to write together happily ever after.