‘You simply HAVE to hear this story.’ That’s how it started. The words were spoken by a good friend and film producer. He told the story and we hung on his every word. That is the kind of story it is. He wanted to know if we would like to write the screenplay. Of course we wanted to, except that we wrote the book first. Finding funding for the film takes time and this story just had to be told –seventy years of gathering dust in the folds of history was long enough.
The life of our main characters – Guus and Lienke Hagers – is not all that different of the life of thousands of people in the Dutch East Indies and the Pacific during WWII. That is why it is so compelling. They were separated from each other and they did not know where the other was or even the other was still alive. In exactly the same way the first husband of Anneloes’ mother disappeared in one of the Japanese internment camps. He died of neglected dysentery, never knowing that his son was born, that he had become a father.
Without the efforts of documentary film maker André Eilander the story of Guus and Lienke would never have been found. Eilander delved into the history of the 18th Squadron, an almost forgotten bomber squadron in Australia, and found story after story after story. He found Guus’diaries and photo books and flight logs, and he found Lienke’s memoirs and indications for political machination that are still felt today. He handed all his beautifully rich research material to us without any conditions.
Almost everyone wants to know how it is done, writing a book together. We didn’t know, we had never done it before. We have known each other for 36 years, we have been writing for as many years, most things we do together, but writing a book together was one thing we still had to learn. We did have one major advantage: a large part of the story was already there. All we had to do was figure out how to write it, because you need more than a true story to make a good story.
It was funny, and sometimes pretty irritating, to find out how we are different from each other. Charles, a fast writer, would propose a ridiculously short deadline for the first version. Anneloes, a slower writer, would protest loudly and manage to negotiate and extra two weeks. Still, it was important to have that first version soon, because it would prove that we could actually do it, write together. Not just according to ourselves, but according to our editor.
The process of writing, plotting and additional research was exciting. The simple fact that we could talk to each other about what we were writing, was a wonderful surprise, because we never do that. When we are each working on our own book, we can talk about almost anything except the work itself. That disrupts our concentration and tends to throw you out of your own story. When you write together that limitation doesn’t exist.
We spent the first week talking. We sat down opposite each other and brainstormed, thinking out loud and listening to each other. After that week we had outlined about ten chapters and we had developed a dramatic line. Once we had that we divided the work in the most obvious and role reinforcing way: Charles tackled the male things and Anneloes got to work on the female things. Charles, a born Australian, wrote about Australia, and Anneloes, of Indonesian descent, wrote about the Dutch East Indies.
That is how the first version was written, we each wrote our separate parts, Charles integrated them into one document and then Anneloes was the first to read the entire story, she scratched what she didn’t like and added what she missed, corrected things that were wrong, and she worked on creating a new ‘voice’ for the two of us, one in which our different styles of writing could grow to a new, common style. When she was done, she handed it over the Charles who proceeded to do the same thing. The manuscript went back and forth between us more than six times: writing, rewriting, changing, scratching, discussing, adding, changing the plot and adding new research. And then discussing it all over again.
Finding Her is based mostly on historical facts. The main characters and almost all the other characters really did exist. They lived the war. But to turn history into a novel, we took the liberty to simplify certain events or to enlarge them, sometimes we moved characters sideways in time and space, we dramatized developments and skipped others, all the while keeping in mind that it might have happened that way if fate had been just a little different.
Sometimes later research showed that our fictionalizing had actually brought us closer to what had really happened. Those are the precious little gifts of writing. The most beautiful reward came on the day the book was presented in the Netherlands. In the audience was a 93 year widow, a woman we didn’t know and had never met, and she told us and everyone present that our story was also her story, quite literally, because her husband was Guus’ navigator and she was in the same internment camp as Lienke.
A little while later we met and 85 year old woman who was in a different camp during the war. She had seen Guus’ airplane fly over the camp. She had seen how he threw leaflets out of plane with the name ‘Lienke’ written on them, because he was trying to find out where she was. This woman had picked up one of the leaflets, went looking for Lienke and couldn’t find her. She kept the piece of paper, thinking that one day she would find out who this Lienke was. Seventy years later she picked up our book in the bookstore, read the flyleaf and knew that she had found her.
Finding Her by Charles den Tex and Anneloes Timmerjie is now available, published by World Editions and priced £12.99.