Sunday, April 9, 2023

Robert Loewen Interview - The Lioness of Leiden

Photo Content from Robert Loewen

Robert Loewen was born in Bakersfield, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and raised his three children in Laguna Beach.

A 1970 graduate of Pomona College, Robert served two years in the United States Army, including a tour in Vietnam. His 1972 marriage linked him to Hetty Kraus, his mother-in-law, who told fascinating stories about her experiences in the Dutch resistance during World War II.

After a year serving as a law clerk to Justice Byron White at the United States Supreme Court, Robert returned to California in 1977, where he built a successful litigation practice at an international law firm. Known for his persuasive legal briefs, he has always been a natural storyteller who yearned to write fiction.

Now retired, Robert has published his debut novel, a fictional history of Hetty's life in the Dutch resistance.

Greatest thing you learned at school.
As a young child, I had a terrible stutter. I became tongue-tied with even simple communications. I was assigned to speech therapy, which accomplished nothing. But my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Muller, found the answer; I was thinking ahead to what I wanted to say before I had expressed the preceding thought. She solved it with an index card, which she told me to place below the line I was reading. Then she took me aside for a few minutes each day to read aloud to her while the rest of the class worked on something else. This forced me to read only the words on one line because I could not look ahead to the words that came on the next line. One day, she asked me to stand up and read aloud to the class. No stutter. The class applauded. I learned a lot at every stage of my education, but nothing was as important to me as conquering my stutter. Thank you, Mrs. Muller.

When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
I learned to write fiction so that I could bring Hetty’s stories to life.

In April, 1972, I returned from a tour in Vietnam. Returning soldiers were not thanked for their service in those days, and I was ready to put my military experience behind me--looking forward, in fact to proposing to my girlfriend, Jacinta, and starting law school in the coming semester.

Jacinta’s mother, Hetty, insisted on throwing me a big party at her home to celebrate my return. I asked her why she was making such a big deal out of it, and she teared up. “Where I come from,” she said with a tremor in her voice, “the boys never came home.” That’s when I learned that Hetty had been active in the Dutch resistance during WWII, and that’s when it first occurred to me that I should write a book about Hetty’s experience during the war.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Work and family. For thirty-six years I was a full-time litigator at a big law firm. It was common for all attorneys to work at least six days a week and sometimes seven if we were preparing for a trial or other big event. At the same time, Jacinta and I were raising three children, and that was my main focus. Writing a novel is a huge commitment, especially for someone who has never written one before. When I retired at the end of 2014, I dove in.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
There are far more similarities between people than there are differences, and stories help us to connect with others based on those similarities. Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and they have been telling stories for much of that time. Some cave paintings told stories over 40,000 years ago, and during the past few thousand years, stories and fables have been passed down orally in virtually every culture, including Greek and Roman mythology--storytelling that provides a message about how to live a good life. Even though those stories were told a long time ago, they connect with people today, showing that we are not as different as we sometimes think. Effective storytelling requires us to combine the left and right brains—logic and the unconscious—to reveal truths about ourselves. In this way, the art of storytelling is similar to other artistic forms—painting, sculpture, poetry, music. People love a good story because they recognize their own experiences in them.

Can you tell us when you started The Lioness of Leiden, how that came about?
In the 1980s, I had known Hetty for about twenty years. Still, I wasn’t sure I would ever persuade her to tell me enough details about her experiences in the Dutch resistance to support a novel; whenever I asked her direct questions about the war, she became too emotional to speak, unable to relive the horror of her experience. Then we had a breakthrough. Hetty had been traveling in Liberia and invited Jacinta and me for dinner to tell us about her adventures. Hetty was a naturalist who loved to travel alone to remote places. Her favorite souvenir from Africa was an abandoned nest, which some birds had fashioned from straw and twigs in the shape of a boot. It was gorgeous, and Hetty was bursting with pride that she had found it in the jungle.

Over a glass of wine, I teased her: “Is this even legal? Were you worried about what customs would have to say about your bird’s nest?” Hetty threw back her head and laughed. “Oh Bob,” she said. “U.S. Customs is child’s play compared to the Nazis.” She poured more wine and told us about the day she smuggled hand grenades out of The Hague. It was a chilling account with far more detail than we had heard from her other stories. For the first time, I became optimistic that I would eventually get the stories I needed to preserve Hetty’s legacy.

After Hetty died in 1994, a friend of hers brought us a short narrative that Hetty had written about her brother’s bravery in the resistance. She had been unable to share the story while she was alive but had wanted us to have it. That led us to dig into her many writings, where she sometimes told about her war experiences interlaced with other topics. I was too busy with work and family at the time to begin writing, but the story I wanted to write was born then.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters?
I was most surprised at the way my characters took charge of the plot and dialogue, causing their character and emotions to emerge in ways I had not expected. As a first-time author, this was a shock because I knew I was creating the characters, dialogue, and plot in my head, but they spoke to me from a place in my subconscious that gave the impression that they were independent. At first, it was unsettling to imagine that my characters might have a voice of their own, but I learned to use their inspiration as a powerful tool to shape the plot and character development in The Lioness of Leiden. See below for an example.

Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from The Lioness of Leiden
In chapter 13, Hetty’s resistance boss, Kees brings the terrible news that a friend was raped and murdered by a German officer. I wrote this scene several times. At first, Hetty was afraid and ready to quit the resistance, and Kees was disoriented and ineffectual. But when I let the characters take control of the dialogue, here is what came out:

“No one would blame you if you quit,” said Kees in a raspy voice.

“That might be best,” murmured Hetty, feeling defeated.

“I’ve seen people hang their heads like you are, Hetty,” said Kees evenly. “Boxers do it when they are ready to give up.”

“I do feel like giving up.” Tears flowed down both of her cheeks.

“I know,” said Kees with quiet determination. “But when I felt that way as a boxer, I always got up and took another swing. Sometimes I won, sometimes not. But the other guy had to knock me senseless if he wanted to win the fight.”

Hetty stared at Kees, thinking about his words. Then she stood up and threw a book across the room. “You’re right. I’m not quitting. It’s not our fault,” she shouted. “That bastard Hess did it. And Hitler. Not us.

* * *

“We can’t risk provoking the Gestapo.” Mimi set the whiskey bottle on the table and handed Hetty a glass as she started to pour their drinks. “They’ll swarm Leiden and catch us if we kill a German officer.”

“Stop worrying about what the Germans will do to us, Mimi.” Hetty downed her whiskey in one gulp and poured another. “For us, there are no more rules—not when the Nazis rape and murder our women.”

“Aren’t you scared that they will do the same thing to us?” Mimi’s thin voice reminded Hetty of a mouse scurrying for cover. “Just thinking about it petrifies me.”

“Then stop thinking about it,” Hetty shouted, shoving her chair violently against the wall. “If they try to rape me, they’ll have to fuck my corpse.”

What is the first job you have had?
The summer of 1965 I was preparing for my senior year in high school, and I was optimistic. My prospects for college were good, and I had just been elected president of the student body. My father had found me a job at a restaurant where he was a regular. In those days, the East Bay town of Walnut Creek was still small, and the restaurant that gave me my first job was one of the few nice ones.

I had one hour of training as a busboy before reporting for my first shift. It did not go well. The restaurant was packed, and there was a huge group in the private dining room. I spilled water and stepped on a customer’s foot, just two of my many mistakes that evening. At the end of the shift, I was fired. What did I learn? That no one will pay you for long unless the work you do is worth the money. For thirty-six years I was employed, first as an associate and then as a partner, at a prestigious international law firm, and I never forgot that each day I had to earn what they paid me.

Best date you've ever had?
I was a sophomore at Pomona College in 1967. A girlfriend of one of my college pals encouraged me to go on a blind date with a woman named Jacinta, who was a freshman at Scripps, a neighboring women’s college. Jacinta was from South America, my friend told me, and had lived in the U.S. only three years. I was not a fan of blind dates, but I reluctantly agreed.

That year I lived in Smiley Hall, the oldest dormitory on campus, and the only one with common showers, like a locker room in a gym. One other guy—I’ll call him Wally--was in the shower when I showed up. No one in our dorm showered on a Saturday night unless he had a date, so I asked Wally what was up. He told me he had just met a woman at a mixer the night before and was following up with a visit. She lived on campus at Scripps College in a dorm called Kimberly Hall. What a coincidence; I too was heading for Kimberly Hall, where Jacinta lived.

As we exited the dormitory, Wally could not stop talking about this wonderful woman and the fabulous evening they had spent together. Then he said, “She even has a delightful name—Jacinta!” Whoa. “There can’t be two of them,” I said. It turned out that Wally had not made a date; he just hoped Jacinta would be in her dorm. I suggested that since I was reluctant to go on a blind date in any event, maybe he should go in my place. Remember, I was still only a teenager and not prone to good judgment when it came to women. But Wally’s intuition was better than mine, so he returned to Smiley Hall.

It turned out to be the best date of my life. Jacinta told me about her childhood on a remote farm in Colombia. She spoke with a cute British accent because she had learned English at a British school in Jamaica, all of which fascinated me. And the attraction between us was unmistakable. I kissed her on the cheek when I said goodnight, not wanting to scare her off. We both had a wonderful time and made another date for the next night.

The rest is history. Jacinta and I recently celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary! And our oldest daughter is named Kimberly.

What is your most memorable travel experience?
After I took the California bar exam in 1975, Jacinta and I went to Europe for a month. We had very little money, but we found a charter flight we could afford and rented a VW bug for $400. We stayed in $5 hotels and once splurged to pay $25 at a medieval castle that the Spanish government had fashioned into a hotel. As it happened, Jacinta’s father, Walter, who you will meet at the end of Lioness, was visiting his boyhood home in St. Gallen, Switzerland, and we traveled with him for five days. There’s nothing like having a native as a guide, and it gave me a chance to get to know Walter, who had been in South America most of the time that Jacinta and I were together.

After parting from Walter, we went to Italy, Spain, and France, which worked well since Jacinta is fluent in Spanish and French. When we arrived in Paris, Jacinta had arranged for us to stay with her friend Laurence, who had an extended visit with Jacinta in California when Jacinta was a senior in high school. Laurence and her family treated us well, but as a bonus, we also met the mother of Laurence, Gigi, who turned out to be an old resistance friend of Hetty’s. Hetty had told us she and Gigi had been in the resistance together, but neither of them told us then what Gigi had done during the war. We only learned that story later from Hetty’s writings. Gigi inspired the character Mimi in The Lioness of Leiden, and at the end of the novel, I have attached an excellent narrative written by Hetty about her 1982 visit with her friend.

Jacinta had been to Europe twice before we were married, but this was my first time. Our meeting with Gigi had a profound impact because it was one of the reasons I wrote Lioness. Since then, we have traveled to many places together, including travel to Europe with our children, but no trip matched that first visit to Europe in 1975.

What event in your life would make a good movie?
In 1980, after two failed pregnancies, we had a healthy baby daughter named Kimberly. Two years later, a baby brother was born, Philip. But when Philip was six months old, we learned that he had a brain tumor, medulloblastoma. We were told that Philip had four months to live.

For three years we attended group therapy for parents with children who had cancer. Those meetings saved our marriage.

Soon after Philip died, Jacinta became pregnant again. But an ultrasound revealed that this baby was anencephalic—the same fatal birth defect suffered by our second child. The doctors counseled abortion, and we agreed. Jacinta wanted to stop trying by having a tubal ligation. But Georgie talked her out of it.

Our next plan was to look for a private adoption. Along came Todd, who is now 38 years old.

And what of the decision not to have a tubal ligation? The happy result is our daughter, Brittany, who is now 37, a talented opera singer and all-around great person.

Good movie? Or maybe I will write a memoir about it someday. No one knows what the future holds.

What is one unique thing are you afraid of?
Heights. About twenty years ago, my daughter Kimberly was just finishing a semester abroad at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and our family went to Australia to help her return to the U.S.

We were told by friends who had visited Australia that we must climb the Sidney Harbor Bridge for a true adventure. The tour guides required that all participants first climb a mock-up of the bridge to test their propensity for vertigo. When I felt a twinge during the practice run, I should have bailed out. But I was determined to have this adventure and concealed my concern. What an idiot!

The climb over Sidney Bridge goes very high. It is completely safe because every climber is clipped to a cable affixed solidly to the bridge structure. As we went higher and higher, however, I found myself imagining what it would be like to dangle from the cable after falling, which triggered my previously inchoate fear of heights.

Realizing that his father was panicked, my then-teenaged son Todd started talking smack, which anyone who has a fear of heights will know was not welcome. So I told him to go f--- himself, which I have never said to any of my children before or since. To this day, Todd still teases me about it.

I am not proud of losing it on the bridge, but I relate this story to give you some idea of the level of distress I was experiencing. Since that day, I have avoided high places.

How do you fight the Nazis right under their noses? With cunning and courage. When the Germans invade the Netherlands, Leiden University student Hetty’s boyfriend goes missing. But she has little time to grieve when she volunteers as a courier for the Dutch resistance, joined by her roommate, the beautiful Mimi, and seventeen-year-old Maria, the daughter of a slain resistance fighter. At great personal risk, the three women carry documents, secret messages, and cash to protect Jews, downed pilots, and others hiding from the Nazis. During five years of war, Hetty is challenged by a gauntlet of spies and betrayal. She heroically fights back as she and her friends accept increasingly dangerous assignments. All the while, Hetty worries about her family. She tries to forbid her younger brother from volunteering for combat in the resistance and argues with her father about becoming too cozy with the Nazis. As the Gestapo closes in, can Hetty and her family and friends make it through the war, free to live and love again? Inspired by true events, Robert Loewen’s debut novel pays tribute to the heroism of his mother-in-law, who served as a courier in the Dutch resistance during World War II.

You can purchase The Lioness of Leiden at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you ROBERT LOEWEN for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of The Lioness of Leiden by Robert Loewen.

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