Interview with Mary Van Amsterdam author M.P. Wilhelm

mp wilhelm

Give us a summary of your life till now (education, work, etc) and how it led you to write.

As far back as I can remember, I was always a creative kid, building with blocks, sculpting with clay, etc. I created picture books and homemade board games. My independent, creative streak made me a mediocre student because I tended too often in favor of indulging in independent learning and creating. Into adolescence, I began reading graphic-heavy magazines like Mad, Thrasher, and Heavy Metal. These inspired me to develop my own satirical stories and imagery based on my teachers and politicians. My schoolmates liked these, so I made my own stapled zines and distributed them throughout middle-school. I had a real DIY mentality from a young age. Looking back, I am grateful that none of my teachers were vindictive. Most supported my creativity, even though some of my work targeted them.

Throughout high school, when I wasn’t studying art, reading, or playing video games, I was constantly sketching scenes and writing poems in large, bound sketchbooks. I decoupaged the exterior of large blank volumes of work with alt-rock and punk magazine cutouts and carried them around to all my classes, to coffee shops, and libraries. The curriculum and homework didn’t matter to me because I was sure I would go to art school regardless of my grades. I was definitely doing things my own way—only interested in learning and doing what I wanted. Poetry, illustration, painting, collage, sculpture, music, I loved it all. I even made some of my own clothes.

Despite mediocre grades, with a decent portfolio, I entered a Bachelor of Fine Arts program at a state university, but a combination of a rebellious streak, and complications from an ill-advised road trip to California just before finals, led me to drop out after only one semester. Also, the course curriculum didn’t seem right for me and decided I’d be a self-taught creative. I was barely twenty. Too wild and young to settle down, and I didn’t.

After dropping out of university, things with the parents quickly deteriorated at home, so I moved out. I teamed up with a good friend, and we got a basement apartment in a dingy part of downtown Denver. When I turned twenty-one (the minimum legal drinking age in the U.S.) I got a job as a bartender. Between shifts, I played in bands, did poetry readings, painted, and partied. In hindsight, my work was good, and if I’d had a mentor, I could have put together an art show, but I was too busy doing whatever I wanted. I was unfocused and chaotic.

When a good friend just a few years older than me suddenly died from substance abuse at a young age, it was a significant wake-up call. It rocked my circle of friends and gave me a personal “memento mori” moment that prompted me to quit goofing off and concentrate my energy into ambition. It was close to the year 2000, and I wanted a complete change. I figured, if I were to invest in an expensive U.S. Bachelor’s degree, I wanted to ensure it led to a career to get me through into the 21st century and satisfy me both my creatively and intellectually. I got my shit together and enrolled in a program to learn 3D computer graphics to land a career in videogames. Indeed, pursuing such a dream and thinking it pragmatic, was a bit naive. But I knew I could always use the skills from my education to pursue alternative opportunities.

I was so focused on getting into the game industry. Most of the other graduates in my class didn’t get creative jobs. I think I benefited from my determination, and a slightly more mature perspective after having dropped out once already, two years earlier. With the support of most of my friends and family, I dedicated my energy to earning high-marks and developing a portfolio that would land me an internship. Anything that blocked me from reaching my goal, I cut out. Anyone who told me it was impossible, I cut off.

Electronic-Arts-Logo-750x422My new focus and attitude paid off; I received an internship at Electronic Arts in northern California and a full-time job offer upon graduation. So in 2001, I moved to San Francisco, California, and began my career in mainstream games that lasted over 20 years. I loved living in San Francisco. They had a great underground scene for music, art, and writing. When I wasn’t working eighty hours a week, it was fun to dive in after work and on weekends.

After making mainstream games for three generations of consoles, I got the itch for a change and became interested in the start-up and indie games scene. I also wanted more meaning in my life—to give back to my community. I eventually returned to my home state and founded a local game developer group called the Colorado Independent Game Developers Association to encourage new people to make games and release them. That informal organizational and educational role eventually led to a university-level teaching position in New England. This once-terrible unfocused student became a professor, and I taught Game Design and Game Production at Champlain College for over four years.

In 2016 I left teaching to get back into game development and pursue consulting roles with more flexibility that allowed me to switch to more independent creative work—such as writing.

What inspired you to write about the afterlife, soul-healers, and broken animal spirits?

I visited Amsterdam in 2015, and when I returned to the U.S., I decided that I wanted to live there and try to understand the Dutch culture as a local. In late 2016 I was motivated to look for ways to get out of the U.S. for at least a few years. I landed a game studio consulting role in Amsterdam. The Netherlands granted me knowledge worker status (which has excellent tax benefits BTW), and I lived and worked in central Amsterdam for two years.

I was lucky to have found a sought-after flat right on a grand canal (Herengracht.) My building was constructed in 1625, and for a guy from Colorado, a state founded in 1876, Amsterdam is ancient and exotic. Learning Dutch was going well, but at the internationally diverse studio where I consulted, we spoke only English. I struggled to develop aptitude in the Dutch language without having to speak it daily. They joke in Amsterdam that soon, Dutch will be as relevant to speak as Latin. The more I learned about Amsterdam and its history, the more I fell in love with it. I took lots of walking tours and self-guided museum expeditions to learn about the history of the country, city, and boroughs. I was surprised to find that the Jordaan district had a fascinating history all its own. I learned about it through a walking tour called Discover Amsterdam Together by a fellow named Tijs which I highly recommend.

On my days off, I always left my flat in the canal district and ventured far and wide in the city. Exploring alone, I mainly kept to myself, preferring to blend in with the locals as much as possible. For a while, I had this compulsion to avoid detection as a foreigner. It felt like I was a ghost wandering around, speaking only when I had to. I am a six and a half foot tall American and built like a linebacker, so I shouldn’t blend in too well with the tall, thin Dutch. Still, I must have passed for a local because often Dutch people addressed me in Dutch. I usually understood them, but often replied in English for efficiency, I was shy about my poor Dutch pronunciation. Regularly, if I attempted Dutch, they’d switched to English.

Every place has a history. I have always had a sensitivity to sites with a past. Old homes, cemeteries, town squares, buildings, and historic cities flood my senses with something I can’t quite explain. I get vague feelings even when I don’t know the details of a location’s history. When I do know the history of a place, it pairs with my intuitive impressions and gives context. A place like Amsterdam, so rich with history, turmoil, riches, suffering, and glory, I find rife with inspiration. The feelings can be vivid, or just whispering impressions. All around Westerkerk, there is so much to take in if you have your senses open. Anne Frank and the spirits of the forgotten, in and around the Jordaan are thick in the air. The Homomonument, dedicated to oppressed LGBTQ+ from history, present, and future, is a moving monument that also makes a deep impression.

Two specific historical anecdotes inspired Mary van Amsterdam from a Jordaan walking tour. First was the story of a horse-drawn fire brigade racing over the canals from the center of the city to reach the western end, to extinguish a tenement fire. After crossing a channel via a high arching bridge, the team couldn’t make their turn and crashed into a café. Supposedly, more than once horses crashed into this café; finally they just changed the name to the café “het Bruine Paard” (The Brown Horse.)

The other story that caught my attention was the events leading up to the Eel Riots of 1886. The story is more complex than this, but, in the heat of summer, people were doing this thing called an eel-pulling—a cruel semi-annual contest where participants on rowboats tried to pull a strung-up, live eel off a rope, strung across a canal. This was an event that drew crowds and revelers. The wealthy merchant and middle class, and their police force in Amsterdam didn’t like large groups of working-class people drinking and celebrating summer, so they broke up the event — violently. It’s hard to imagine, but this was a “straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back” type of event, triggering days of riots killing several dozen Amsterdammers and one innocent eel.

All this history and my passion swirled together into sketches and writings in Amsterdam. I created characters based on all this history I was learning. The ghosts of the past were “speaking” to me. I had read Lincoln in the Bardo a few years earlier and loved it. This metaphysical meditation based on history inspired me to create a collage of the stories I heard on my tours. I imagined a compassionate spirit, like Anne Frank caring for these broken animal spirits in the Amsterdam afterlife. What adventures would they have? What metaphysical threats might they face? That was the catalyst for everything.

I began writing it in Amsterdam, then returned to Colorado when my contract expired in Amsterdam.

You illustrate your books, which lends them power. Are you professionally trained or self-taught? Is there a particular reason you prefer pen and ink?

I had training in high-school and university. I have always drawn in my sketchbooks in the pen and ink style. Working on an iPad in Procreate, I almost always start with silhouettes, to develop a general compositional shape, then add details and grayscale from there. You can see this in the time-lapse of the drawing from the first chapter.

Making games, we always feel like we can give the player so much detail and fill in everything for them, so they know what to do. But what makes writing so special is that it has the advantage of requiring the reader to use their imagination. The reader’s mind evokes experiences and imagery more vividly in the brain than an artist could ever render. About half of the illustrations in the Amsterdam Afterlife Series remain silhouettes, but some are more detailed. If I created many more or more detailed images, I fear I’d be taking away opportunities from the reader to form their own personalized impressions through envisioning the scenes in their imagination. I intend for my illustrations to serve as sorts of breadcrumbs to lead the reader on a trail, but I want to let the words and their minds fill in the rest.

Have you planned an exact number of books for Mary Amsterdam? Or will you continue until the story is complete, no matter how many books that requires?aal with tea mug

I have not planned the exact number, but I will most likely release it in bursts of three. After this first trilogy, I’ll go from there. There are some short stories in the works using a lot of details that had to be cut from the first book. My editor was right to point out that long origin stories detract from the main story, so I have lots of material to draw from. Darkhorse: His Deathday borrowed from a large portion of text cut from Book One. I also have a sweet origin story about Mary’s mentor, Aal, the eel spirit — his life, death, and the subsequent riots of 1886.

Tell us about your next project.

I am writing the third book in the Amsterdam Afterlife Series. There is a significant narrative arch to complete that concerns the entire European Afterlife. I’m driven to finish the saga and then move the whole series “wide” into more stores (Kobo, B&N, Apple Books, etc.) I am on Amazon exclusively, which limits my audience. Ironically, Kobo is much more dominant in the Netherlands, and I think and hope the book will do well there too.

After I publish book three, I plan to write a short origin for Aal, and some others—maybe Tycho (the raven spirit) and gather them into a compilation of Amsterdam Afterlife origin stories.

When it goes wide, I will see how the series is received. I have a few chapters written for a new space opera novel, but I am not short on ideas for new projects.

What’s your research process like?

I am continually learning so I can at least know where to look for research inspiration. While doing visual work, like illustrating or drawing, I consume audiobooks or podcasts. I read history and watch documentaries during my off time. When I want to dig deeper into a character or setting, I look for details through internet searches.

450px-Stadhuis_van_Praag,_Praag,_Tsjechië_Aug_17,_2019_04-21-56_PMSometimes I shamelessly take liberties by grabbing elements from everywhere and blending them into my stories like a surrealist dream. For example, I learned about the tragic death of the infamous domino sparrow killed in Friesland in 2005 for interrupting a domino world-record attempt and wanted to use it as a member of the Tragically Dead in Recovery. But I also wanted one of the main characters in my book to be a raven. So, I wrote Mary rescuing a raven who died the way the domino sparrow did. I also wanted to send Mary out of the Netherlands for a bit and chose Prague because it is so gothic and beautiful. Early in the first book in the series, a fellow guardian summons Mary to the most gothic of goth structures—Tyń Cathedral. Then I needed a name for the Guardian and a name for the raven. I also needed to figure out an affliction for the raven and a distinguishing characteristic for the Guardian. A Hussite named Jerome of Prague stuck out to me as I read about Bohemian history. He was an academic philosopher, theologian, reformer, and professor burned at the stake in 1416 for questioning the Catholic Church. So, in my book, I made him the Guardian of the Dead Scholars of Prague and gave him the distinguishing feature of a charred skeletal body from the neck down. He can also conjure flames from his hands on-command.

800px-Tycho_BraheFor the raven, I found that buried in Tyń is a famous astronomer named Tycho Brahe. He had his nose cut off in a duel and wore a prosthetic made from (allegedly) gold. So, in Mary van Amsterdam and the Tragically Dead in Recovery I named the raven Tycho. In my book, the sparrow had his beak get shot off during a domino tournament in Friesland, just like the sparrow in real life. Mary treats the injured raven who takes the name Tycho and is awarded a golden beak with magical powers for all the good the spirit had done in his past lives. Unlike my fictional Tycho the raven, the real Tycho Brahe didn’t have magical powers, and they recently discovered his supposedly golden nose was made actually of brass.

What’s your writing routine? Do you have a dedicated office, or do you write at the kitchen table? Do you write longhand or type everything?

I am fortunate enough to have a dedicated home office, and I write ~90% of the time here. When I illustrate, I only do it 50% of the time in my office. Otherwise, I am at the library or on the couch. I listen to music without lyrics; trance, chill, ambient, classical are my favorites for writing. Brain.fm is very useful for staying focused. I have a referral code if anyone is interested.

My most productive writing hours are between 5:30 am, and 11:30 am. The earlier I rise, the more productive I am. I cannot write very well after lunch. If I do, it is frequently awful, and too often, I must rewrite the next morning anyway.

Unlike writing, I can draw anytime. I like to listen to books or podcasts while I write — sometimes I listen to music.

Do you outline your stories or let the characters take you where they want to go? Do your characters speak to you?

A mix of the two, to be honest. I started with book one, just going wherever. Then, after a grueling developmental edit, I realized it was so much revision to do it that way.

With book two, I created a skeletal structure with critical plot pivots and attempted to fill in the details as I wrote. Even then, I still broke its back a couple of times, shortened some arms, changed the shape of the horns, then cut off its tail and used it for the beginning of book three. However, all in all, I formed the initial configuration and pacing of book two’s plot through a rough outline.

What writers do you admire, past or present?

Many consider Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft to be the best book for aspiring authors, and it inspired me when I set out to write Mary van Amsterdam. When I was very young, I read fantasy and sci-fi, such as C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Isaac Asimov. As a young adult, I wanted to learn about the blood, guts, and glory of the creative life, so I read Hemingway, Henry Miller, “the beats” (Kerouac, Ginsberg Burroughs, etc.) and the red meat school (Bukowski, Mailer, etc.)

When I first arrived in San Francisco, working in tech, I got into cyberpunk, reading authors like William Gibson and Warren Ellis. I also began to read a lot of Philip K. Dick.

Then I discovered animator Hayao Miyazaki and watching his films renewed [my] interest in fantasy. That led me back into reading fantasy fiction such as Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones and Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I also adore J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Leigh Bardugo, and V.E. Schwab too. I have too many to name, I feel like I don’t want to leave any influence unnamed, but it is impossible.

What do you like best about being a writer? What do you like least?

As an independent author, I relish in the freedom. I like that I can work on my own, at my own pace, and on whatever I want. I illustrate and design my covers, which I love doing. There are almost no dependencies on others. It is all up to me to stay productive and develop my craft. I am free to release whenever I want and market my books in whatever way I see fit.

What I like the least is the other side of the coin. During the creative phase, with no one to put pressure on me, I put pressure I put on myself. There is something that the indie community refers to as “comparisonitis”—when you compare your progress with the outstanding achievements of others (who usually have been at it much longer.)

Then there is feedback after the book has been out for some time. I also must admit that I probably let reviews affect me too much. I need to put on my “big boy pants” to read them or not read them at all.

What little personal quirk would you like to reveal to your readers?

I walk my dog, Bravo, twice a day for ~30minutes. It is good for him, but also me. It is great to clear my head, get some fresh air, and get the blood flowing. Even when I am just walking alone along the suburban pavement, I still sometimes close my eyes and pretend I am back in Amsterdam, Prague, London, or Edinburgh, walking with ghosts.

The story of the Domino Day 2005 sparrow:

Domino Day 2005 Sparrow

Death by Domino

Portrait of Tycho Brahe by Eduard Ender (1822-1883) – in public domain

Photo of Cathedral by Bobby-John de Bot, licensed by Creative Commons Attribute-ShareAlike 4.0 International license

Electronic Arts logo posted under Fair Use

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