Flemish author’s debut novel tackles love in the modern age


Zita Theunynck has taken lessons learned in her day job as a copywriter to create a first novel that has won her friends in high places

A way with words

Zita Theunynck loves words. While working as a copywriter, she contributes to online magazine Charlie and runs Emoshit, a blog on which she and her sister ponder life. A week after she released her debut novel, she was already working on her second.

But it took her a while get into writing, she says. “In secondary school I wrote terrible essays, but I liked it so much that I worked on it and got better,” she says. “I read a lot, but I never thought I’d be able to write a novel.”

One sentence from her father, though, provided the encouragement to try. “He looked up from his newspaper while we were having breakfast and said: ‘Someday you’ll write a novel.’ And then just carried on reading. I guess it stuck with me.”

The 27-year-old Antwerpenaar says she’s learned a lot about composing prose through her job: “How to get to the point and entertain people.”

‘I cried terribly’

Het wordt spectaculair. Beloofd (It’s Going to be Spectacular. I Promise) begins with a woman, Anna, standing on a station platform in France. She is inconsolable as the train rushes past because she has mistakenly left a book on it stuffed with 23 letters from her boyfriend.

It’s the story of two people and their journey to reunite, a premise that isn’t completely fictional, explains Theunynck (pictured above). “I went on a Erasmus exchange seven years ago, and my boyfriend had written me letters, and I indeed left them in a book on the train. I cried terribly.”

But the rest of the story, she says, is fiction. “This event had such an impact on me, I just had to do something with it.” After three years of writing, the novel was born.

I read the Flemish classics, but in this day and age, there aren’t a lot of new young voices in Flemish literature

- Zita Theunynck

She enjoyed the writing process, because it was something completely different and all her own. And she didn’t tell anyone she was writing a book.

“I had days when I thought: What am I doing? Is anyone ever going to read this? It’s not easy to create a 300-page narrative. But ultimately I thought, why not? To quote Pippi Longstocking: ‘I’ve never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do it’.”

The novel is set in Antwerp, for the most part, and the city’s essence flows through the veins of the story. “I never set out to write about Antwerp; it simply happened,” says Theunynck. “I wanted it to feel real and be relatable to readers.”

She initially created fictional locations, she says, “but I realised that when I was writing that I was using specific places in my head. So that’s when I decided to incorporate Antwerp”.

Het wordt spectaculair is staunchly contemporary, not just because of its refreshing twist on a classic love story, but also because it incorporates present-day media and communications. 

New generation

“I read the Flemish classics, but in this day and age, there aren’t a lot of young new voices in Flemish literature,” Theunynck says. “I love to read, but there’s little for young people to relate to in our contemporary fiction. So I wanted to make my novel appealing to a new generation.”

She read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green while she was writing, she says, “and he also uses texting and so on in his novel. It just makes the story more real and relatable”.

While Het wordt spectaculair is a light and entertaining read, the emotions and charismatic characters are authentic. It’s a love story, but not the kind you expect. The story flows like a river, sometimes smooth and sometimes racing, and even touched the heart of one of Flanders’ most “macho” authors, Herman Brusselmans.

“I contacted writers who write in the same genre to get a quote for the book,” Theunynck explains, “as I’m often influenced by author’s quotes on the back of novels.” Many of the writers she contacted were too busy to read the novel and provide something in a timely matter, so she expanded her reach. “I thought I would send it to Herman Brusselmans. Even if he says it’s a crap novel for emotional women, it would at least be a statement!”

And Brusselmans took the time, penning: “Writing a good novel is like crossing a swamp on a surfboard, like sailing down Veldstraat in a canoe, like seeing the sun up close from inside a black hole. With her debut novel, Zita Theunynck has found the surfboard, discovered the canoe, and seen the sun.”

Het wordt spectaculair. Beloofd (★★★☆) is published in Dutch by Vrijdag

Photo courtesy LDV United

More new books this week

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Het lijk in de boomgaard (The Corpse in the Orchard) • Geert van Istendael (Houtekiet)
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Mazzel Tov • Margot Vanderstraeten (Atlas Contact)                                                                  

Author Margot Vanderstraeten has ventured into the world of non-fiction with this book based on her experiences as a tutor for the children of an orthodox Jewish family in Antwerp. Daughter Elzira and son Jakov introduce her to their world of the 1990s. Religious laws and timeless tradition are in conflict with the thoughts of Flemish students who ponder the duality between and ancient culture and modern life. Vanderstraeten gives us an interesting peek inside a sheltered community. ★★☆☆

Bella • Joost Vandecasteele & Jeroen Los (Lebowski)
Author Joost Vandecasteele and illustrator Jeroen Los have created a wildly imaginative graphic novel that mixes Vandecasteele’s literary musings with stand-up comedy and science fiction. A larger-than-life tale of a girl born in the Great Doubt, Bella explores the galaxy and all the wacky creatures that inhabit it. Bold, bright and original, Bella is a unique reading experience by one of Flanders’ most provocative authors. ★★★☆