Ask a dozen people their favourite city in the world and each one is bound to give you a different answer. While I’m very happy living and writing in London, there’s a part of me that wishes I could be in Amsterdam right now, gazing out of a window on to a bustling canal side scene as I work on this blog.
Don’t ask me what appeals quite so much. It’s certainly not the cyclists, who travel the cobbled streets at breakneck speed while chatting into their mobile phones, seemingly with the sole intent of mowing down any tourist unwary enough to get in their way. And it’s not the ‘smoking cafés’, which entice so many people to visit Amsterdam for the thrill of enjoying an illicit substance or two – I’ve been going there for over twenty years now and in all that time I’ve managed to avoid setting foot in any premises with Bob Marley painted on the window.
That said, the city has a definite vibe. You feel you can slow down, sip a coffee in a ‘brown café’ (so named because before the ban on smoking in public places, the walls of these establishments had been stained dark by years of accumulated nicotine) and watch the world go by.
I find that on my visits there something inevitably inspires a piece of fiction. The latest work to come out of my time roaming around, looking at the fascinating gabled architecture, is my first full-length novel for Totally Bound, The Pride of Amsterdam. It’s a paranormal male/male romance that tells of Kees, a naïve 18-year-old who has an unforgettable encounter with a mysterious older man at a party. When they are reunited 15 years later, he learns his lover, Arjan, has been keeping secrets from him. The most notable of these is that Arjan is actually a lion shifter, and has the ability to change into a big cat at moments of high emotion. If that’s not enough of a revelation for Kees to cope with, along comes a mysterious hunter who wants to drive Arjan and the rest of his pride to extinction…
Writing the novel gave me the chance to set scenes in some places I know well, but I also needed to expand my horizons out to the north of the city, beyond the usual tourist hot spots. As a result, I now know a lot more about the way Dutch cemeteries work than I ever thought I’d need to!
Of course, I’m not the only novelist who’s taken inspiration from time spent in Amsterdam. If it intrigues you as a setting, then I’d highly recommend both Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and The Riders by Tim Winton. In both cases, the climax of the story takes place in a wintry version of the city, which somehow seems to hold out the promise of redemption for the book’s protagonist. Or if you want a humorous but even more nightmarish take on the place, try Michael Shilling’s Rock Bottom, in which a rock band who’ve become famous for all the wrong reasons finally implode in Amsterdam on the last night of a European tour gone horribly wrong. Incidentally, writers who sometimes struggle with their research take note: to make sure that his various characters could get from place in place in time to make the novel’s events plausible, Shilling actually walked (or ran) the streets in the pursuit of accuracy.
If you have any other favourite novels which feature Amsterdam, why not leave a comment so I can add them to my reading pile? And if you’ve never visited the city, then I hope you’ll correct that oversight soon. With any luck, you’ll enjoy it just as much as I do.