Open Book with Hester Velmans

Sheffield resident Hester Velmans has written children's books before ("Isabel of the Whales," "Jessaloup's Song"). But her latest work, "Slipper" (Van Horton Books, $16.95), uses a tale, "Cinderella," heard and seen by many young audiences, as a starting point for a historical novel aimed at adults.

Lucinda, a poor English orphan, receives cruel treatment while working for her wealthy relatives during the 17th century. After inheriting glass-beaded slippers, she flees to France, chasing love. She overcomes various obstacles on her way to Paris, where she meets Charles Perrault, the author credited with the version of Cinderella's tale that inspired Disney's famous movie. In the novel, Lucinda recounts her life story to him.

"I wanted to tell a story that I would be interested in reading. It's for adults. It's not for children," Velmans says.

The book moves between places — England, the Netherlands, France — where Velmans lived during her childhood. The author has specialized in translating contemporary works of Dutch and French literature, including "The Consequences" by Ni a Weijers (2017) and "The Voyage of the Short Serpent" by Bernard du Boucheron (2008).

Velmans answered some questions by phone before the April 17 release of "Slipper." The interview has been edited for length.

Q What is your favorite children's book?

A Well, there are many. I'll give you some that maybe people don't know as well. I loved T. H. White's "Mistress Masham's Repose." It's kind of like a retelling of Lilliput [in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels"]. It's about Lilliputians, [the] tiny little creatures. T. H. White was the author of "The Once and Future King," about the Arthurian legend, so he's in that same category. I remember there was a story by Evelyn Nesbit, E. Nesbit, "Five Children and It." Part of my life, I grew up in the Netherlands. So, I can think of some Dutch children's books that I loved, but I don't think that that's relevant [to your audience]. ... I loved anything that was fantasy, fairy tales. As an adult, if you say, 'What kind of books do you like?' I still like the Philip Pullman [books]; they're written for children, I guess. And, of course, C.S. Lewis — I read those to my kids. All the "Narnia" books were my absolute favorite.

Q What is your favorite memoir?

A Can I mention my parents' memoirs?

Q Yes, you can.

A Both my parents wrote memoirs with no help from me. My mom's memoir is called "Edith's Story." She was a hidden child in Holland and kept a diary, sort of like Anne Frank. So, we translated the diaries and wrote a whole memoir of it. It's been translated into 10 languages, I think, published in 12 countries. It's kind of already a classic. That's by Edith Velmans. ... My dad's book — his name was Loet Velmans — and his memoir is, "Long Way Back to the River Kwai." He escaped in a very daring escape from Holland the day the Nazis invaded and ended up as a prisoner of war. He became a soldier in the East Indies and was a prisoner of war of the Japanese for three years.

Q What is your favorite translation of a work?

A What I have to say is: I really appreciate translation. I could say "War and Peace" [by Leo Tolstoy]. I love all the more old-fashioned translations, like the great Russians or French. But right now, I am reading, or trying to read, this book that's been really well-received. It's called "War and Turpentine" by Stefan Hertmans. It's translated from the Flemish by a guy called David McKay. Now, we're a very small, little club of Dutch or Flemish translators. We know of each other's work and everything. And I have to say that I'm in awe of his translation. It's a beautiful translation. The book itself is about soldiers during World War I, and it's really harrowing. It's not my cup of tea as far as, it's so bloody and so terrible, but I think the language is beautifully translated. ... I can tell you some [novels] that I didn't like the translation of, even though I don't know the language, because it just sounds wrong in my ear. But I don't want to give those away.

Q What is your favorite work of Dutch literature?

A "The Discovery of Heaven" by Harry Mulisch. It's a great book. It's a fantastic book. I read it in Dutch.

Q Where's your favorite place to get lost in a book in the Berkshires?

A Really, it's in my own house, in my kitchen. I live in a beautiful place with a beautiful view of the fields. We can't see the Housatonic, but our property goes down to the Housatonic. And there are barns, and there are fields, and there are birds. I always sit in my kitchen looking out the window, reading. ... It's also where I work. I have a study and everything, but I always go down to the same spot, where I can just gaze and dream.

Q What books are currently on your nightstand?

A The one that I mentioned, "War and Turpentine," because I'm only halfway through it. I put it aside because it got so bloody. I have a book by Curtis Sittenfeld. It's a book of essays by her: "You Think It, I'll Say It." I don't know if it's out here yet. [It's not; April 24 is the release date.] My sister's her publisher in England. My sister gives me books and says, 'You have to read this.' So, I'm reading that. ... [I'm also reading] a book called "Philips-Girl." It's a Dutch book. And it's by a woman called Sanne van Heijst. ... [It's] about World War II, [and it was] sent to me by the author because she wants my opinion on whether it would be something for the U.S. market. It's about a girl, apparently, a Jewish girl who ended up in a concentration camp in Holland and was one of I-don't-know-how-many-hundreds of girls that worked in the Philips factory, and they survived because they were the Philips girls. They were allowed to get out of camp to go to work every day.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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