From Maastricht With Love by Cal Smyth

As crime writers, we spend our days pitting our characters against risks, forcing them to take tough decisions. This week, Cal Smyth talks engagingly about a risk he took recently – uprooting himself from Swansea to move to Maastricht.

It was a risk I needed to take. Not just for me, but for my son’s future. After 16 years in Wales, I had the chance of a new life in The Netherlands. As an author, I had a Royal Literary Fellowship at Swansea University – a great role which gave me time to write. But it was time for a change.

I’d been head-hunted for a supercool job as an interactive storyteller, working for a Dutch health care app in Maastricht. After talking with my son, I accepted the offer and the relocation was scheduled for 1st January 2021. The plan was that I would set everything up with work and apartment, then my son could come over. There were just a few obstacles I needed to navigate…

Not only was there a global pandemic, national lockdown & Brexit countdown, but The Netherlands had banned all flights from the UK. I quickly re-arranged the flight via Barcelona, but then Spain joined the UK flight ban. All I could do was wait and be ready to improvise.

A Dutch window opened, so I booked a new flight for the 31st December. I went for a final sunrise run on the beach, gave my son a huge hug (it would be the last hug I would have for three months), hired a one-way rental car (for one pound) and made it to Heathrow.

The emptiness of the airport was mirrored in The Netherlands, which was also in lockdown (still is as I write this). The picturesque, cobbled streets of Maastricht were empty on New Year’s Eve, but the aroma of waffles wafted alluringly through the air. In the Airbnb apartment I was staying, I was warmly welcomed by the owner, an artist whose ex-husband had written crime novels, which seemed a good omen. I also liked the symbolism that on the night the UK was leaving the EU, I would be in the heart of Europe – the original EU treaty signed in Maastricht.

After a digital New Year, I started my new job, crossing over the river in the morning. In my twenties, I’d left the UK to work and travel in different countries, starting in Serbia – the inspiration for my Balkan Noir series. Now in my forties, it felt like I was being given a second chance in life and I was determined to take it. It might seem strange to go from writing crime novels to creating interactive narrative and dialogue for health avatars, but what could be healthier than staying alive? In fact, it wasn’t a co-incidence. I had recently written an AI thriller and I’d also branched out into interactive storytelling with travel app Questo. So although the new software was slightly psychedelic, I immediately realized it was just another way of crafting a narrative.

Some of the work uses all the writing skills I’ve learnt over the years, like how to structure a narrative and give or receive feedback. Some of it, like creating sleep stories, I have to almost do the reverse of crime writing, taking plot and tension away. And some of it, like working with filmmakers and animators, is what I’ve always wanted to do.

The company motto is ‘we’re here to be awesome’ and I can only say that everyone lives up to it – colleagues that come from all over the world and are all fantastic at what they do (we’re on the lookout for more interactive storytellers, so if interested, check out the job spec). In the first three months, I’ve worked with expert health scientists on creating interactive narratives for topics such as Coping with Change, Better Breathing and Understanding Burnout.

I’ve worked with the innovative video team to create an interactive video for SWOT analysis, with awesome animators to create a rollercoaster of emotion animation, and the supersonic audio team to create sleep stories. Together with the animators and health scientists, I’ve also created bios for animation personas. And I’ve even worked with the events team and co-hosted an Online Pub Quiz quiz. For me, it really is a dream job.

It’s not all been perfect. The other night, I dreamt that two of the avatars from the app were waiting for me at the end of balcony that was high above a city. With the city lights far below, the balcony was like a pier in the night sky, a metal balustrade at the end. The female avatar said: ‘It’s your time Cal’. I knew what she meant was that I had to jump. But that would mean certain death. I hesitated, not wanting to die. But the male avatar repeated the words: ‘It’s your time Cal.’ So I walked to the end of the high-rise balcony, grasped the metal balustrade and leapt over.

Maybe my subconsciousness knew I had a safety net, because as I fell through the air, a parachute opened from my back. But in an instant, the avatars reached over and cut the strings. With nothing to save me, I plunged into darkness.

I think the dream was more about taking risks than death. Or maybe my criminal mind just can’t help imagining things. On a Sunday walk to Mount Sint Pieter, I explored the cinematic landscape of quarry and caves. The rockface made me think of the scene from Hitchcock’s classic thriller, North by Northwest. The concrete and rivulets reminded me of Boorman’s ultimate neo-noir, Point Blank. And the cement works had me remembering the mafia death in Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love.

Thinking the area was the perfect setting for a crime novel or movie, I started asking questions. It turned out that many years ago, children had got lost in the caves and were later found dead. And quite recently, a young man had been found stabbed to death in the quarry. In fact, Dutch police series Flikken in Maastricht is often set in the area.

Ideas are brewing for a crime series called Maastricht Murders…A man found naked and dead in the quarry, covered in strange sword wounds. A Dutch female detective with Thai roots and love of samurai ways. An investigation into drugs and prostitutes brought across borders via barges. The idyllic cobbled streets a cover for an underground Buddhist sex cult (every window in Maastricht seems to have a min-Buddha, so I’m sure there’s something going on). A chase scene through the network of caves under the city. And a climatic showdown in the quarry, with the investigator using her sword skills in a duel to the death…

When I get time, I’ll start on the new crime novels. For now, I’m completely focused on the narratives and scripts for the app. That and trying to get my son over. With lockdowns still in place after three months and a quadruple set of expensive pcr tests required, as well as quarantine, I’ve had to delay his first visit.

Luckily, my son is chilled about it all, which I’m immensely grateful for. But I miss that teenager of mine. At work, my colleagues felt my sadness, leaving a photo of me and my son on my desk, the last one we took together – our ‘gangsta’ photo as he calls it. I really do work with some awesome people, in a way a new kind of ‘family’. Spring is in the air and as I see all the international University students cycling through the streets, I know my son will fit in. I’ll get him here at some point and am sure the risk was worth it.

Read more about Cal Smyth here.

Discover Cal’s books on his Amazon page.

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