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Friday, 30 May 2014

Back to Ukraine


About two or three years ago I had it in mind to write a novel that would be (as usual) a thread of historical and contemporary storylines. An elderly Ukrainian living in Britain with a dark wartime secret. I gave up on it because it was so hard to uncover material about the Ukraine in the thirties and forties. The battles were described, of course. And the deaths. But it seemed that every single person who may have written down what everyday life was like in Ukraine in the period had been murdered/starved/deported or pressed into either the Fascist or Communist armies and militias. A country's culture is very certainly not that of the middle classes alone, but when those people have ... gone, it's hard to to written accounts. I simply thought that the subject was too difficult. In the last six months, of course, it's become very topical again, that historical split in the Ukraine, half of which looks west towards Poland and the EU, and the other part which looks east to Russia. I may have to start working on it, after all . . .  Just need to track down some good accounts written by Ukrainian people in English or even German, which I can just about manage with my old German A level.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Amazon Countdown deal on The One I Was--99p

For two days, starting on Tuesday 27 May, The One I Was will be on a special Amazon promotional deal, with the price just 99p in the UK.

Catch it while you can; the price goes up to £1.99 for a few more days at the end of the week, and will then return to full price.

Friday, 16 May 2014

The Children's War

What effect did World War have on children? It's a huge question, and one which we've been mulling over since The Diary of Anne Frank was first published and various fictional accounts written at the time (one of my favourites is When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr). Many of the great movements in child psychology actually originated from observations of how children responded to extreme situations brought on by war, such as separation from parents (Bowlby's work, for instance).

Alex Baugh is fascinated by the subject and has a whole blog, The Children's War, dedicated to the subject of books aimed at children, young adults and occasionally adults, plus a WIP annotated bibliography of books written for young readers set in World War II.

This week The Children's War reviews The One I Was and I am flattered to be in such good company.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Generation War and Heimat

I watched the last episode of Generation War last night and have been thinking about it ever since. It's good that the Germans have finally produced something like this*. I remember summer holidays spent with my German exchange friend and her brothers and sisters and their frustration with the wall of silence over the subject of WW2 and Germany. That was the late seventies and early eighties. Lots of terribly wounded men could still be seen going about their lives. Buses, trams and trains had signs reminding you that war wounded had priority seating rights.

There were some things about Generation War I didn't think quite worked (too much coincidence: Poland, the Ukraine and Russia are huge areas, yet the friends seemed to bump into one another, often almost literallly). I wasn't sure a Jewish friend would be so openly partying with four Aryan friends in 1941. And I thought that Wilhelm probably knew more than he let on about what was going on in Poland at the beginning of the series as he'd already served out there.

But the series gave me characters I cared about, even when they did things that appalled me (Charly informing on the Jewish doctor, Friedhelm shooting the little Jewish boy). They made me ask myself what I would have done in the same situations. Would I have been brave enough to have ignored the Jewish ancestry of my colleague? To have flat-out refused to shoot a child, even if I knew the immediate response would have probably been a bullet through my own head? What would I have done in those circumstances if I'd grown up indoctrinated on propoganda? I'll never know, of course.

In both Restitution and The One I Was the 'What would I have done?' question preoccupied me. Impossible to answer: we're not the same people as the Germans in the 30s and 40s. But we can still ask ourselves and try and listen to what the most truthful part of us offers up in response. Some of my answers haven't been very brave answers, despite my hoping that I would have done the right thing.The One I Was--Restitution


*I'm just editing this to add that I haven't forgotten, of course, Reitz's wonderful Heimat, which I first started watching because I wanted to research German kitchen interiors of the 1930s and which Google eventually led me to! The excuse of 'research' eventually became a bare-faced lie and I watched all of the first series in a kind of binge. I never liked the second and third series as much. For me, the story hung on Katharina and Maria, the matriarchs, and their centrality to the life of the community. Of course, war comes to Heimat but the village is certainly not on the Eastern Front and is reasonably peaceful untroubled, although there are those shaky moments when the American (fortunately not the Red Army) roll into the village in 1945. So it's not really a depiction of war in the same way as Generation War. Though I will never forget the scenes where Wilfried Wiegand shoots the downed British airman, only metres away from a car-ful of children, and where he tells off Katharina for giving the POWs a decent meal. And Katharina travelling into Bochum to rescue a young Lotti after her father was arrested. I must watch series one again. Brilliant.

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Writing Process

The talented Deborah Swift, author of last year's A Divided Inheritance, the third of her novels to date, has kindly invited me to join a blog hop on the writing process. You can find Deborah's musings on this subject on her blog

There are only four questions, which makes it all seem very simple, but as with all apparently simple exercises, this is deceptive, as some of my answers will show.


What am I working on?

The second of my Blitz Kid novels, about a teenage girl living through World War II, and also another adult novel I wrote last summer and am revising. 

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I suppose we all like to feel that we're different! I come across other dual-thread novels, going from contemporary to historical, so there's nothing new in what I do. I do have a fascination with the way in which World War II changed whole generations of families: not just the lives of those living through those times. Sad, dangerous or possibly exciting things that happened during such a time of struggle can well affect those living decades later, and that's what interests me. In my new book, The One I Was, a secret that a Kindertransport child carries with him to England in 1939 ripples on down through the years so that it becomes part of the story of a contemporary English nurse who's not related to him.

Why do I write what I do?

I suppose it's that fascination with how things are connected, about hard it is to untangle ourselves from the past and from our histories.

How does your writing process work?

I have a rough outline of what I'm going to do before I start--often in the form of a short synopsis or something more 'query'-like: a quick summary of what the book will actually be about, rather than what happens in it. I like to know where the conflict points will be before I start. I now use Scrivener, so that I can separate each chapter and play with their order in the novel. If I'm writing a novel with two threads, it's important to reveal information at the right time, so being able to shift scenes around easily is very useful. Once I have a draft I'm reasonably happy with, I'll ask a first reader to have a look. Then redraft based on their comments, and then perhaps ask someone else. Ideally then I'd lock the ms. up for a year and come back to it with a fresh eye, as distance allows you some objectivity.

I have daily set word targets, though if I'm in full writing mode I imagine I probably write at least a thousand words a day. I'm a great believer in not just putting down words for words' sake. It's better to try and work that out first and not force it. I often have breakthroughs when I'm driving or walking. A lot of the 'writing' happens in my head.

Next week, it is the turn of the critically acclaimed Nicole Hayes to tell us about her writing process. Nicole is a freelance writer, editor and teacher based in Melbourne. She has an MA in Creative Writing, which she teaches at the University of Melbourne and Phoenix Park Neighbourhood House. Her first novel, The Whole of My World, was published last year to critical acclaim, and is a dark young adult story of a girl's attempt to escape her grieving father and her own terrible secret by the medium of Aussie Rules Football. 

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Thoughts on titles and emblems

The One I Was was titled 'Fairfleet' for the period of two years in which I wrote it, because the house itself seemed to be such a part of the narrative, almost a character in its own right. Eventually I changed the name, because a friend, rightfully, pointed out that it gave the book a nautical, if not naval, air! It is set in inland England, near the historic cities of Oxford and Abingdon, so I was worried that this would be misleading. 

The One I Was as a title popped into my head at a random moment and it seemed completely the right title for the book. Benny comes to England as a refugee from Nazi Germany and immediately realizes that to flourish in a new country he needs to reinvent himself into someone irreproachably English. But are we still the same people we were when we were children? And if you try and change yourself into someone else can you always succeed?


There are lots of other things in the The One I Was that fascinate me: topiary animals and peacocks. Appropriately, only last night, a few weeks after the book was published, a friend and I nearly jumped out of our skins when a peacock shrieked at us in the dark. A Spitfire plane also features in the novel as an emblem of freedom and danger, completely irresistible for Harriet Dorner, female pilot.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

What's going on at the library?

Use your library more. Libraries have a lot to offer besides reading – they are places to go online, to access digital resources and of course, get help from librarians, in person and online.
Bookmark your library aggregates services and content from 159 libraries in England and Wales (and a few Scottish ones) and puts them all together in one place. Have a look at the link and find out what's going on at UK public libraries.