Robert Blake: January 1939 

Today Michael Armstrong, the main character in my book FAR AWAY is being interviewed by writer Helen Hollick. Helen has been interviewing 26 characters in historical novels for the A2Z Blog Challenge. The historical part of my book is set in Africa and Italy during the Second World War. The interview was fun to take part in although also slightly alarming since my main character is based, ahem, loosely on my father, the historian Robert Blake, and so it turned into had the potential to turn into a bit of a Freudian nightmare.

As the A2Z has advanced I have been experiencing that well-known disease ‘character envy’. Oh, why wasn’t my character a nineteenth century Romany footballer (Steve Kay’s Rabbi Howell), or a seventeenth century pirate (Helen Hollick’s Jesamiah Acorne) or a Greek soldier in 5th century BC (Nick Brown’s Mandrocles) or an Ancient Egyptian Queen (Inge Borg’s Nefret). Well, the reason why not is because one of the purposes of my book was to publish the part of my father’s memoir which he managed to complete before he died; the part which covered his experiences of being in the Royal Artillery and being captured at the fall of Tobruk in Africa and his subsequent escape from a POW camp in Sulmona, Italy. And because I’m a fiction writer I wanted to use a novel to do it.

One of the complications in doing this was that I had quite a large body of writing already in existence before I started and was confronted with the question of how best to utilize it. In none of my other writing have I started off quite so constricted. Throughout the book I battled with whether I should cut or not cut some of his material. Finally I cut very little and for the most part the details of the escape described in FAR AWAY are what happened to him.


Robert Blake in later years

Of course, the Michael Armstrong of my novel is not my father. He couldn’t be because I have no idea what my father was like as a twenty-five year old soldier imprisoned in an Italian POW camp in 1942. I was born when he was forty-eight so I got to know him in the last forty years of his life. If I think back to what I was like in my twenties that person appears to bear little relation to who I am now although my sisters might beg to differ! There is, of course, a perennial fascination to the question of who our parents were before we turned up and maybe that in the end was part of what fueled my desire to write this book. In life my father was not a man to be open about his fears or his passions. He was a charming, brilliant and staunchly private man. FAR AWAY is perhaps my attempt to get to know him a bit better and to shine a light on the young man he once was.

If you’re interested in historical fiction these interviews give an incredible range of characters to choose from. A nineteenth century American spiritualist, a Viking, a Roman soldier, an Egyptian Queen … Great interviews and brilliant books. Thank you, Helen!

If you want to know what Michael Armstrong has to say about me you’ll find him here. Oh, he does go on … and the comments are worth reading just to watch me getting into a whole load of trouble!



  1. What fun! (And I can see through all his bluff in the interview – he’s obviously really proud of you.) I think it’s not a bad technique for any writer to use when writing historical or even contemporary fiction – just to sit them down and ask them a few things – because as we writers are well aware, characters have an alarming tendency to say quite odd and interesting things, even when we’re deluded into thinking that we’re in control of them.


    • Thanks Colin. It was fun to take part in slightly complicated by the parental aspect of it. What was interesting generally in the interviews was how stroppy a lot of the characters were with their authors. A case of the monster being a bit pissed off with Dr Frankenstein maybe! A need to assert their independence and power??? Oh dear it gets more and more complicated … I better stop there!


      • Always a pleasure (and an education, too, usually!) He was a bit of a handsome dude in his day, your old man! And he looks so distinguished in the later photo. Haven’t politicians – and their advisers – got about 30 years younger in the last generation? I fear that means they have a great deal less knowledge and experience. Did you ever fancy that path Victoria? I must read one of your crime fiction books, btw. Would be good for the blog.


  2. It’s a great idea to do interviews with characters – and this was a very enjoyable and fascinating interview. It must be wonderful, if a little daunting, to be able to write a character based on your father.


    • Hi Andrea, thanks for reading it – there are certain ethical dilemmas that come into play which are to put it mildly complicated and somewhat constricting! I think as Colin says in another comment on this post it’s quite an interesting thing to do as you’re writing especially if a character goes a bit quiet. Always a worrying moment in my experience. I mean either their yabbering away or … well, you’re terrified that you’re never going to hear from them again.

      Liked by 1 person

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