I had a lovely time answering questions set by the author Jennifer Alderson. If you want to know who I chose to sit next to on a long flight (got in a bit of a panic half way through that one and had to call in Lily Tomlin) and what the question was I wished she’d asked me, read on!
There’s been a bit of a debate recently about whether historical fiction writers should add bibliographies to their books or not. Hilary Mantel, a woman who likes to put cats among pigeons, commented in an interview with Diarmaid MacCulloch on her “cringing” contemporaries in historical fiction who “try and burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography.”
She goes on to say this: “You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complimentary.”
My immediate response was a highly sophisticated one. ‘Fuck right off dearie.’ I mean – what got into her? A case of getting out of bed the wrong side? Too much steak for breakfast?
A few things come into play here for me:
- My father was a historian and I spent a great deal of my childhood listening to him grumbling about inaccurate historical detail in TV dramas. At the time I remember wishing he’d shut up so I could follow the story
- I studied history at Oxford not particularly happily
- My last two books – FAR AWAY and TITIAN’S BOATMAN have been historical fiction and I’ve attached bibliographies to both of them.
The reason why I do it is not particularly to “burnish my credentials”. I mean what the hell does that mean anyway? It’s because I think the reader might be interested to read some of the books that have fired my imagination. As a reader I like bibliographies and often track down books from them. I appreciate the fact the writer has taken the trouble to do it. It is work to put together a bibliography. It would be much easier not to do it.
I do not in any way feel cringing.
There is of course another element in play here. In creating a bibliography you are giving away your sources. I like that because there’s a part of me that likes to demystify the process of writing. I want you as my reader to know that fiction writing is not a mystery carried out by magicians. You too could read these books and you might write this sort of book. It sort of democratizes it in some way. Sometimes it does occur to me that a reader might read the books in my bibliography and go, ‘Well, you got that wrong didn’t you?’ Or even, ‘So that’s where you pinched that from,’ but so what? Bring it on!
As a reader of historical fiction I give the writer a fair amount of latitude. After all it’s fiction. I did a history degree and I know the difference; fiction is much more enjoyable! When I read it I do not assume every little thing is accurate. I expect the main big things to be right i.e. the date of a battle or the date of some one’s death but sometimes things can be disputed. For example no one knows exactly when Titian was born so as a writer you take your pick within a certain range and stick to it.
However I very much like the idea of someone who has read my book then reading the things I have enjoyed in researching the book: Pietro Aretino’s letters are great fun – he’s fantastic and I’d like as many people as possible to have the pleasure of reading him. And aren’t you curious to read the letters and poems of a Renaissance courtesan, Veronica Franco? Those closest to me have had me banging on about them for years so why not spread the love? Don’t we all take pleasure in word of mouth recommendations? Why not make that easy for the reader? Books I have read and not enjoyed like Paul Morand’s Venices, an unbearably portentous book, I didn’t include.
One of the characteristics of a cult leader is that it all comes from them personally. It is their genius as opposed to the fact that they might have cobbled together a bit of CBT, a bit of EST and a bit of mindfulness and mixed it with a bit of charisma and bobs your uncle. Never trust an individual who doesn’t acknowledge their teachers, who doesn’t acknowledge their sources, who makes it all about their genius. I don’t want you to think it’s all me. I don’t want you to think it’s all my talent as a writer because that’s not what I believe.
I like the idea of you following your nose into my research material and may be thinking, ‘Oh, look at this juicy element. Why didn’t she use that?’ I’d quite like that. I’d like to know what your story might be. I don’t want it to be mysterious because it isn’t. I remember when I was in my twenties and all I knew was that I wanted to write but I had no idea what to do or how to do it. I did courses, I had teachers, I read books on writing, I joined writing groups. I still have teachers. All those elements contributed to me becoming and staying a published writer.
So what do you think about bibliographies? Apologetic cringing or an act of generosity to the reader? Do you think I have been burnishing my credentials? I’d be very interested to know and when I say interested that’s in a slightly Tony Soprano/horse head in the bed sort of a way. Only joking. I just want you to realize this is an entirely cringe-free zone from a non-cap doffing person. Excuse me, dear reader, while I walk backwards away from you in a suitably groveling, servile manner while begging you for comments … Oh God, what happened there? Maybe Hilary was right all along. PS You should all read her books – every one of them. Every single one. She’s a genius, she really is. She’s just completely wrong on the subject of bibliographies.
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.
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!
I’m thrilled to announce that my novel FAR AWAY has moved from the long list to the short list of the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016 and so I get to show off with another lovely logo.
I am very honoured and keeping everything crossed! Many, many thanks to all those of you who have read, reviewed and supported me with the book. It has meant a very great deal to me and as the glorious Janet Webb (the woman in the green dress in the clip below) used to say at the end of the Morecambe and Wise show ‘I love you all.’ Well, she doesn’t actually say it in this clip but she looks so gloriously celebratory I thought this one would do!
A great review of my book FAR AWAY by the Historical Novel Society (see below) and the fantastic news that it’s been long listed for their Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016. I’m thrilled because it means I get to show off with some delightful logos.
Isn’t this one lovely?
Ooh … and I might take a moment to drool over this one too!
Here’s the review:
Far Away tells the story of two men, Michael Armstrong and Harry Maynard, thrown together in an Italian Prisoner of War Camp following the fall of Tobruk. Though having little in common, they agree to keep a notebook of their experiences. Michael concentrates on the day to day deprivations they suffer and life in the camp together with the hope of release or escape, whilst Harry – a professional writer prior to the war – decides to tell a highly allegorical ‘fairy story’.
Michael survives the war but Harry does not and seventy years on, Michael’s son, Ian, finds the notebooks and learns more about his father – and his part in the war – than he had ever been told.
Victoria Blake has drawn heavily on the experiences of her own father and those of another man who was the inspiration for the notebooks. Yet this is three stories in one: the lives of Michael and Harry in captivity, the tale of Pelliger in the fairy story, and of Ian who has the harrowing task of sorting through his father’s effects following his death.
I can say no more other than that this is a beautiful book, very well written, with the three stories carefully woven together to form a matter-of-fact version of war as seen by one who took part and without any graphic incidents.
I thoroughly recommend it.
I make lists of possible titles as I go along. The crime ones came easily enough. Bloodless Shadow (my first crime novel) was from a book of poems, The Rooster Mask, by a friend Henry Hart and he had it from Homer or Virgil. At any rate one of those scenes when the classical hero goes down to the underworld and the bloodless shadows (the dead) cluster around him.
Poetry is a particularly good source for titles because of the way poets crack open language. They jam words together in arresting and muscular ways and that’s what you want from a title. Something that grabs the attention, unsettles , fizzes.
The title of my most recent book Far Away is the least dramatic of my titles but it persisted and in the end I was satisfied with it.
On occasion regrettably you can come across the perfect title for your book after it’s published. This happened to me the other day when I was reading Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45 by Robert Hewison. I came across this quote from Uys Krige, a South African war correspondent, captured in Africa like my father and a POW in Italy. Here’s his description of what being a POW was like:
“This is a dead world, a lost world and these are lost men, lost each in his own separate limbo, banished from his memories, exiled even from himself. Here even dreams are dead.”
From this short passage I found four titles: Dead World, Lost Men, Banished From Memory and Even Dreams are Dead.
Even Dreams are Dead is the one I like best. That is the title that got away!
Uys where were you when I needed you?
If you’re a writer how do you find the titles of your books or short stories? Does it come easily?
If you’re a reader tell me some of your favourite or least favourite titles.
In 1949 the following paper was published in Ibis the official journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union. The title was: Rook and Jackdaw Migrations Observed in Germany 1942-1945.
1942-1945? Wasn’t something else going on in Germany then?
So who exactly was doing the observing while Europe was being torn apart by the Second World War? The compilers of this article were John Buxton, Peter Conder and George Waterston, who were POWs in Germany at the time. There were many ways POWs sought to escape the boredom of captivity: reading, acting, playing music, painting, doing academic courses of various different sorts, sports, escape activities and yes, bird watching.
The amount of time they put in was extraordinary. Here is a run down of an average day’s bird watching during the summer :
9.30-12.30 more watching
1.30-5.30 watching again
6-9.30 more watching with a break at 19.30 for supper
That is a great many hours to look at the sky. These men were incarcerated in Germany where most of the camps were situated away from towns and cities and many were in wooded areas. In addition officers, unlike the ORs, did not have to work and therefore had time on their hands. The 16 page note they produced had the occasional wry aside that bore witness to the extraordinary circumstances of their observations. For example it was noted that the rooks enjoyed feasting on fields covered in human excrement!
In his wonderful book Crow Country Mark Cocker has this to say about the obsessional aspects of bird watchers:
‘Perhaps all monomanias … are a way of offsetting some deeper pain in life.’
Well, I think in this case it’s highly probable that the pain was that of captivity, hunger, boredom, and anxiety about loved ones back home and how the war was progressing. Looking into the air, looking at birds which were free to fly where ever they wanted maybe gave them some reprieve from their incarceration.
Waterston suffered severe kidney damage when he was captured in Crete in 1941 but took an active role in the Dössel camp bird watching. However in 1943 he was allowed to go home because of his ill-health. Another bird man, his friend Ian Pitman, demanded to be repatriated at the same time. When he was challenged as to the fact that he seemed in perfect health, he took out his glass eye and slammed it down on the German Commandant’s desk and was thus sent home with his friend. After the war the two of them bought Fair Isle in the Shetlands and established it as a migration study site. Condor and Waterston became two of the leading environmentalists of their age. John Buxton became a distinguished Oxford don and poet.
In the film The Great Escape there’ s a scene where the prisoners are being given a lecture on birds and it’s a cover for them forging documents.
Finally, for those of you who like your escapes a bit more physical. Here’s that famous attempted escape sequence with Steve McQueen and the stunt he executed himself. An iconic film star, a tasty motorbike, some beautiful mountains and quite a nifty bit of music to accompany it as well. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score. He also wrote the film scores for The Magnificent Seven and Thoroughly Modern Millie amongst many others. If you’re interested in finding out how crows figure in my book Far Away here’s the link:
How do you escape? Motorcycles or bird watching? Or … ?
Sources: Mark Cocker: Crow Country, Midge Gillies: The Barbed-Wire University.
So here’s the question. Part of my novel FAR AWAY is set in a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War and part of the escape described there (based on what actually happened to my father) involves five men hiding in the roof of one of the prison huts.
So in order to win a copy of my book answer this question: How long did they manage to stay in the roof? This includes the day they got in and the day they got down. The camp was in Sulmona in southern Italy and the month was October 1943. The roof’s proportions were as follows: 14′(L) x 6′(W) x 3’6″(H) – yes, that’s right they couldn’t stand upright.
Here’s a rough sketch from Beverley Edge’s diary; he was one of the five. I’ve coloured the men in orange.
The person who gets closest will be the proud winner of a signed copy of FAR AWAY. I mean how can you resist? I would particularly encourage people to enter who have never won anything in a competition before – that would be me, by the way. My father, on the other hand, only had to sneeze on a raffle ticket to have a bottle of sherry winging its way to him from the church fête.
A great deal of luck was involved in his escape and maybe it stayed with him afterwards.
If you’d like to read about the book please click the link below for a lovely review from the Manchester Military History Society:
In Alberto Manguel’s book, A Reader on Reading there’s a very funny chapter titled The Ideal Reader and I thought I’d pick out a few sentences and interact with them. Here goes …
Alberto: The ideal reader is not a taxidermist.
Me: Alberto, excuse me but is that by any chance a typo? Even if it’s not I’ve got to disagree with you there. What have you got against taxidermists? Personally, I don’t care. I’ll take a taxidermist any day of the week. They might have been stuffing an owl a day ago but if they follow my blog or buy my book or even borrow it from a friend they are my ideal.
Alberto: The ideal reader has no interest in the writings of Bret Easton Ellis.
Me: Really? What have you got against poor Bret. Oh dear, look what I have in my hand. A signed copy of Glamorama … how on earth did I get that? I have absolutely no recollection … none whatsoever… maybe I was drunk … maybe … oh, no, now it’s all coming back to me… It was 1999. It was a dark and stormy night. I had just closed the bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. The seedy lights of Soho beckoned as I turned up the collar of my coat and headed north …
Alberto: The ideal reader has a wicked sense of humour.
Me: I’m with you there Alberto.
Alberto: Every book, good or bad, has its ideal reader.
Me: Well, that’s a relief.
Alberto: The ideal reader proselytizes.
Me: Darling Alberto, have I told you how much I love your book? I really love it. I would not have this blog post without it. Oh God, that’s fawning not proselytizing. How very embarrassing…
Alberto: The ideal reader is (or appears to be) more intelligent than the writer; the ideal reader does not hold this against the writer…
Me: No, I’m sorry you’ve lost me there … I can’t quite get my head around it. Am I the reader or the writer or an owl stuffer. Help me out here Alberto I’m floundering.
Alberto: The ideal reader is someone the writer would not mind spending an evening with, over a glass of wine.
Me: Ah, now you’re talking. Make that a nice bottle of Sicilian Grillo and I’m yours Alberto …
Alberto: Ideal readers never count their books.
Me: You’re beginning to annoy me now Alberto. But whatever you do, don’t read my last post. Ed McBain 21 Agatha Christie 18 Robert Parker and Margery Allingham 17. Look, I’ve no idea why I did it. It just sort of happened.
Alberto: Literature depends, not on ideal readers, but merely on good enough readers.
Me: What! You mean to say we’ve been through all that and end with the merely good enough? I’m disappointed in you Alberto, very disappointed.
On a slightly more serious note the chapter is worth reading in its entirety so I shall now prove my ideal reader credentials by exhorting you to buy Albert Manguel’s book and of course my own. The links are below. If you’re a taxidermist Alberto doesn’t want you but I do. In fact all taxidermists are particularly welcome.
Here comes the question you knew (with sickening inevitability) would be awaiting you if you read to the end.
Who is your ideal reader?
If that makes your brain ache and you’re interested in a signed copy of Glamorama (slightly scuffed, barely read, bit dusty) I’m open to offers.
FAR AWAY by VICTORIA BLAKE:
A READER ON READING by ALBERTO MANGUEL:
Cigarettes were an important part of the POW camp economy. In the 1940s the link had not yet been made between smoking and lung cancer and it was very unusual for soldiers not to smoke. My father didn’t but that didn’t mean he wasn’t interested in being sent cigarettes because cigarettes were a form of currency.
The aim of the Red Cross was to send each man 50 cigarettes every week. From 1941 to the end of March 1945 the Red Cross sent 6 million ounces of tobacco and almost 1.5 billion cigarettes to Italy and Germany.
As well as these, families and friends could also send cigarettes to POWs using tobacco companies which held special permits. The favourites were Woodbine, Players and Craven A.
Most things could be bought with cigarettes and a sophisticated Exchange and Mart system developed and as the war went on only cigarettes and food held their value. In gambling cigarettes were used as chips. Even the packets were used. They could be turned into packs of cards which were popular because they were easily portable.
If there was no tobacco, dried leaves, coffee grounds, grass and even manure was smoked and the leaves of a Bible or Pears Encyclopaedia were used because they were particularly thin. The aim was to produce something that gave the pretence of a cigarette.
Towards the end of the war when deliveries became more sporadic the value of cigarettes rose. A watch was worth 30 cigarettes, a gold ring 20 cigarettes and a safety razor 1 cigarette.
My father never did smoke cigarettes but he did take pleasure in the odd cigar. There was a phase when an ex-student of his used to supply him with Montecristo Cuban cigars, which he enjoyed very much despite being on the other end of the political spectrum to the Castro regime. The cigars came in wooden boxes which, when empty, were handed over to his children. I loved the smell and the colourful labels and used them as pencil boxes or as a store for marbles.