Sunday, 26 July 2015

I have a first edition print of the book framed hanging on my wall...

Interview with Jeremy Podolski
by Agnes A. Rose

Jeremy Podolski is the grandson of Antoni Joseph Podolski – the author of his autobiography entitled “23 Days: A Memoir of 1939”. Antoni was born in 1923 in the town of Baranovichi which until 1945 had belonged to Poland. Currently these areas are located in Belarus. Joe died in Norfolk in 1999. During the Second World War Antoni Podolski fought against the Red Army, and he became a fighter pilot in the Polish Air Force in Great Britain. His heroic struggle against the eastern invader resulted in the fact that he was arrested and eventually he spent twenty-three days in a condemned cell, waiting for his execution. Jeremy is going to tell us not only about his heroic Grandfather, but also bring the facts associated with the creation of this very moving book, which undoubtedly are the Antoni ‘Joe’ Podolski’s war memories.

Agnes A. Rose: Jeremy, welcome on my blog and thank you for agreeing to give me this interview. Could you tell us something more about your Grandfather? What was he like?

Jeremy Podolski: Growing up he was everything that you would expect from a Grandad. He was kind and loving towards us. He let us get away with far more than we would at home with our parents. He even covered for us a couple of times when we cause a little more trouble than usual. He had suffered a very large stroke in the early 1980s and I was born in 1983 so my memories of him were after his stroke. He had a more sedate life after his stroke. He stopped flying, teaching Judo and his work of boat building and glider repair and being a jeweler. I would have loved to go up flying with him as from the stories I have heard he was an amazing pilot.

This is a photo of Joe Podolski with his Squadron in about 1945. 
You can see Joe in the front row as the first on the right hand side. 

Agnes A. Rose: When did you first meet the story of your Grandfather? Do you remember what you felt then?

Jeremy Podolski: The first time I read it was about 2 years after he died. I would have been about 18 at the time. He willed his manuscript to my brother and myself. The story was harder to follow then compared to how it is now. It jumped about more in time as he had dictated the story and so when he recorded bit he would jump about in his memories. I was amazed at the story. It was unbelievable that he had gone through this situation. I could not imagine going through that hell at 16. His life as a 16 year old was so far removed from mine as an 18 year old living in a safe and peaceful country. I knew he had been a pilot during the war and I imagined it was actually an exciting way to fight a war but the first few years were brutal for him. I was amazed how normal he was after the war. How he could go through such horrors and then just settle down and build a normal life.

One thing did 'click' after reading the book was the fact that when I would stay at his as a child if I would wake up during the night he always seemed to be awake. I don't think he slept too well due to nightmares.

Agnes A. Rose: What happened that Joe Podolski decided to write down his dramatic wartime memories? What was the process of preparing the diary like?

Jeremy Podolski: After his stroke he had some pioneering surgery that saved his life and gave him a good 10+ years more with us. He wanted to get this story down for the family. He was hoping to get it published as a book at the time but did not have any luck.

When he dictated his memoirs he used a tape to tape recording machine to dictate his story. A friend of his got his audio typist to type up the story from the tapes. This produced a 600+ page double spaced manuscript. This was the format I originally read the book in.

Agnes A. Rose: Why was the book “23 Days: A Memoir of 1939” released just after your Grandfather’s death? Didn’t Antoni Podolski during his lifetime want his story to find its way into wider audience’s hands?

Jeremy Podolski: As far as I know he did try a number of publishers during the late 80s to see if they were interested. At that time the cold war was at an end and Russia was not seen as the great enemy that it once was. The communist government is the main 'bad guy' in the story and I think politically it was not the right time.

Also with most book publishing the publishers are looking for what will make them money and if they don't feel it will sell then they are not interested. At that time printing was very expensive and big runs were needed so I think most books like there were seen as a gamble in the publishing world.

Joe Podolski also taught Judo. In this picture Joe is standing between 
his two colleagues from the Norwich Judo Club.  

Agnes A. Rose: What was the process of publishing “23 Days: A Memoir of 1939” like? Why did you eventually decide to publish the Joe Podolski’s wartime memories?

Jeremy Podolski: Preparing the book after his death was a lot of work but it was spread out over almost 15 years. After I had first read it I wanted to preserve the book so I had to get it on to computer. After a little trial and error I used some OCR software. This takes a scan of the page and reads the text on the page and puts it in to a word document. As this was originally typed on a typewriter the OCR software got a lot of bits wrong and picked up some very weird formatting. The software was also very basic compared to today as this scanning was done in about 2003.

I had to go through all the 600+ scanned pages and correct the mistakes and formatting just to get it looking normal.

Many years later I found a company that does digital book printing. As with the development of most technology it meant that printing a short run of books was cheap enough to make it worth printing a small run. I also found someone online to do some editing. This was just to correct some grammar and spelling that I had missed. My dad then did a big edit to move the story about in to a better and more readable order.

This was just going to be a digital printed book for the family but as the story was edited it just developed in to this incredible story. So we decided to take a chance and self publish the book. We have never removed anything from the book or added anything. We have only moved the story about to make it flow better.

Agnes A. Rose: On the Internet there are a lot of very positive and extremely moving opinions on the book of your Grandfather. While preparing this publication did you ever think that people would treat the Antoni’s memories in such emotional way?

Jeremy Podolski: No, I did not. It was a lovely surprise to have this feedback off people. It makes all the hard work worth it when you read honest reviews about the book. It was also nice hearing other people's memories of my Grandad. These are stories that we did not know and would never have found out if we had not self-published the book.

Agnes A. Rose: And how do you personally treat this book? What is it for you?

Jeremy Podolski: I treat this as probably the most important thing I have ever done and maybe will ever do. It is an amazing connection to a very sad and harrowing part of human history. I have a first edition print of the book framed hanging on my wall with some newspaper articles about my Grandad underneath. I will treasure this book forever and hopefully if nothing else comes off it there will be an amazing historical document to pass down our family.

I am really proud of the book and the amazing positive feedback we have had.

Agnes A. Rose: I know that your Grandfather never returned to Poland, but certainly he missed the country where he had grown up. Had he ever thought about going for broke and returning to the places of his childhood and adolescence before he died, although currently these lands do not belong to Poland?

Jeremy Podolski: What my dad wrote about him not returning to his home he was referring to his childhood home in Baranovichi. He did return to Poland a number of times and met up with some family and old friends. As Russia was still in control of Poland there was some element of risk and he never pushed his luck by trying to go to his old home.

Agnes A. Rose: It seems to me that last October you were in Krakow where you promoted the book during the International Book Fair. How do you remember that event?

Jeremy Podolski: I personally was not at the book fair. My Dad, Mum, Cousin and Brother and his family were at the book fair. It seemed to go well and they spoke to a lot of people. There was some interest from a Polish publisher but in the end they decided that it was not for them.

Published by
United Kingdom 2014
Agnes A. Rose: May we expect the Polish translation of “23 Days: A Memoir of 1939” despite the lack of Polish publishers?

Jeremy Podolski: I would be lovely to have a Polish translation. We have had one Polish publisher interested but that did not come to anything in the end. If anyone reading this is interested in publishing a Polish version then please get in touch!

Agnes A. Rose: Have you ever been to Baranovichi? If so, what was your following of your Grandfather’s footsteps like?

Jeremy Podolski: No, I have never been there but I have been thinking about it. Maybe in the future I will take a trip there. Sadly I have no idea where his childhood home was compared to how it looks now.

Agnes A. Rose: And what do you think about Poland? While your staying in Krakow did you also visit any interesting place in our country?

Jeremy Podolski: I love Poland and Krakow! I have never felt instantly at home as I did when I first visited Krakow in 2012. I have visited Warsaw a number of times since 2001. Half of my Grandad’s ashes are with his dad’s grave in Warsaw. I would love to explore more of Poland and I have a rail trip around Poland in the back of my mind. One day in the future with enough money and time I will do it.

Agnes A. Rose: Jeremy, thank you for this interview. I hope that very soon the war memories of your Grandfather will be translated into Polish and everyone will be able to read them without a language barrier. Would you like to add something as a conclusion? 

Jeremy Podolski: I would just like to say thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak about my Grandad's memoirs and his incredible life. I would just love to see this book do well as I feel this is an amazing story and there are less and less of them about now. 

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here.
If you want to read the book review, please click here.
If you want to find out more about the book and its author, please click here.
If you want to buy the book, please click here

Thursday, 23 July 2015

"Cancer Schmancer" by Fran Drescher

Published by
Please, try to imagine a movie star you like very much. Probably this person is rich, beautiful and admired not only by you. Some people are probably secretly jealous of her wonderful and sugary life and maybe they would be happy if they had a chance to interchange with her. Most of us take for granted that the gained popularity ensures happiness and the people watching on the small screen are the elects of the fate who do not have any everyday worries. Maybe are there only the appearances? Are we sure that any personal drama, which is not mentioned about, does not hide behind a snow-white smile because you cannot disappoint your loyal fans, and above all, you cannot give a cheap fodder to the press seeking it.

As we know some autobiographies appear on the publishing market from time to time. They are the response to the ever interest in the private life of public figures. Apart from the books associated with the difficulties in the achievement of the fame and praising the advantages of being recognized, there are also publications that describe some important topics and social problems. Such a record of experiences often has tremendous impacts on the strength not only to the fans of the writer but also the wider public.  

Fran Drescher is primarily known for the TV series "The Nanny". There she played the role of a go-getting nanny of three children employed by a lonely widower called Maxwell Sheffield. Her distinctive voice is known to the viewers for her episodic role in the legendary film called “Saturday Night Fever” where she dances with one of the most famous American actor – John Travolta. Looking at the Fran Drescher’s filmography it is hard to imagine a moment when she does not infect other people with her unique laughter. Meanwhile the private life of the very popular person coming from Flushing[1], unfortunately, has not been idyllic. In 1985 Fran Drescher fell victim to the brutal assault when her house was attacked by a gang of robbers. However, the criminals did not stop at the looting of her residence which certainly left an incredible mark on the delicate psyche of the future performer of Miss Fine’s role. The years were passing and it seemed that everything what worst had been over and the whole limit of bad luck had run out. However, in October 1997 the fate got difficult times to Fran again which shook the entire stabilized world. Just in this place a very personal diary of the comedy star begins. In her diary she describes her difficult experience lasting in the course of just over four years. In this way Fran Drescher has become a model of the power, determination and hope for thousands of women in the whole world.

Fran Drescher
A divorce in Hollywood spheres is something remarkably universal, although there are couples of people who seem to contradict the nasty statisticians. Peter Marc Jacobson and Fran Drescher complemented each other both in their private and professional life in perfectly way for a long time. Their joint project, which they are well-known for up till today, just celebrated the great success. At that time the married couple, knowing each other from the secondary school times, decided on the parting. However, this difficult situation was only a prelude to another trouble. Soon it turned out that the CBS channel was going to cease broadcasting “The Nanny” after six seasons. They decided that the main star of this popular sitcom would give the message to the viewers. It would be the best solution of this uncomfortable situation. The authorities of the CBS channel also told Fran Drescher to take all the blame for finishing the production upon herself.   

However, the real drama which was supposed to influence the future of the famous actress, took place mainly after turning off the cameras and at first she did not realize that the worst experience would only happen. The subtle symptoms, which most women are used to regarding as something transitional, were the beginning of a bumpy road for our heroine in search for the conclusive and difficult diagnosis. Your best bet is to think that everything will fall into place as soon as the situation in the private and professional life normalizes. However, this is not happening. At some point it becomes obvious that these ailments can be a symptom of something serious.

"Cancer Schmancer" is about the difficult experience in the struggle against the horrible disease which can affect anyone regardless of race, origin or financial status. It might seem that in the case of the public person the road from the first anxiety to the proper diagnosis should be a little bit simpler than usual. This story proves that this is not always the case. While reading I got the impression that the specialists still ignored the growing health problems of the artist for a long time. How many of them thought that the woman was a hypochondriac who because of her profession, where you primarily play on people’s emotions, exaggerated everything? The patient heard that there probably was a premenopausal state and the next doctor was sure that it was only a result of too much amount of spinach in her diet. A lot of unanswered questions made Fran felt cheated by the medical community, but she also knew that she had to find out the truth before it would be too late in order to change anything. The eight doctors (you are reading well: E-I-G-H-T) were essential so that the author of this book heard the news which she was most afraid of. She had uterine cancer.

While the narration of this book is led with a slight grain of salt, there is a layer of intelligent irony under which the really painful experience is hidden that the author tries to tame in her own way. Sometimes it is even a therapeutic return to the most painful pre-disease memories. My first feeling was that I should not reach for this book because even as a declared fan of the famous nanny, I do not have the right to learn about such as an intimate part of her life. Probably Fran Drescher had to realize that her history would be interpreted widely in the media. In spite of her publisher’s requests in order to omit certain details, the narrator is a devastatingly honest both to readers and to herself. She does not hide her weaknesses and sometimes uncontrollable temperament showing that despite the wide possibilities associated with the health care, she had the same dilemma as other people fighting with an insidious disease.

In her diary the American woman describes all her examinations in a great detail. She does not omit even the most intimate trifles. We can see her without makeup even in moments which many patients do not want to share even with the closest family members. Such an accurate description of her experience shows how important for the narrator is to provide the readers, who may someday find themselves in a similar situation, that it is worth fighting over themselves no matter how much adversity they will meet on their road.

The greatest impression is how openly the star talks about her emotions in moments when she was alone only with her own thoughts. The fear of diagnosis, treatment or acceptance of a partner is the same at any latitude but when a woman, who lives in a world where everything must be perfect, talks about them, you can consider this as a sign of extraordinary courage. Fran could not afford the comfort of surviving hard times only surrounded by their loved ones because the media quickly learnt about her operation. Someone can say that it is a small price while you can hire two private nurses and a good hospital. But would each of us bear such a great public being interested in the state of our health?

The book tells not only about the pain but also about the importance of the closest surroundings’ support. The artist devotes much space to describe her relationships with her family and friends. Although the woman is the person who does not like asking for help and torment others with her problems, she could always count on the acceptance and patience of her loved ones. Moreover it is worthwhile attracting our attention to the fact that in the moment of doubt a contact with the nature and a exceptional relation of the owner with her doggy called Chester also turned out to be very important.

The diary is finished after over a year from the operation which saved the life of the famous actress who played a nanny. Defeating the source of the problem is often only the beginning of a very difficult road to recovery. The emotional layer often heals more slowly than the physical wounds. There is still the fear of the recurrence and acceptance of the consequences of changes which you cannot reverse. Fran Drescher proves that the return to full strength is possible but it requires a lot of time. “Cancer Schmancer” tells us to put in the place of the main character what makes this book a valuable clue and a source of hope for those who directly or indirectly experience the cancer problems. Of course, in this book we will not find any obvious recipes and ensuring that everything will be fine, but rather an example of the way how to find the strength to overcome the disease. I think that this book is perfect not only for the readers who struggle with cancer but also for people who support patients so that they can understand, although in a certain way, their difficult emotions that accompany during the fight and recovery. Of course, not everyone can be the addressee of this story because it is throughout saturated by the American mentality and their characteristic sense of humour. But I have no doubt that for many this book will be one of the most important books on the shelf. It is a great pity that so far nobody has decided to translate this book into Polish.

Fran Drescher and the presenter Alfons Haider at the charity ball dancer against cancer 
(Hofburg Imperial Palace, Vienna, 2010)
(photo by Manfred Werner)

In the long perspective the release of “Cancer Schmancer” turned out to be a very important turning point in the actress’ life. During the Q&A session with the author, the readers were paying their attention to how essential of hope and help the book proved to be for them. This fact induced Fran Drescher to take an action. What is important, Fran Drescher brought to life The Cancer Schmancer Movement on the seventh anniversary of her operation. It was June 21, 2007. This organization focuses on promoting the early detection and prevention of cancer in women. While the world of science is searching for the effective medicine, the organization demonstrates how you can minimize the risk of falling ill, and if it fails, you can find out how to pay attention to capture the moment when you must go to your doctor. There are three main pillars of the action:
  1. Early detection – the important issue actually depends on us. First of all we have to notice that we begin to feel differently. Then it is necessary to consult a doctor who will deny or confirm our fears. You may find that this is something much less serious than at first we thought, or we can reduce the chance of the disease’s existence. The flagship project called Fran Van is the research program of mammography allowing for the detection of cancer in the initial phrase of the coming into existence which provides easier and more effective treatment. On the official website of the organization you can read about the symptoms which should alarm us; how to prepare for the first conversation in the doctor’s office and what you should ask about. The stories of people who won their fight against cancer are a source of hope for others.
  2. Prevention – according to saying that prevention is better than curing. According to the estimates only 10-15 percent of cancers are genetically[2] determined, and the rest is the result of different environmental factors such as lifestyle, the way of feeding or the exhibition to the sun which we have some influence on. Sometimes there are really simple and cheap solution e.g. quitting smoking, or finding a few moments to physical activity can help reduce the risk of the appearance of the disease. Of course, we do not live in the ideal world where we can afford only to eat the natural food and living without stress, but the Detox Your Home action shows that these are not the only problems. In our homes there are plenty of hidden dangers we have no idea about them. Potentially ingredients included in cosmetics or chemical household detergents are dangerous for us. The Cancer Schamancer Movement teaches us which substances should be avoided and how to find the alternative solutions, healthier both for us and for the environment.
  3. The policy change – Fran Drescher is also a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. She was a supporter of the law Carcinogen-FREE Label ACT which was introduced in 2012 in the United States to label clearly the products free from carcinogens.
It is amazing that scarcely 256 pages of the memories turned out to be really important for many people. You may not like the distinctive voice of the actress and not watch the films where she appeared, but it is worth appreciating how she could forge her own experience to make aware others. For many patients her story is a source of hope and proof that you can defeat cancer. Perhaps the fact that just now you are reading these words is not accidental, so stop for a moment and think when you have done your checkups recently. Maybe it is the right time to think about your health and take care of yourself?

 If you want to read this review in Polish, please click here.

[1] Flushing – one of the parts of Queens District located in the north-central part of New York in the United States.
[2] Based on:

Sunday, 19 July 2015

I still find a visit to a castle always stirs my imagination...

Interview with Joanna Hickson 
by Agnes A. Rose

Joanna Hickson worked in BBC radio and television for 25 years, where she presented and produced news, current affairs and arts programmes. She graduated in English Literature and Politics, but she had an early interest in history, being fascinated by “Henry V” and other Shakespeare history plays. Her first book, “Rebellion at Orford Castle”, was a children’s novel set in East Anglia. At present, because of the contract with the publishing company Harper Collins for her historical books she is dealing exclusively with writing. Her novels tell the story of Catherine de Valois who gave rise to the Tudor dynasty. She is also the author of “Red Rose, White Rose”, a story about Cecily Neville, Duchess of York. At present in Poland we can read “The Agincourt Bride”, but this autumn the Polish publisher will release the second of Joanna’s books – “The Tudor Bride”. The author lives with her husband in an English farmhouse that dates back to the 15th Century.

Agnes A. Rose: Joanna, thank you very much for your accepting my invitation to this interview. I am very honored to host you here. Why did you become a writer after working in the BBC for so long?

Joanna Hickson: First let me thank you Agnes for inviting me to connect with your readers, some of whom I hope will also read my books! I have wanted to be a writer since I was very young and used to write stories in school exercise books, many of which I still have in the bottom drawer of my desk.  Of course they have never been published! Then, after university, I worked for the BBC on radio and TV and wrote scripts and news stories, which I also broadcast myself. So in many ways I have written all my life. I also published some modern romance novels in the 1990s but now I am writing what I always wanted to write, that is stories of medieval history, bringing the characters of five and six hundred years ago to life.

Agnes A. Rose: Allow me to ask you why you became fascinated with medieval history? I mean exactly this part of English history.

Joanna Hickson: I think it was visiting castles in England as a teenager that inspired me to do this. I still find a visit to a castle always stirs my imagination. And of course reading other historical novels made me realize that perhaps I could do it too. A novel called “Katherine” by Anya Seton, of which you may know, inspired me particularly. It is the story of a girl who became the mistress of the famous John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and then eventually married him as his third wife at the end of the fourteenth century. I think it is still the most evocative portrayal of English medieval life and although it was published in the 1950s it is still popular today.

This is the Polish cover of
The Agincourt Bride
Published by Wydawnictwo Literackie
Krakow 2014
Translated by Maria Zawadzka
Agnes A. Rose: In your books you describe the story of Catherine de Valois. Could you tell us something more about this heroine? Why did you become so fascinated with this character that you decided to write about her?

Joanna Hickson: It was as a schoolgirl that I first saw a film of Shakespeare’s play Henry V, made by Laurence Olivier (a famous English actor). There is a scene at the end when he woos the French Princess Catherine, which I loved very much. It is romantic and funny but the character of the Princess is rather stereotyped – she is shown as the typical trophy-wife that a king might be expected to marry. However, when I began to research her life I realized that she lived through very troubled times and could not have been as giggly and empty-headed as Shakespeare portrayed her. I decided that she would be an excellent subject for a novel, taking a more detailed look at her story and character and the eventful life she led both before and after she married King Henry V of England.

Agnes A. Rose: What about Catherine de Valois’s loyal servant Mette? Is she a real person or a fictional one?

Joanna Hickson: During my research, in the accounts of Henry V’s household I found a list of the ladies who attended Queen Catherine after her marriage. Funnily enough three of them were called Joanna (!) but there was one whose name was listed as Guilliemot, which is the English name of a rather ugly black seabird, and I wondered why any lady would have such a name. Then I guessed that she must have been French and that her name was actually Guillaumette, the French female version of Guillaume – or William in English. Perhaps the clerk who wrote the accounts had never heard of ‘Guillaumette’ and so decided to give her a name that sounded similar! This person was paid less than the Joannas and therefore I guessed that she was perhaps a commoner and so the character of Mette (short for Guillaumette) was born as a baker’s daughter from the back streets of Paris who becomes Catherine’s nurse as a baby and then her closest companion throughout her life. She narrates the story and apart from this mention in the accounts she is entirely fictional but I think she is my favourite character!

Agnes A. Rose: How did you prepare to create the character of Catherine de Valois? What was the most difficult in this writing process?

This is the Polish cover of
The Tudor Bride
Published by Wydawnictwo Literackie
Krakow 2015
Translated by Maria Zawadzka
Joanna Hickson: There is always a problem in researching female characters from medieval times because women were rarely mentioned in sources like chronicles and documents – it really was his-story and not her-story! So there were no contemporary descriptions that I could find of Catherine de Valois except the mention that a portrait of her had been painted and sent to King Henry V, which was supposed to have made him very interested in her.  What a shame that the portrait does not exist today, unlike so many portraits of her successor King Henry VIII and his 6 wives, who lived a hundred years later. So I had to devise her looks and character from the very few mentions made of her and of course from my own imagination. We know she was considered beautiful but the detail of her beauty is my own invention.  

Agnes A. Rose: Did you have your favourite part of writing these two novels?

Joanna Hickson: I liked writing about Catherine’s romance with Owen Tudor and contrasting it with the relationship that developed between Mette and her friend Geoffrey. It helped me to show the two sides of life in those times – both of royalty and commoners.

Agnes A. Rose: As I mentioned above, you are also the author of “Red Rose, White Rose”. In this book you describe the story of Cicely Neville, Duchess of York. She was an English noblewoman, the wife of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York and the mother of two kings of England: Edward IV and Richard III. Could you tell us what inspired you to create this novel?

Joanna Hickson:  I was originally drawn to Cicely Neville when I discovered that she was the youngest of her father’s 22 children – by 2 wives! I wondered what relationships would be like in such an enormous family, when the youngest child might be born around the same time as her father’s first grandchildren. Also the Nevilles were staunch supporters of the House of Lancaster and Cicely married the Duke of York, the leader of the opposing faction in the nobility. I wanted to examine how difficult it must have been for her to balance loyalty to her birth family with loyalty to the family she married into. Her story was a microcosm of the rivalries and conflicts that developed nationally in England in the 15th century and led to the outbreaks of violence known as the Wars of the Roses.

Agnes A. Rose: While we are talking about Richard III’s mother, I would like to find out what your reaction was when you heard about the discovery of the remains of Richard III in 2013. Could you tell us about it?

Joanna Hickson: I was very excited and intrigued by the discovery of the king in the Leicester car park and absolutely amazed when it was confirmed that the skeleton found was definitely that of King Richard III. In March this year I took part in a conference involving historians and historical fiction authors on the eve of the re-burial of Richard in Leicester cathedral and was astounded at the number of people who turned out to watch the processions and share in the ceremonies surrounding this event.  Much controversy surrounds this king of England – was he bad or was he good and did he or didn’t he order the murder of the Princes in the Tower. It made for some lively debate! 

Agnes A. Rose: In researching and writing this novel did you find that your sympathies tended toward the House of Lancaster or the House of York? Why?

Published by Harper Collins 
United Kingdom 2014
Joanna Hickson: As my central character, Cicely, was both Lancastrian and Yorkist I felt able to maintain a balance between the two houses, but by the close of the novel I seemed to have created such a charismatic character in King Edward III that I found myself favouring him. At his coronation he was only eighteen but he had become a ‘golden boy’, winning battles and attracting followers, apparently unable to put a foot wrong. History of course shows that later he made major mistakes that re-ignited the internecine wars but that will be for another story. I ended the book as a Yorkist but that may not last.

Agnes A. Rose: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

Joanna Hickson: I am lucky to live in a house that was first built in the fifteenth century and my writing room is in the oldest part of it. The door to it is original and made from wide planks that were obviously cut from one tree and are secured by hand-made iron nails and when I close it I really feel as if I have been transported to the period about which I am writing.  I like to write with my face to a blank wall because I am easily distracted by a view of any kind. I usually write at least a nine hour day, although some of it is taken up with online distractions like Twitter and Facebook and writing Q & As for lovely people like you and your followers, Agnes!

Agnes A. Rose: You also wrote the book for children. Are you ever going to return to writing for young readers?

Joanna Hickson: Oh I would love to but at the moment I am fully occupied fulfilling my contracts to my publishers for adult fiction. However, you never know in the future. It was a wonderful children’s novel called “The Gauntlet” by Ronald Welch, which I read at age ten or eleven, that spiked my interest in using medieval history for my own early writing efforts.

Agnes A. Rose: I read on the Internet that your work is sometimes compared, for example, with the books of Philippa Gregory. How do you feel hearing or reading something like that?

Joanna Hickson: It depends if the comparison is favourable or not! I have read almost all of Philippa Gregory’s novels and I would certainly acknowledge that she has been one of my influences, so I am delighted if I am mentioned in the same breath as her!

Agnes A. Rose: Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? 

Joanna Hickson: I don’t think I have anything to say to other published writers of historical fiction because the very fact that they are published means that they have already achieved some success. But to any aspiring novelist, whether historical or not, my primary piece of advice is to finish the story that you begin. A story is not a story until it has a beginning, a middle and an end and until you have written ‘The End’ on your last page you cannot call yourself a writer of fiction. There is more hard work to be done after that first draft but at least you have a work of fiction under your belt. My second piece of advice would be not to tell anyone about your idea for a story until you have written it yourself – otherwise they might do it first!

Agnes A. Rose: What is your next project? Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Joanna Hickson: I am writing a novel centered around one of Catherine de Valois’ children with Owen Tudor, so it continues the story of the family’s advance. I find it extraordinary that half way through the 15th Century no one in England had even heard of the Tudors and by the end of the century there was a Tudor king on the throne! More than that I am not prepared to say, other than that it is a medieval romance as well as a swashbuckling adventure fraught with danger. I hope it will be a page-turner!

Agnes A. Rose: Joanna, thank you so much for this very pleasant conversation. I wish you great success with your next novels. Would you like to add anything? Or maybe is there a question you would like to answer that I have not asked? 

Joanna Hickson: No, I think your questions have been comprehensive Agnes and the only thing I would like to add is the hope that your readers will become my readers, if they aren’t already.  Oh, and one day I would love to come to Poland and meet some of them – and you!  Thank you very much for hosting me on your blog.

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

Thursday, 16 July 2015

“23 Days: A Memoir of 1939” by Antoni ‘Joe’ Podolski

The Polish destruction is our first task. The aim must be not to reach some marked line, but the destruction of the living forces. Even if the war was supposed to explode in the West, destroying Poland must be our first task. The decision must be immediate because of the season. I will give a cause of the war for propaganda purposes. Never mind whether it will be credible or not. Nobody asks the winner whether he has told the truth or not. In cases associated with beginning and running the war a law does not decide, but a victory does. Be mercilessly, be brutal.” – Saying these words Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) practically began the greatest nightmare in the history of humankind, and it was precisely on the day before signing the Ribbentop-Molotow Pact, what was on 23 August 1939. And then September 1 of that year came and the German army marched into Poland without an official declaration of the war. Poles left alone in the fight were not able effectively to oppose the aggression of Germany and the Soviet invasion made on 17 September. So, the fourth partition of Poland made by Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) became the consequence of that situation.

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Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, many Poles were forced to leave their homes. Some of them were escaping into unknown places to hide against the occupier, and the others were doing their best to confront him and when it was possible they started to fight to regain their freedom. At that time everyone, who was not afraid of taking up arms, became a soldier; sometimes they were even underage boys. Because of the war many people very often were thrown into different parts of the world. Many Poles somehow managed to emigrate and they never return to their homeland. But before that happened they had had to survive their own ordeal. One of those people was Antoni Joseph Podolski (1923-1999), who was born in Baranovichi (in Polish: Baranowicze) – the town which today is located on the territory of Belarus, but until 1945 it belonged to Poland. He was the only child and grew up among animals and nature. He loved horseback riding, participated in hunting and he skied very well. He had a perfect knowledge about all kinds of weapons he used from the early years, hunting for wild animals. He also fired a rifle very well. He was also fascinated with flying and as a teenager he learnt to steer gliders. What is more, Joseph had a colleague who was a German boy and lived in Berlin. He was corresponding with him for some time and he met him in 1936 at the Olympic Game. Later that boy bombed Poland.

When on 1 September 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland, Antoni was living in the eastern part of the country, and his impact on the fight against the occupier was very small, despite the fact that he fought with the people who were German spies and informers. Next on 17 September 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Poland, which in the process joined the Nazi occupation of Poland. The Soviets took the view that invading Poland they protected Russian citizens residing in our country. That attack from the East was really cruel and painful, considering that quite unexpected.

For Antoni the war began actually when his fighting against the Red Army. Every day he witnessed the brutal actions of the Soviets. To repel the invaders, Antoni ad hoc fought in the ranks of young partisans. After several extremely bloody battles, Antoni finally was captured and imprisoned. During the transport to the place where he had to be interrogated, he managed to escape from the moving train, in that way having avoided death before he was arrested again. That fact had resulted in cruel imprisonment and torture interrogation until Antoni Podolski was sentenced to death.

Joe spent twenty three days in a condemned cell in Orsha (now Belarus) watching the executions of his inmates who were killed one after another. Then completely unexpectedly for him his capital punishment was exchanged for twenty five years of the Gulag in the Arctic. The long and extremely exhausting both physically and mentally trip was aborted due to a multi-day interrogation in the notorious Lubyanka prison located in Moscow. His escape from the Gulag, and then journey to freedom through the frozen lake on the border with Finland, as well as the tragic death of co-fugitives, in a special way contributed to Antoni Podolski. Fortunately, on his way he met the Finnish soldiers what meant that the rescue would come to him from the Polish authorities staying in neutral Sweden and transferring to England people arriving there in May 1940.

Old topographic map of Baranowicze. Military map of Poland made by 
Polish Army before 1939

The book 23 Days: A Memoir of 1939 is the memories of Antoni Joseph Podolski written by him about forty-four years after the outbreak of the Second World War. In his dairy the author related in detail about his dramatic struggle against the eastern aggressor, later arrest, imprisonment and brutal interrogation, and eventually death sentence and spending twenty-three days in the condemned cell. The book consists of two parts. In the first part, besides the drama of the Antoni’s fight against the occupier and waiting for his death, a reader may additionally also get to know his happy childhood in Poland, which makes you start to wonder how much our lives can change in an instant. In one moment we are happy and it seems to us that after all nothing can threaten us and suddenly it turns out that we brutally lose our safety. And since this moment we must fight for it without any guarantee that we will recover it someday. On the other hand, in the second part Antoni Podolski described his freedom he eventually recovered, but while being in England. But this did not mean that the war ended for him at that point. He was still fighting. At first there was the struggle in the ranks of the British government agency called Special Operations Executive, and then in the Polish Forces in the Middle East, and next he became a fighter pilot with the Polish Air Force. He was then only 22!

The Antoni Podolski’s memories were released on the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. The book is accompanied by very moving foreword by his son Nigel. The book was published after the death of the author, and it happened thanks to the efforts of his family. The description of the torture, which was prepared for him by the Soviet, is so brutal that it is possible that a reader who has a sensitive psyche will have to stop reading for a moment. This is one of these publications, which in a very graphic way, shows the cruelty of past times. While reading the Antoni Podolski’s memories a reader wonders how it is possible that one man was able to survive the ordeal like that. Many have already written about the cruelty of World War II and probably many will write about it in the future, but we must remember that the only eyewitness accounts are reliable, and therefore we should base our understanding of those tragic years on their relations.

The Building of Insurance Company called "Rossiya" located on the Lubyanka Square.
This picture dates back to 1917. In this building many Polish people were imprisoned 
and murdered by NKVD soldiers during the WWII.

In my opinion Antoni Podolski certainly was a great patriot. He loved his country more than his own life. I suppose that if it had been otherwise, he would not have had so much will and power to fight which allowed him to survive and give his experience to the next generations. Unfortunately, he never returned to Poland. He died in Norfolk at the age of 76. It seems to me that it is very difficult to find the right words to clearly describe this type of publications. You really cannot judge or review them because this kind of books contains the vastness of human drama and horror that any assessment is out of place here.

Finally, I would like to thank Antoni Podolski’s grandson – Jeremy, who drew my attention to the memories of his granddad a few months ago. If I had not received a message from Jeremy, I would not know about this valuable book until now. I hope that the Antoni Podolski’a war memories will be translated into Polish and all of us will be able to read them without a language barrier. In contrast, at the moment I recommend this publication to anyone who knows English and would like to know the extraordinary heroism and strength of the young man who retained his dignity and did not surrender to the occupier.  

If you want to find out more about this book and Joe Podolski, please click here.
If you want to buy this book, please click here.
If you want to read this review in Polish, please click here