Wednesday, 26 April 2017

It was a story I’d wanted to write for years...

Interview with Margaret Leroy
by Agnes A. Rose

Margaret Leroy is a British novelist. As a child she wrote elaborate fantasy stories but she never showed them to anyone. When she was about 12, she stopped writing and she did not start again till her mid-twenties. She went to Oxford to study music. In her twenties she tried all sorts of things – music therapy, play-leading with children with disabilities, work in a toy shop, teaching. Finally she found work as a social worker. At first, she wrote non-fiction and a book for children. Her first novel – TRUST – was published in 1999. This book was adapted for a British television film with a screenplay by Matthew Hall as LOVING YOU in 2003. Later she wrote POSTCARDS FROM BERLIN (2003) that was also published as THE PERFECT MOTHER, and THE RIVER HOUSE (2005). In Poland we can read two of the Margaret Leroy’s books: THE SOLDIER’S WIFE and THE ENGLISH GIRL which were published by GOLA.

Agnes A. Rose: A very warm welcome to you, Margaret, and can I thank you, for taking time to talk to me today. Because recently I have read your book called THE SOLDIER’S WIFE, I would like to start our conversation just with it. The main character of this story is Vivienne de la Mare who gets involved in a forbidden love affair with an SS-officer. It is very controversial. Could you tell us what motivated you to create this story?

Margaret Leroy: It was a story I’d wanted to write for years, ever since I first learned about the Occupation of the Channel Islands by the Germans in WW2. It was a hidden piece of history, and I thought it would make a wonderful setting for a story. But I didn’t feel the right moment had come until I’d already written five contemporary novels: I was quite nervous about writing my first historical novel!

AAR: While writing the history of Vivienne and Gunther, weren’t you afraid that you would create negative emotions both in readers and critics?

ML: I guess I don’t really think about critics when I’m writing a novel – I just have a story which I want to tell. For me, the Occupation was fascinating to write about, because people face such difficult dilemmas in their everyday lives when they live alongside the enemy. I was interested in the moral complexity of the situations my heroine would have to confront, and I hope that people will empathise with her as they read the story.

AAR: We all know how women who fraternized with the enemy were punished not only during the Second World War but also after the war. You mention that in your novel, too. Do you think that Vivienne would also deserve such a punishment? After all, she loves that German officer in a way, and besides, she meets him in order to be able to provide food to her family when her husband is absent.

ML: In fact, women who’d slept with the enemy weren’t punished in that way on Guernsey, but some were punished on Jersey, one of the other islands. That was one of the reasons I chose Guernsey as my setting, as that wasn’t essentially part of the story I wanted to tell. As to whether she’d have deserved such punishment, I guess that’s for the reader to decide!

AAR: While reading THE SOLDIER’S WIFE, I got the impression that Vivienne’s mother-in-law is also a very important character in this story. Despite the fact that she lives in her own world, in a certain way she understands the reality that surrounds her. Did you have any difficulties creating this character?

ML: I think you’re absolutely right in what you say about her. She’s someone whose mind is starting to go, but she also sometimes sees into the heart of things. I used to work as a psychiatric social worker, and that background was helpful in creating the character – I had some understanding of the way someone suffering from dementia might talk or behave. And I like creating characters who may seem strange or different, but who have their own wisdom.

AAR: Why did you choose Guernsey as the setting of your book?

This is the Polish cover of
 "The Soldier's Wife"
Published by GOLA (2013)
Translated by Anna Wojtaszczyk
& Olga Wojtaszczyk 
ML: Before I wrote the book, I went to Guernsey on a research trip as I knew I couldn’t write the book if I didn’t love the place. And I was enchanted. Though the island is quite small, it was easy to leave the crowded bits behind and to seek out peaceful places, like the deep lanes of St Pierre du Bois, where I decided Vivienne should live. I even chose a particular house where I could picture her living. I find it a huge help in writing a story if I can see the setting very precisely in my mind’s eye. And once I’ve created that world, it’s always such a joy to return to it every time I sit down to write.

AAR: Your second book we can read in Polish is called THE ENGLISH GIRL. This is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who is offered the chance to study at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. Pre-war Vienna is very beautiful and makes Stella Whittaker an amazing impression. What made you decide to write this kind of book? Its plot also focuses on the Second World War.

ML: I’d visited Vienna in my twenties, and found it an amazing place. In terms of culture, it’s so rich: Freud lived there, and so many celebrated musicians – Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart. And the coffee-shops are wonderful! I chose the 1930’s because I find those years just before war broke out very fascinating – the way people maybe sensed what was going to happen and yet it couldn’t be stopped.

AAR: And now let’s talk about your debut, please. I read on your website that your first book called TRUST deals with an allegation of sex abuse. This is a very serious problem. Could you tell us something more about this novel?

ML: At the time I wrote it, I was working as a social worker, and the seed of the story was something that happened to some people I knew. The story is told from the viewpoint of a woman, Chloe: her lover is a child psychologist who has an allegation of child abuse made against him. The incredibly difficult dilemma she faces is whether to believe him when he says the allegation is false. Should she trust him?

AAR: What made TRUST be adapted for a British television film? Do you remember what you felt when you found out about it?

ML: I was completely thrilled! It was so exciting for me to see my story on the screen, and they made a beautiful job of it. It was so strange to think that one day the idea had come to me, to write this story, and now it had grown into a television drama that was seen by an audience of eight million people.

AAR: What motivates you to write about difficult life problems?

This is the Polish cover of
"The English Girl"
Published by GOLA (2014)
Translated by Anna Wojtaszczyk
& Olga Wojtaszczyk
ML: My first thought was to say that this is because of my experience as a social worker. But I think the answer is more complicated than that – maybe I was drawn to social work for the same reason that I’m drawn to write stories about difficult life problems! I think I’ve always been intrigued by the darker side of human nature, and I always want to understand why people behave as they do. And of course many stories do deal with difficult things: you need to put your characters into extreme situations and see how they react.

AAR: Before you published TRUST, you had written non-fiction and a book for children. Could you tell us something more about this part of your writing career?

ML: I wrote books about miscarriage and female sexuality. I enjoyed researching and writing those books, but if I’m entirely honest they were also a way in to what I really wanted to do – writing novels. Through my non-fiction, I met publishers and literary agents, and began to understand how publishing works, and all that knowledge was helpful when I wanted to offer my first novel for publication.

AAR: Your latest book is entitled A BRIEF AFFAIR. Its plot also focuses on the Second World War. Why do you write about the war so often?

ML: My first five novels were set in the present day, but I’ve since written three WW2 books, and very much enjoyed writing them. There are still so many great stories to be told about WW2, and readers continue to be fascinated by it. But I think A BRIEF AFFAIR will be my last WW2 book, and I’m writing something quite different now.

AAR: How do you find the perfect balance between dialogue and narrative?


ML: I find this quite a difficult question to answer, as it’s not really something I think about consciously when I’m writing. My approach is first to write a plot outline, and then to write a quick first draft of the book, which will have most of the dialogue in, but not very much description. Then in later drafts I’ll fill out the story, and there will be much more narrative and description, but the dialogue will probably stay much as it is.

AAR: Could you tell us how your typical working day looks like?

ML: I only write in the mornings – I can’t write for longer than four or five hours at a time. In the afternoons, I deal with all the other things – research, email and so on. I also try to fit in a bit of exercise – writing is the most sedentary of occupations. I’m a fanatical swimmer, and I’m constantly dragging my poor husband off on long walks!

AAR: You mentioned above that now you are working on a new novel. Would you like to tell us something about it?

ML: My new novel is set in the New Forest, which is a beautiful part of England where I grew up, and where my grandfather was a forester, so I know the setting very well. The story has two strands – one is contemporary, and one takes place a thousand years ago. So this is something quite different for me, and utterly fascinating to write.

AAR: Margaret, thank you very much for this nice conversation. Is there anything you would like to add or tell your Polish readers?

ML: I’m so glad that you enjoy my novels. Happy reading!

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

Monday, 10 April 2017

I find my stories everywhere...

Interview with Barbara Wood
by Agnes A. Rose

Barbara Wood is an American author but she was born in Warrington (Lancashire, England). She was born to an English mother and a Polish father, and her maiden name was Lewandowski. She immigrated to the United States with her parents and older brother. She grew up in Southern California and attended Los Angeles Schools. After High School, Barbara attended the University of California at Santa Barbara but left to train as a surgical technician. She sold her first book in 1976. So far she has written twenty nine books, including three under a pen name Kathryn Harvey. These books are quite different from the Barbara Wood’s novels. Now she is at work on her thirtieth. She is an international best selling author with books translated into over thirty languages. The reader is transported to exotic countries that Barbara has meticulously researched to provide her fans with a true sense of the culture and history relevant to each story. At the heart of every book, is a strong, independent woman. When not writing, Barbara often takes time to enjoy the work of other authors.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you so much that you accepted my invitation to take part in this interview. I am very honored that I can host you on my blog and talk to you. As I understood you trained as a surgical technician. Could you tell us what made you change your mind and you decided to start writing books?

Barbara Wood:  And I am honored that you have invited me to participate! Yes, I worked in a hospital in the operating room. About writing: I never changed my mind. I have always told stories, ever since I was a little girl. I started actually writing them down on paper when I was around twelve. Writing was my hobby, something I did in the evenings after working at the hospital. It was only after I had published three novels that I was persuaded to quit my “day” job and stay home and write full time. It was a very strange transition, to go from working with a surgical team to working entirely alone.

AAR: Did you have any difficulties during the release of your first book? If so, how did you deal with them?

BW: The only difficulty I had was going into a bookstore and see my book there! My friends literally had to push me through the door!

AAR: On your website I read that you wrote your first book at the age of 16. I think it’s very early. I am very curious what that book was about. Do you still remember it?

BW: Oh, I remember it! I still have it all these years later. It is called ATON’S KINGDOM and is a romance set in ancient Egypt in the time of Nefertiti and Akhenaton. There is a lot of hand-holding in it and starry gazes. LOL! I have left instructions that it is to be burned upon my death.

AAR: Before you became the international bestselling author you had held many different jobs, such as waitress, secretary, switchboard operator, and even dog walker. Was that your own way of searching for your place in your life?

BW: I suppose it was. Plus, I guess I was looking for myself through my writing, except that I didn’t know it at the time. I always thought of writing as a hobby. I never thought I’d be published. I wrote complete novels and put them in a drawer. It was my husband who suggested I try submitting one. I sold it on my first try. I was very surprised!

AAR: On the pages of your books you usually invite readers to visit some exotic countries. Sometimes you also write about the prehistoric times. How do you collect necessary information for this kind of stories?

BW: I do a lot of research. And I have visited every place I have written about. I won’t write about a place I have never been to.

AAR: Since you have visited all countries you have written about, could you tell us about your travel impressions? What country did you like most? Why?

BW: I have loved every country I have ever visited, but each for a different reason.  (Italy, the food; Germany, the wine; Egypt, the ancient sites; Australia, the beer). But in all cases, I have loved the people. I love meeting strangers, asking them about themselves, listening to their stories. People fascinate me. Plus, everywhere else in the world has a longer history than America (there are no written records for when the Indians were the sole inhabitants here). It is such a treat to visit a country that has such old streets and monuments, and where famous people walked.

AAR: I have been reading your books for many years and I love them very much. In Poland your readers can read most of them. A few weeks ago I read DOMINA. In my opinion it’s a very beautiful story. The main character of this novel is Samantha Hargrave who wants to be a doctor but all the time she must struggle with the world dominated by men. She is a brave woman who does not want to give up. What motivated you to create this female character living in the conservative Victorian era?

BW: I love the medical world. I loved working in the operating room, I am fascinated – even to this day – about women who enter medicine, especially as doctors, and I have always had an interest in the history of medicine. It was always a male dominated profession. In the Middle Ages women who tried to practice medicine were burned as witches. I think the men were jealous. I wanted to show readers what it was like for women in the Victorian era. Nursing became an accepted profession for women, but not the role of physician.  A few brave women succeeded. Samantha Hargrave is a composite of several real women doctors in the 19th century.

AAR: The second of your book I have read recently is THE LAST SHAMAN. What a great idea for the story! In this novel you take your readers to the pre-Columbian era. Could you tell us how your work on this book looked like? Was it difficult to create the world of the Toltec culture?

BW: Of course I visited the ruins in Chaco Canyon and tried to imagine what it was like back then.  No one really knows. Experts (scientists, historians, archaeologists) can’t agree on how the Toltecs came to New Mexico, or why, or even if they were there at all. And most mysteriously – why did they suddenly vanish without a trace? Although I did as much research as I could, most of the book comes from my imagination.

AAR: I know that you are the co-author of the story about Poland occupied by Nazi Germans. It’s entitled NIGHT TRAINS. The time is 1941 and the place is the strategic town of Sofia. I wonder why the name of the town is Sofia. In Poland there has never been the town with such a name. Is it fictional one? The novel has not been translated into Polish yet. Could you tell us something more about this book, please?

BW: I wrote NIGHT TRAINS with a surgeon I was working with at the time. He found an article in a medical journal about a town in Poland that cleverly kept the Nazis out by faking a typhus epidemic. So it’s a true story. But there was no way we could find out the details, so we decided to fictionalize it. Sofia is a fictional town.*

AAR: You have written so many books. Could you tell us where you continue to find new, fresh ideas for the plots?

BW: I find my stories everywhere. I read newspapers, I discover interesting things online, or I overhear conversations in restaurants. I am always writing things down. I carry a notepad with me all the time, and when I see something or hear something that sounds interesting, I write it down. I am currently working on my 30th book and have enough material for thirty more!

AAR: In my opinion so many old-school romance novels feature needy, kinda pitiful women. I am very interested in the fact why did you decide to do the exact opposite and feature strong, successful, go-getter female characters?

BW: I guess it’s because I’m not a soft, needy woman and so I can’t relate to such a heroine and can’t write about one. I’m a fighter and so that’s the kind of woman I write about.

AAR: What is the message you want readers to take away from your books?

BW: I have just two hopes for the readers of my books: that they have been entertained and possibly forgotten their worries for a while (that’s why I read books), and also that they have learned something new, that I have given them something to think about (another reason why I read books).

AAR: Could you describe your writing schedule? Do you outline? Any habits?

BW: I outline as I go along, never ahead of time. The story reveals itself to me as I write it so that, many times, I am just as surprised by a twist or a secret revealed as the reader is. I only keep an outline for reference. A book can take up to a year or more to write, so I need to go back and remind myself where the characters have been and what they have been doing.

My schedule is the same every day: I get up and go straight to my favorite chair by a window, curl up with my cat, my writing pad, and my coffee and I write by hand. I take a break and go for walks around the neighborhood, and then in the afternoon I transfer my handwritten material onto the computer.

AAR: As I mentioned above you also writes as Kathryn Harvey. You have written three books under a pen name. Why did you decide to change your name to write these stories? How much different are they from those you create as Barbara Wood?

BW: The Kathryn Harvey books contain explicit sex. A lot of authors use pen names when they change their style. I didn’t want Barbara Wood readers to be shocked.

AAR: Could you tell us about your next project or projects?

BW: The book I just turned in to my publisher is called THE FAR RIVER. It’s about German immigrants who come to California in 1912 to establish a winery (California is famous for its wines). It’s a three-generation family saga. That book is finished and will be out next year. Now I am starting another family story, three-generations, and it starts with three sisters in the present day who come into a startling inheritance, and they eventually uncover some shocking family secrets.

AAR: Thank you once again for this conversation. I wish you further success in your writing. Is there anything you would like to tell your Polish readers?

BW: Thank you, Agnes, it was my pleasure. Your questions gave me something to think about!  And your English is excellent by the way. Unfortunately, the only Polish I ever learned was when I was a little girl and my father taught me to say my prayers in Polish. I suspect he thought the Virgin Mary preferred Polish to English.  J

And to your Polish readers I would like to say that I have a very special place in my heart for Poland. After the war, my father could never go back, and so he was cut off from his family there. So I would like to take this opportunity, if I may, to say hello not only to your blog visitors, Agnes, but also: if there are any Lewandowskis reading this blog, Greetings from your cousin in California!

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

* It is probably a fictitious epidemic of typhus that was caused by two Polish doctors at the turn of 1941 and 1942: Eugeniusz Lazanowski (1913-2006) and Stanislaw Matulewicz (?). One day Matulewicz discovered a benign bacterium that being present in the human body showed in medical texts the same results as typhoid fever. Then the doctors began injecting the non-lethal bacteria into their patients’ bodies and next sending their blood samples to German laboratories. The whole situation took place in the neighbourhood of Stalowa Wola (the town which is located in the Podkarpackie Province). And so the Germans, horrified by the "epidemic" of typhus, began to escape from the endangered area. The evacuation referred not only to German officers but also ordinary German citizens. Due to the fear of plague, the Nazi abandoned the arrests and mass deportations of people to Nazi concentration camps. In this way the Polish doctors saved many people, including Jews. In order to avoid being uncovered a conspiracy, the doctors concealed the fact of using the complete innocent bacteria even from their patients. For the first time the novel “Night Trains” was published in 1979. Its co-author is Gareth Wootton.