Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Interview with Dianne Ascroft

Welcome to the Historical Novel Review, Dianne.

Thank you, Mirella. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Hitler and Mars Bars is a very interesting title. What inspired the title?

A couple amusing incidents in the book sparked the idea for the title. In the first incident, naively and cheekily, Erich threatens to send Hitler (unaware even who the dictator was) to exact revenge against a police officer who chastises him for his poor school attendance record.

In the second incident, Erich is caught stealthily eating a Mars Bar during class. His teacher is exasperated and amused by his behaviour (he has a knack for getting into trouble in class) and orders him to put the candy back in his lunch bag. With great reluctance, and the eyes of the whole class on him, he puts the chocolate bar away. Both incidents illustrate Erich’s irrepressible, indomitable spirit. He is often naughty and sometimes unrepentant yet he doesn’t mean any harm.

What inspired the book?

The story of an unusual childhood. I met a man who was born during the Second World War in the heavily bombed Essen area of Germany. He lived in a Children’s Home until the Red Cross project, Operation Shamrock, transported him along with hundreds of other German children, to Ireland to recuperate from the horrendous conditions in their homeland. His life story opened up a new aspect of German and Irish history for me. And it’s one that has been overlooked in history books. I was very curious about Operation Shamrock and began researching it. I did extensive research then I wrote an article for an Irish magazine, Ireland’s Own, about the experiences of one child who participated in the endeavour. I intended to stop there but family members urged me to use the information I had found to create a novel.

What makes this book special to you?

There are two reasons that it is special to me. The first reason is that I was able to tell the story of real events that have been overlooked in history. I spent a lot of time and effort researching Operation Shamrock, and became fascinated by it, so I wanted to put my research to use. I was constantly amazed that most people in Ireland were unaware of this commendable part of their own history. So I wanted to share it. The second reason is that this is the first novel I’ve written; it was wonderful to see it in print.

What makes this a book that people MUST read and WHY?

Hitler and Mars Bars’ plot moves steadily, following Erich’s changing circumstances. Readers are never given a chance to become complacent about Erich’s life. The novel is funny and heartwarming in parts and also poignant and deeply moving. Readers will quickly develop an emotional connection with this remarkable boy and care about what happens to him. They will get engrossed in his story and forget that it is a story.

Why do people NEED to read this book and Why?

Hitler and Mars Bars is an poignant yet uplifting story. It will touch readers’ emotions, making them feel Erich’s joy and pain. Sometimes the routine of life makes us feel jaded and not as alive as we once did. But Erich’s story will awaken readers’ emotions and help them to appreciate life fully. It will also leave them with confidence that a person can overcome life’s trials with his spirits intact. This will give them hope that they can cope with whatever life throws at them.

What sparks your creativity? Any tips to help others spark their own creativity?

A lot of my writing is inspired by my own memories and experiences – though I change the details. But sometimes, as in Hitler and Mars Bars, I hear an interesting story about someone else’s life and it sparks an idea that I will use in my writing. I do use ideas from my own imagination too.

No matter where the ideas come from I need the time to allow them to flow. I think it’s important to have time to relax and reflect. Then I am able to think creatively. I go for long walks and let my mind wander as I walk – and when I’m not under pressure new ideas spring up or I mull over an idea I already have to develop it.

What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some tips to help others get past similar problems?

When I create characters I sometimes borrow real traits from people I know. The details can be taken from several people and no character is based completely on one person. Characters will also have traits that I have invented. But I used to worry that a friend or family member reading my work might think a character was modelled completely on him. I was especially worried that people I know might mistakenly identify with an unpleasant character. I finally realised that I wouldn’t be able to write anything believable if I didn’t stop worrying that others would mistakenly see themselves in my characters. Admirable and despicable characteristics in people are universal. I had to trust that my friends and family would realise and understand that my characters ultimately come from my imagination and if I do sometimes throw in a bit of someone I know I don’t mean it to be insulting.

What do you think motivates people to become authors? What motivated you to get into this unusual industry?

Different people write for different reasons - and they choose different genres based on their reasons for writing. But I think most fiction writers have very active, creative imaginations and have stories running around inside their heads that they want to tell. So they put it down on paper. I’ve always read voraciously and get very involved in the stories I read. I step into the characters’ world. So I think it was natural that I wanted to write down the stories that go on in my own mind. I thought about writing a novel for several years before I committed myself to it thogh. Then, once I heard about Operation Shamrock, I had a story that captured me so completely that I wanted to tell it and I started writing.

Tell me about the most unusual things you have done to promote your books.

So far I haven’t done anything really drastic to promote Hitler and Mars Bars. In fact, until only a couple months ago I thought that a Virtual Book Tour was an unusual way to promote a book but I’ve found that they are becoming increasingly common – and a very good idea. I quickly caught on to the idea and set up my tour. Details of my tour, 24/2, can be found on my blog, ‘Ascroft, eh?’ (www.dianneascroft.wordpress.com).

When the book was first released I sent a copy to a priest and asked would he read and review it. What connection does he have with my book or its subject matter? None. But Father Brian D’Arcy is a well known BBC broadcaster and journalist in Ireland. He read my book and wrote a detailed review. In the review he said, “It’s a riveting story…As a novel it is extraordinarily well researched…Beautifully written with a strong human story running through it.” His comments have been very helpful to my publicity campaign.

Tell us how you decided on that setting and what you did to create a complete and vivid setting for your readers.

It wasn’t hard to decide on the setting for Hitler and Mars Bars as it is loosely based on real events. So I set it in the places where the events occurred.

Although the book is fiction, I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. My main character, Erich, lives in several places in Ireland as he is growing up. I researched and visited each place so I would have an accurate description of it. I took photos and jotted notes so I would remember details that would bring the place to life as I wrote about it. To research the first couple chapters of the book it wasn’t feasible for me to travel to Germany but I did contact the local archives. The archivist was very helpful and sent me lots of period photos of the area. He also put me in touch with other organisations in the area that could give me further details. I was able to construct an accurate description of places in Germany from this material.

What inspires you about the hero or heroine in your book? What makes them memorable for the reader? What motivates the hero or heroine?

Erich’s resilience and courage inspire me. He’s only a child yet he survives hardship and misery, keeping his hopes and dreams. He isn’t cowed and doesn’t give up no matter how hard life is.

Readers will remember Erich’s resilience and courage. They will also be struck by his irrepressible spirit.

Hope is one of Erich’s main motivators. Even in the worst times he believes that everything will work out and his life will improve. He doesn’t give up. Love is also a powerful motivator for him. Love for his mother and a desire to see her again carry him through the move to Ireland and into life with strange families. Later he forms a strong bond with one foster family and, when he is not able to stay with them any longer, his love for them carries him through the difficult next few years.

Is there a villain or something that causes friction in your story? Tell us about what or who it is and how that contributes to the story.

There are several villains in this story. People and events are both villains in Erich’s life. The first one is the war. Erich’s early years are difficult and deprived because of the devastation caused by bombing raids to the area where he lives. He spends nights huddled in the cellar of the Children’s Home where he lives to shelter from the threat of bombing. He is constantly hungry due to the food shortages. His mother disappears after a bombing raid and he must leave Germany without knowing what has happened to her. The war affects every aspect of his life.

The other villains in his life are uncaring foster parents at two of his foster placements. The first one is Aunt Rachel. She’s a widow with one daughter at boarding school. She fosters Erich and his brother, Hans, to earn some extra money to meet her bills and she isn’t really interested in the boys’ welfare. She is cross and cold; Erich hates living with her. He hates every minute he has to spend at her house and seethes with anger at her cruel treatment of the boys. But, with no one else to depend on, Erich forms a close bond with his brother during the months they live with Aunt Rachel.

Erich’s last foster placement, before he leaves school at fourteen, is with the quick tempered, harsh Uncle Bob. Although Uncle Bob plans to adopt Erich, his main reason for accepting the boy is to have unpaid farm labour. He treats the boy harshly, unconcerned for his welfare. His priority is to get as much work from the boy as possible. Erich has a place to sleep and the basic necessities for existence but does not find a real family with Uncle Bob and his wife, Aunt Annie. Living in this unhappy situation forces Erich to think about what he wants for his future. Does he want to spend the rest of his life on this farm, struggling to make a living, under Uncle Bob’s tyrannical direction or does he want to leave and search for a better life? Erich’s decision is the climax of the story.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Characters are central to every story. A writer must create believable characters that the reader will care about. Capturing the humanity of characters is crucial. I read authors such as Maeve Binchy, Jodi Picoult, Adriana Trigiani and Diana Gabaldon because they make me care about their characters. I would suggest that new writers should read a lot and find writers who they feel create good characters. Then analyse why they like these characters and try to use this in their own writing. Although every writer has his/her own voice, we can learn from reading each other’s work.

Thank you very much, Dianne. It was a pleasure talking with you. I had the pleasure of reading Hitler and Mars Bar and it was a lovely, often poignant tale of a young boy who seeks to recoup "family".

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