When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
Since I was a child I’ve always enjoyed reading. I rarely went anywhere without a book and I spent every free minute reading. I still carry a book with me wherever I go. My handbag must be big enough to hold a paperback as well as the rest of my ‘necessities’. If I get a spare minute my nose will be buried in the book. But, despite having a very active imagination, being an avid reader and enjoying essay writing at school, I never considered becoming a writer. I enjoyed reading others’ stories but didn’t have the desire to create my own.
I was in my thirties before I got the urge to write and it occurred to me that I might be able to do so. Then, for several years after the idea first occurred to me, I yearned to write but didn’t put pen to paper. I was busy with too many other activities. Finally, I was galvanised into action, in the spring of 1998, when I heard an advertisement for a Belfast radio station’s Annual Short Story writing contest. I decided to enter it. There was only one weekend left to submit my entry before the contest deadline so I got started immediately. I didn’t win but my story, The Contest, was short listed and read on air. That success encouraged me to continue writing. I wrote sporadically and without any clear purpose until 2002 when I enrolled in the Writers Bureau correspondence course. Having assignments to complete focussed me and helped me decide what I wanted to write. Now I fit in course assignments between my other writing. One day I may find time to actually finish the course!
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
‘Hitler and Mars Bars’ is the story of a German boy growing up in war-torn Germany and post war rural Ireland. Set against the backdrop of Operation Shamrock, a little known Irish Red Cross initiative which aided German children after World War II, my novel explores a previously hidden slice of Irish and German history.
Erich, growing up in Germany’s embattled Ruhr area during World War II, knows only war and deprivation. His mother disappears after a heavy bombing raid, leaving him responsible for his younger brother, Hans. After the war the Red Cross transports the boys to Ireland, with hundreds of other
German children, to recuperate from the devastating conditions in their homeland. During the next few years Erich moves around Ireland, through a string of foster families, experiencing indifference, brutality, love and acceptance in varying measures. Plucky and resilient, Erich confronts every challenge he meets.
Although my novel is fiction, it was inspired by the real events of the Operation Shamrock initiative. Several years ago I met a man who, as a child, had been brought to Ireland as part of the initiative and he told me his story. It was the first time I had heard of Operation Shamrock and his experiences piqued my interest. I wanted to find out more and I read any material I could find on the subject. I also watched an Irish television documentary about the German children’s experiences. There is very little written about the project so I searched for people who might remember it. I contacted people in communities that had hosted the children. I spoke to former evacuees, their foster families, their classmates, their neighbours and members of the clergy. Once I had collected all this information I wrote a non-fiction article for an Irish magazine, Ireland’s Own, about the experiences of one child who participated in the project. When the article was completed, I thought that was the end of it. I had satisfied my curiosity and put my new knowledge to use in my writing. I didn’t intend to do anything else with my research. But, after the article was printed, I still had images and impressions of the people and places swirling around in my mind. I couldn’t forget their stories. Brian D’Arcy, BBC broadcaster and journalist, when he reviewed my book, realised that the human stories were what moved me and captured my imagination. He wrote, in his review, that the book was ‘beautifully written with a strong human story running through it.’ Family members suggested that the information I’d uncovered could be moulded into a good novel. Initially I didn’t want to pursue it but, unable to forget the anecdotes and stories I’d heard, the idea grew on me until I had to create a fictional story that would bring their world to life.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Yes, there was a lot of research involved in writing this book. Although the book is set only sixty years ago, during the ten year period from the last few months of World War II to the mid-1950s, it was before I was born. So I have no memories of the era. I did a lot of background reading about the period in Germany and Ireland. They were very different countries – Germany a battle scarred, industrialised nation and Ireland a quiet, mostly rural place. I read general histories and also biographies. I asked people who had lived through the era to tell me what it was like. I needed to understand their values and goals as well as the practicalities of their lives. There were lots of details about life in Ireland to check, such as when electricity was installed in rural homes and when television broadcasts began, to avoid anachronisms creeping in.
As I’ve already mentioned, I did as much research as possible about Operation Shamrock. I spoke to people in communities that hosted the children – the former evacuees, their foster families, their neighbours, their classmates and the local clergy. I contacted the Red Cross for details about the initiative. I did background research about the region where the German portions of the book are set. The City Archives in Hattingen, Germany were very helpful. I wasn’t able to go to Germany to do my research but the archivist provided me with general information about the area and also the Children’s Home where the opening chapter is set. He sent period photos so I could see for myself what the area looked like. He also put me in contact with the company that owns the Children’s Home and they provided further information about the building.
In Ireland I did background research about several towns and villages, learning about the schools and churches where scenes in the story are set. I relied on history books for basic facts but I also contacted the organisations directly to add details. I visited each area where the story is set so I would have an overall impression of it as I was writing.
I had to familiarise myself with farming methods for the era as well as other aspects of daily life. Ireland and Germany, during that period, were two completely foreign worlds to me. Though it involved lots of work, I found the research fascinating and sometimes I had to pull myself away from it to write.
Describe your working environment.
I would love to lounge in a comfortable armchair with music blaring from the stereo (preferably classic rock or bluegrass) while I write but I’d never manage to put a single word on the page. So I have to reserve those activities for my leisure time. Instead, I write sitting at my computer in the spare room. Although I’m mostly self-taught, I’m at the stage where I type faster than I can handwrite (and much more legibly…) so it’s easier to get my ideas onto the computer screen. I print a hard copy to edit my work. Then I retire to the sofa to make the changes and corrections.
My ‘office’ is the spare bedroom. The computer is set up in one corner of the room and there is an old sofa against the opposite wall. So I don’t have far to go between writing and editing. There’s also a cd player and I play classic rock and folk ballads, turned down low. I can’t concentrate if the music is above a murmur; I would just hum along. My bookshelves are against the wall behind me so it’s a short walk when I need to refer to reference material. The window is beside the sofa and there’s a lovely view of rolling hills and fields. Hares, pheasants and foxes sometimes wander past. It’s just as well that I can’t see the view from my chair at the computer, without leaning over and craning my neck, or I would never be able to concentrate. I guess it’s fortunate that most of my writing time is after dark or I might never get any work done.
Do you work non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
I edit as I write. I stop several times during each writing session and read what I’ve written, making changes and corrections as I go. I start each new session by editing the last couple pages that I wrote the day before. If I’m not satisfied with my previous work, I find it hard to move on until I get it sorted out. I guess I’m a perfectionist. So I sometimes have to force myself to just forget about any phrase or paragraph that is niggling me and move on or I’d never complete the first draft.
When it comes to writing are you an early bird or a night owl?
Although I’m an early riser, I’m more of a night person when it comes to writing. I’m usually busy with chores in the mornings before I leave for the office and don’t get a chance to write. Once it gets dark outside I can draw inside myself and conjure up the images I need to create my fictional world. I guess that’s just as well since most of my free time is in the evenings. I try to write for a couple hours most evenings after the household and farm chores are completed. I don’t stay up very late writing, though, as we have a small house and I would disturb other family members. It’s often a juggling act to balance my family and writing life.
What type of book promotion seems to work best for you?
‘Hitler and Mars Bars’ has been released for just over 6 months now so I’m still finding out what works best. But I know that personal recommendations are important. Nothing can beat them. Positive reviews and comments from others in the writing world and the media are vital for my marketing efforts. So, before I undertook any promotional activities, I sought reviewers. I received favourable reviews from many regional newspapers as well as a Belfast daily paper, The News Letter, and the BBC broadcaster and journalist, Brian D’Arcy. I quote from them in my publicity material; their comments have been very beneficial to my marketing campaign.
Since I’m doing the marketing myself, I have to approach it in manageable segments. I’ve been promoting my book in ever widening circles. Initially I concentrated on the counties of Ireland where most of the book is set. Now I’m widening the circle to include the rest of Ireland. I sent press releases to the media, especially the newspapers, to encourage them to write articles about the book. As soon as they printed articles I contacted bookshops and libraries in the area to offer the book for sale. The media coverage is crucial to arouse interest. Many people won’t buy a book if they haven’t heard of it. Even if they see it sitting on the shelf and it seems appealing, it won’t tempt them unless they are already familiar with it.
The internet is also very important to my promotion efforts. It gives me the opportunity to publicise the book to a much broader audience around the world than I would have direct access to. So I have a website, a blog and I am always willing to visit other sites to talk about ‘Hitler and Mars Bars’. And because the material stays on the internet indefinitely the entries on these sites will continue to publicise the book for me.
So I have found that a combination of targeting specific markets where the book is particularly relevant and also trying to reach the broader reading public is a good strategy for me.
What is(are) your favourite book(s)/author(s)? Why?
Writers who capture the humanity of their characters have the greatest impact on me. Some of these authors and books include Maeve Binchy’s ‘Light A Penny Candle’, Adriana Trigiani’s ‘Big Stone Gap’, Jodi Picoult’s ‘Plain Truth’ and Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series. These authors create believable characters who I would like to meet in real life. The townspeople of Big Stone Gap in Trigiani’s books as well as Claire and Jamie in Gabaldon’s work are all people I feel that I know. I enjoy reading these stories because they bring the characters to life. They inspire me to aim for this in my own writing.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
I have both. Readers can learn more about my work; read excerpts and reviews; and order copies of ‘Hitler and Mars Bars’ on my website at www.geocities.com/dianne_ascroft. They can read my musings on writing and life as well as get details about my Virtual Book Tour on my blog, ‘Ascroft, eh?’ at www.dianneascroft.wordpress.com. The Book Tour continues until December 24. I hope your readers will drop by both sites and have a look around.
Thanks for stopping by! It was a pleasure to have you here!