Today I have a slightly delayed interview with author Davina Blake to share with you all. I hope you enjoy getting to know her!
Past Encounters takes place from the 1940’s-1950’s, relatively recent history. How has the experience of researching/writing about this time period been different than writing about the 17th century (as you do under the Deborah Swift pen name)?
It was a completely different process. Because the book is set just within living memory, I could do a lot of live interviews, and also use recordings from archives such as The BBC People's War Series. There was also much, much more material - an overwhelming amount. Researching Prisoners of War at Lamsdorf in Germany, I had so many written accounts that I didn't know when enough research was enough! I kept thinking, the next transcript might show me something vital I had missed. So it was very time-consuming. I also became aware of the limitations of first hand interviews, because often conversations often do not yield the level of detail a novelist needs to bring the past to life. In conversation, people are apt to say things like, 'It was a cold winter', and you really have to push to find out exactly how cold. People do not talk the way a novelist would like, eg 'the icicles on the eaves were three feet long, and we had to break the ice on the milk jug in the morning.' I enjoyed getting out and about to meet people though, and was frequently humbled by their wartime experiences.
Writing the seventeenth century novels has different challenges, including reading documents written in archaic English, and even the difficulty of finding enough documentation. There are fewer sources the further back you go, although there were a number of diarists (eg Pepys and Evelyn) who give wonderful detail about the period.
What was the inspiration behind Past Encounters?
I wanted to have a break from writing about the seventeenth century and write something more modern. Not because I don't love writing in the 17th Century, but because I did not want to get stale and relished the idea of trying something new. I was inspired to write the novel by the film 'Brief Encounter', the iconic English film about a married couple's illicit love affair, and by the stories of Prisoners of War, who were often ignored and made to feel ashamed of their experiences and contribution to the war effort. Past Encounters is set at the end of the war, where Peter has been in a Prisoner of War camp for five years, and Rhoda, his fiancée, has changed and grown in the time when he was away. When she falls for Matthew Baxter, the location assistant on the film, a classic love triangle ensues. This is a quieter book than my seventeenth century books, because despite the war, the twentieth century is a quieter time. People no longer settled their disputes through a duel, people were generally more law-abiding and battles were much more likely to be using words as weapon than physical violence. This is the paradox of modern living - in a sense we have become both more civilized on a small scale, and less civilized on a larger scale, now that bombs and missiles can kill large numbers and hand to hand combat has gone.
What was one of the more challenging aspects of writing this novel? What was something that was easier or different than you expected?
I think that it was difficult for me to get across the horror of what the English bombers did to Dresden. The photographs are there on the internet for anyone to see, and they say so much more than I can. Nevertheless, I tried to bring it home through the effect on the two men in the book. What was easier than I expected was the dialogue, because I have memories of my grandparents and their way of speaking, their habitual expressions - these would be considered hopelessly old-fashioned now, but were perfect for the book. Things like, 'Right-O' meaning 'ok.'
How do you like to approach history in your novels – more as background information or something that you feature prominently?
The history for me is embedded in the characters and their attitude to life. In this novel for example, Peter's parents think Rhoda not good enough for their son because she is only a railwayman's daughter. Modern readers may find their views unsympathetic, but in fact they were perfectly normal for the time. England was still very class-ridden until after the war. For me the history can never be background, because the period affects everything about the characters' actions. Having said that, I have a particular penchant for the smaller events of history, what went on in ordinary people's houses. Some readers may find that their personal view of history is to look only at the main events, and therefore if they are not included in a novel they may feel the writer is not doing justice to the history. So I suppose the answer for me is that history must be prominent in my novels, but not necessarily the history you expect.
Do you have any other writing projects in the works? Anything you can share? Do you plan to stay within the 20th century?
In my Deborah Swift persona, am working on another big 17th C novel right now which I am loving, and on a YA sequel to 'Shadow on the Highway.' As Davina Blake, I have an idea for another 20th C novel set in the 1960's, but it will have to wait a while whilst I work on the others! For me, the most important thing is to keep myself interested in every book I write, and not to be too hidebound by market forces or the demands of the publishing industry. I always wished I could be in two places at once, and having two pen names is about as close as I can get to that experience. I also would love a Star Trek transporter so I could beam down to the US whenever I feel like it, but I guess that invention might be a while coming!
Many thanks Heather for your questions, and for hosting this interview.
Davina Blake used to be a set and costume designer for theatre and TV, during which time she developed a love of research which fueled her passion for the past. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and also writes successful seventeenth century historicals under the pen name Deborah Swift. ‘Her characters are so real that they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf. Highly recommended.’ The Historical Novels Review From Davina: ‘I was inspired to write ‘Past Encounters’ because I live close to the railway station where the iconic ‘Brief Encounter’ was filmed in 1945. I have often used the refreshment room that featured in the film when waiting for a train. I love a good cup of tea, preferably accompanied by a chocolate brownie!’
The day Rhoda Middleton opens a letter from another woman, she becomes convinced her husband, Peter, is having an affair. But when Rhoda tracks the mysterious woman down, she discovers she is not Peter’s lover after all, but the wife of his best friend, Archie Foster. There is only one problem – Rhoda has never even heard of Archie Foster.
Devastated by this betrayal of trust, Rhoda tries to find out why Peter has kept this friendship a secret for so long. Her search leads her back to 1945, but as she gradually uncovers Peter’s wartime experiences she must wrestle with painful memories of her own. For Rhoda too cannot escape the ghosts of the past.
Taking us on a journey from the atmospheric filming of Brief Encounter, to the extraordinary Great March of prisoners of war through snow-bound Germany, PAST ENCOUNTERS explores themes of friendship, hope, and how in the end, it is the small things that enable love to survive.
Includes bonus material for reading groups.
You can follow along with the rest of the tour by visiting the HFVBT site or on Twitter with the following hashtag: #PastEncountersBlogTour.
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