V is for...Victoria Blake's Far Away

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Victoria Blake









Throughout April I have invited 26 authors who had been selected as Editor's Choice by the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews
 to help me out with the 2016 A-Z Blog Challenge...

Except to be a little different I interviewed 
their leading Character/s...

Today's Character is from :



HH : Hello! I believe you exist in Victoria Blake’s  novel – what is the title of the book, and would you like to introduce yourself - who you are, what you do etc?
The title of the book is FAR AWAY. My name is Michael Armstrong and  when the book starts I’m an officer in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War and I’ve been captured at the fall of Tobruk in Africa and imprisoned in an Italian POW camp. Before the war I’d been studying PPE and law at Oxford.


HH : Where and when are you? Are you a real historical person or did your author create you?
I’m imprisoned in a POW camp in Capua, Italy in 1942 then I’m moved to Chieti and finally Sulmona from which I escape in 1943. The author might like to think she created me  but since I am a character based loosely on her  father, Robert Blake, I think it would be more appropriate to say that I created her! Incidentally Sulmona is now the confetti capital of the world.

HH. In a few brief sentences: what is the novel you feature in about?
It is about the friendship between two men who meet in a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War. I’m the son of a Norfolk teacher and have just come down from Oxford with a first. Harry Maynard is the son of a Hull tram conductor, a published crime writer and teacher. The book paints a vivid and compelling portrait of the lives of POWs in Italy and the Italians who risked their lives to save them. It is about grief, survival and the inescapability of the past.

HH :  I ‘met’ my pirate, Jesamiah Acorne on a beach in Dorset, England -  how did your author meet up with you? 
I used to tell her stories of my escape – wolves howling, snow covered mountains in the Abruzzi etc when she was a child so I suppose the idea for this fictional version of me came from that and too many viewings of The Great Escape and The Wooden Horse. We did take her to see Where Eagles Dare when she was rather too young, so maybe she’s mistaking me for Richard Burton. Her mother was always elaborating on the actual story so I think that’s what has led to this book. If I’d known she was going to be a novelist I’d have kept my mouth shut! Having a novelist in the family is a profoundly irritating thing.
 [HH - as an aside, my father was a POW at the Stalag where the Wooden Horse happened - remember the sandbags being emptied down the men's trousers? Dad helped with that. I'm not sure if he helped acually dig the tunnels, but I suspect he did.)

HH : Tell me about one or two of the other characters who feature with you - husband, wife, family? Who are some of the nice characters and who is the nastiest one?
Harry Maynard is my friend in the book and we escape from the POW camp together. He is already a published writer when the war breaks out. I convince him to write side by side in the same notebook with me. He writes a fairy story and I write an account of my war up to that point. Harry cares deeply about his men and doesn’t like being separated from them. At this stage he is a much more political person than I am and has a more developed social conscience. The nastiest character is probably Harry’s sister, Rose, depicted in old age. She is short tempered and rather disagreeable but this is mainly because she is very elderly and in a care home and waiting to die. She’s not really nasty, more worn out and depressed by old age. Maybe the most difficult aspect of her character is that she’s held onto a secret her whole life about her daughter, Clare’s, parentage.

HH : What is your favourite scene in the book?
I like the scene where my character and Harry are sharpening and then heating up the points of twigs in order to kill the bugs which infested the planks of our beds. It’s in that conversation that I persuade him to write something with me so it’s the trigger for the fairy tale in the book.

HH : What is your least favourite? Maybe a frightening or sad moment that your author wrote.
No soldier will ever forget the moment they surrendered also I wasn’t particularly happy to see my own death depicted.

Victoria
HH : What are you most proud of about your author?
She’s determined. She knows how to keep on keeping on or KBO as Churchill used to say.

HH : Has your author written  other books about you? If not, about other characters?
How do you feel about your author going off with someone else!
There was a scene in one of her crime novels, Skin and Blister, when she gave a most disloyal depiction of the inside of my study. Yes, I would like to say, I do know books are a fire hazard but as you know perfectly well that particular electric fire was never ever used so there was no harm in leaning books against it. Incidentally the state of her room today is an absolute disgrace so the term pot and kettle come to mind. I hope to God this will be the only book with me in it.  Frankly, I feel it’s about time she does go off with someone else. In fact I know she already has. She is now flirting with that egotistical rogue, poet and pornographer Pietro Aretino in Renaissance Venice.

HH : As a character if you could travel to a time and place different to your own fictional setting  where and when would you go?
Well, I wouldn’t mind being alive now although that would make me 99. Having taught politics for most of my life I’d have something to say about this Euro referendum, that’s for sure and I’d like to be put down in Downing Street to knock their heads together. If not now I wouldn’t mind being alive during Benjamin Disraeli’s lifetime. I wrote a biography about him and I’d like to hand him the book, wait until he’s read it and then ask him if I got him right. Every biographer fantasizes about that scenario.

Thank you that was really interesting!
Now where can readers of this A-Z Blog Challenge find out more about you and your author?

Twitter   @VM_Blake
Blog 
Here is the company we will be keeping on this 
A-Z Blog Challenge!
APRIL
A 1st  Friday - Aurelia  - Alison Morton
B 2nd Saturday  - Bloodie Bones - Lucienne Boyce
C 4th Monday - Man in the Canary Waistcoat Susan Grossey
D 5th Tuesday - Dubh-Linn  - James Nelson
F 7th Thursday - Fortune’s Fool- David Blixt
H 9th Saturday - The Love Letter of John Henry Holliday) - Mary Fancher
K 13th Wednesday - Khamsin- Inge Borg
L 14th Thursday - Luck Bringer   - Nick Brown
N 16th Saturday - A Newfound Land  - Anna Belfrage
O 18th Monday - Out Of Time  - Loretta Livingstone
P 19th Tuesday  - Pirate Code  - Helen Hollick
Q 20th Wednesday - To Be A Queen – Annie Whitehead
R 21st Thursday  - The Spirit Room - Marschel Paul
U 25th Monday  - A Just And Upright Man - John Lynch
X 28th Thursday – The FlaX flower – AmandaMaclean

So call back tomorrow 
To meet the next exciting Character! 
(unless it is Sunday - in which case, I'll have something different 
but just as interesting !)


37 comments:

  1. I'd like to see those untidy rooms :-) Anyway, FBd and tweeted and I hope you get a nice surge in sales for what sounds like a well thought out piece of work.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by John :-)

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    2. Thank you, John. One of my earliest memories is crawling round Dad's study and looking up at teetering piles of books. He wasn't a man to ever knowingly get rid of a book. The one time he did he ended up buying them back from a second-hand book dealer much to my mother's irritation! I'm not much better myself.

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  2. Interesting to read about the personal connection to the main character - that must have presented its own challenges during the writing process.

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    1. Oh it did, Annie. To be honest there were times when I thought it had all been a BIG MISTAKE.I have never set out to write something when having a large amount of material already in existence that I wanted to use. It was a question of how to use the part of his war memoir that he had written. In the end I cut very little, partly because I liked what he had written and also because the style was of the era. Also the purpose of the book was to tell his story. I also showed the book to both my sisters and said that if there was anything they wanted taken out I would do that. They were both extremely generous about it and so I felt I could go ahead. But I was aware that using family material is a tricky thing to do and I understand why people can get upset about it.The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard ran into a few problems on that front!

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  3. Read this, Victoria, and loved it. The relationship between Michael and Harry is brilliantly drawn. Can't remember though whether you said Harry Maynard's character is also based on an actual friend of your father's?? And I'm tempted to ask precisely what does Michael make of the EU referendum - though I fear that may set a powder keg under Helen's wonderful (and so far very peaceful) A-Z blog!!

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  4. Thank you David. I'm delighted you loved it. Harry was not an actual friend of my father but based on a man called Dan Billany who came from a working class background in Hull. He was a teacher and had had a crime novel published called The Opera House Murders just before the war broke out so I became interested in him because I have a crime writing background. Unlike my father he did not come back from the war. He escaped with a friend but then disappeared. Notebooks he and his friend David had written were sent back to the families and these were then published posthumously: The Trap and The Cage. It was reading those books that gave me the idea of the two men writing something in the same notebooks. I was also interested in what the experience was like for working class boys like Dan who became officers. In a First WW context this has been brilliantly covered by Pat Barker in her Regeneration Trilogy. I suppose I was thinking a bit about her character Billy Prior when I wrote Harry. As far as the EU Referendum is concerned ... (takes deep breath) Michael, I think, would be for staying in. He would believe in being loyal to the PM. I think I better leave it at that!

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    1. Thanks for the detailed reply, Victoria. Fabulous when you've got that amount of "untold story" and "fact stranger than fiction" material to fall back on, eh? Good for you. And also pleased that Michael and myself would have been on the same side of the EU debate - even if coming from very different angles. Are you speaking anywhere this year??

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    2. Thanks David. No plans to speak this year I'm rather ashamed to say!

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  5. Writing - however indirectly - about your own father in stressful situations must have been quite the challenge! Seems dad agrees, what with his comments about having novelists in the family :)

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  6. Ha, ha .. . thank you Anna. How to reply ... it's interesting I think that now the writing of history has become much more popular/readable than in my youth. I think more imagination is allowed or expected in history books and history on TV. Dad didn't watch much TV but when he did, for example, something about Churchill, he would be infuriated if small details were wrong. That was the historian coming out but having said that in his own writing he was known for being highly readable. His biography of Disraeli was a popular best seller in the 1960s despite being over 800 pages long so he was very conscious of the need to entertain as well as inform. Oh, dear I don't think I've answered your question at all ... How would he have felt about having a novelist in the family ... cautious, I think!

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  7. Interesting. By a curious coincidence my father too was captured at the fall of Tobruk and spent the rest of the war in an Italian p.o.w. camp. He never spoke much about it, and to my shame I never asked. The only story he ever told was of the commandant's pet dog which disappeared one day and was suspected of making a (comparatively) tasty stew, although I suspect the tale was the equivalent of the modern urban myth and was told by returning p.o.w.s from all over Europe and beyond.

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  8. Hello, Bill, I wonder what camp he was in? Dad was in Bari, Chieti and then Sulmona. One of the things I hadn't realised was how very poor the south of Italy was in the 40s - they could barely feed themselves let alone the huge influx of prisoners they got after Tobruk. Things did get better and more organised later on but in the beginning they were starving and Red Cross parcels were incredibly important in keeping them alive so the dog story may well be true. In his first postcards home Dad was asking for food and clothes but when things got better on that front he was asking for books! I've got quite a lot of factual material on Italian POWs on my blog here if you're interested http://victoriablakewriter.wordpress.com I think a lot of people didn't talk about it. My Dad didn't much although when he became a JP he said he though all JPs should experience a period of incarceration and it might make them think hard before sending people to prison!

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    1. Unfortunately I do not know which camp or camps my father was in. I assume (but do not know) that his unit had been the 1st battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment. The only slim clue I have been able to unearth is a postcard-type group photograph of him and 11 other men, bearing the pencilled inscription "P.G. 70. June 15th 1943" It may be pure coincidence, but 15th June was my father's birthday.

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    2. It looks like that was Monturano. If ever you want to research more the Monte San Martino Trust has a huge archive of Italian POW diaries and materials and they are very helpful. Their website is www.msmtrust.org.uk My sister is the secretary of the trust and she's extremely nice!

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  9. Interesting, how these stories are still alive after seventy years; and rightly so. I am sure you must have had to stop a few times and catch your breath to continue writing.
    My own father was captured by the Yugoslav partisans (yes, he was "on the other side"). I was told the story of his ordeal only after his death by his life-long friend.

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    1. Thank you, Inge. My Father, although he wrote about his experiences, didn't speak very much about them and could get quite tetchy if pressed. My mother on the other hand used to regale us with tales of his escape - child friendly versions, obviously but then she was a born storyteller. I particularly liked the bit about him being chased by wolves in the Abruzzi mountains and their eyes glowing red. Well, I think it was red. My father also damaged his toe in his escape and it was a strange shape so I remember looking at his toe when we were on the beach in the summer and wondering about it. The fact that he was silent about it of course operated as a sort of magnet to my interest. Your poor father - war is dreadful whichever side you are on.

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  10. What an incredibly interesting interview, and how wonderful that the story is partly based on your father, Victoria. I'm sure he would have been very proud of you, even if you had to take a while to convince him of 'fiction author's licence', lol.

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    1. Thank you very much Loretta. I'd like to think so. I was certainly very proud of him. And what an excellent phrase 'fiction author's licence' is. I may steal it. In fact I have stolen it already for future use!

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    2. Lol, you're very welcome. I adapted it when I stole it from the poets.

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  11. Loving the bug story. My grandfather used to run a candle flame up the pleats of his kilt in the trenches of WW1 - I'm sure he'd have related to Michael's experience!

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    1. That's a fantastic story! My Dad was lucky because he didn't have any adverse reaction to bed bugs but some people had terrible reactions and with a bad diet they could get sores and ulcers from them. I think getting rid of them in this way was hopeless but it gave bored young men something to do!

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  12. What a fascinating blog - and it's stories like this that make us realise how very close we are to what we call "history". Another one for the tbr!

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    1. Thanks, Lucienne, I hope you enjoy it!

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  13. Fascinating. Glad I stumbled upon your A to Z Challenge today. Always find POW stories so inspiring and rivoting.

    Joy @ The Joyous Living

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    1. Very glad you enjoyed it I always loved being told the story of his escape. It involved hiding in a cramped roof space for 17 days with four other men and Dad was over six foot tall!

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    2. Thanks for stopping by Joy - I'll hop over to your blog as soon as I get chance to draw breath!

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  14. By the way, Helen, fascinated to hear that your Dad was in the Stalag where The Wooden Horse took place. It must have made the film particularly interesting viewing.

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    1. He was also in the Stalag where the Great Escape happened - although in a different compound. We always had to watch the movie when it was on, and every time he tutted about the made-up motorbike scene! Add to that, Dad changed identities with an pilot. Dad was only a corporal, so went out on work patrols, officers didn't so they often changed identity to give the officers a chance to escape. When being moved from one stalag to another Dad went into the train as Fred Turner and came out as Flt Lt Rex Reynolds. If he'd been found out he would have been shot. I am, needless to say, very very proud of my Dad!

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  15. A very compelling interview and touching comment section today. Thank you, Victoria. I look forward to reading your book.

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    1. Thanks Alexandra, for dropping by today!

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    2. Thank you, Alexandra, I hope you enjoy it.

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  16. Sounds a good one, Victoria. I like to think that fiction can be more truthful than biography (especially true to feeling, sentiment and what makes us human.) The only thing that is really artifice is the plot, which you have to deliver to fit the convention. Was that hard to do or was it largely there already?

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    1. Thanks Steven - I had the details of the escape there already but then it was a question of how to fictionlize it. I introduced a new character Harry who was not in the camp with my father and then saw how they interacted. I also introduced a contemporary part to the book. It was a struggle to be honest and in the end I'm not sure how well I succeeded. What was interesting about his memoirs was that he wrote various different versions: a diary soon after he came back which his father encouraged him to write to sort of get it out of his system and then at the end of his life several chapters of memoirs. By the end of his life he was a fully fledged historian, so to speak, and had a historian's eye on his experiences. Also a lot more had come out into the public domain especially about the notorious 'stop notice' which was issued by the army by which which Allied POWs were ordered to stay in the camps after the Italian armistice because Monty did not want POWs running around the Italian countryside getting in the way of his operations. As a consequence of this many POWs stayed put and then the camps were taken over by the Germans and they ended up being shipped off to Germany. He mellowed about a few things relating to his war experiences but never about that!

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  17. Victoria, my father fought in Italy in WWII, and I've always been glad he was never made a POW. I have heard and read many stories of escaped prisoners being sheltered by the Italians. He himself befriended a family in Monfalcone near the end of the war and corresponded with them from NZ. When he went back to see them in 1973, he had not heard from them in a while but was hoping they were alive. They were: they remembered and embraced him! Their children and grandchildren are now our friends too. Good on you for writing the truth in such a personal and meaningful way in your novel. It will be an inspiration to many.

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  18. Thank you Cheryl for your very kind comment. It's fascinating the strength of the bonds made during this time. Many of the escaping POWs were looked after by Italians at considerable risk to themselves. They were told to approach poor people living on the land rather than shop owners etc who were more closely linked to Mussolini. But in many cases the Italian contadini had practically nothing themselves. The trust that I mention further up in the comments section provides bursaries to young Italians to come over and learn English as a way of thanking the Italians for their help to POWs during that time. My father always remained very fond of the Italians and Italy was the first country I was taken on holiday to as a child. He would not have managed to escape without their help.

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