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Interview with John Simmons

I’m delighted to welcome John Simmons back to my blog.  His  new book, ‘Spanish Crossings’ will be out next month.  I asked John some questions.

 

Your new book sounds wonderful. Can you tell me a bit about ‘Spanish Crossings’ please.

It’s my second novel – ‘Leaves’ was my first. Some readers remarked about ‘Leaves’ that it was a historical novel – set in 1970 – and that surprised me. But I think it gave me the courage to attempt something more genuinely historical, so ‘Spanish Crossings’ is set before, during and after the Second World War. Its main background is the Spanish Civil War and the true but little-known story of the 4000 Basque children who were refugees from that conflict in 1937. History always has a contemporary relevance.

But it’s not a history book, it’s a story. And as a story there is a main character, Lorna, who is a young woman in the 1930s engaged in the politics of that time. The novel is her story and it’s about conflict and love against that historical background. I hope – and early readers confirm – that it’s a gripping story with a somewhat chequered but intriguing relationship at its heart.

 

Where did you get the idea for this book?

I had gone to Spain to run a Dark Angels writing course. I dreamt the line “Mother declared herself happy” – the first time such a thing has happened to me. I liked the line and continued writing that day in Seville. Going from café to café, bench to bench, it grew into a story that is now the novel’s Prologue and it created the main character and theme. It showed that I had been thinking about some family history.

My daughter Jessie – named after my mother – is the family researcher. She’s always been interested in family stories, perhaps particularly about my mother and father whom she never met (they died while I was relatively young). We had photographs of my mum with refugee children during the Spanish Civil War, and of a Spanish boy my mum and dad had ‘adopted’ at the time. I only knew his name was Jesús and that he had returned to Bilbao in 1938.

Jessie gave me a book called ‘Only for three months’ (by Adrian Bell) that told the story of the Spanish children who had come over on a boat called the Habana in 1937, soon after the bombing of Guernica by German airplanes. Guernica became famous for its brutality and for Picasso’s response in one of his most famous paintings. So the combination of family and world history developed the idea for the book, and once I started working on it, it took hold of me.

 

Did you have to do research and what did it entail?

It started with the reading of that book ‘Only for three months’, and a number of plotlines came from that. I read a lot around the subject and the period. I also found the art and photographs of the time helped me really enter the period. One photographer – Wolfgang Suschitsky, himself a 1930s refugee from fascism – was particularly inspirational (one of his photographs is on the front cover).

The other vital research was to do with place. There are three main settings: London, Guernica and the French border town of Hendaye. I grew up in central London so the London settings came naturally, but it was still fascinating to walk the streets featured and imagine them in an earlier period. I visited Bilbao and Guernica in northern Spain and that helped me get a proper feel, though obviously they are much changed. Visiting Hendaye was probably the most directly inspirational because it has a particular geography that plays an important part in the story. I could look across the estuary towards Spain, just a couple of miles away, and write on the spot.

 

How long did it take you to write?

I wrote what is now the Prologue on that Dark Angels course in September 2014. And finished writing the novel in April 2016. So two years with further editing time.

 

What is your usual writing routine?

My routine is not to have a routine. I’m not one of these writers who starts at 6, say, and works through to lunchtime every day – then plays tennis in the afternoon. My life is not like that because I work as a writer and consultant in the world of business and brands. My paid work in those areas subsidises my personal, fictional work. So I fit my own writing in when and where I can.

Actually my one really established writing habit is to always spend Friday evenings locked away – nowadays in my converted loft at home – and write as late as the spirit moves me. It used to be till the early hours – nowadays I stop before midnight.

 

I think it would be wonderful if some of the characters from your book came alive. What would be your reaction if that happened?

It has happened. These characters are real for me. I also have the strange experience with this novel of my family history. My mum and dad are definitely not characters in the novel but I found myself writing scenes where they might have been present. It might sound spooky or sentimental – but it was an important aspect of the writing experience with this book.

 

What are you planning to write next?

When I finished ‘Spanish Crossings’ I felt bereft – the story and characters I’d lived with had moved out of my head. So I needed to fill it with another story and new characters. I almost forced that to happen one Friday night, writing a series of short pieces set during the First World War. That gave me a range of characters and the characters suggested stories that could be linked.

What has emerged is a novel in progress called ‘The Good Messenger’. It’s set before and after the First World War; the first part has a nine-year-old boy as its central character, the final part shows him grown up in the 1920s and reconnecting with some of the characters from the pre-war period. I’m probably two-thirds (about 60.000 words) through the first draft.

 

You’ve had an interesting career by the looks of it. Can you tell me a bit about your Dark Angels workshops?

I was a director of Interbrand until 2003 (‘the world’s leading brand agency’). I insisted that language – the way companies communicate through words – needed to be part of branding. So I established a discipline to focus on that, and started writing books about ‘how to write more powerfully for brands’. One of those books was called ‘Dark Angels’, and this also became a training programme in ‘creative writing for business’. Three books make up the Dark Angels Trilogy and these have now been published in new editions by Urbane.

I’ve been running these Dark Angels courses for more than a dozen years now, for most of that time with two Scottish writers (Stuart Delves and Jamie Jauncey) and now with a wider group of associates, including writer/trainers in the USA, Ireland and the Antipodes. We go to remote and beautiful places – the Scottish highlands, Andalucian national park, coast of Cornwall, rural Ireland – and work with writers intensively on creative exercises. It’s great fun. People who ‘graduate’ tell me that it’s a life-transforming experience. www.dark-angels.org.uk

 

What are your thoughts on social media?

It’s the world we live in now. When the most powerful man in the world seems addicted to Twitter, you can’t ignore its influence. So I’m regularly on Twitter @JNSim, less regularly on Facebook, and I enjoy Instagram because I love photography and make no claims for any ability in that area.

More recently I’ve discovered more of the background to my Spanish story and the events of that time via Twitter. I was followed by a number of Spanish/Basque people and they have been enormously helpful in uncovering previously unknown aspects of that history. Including some of what happened to Jesùs Iguaran Aramburu after he returned to Spain.

 

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’ve always loved theatre and football. I’ve been lucky to combine these passions with my writing work. With my son Matt I wrote a book about our team, the Arsenal, and I’ve worked on the brands of a number of theatrical institutions such as the National Theatre, the Globe and the Old Vic.

 

What do you prefer – hardbacks or paperbacks?

I’ve always loved the book as a physical object, the look, feel and smell of a new book. The hardback has more of that tactile, sensuous appeal but I probably prefer to read paperbacks simply because I read while travelling, and a paperback is so easy to carry around and read on the tube, train etc. But I do believe all books are beautiful, collectible objects – I had to create my loft largely because I’d run out of shelf space for all the books. Books do furnish a room.

 

Describe your life in three words

Observing, listening, writing.

 

Links

26 Fruits Website – www.26fruits.co.uk/blog

Dark Angels Website – www.dark-angels.org.uk

Co-founder of www.26.org.uk

Twitter – @JNSim

Interview with Gillian Mawson

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Gillian Mawson was born in Stockport in Cheshire and now lives in Derbyshire.  She is married and has two cats.  Gillian’s new book is out today and she kindly took the time to answer some questions.

 

Your new book sounds absolutely fascinating.  Can you tell me a bit about it please?

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The book is ‘Evacuees: Children’s Lives on the World War Two Home Front’. It is published by History Press on Tuesday 30th September in hardback format.

I have a passionate interest in social history and during 2013 I collected personal stories from 100 people who spent the war years as evacuees in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. My new book, ‘Evacuees: Children’s Lives on the World War Two Home Front’ contains memorable extracts from these stories. They are accompanied by family photographs, many of which have been rescued from old suitcases and attics. The book also includes the memories of adults who travelled with the evacuated school children.

Prior to this, I spent four years interviewing evacuees for my first book, ‘Guernsey Evacuees: The Forgotten Evacuees of the Second World War.’  17,000 people fled Guernsey to England in June 1940, just weeks before the occupation of their island by Germany. Sadly, many of the people I interviewed have since died. I feel it is vital that the memories of Second World War evacuees are recorded now before they are lost for ever.

My new book contains stories from those who were evacuated within Britain as part of ‘Operation Pied Piper’. Others come from those who sought sanctuary in Britain from France, Belgium, the Ukraine and Spain or from persecution in Germany. I also include memories from evacuees who fled from British territories such as Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney and Gibraltar.

 

How long did it take you to write?

I began to collect the stories and family photographs in January 2013 and had to edit some of the stories. Some evacuees sent me a few paragraphs whilst others sent me 20 pages of memories. Because 100 stories are in the book, I had to edit the stories and select a memorable extract from each one. This was difficult as you can imagine. In addition some evacuees did not have access to a camera during the war, so I contacted local history societies and local newspapers. They kindly provided photographs to accompany these stories which delighted the evacuees.

 

How do you go about doing your research?

I often place letters in regional newspapers and on websites, asking for evacuees to come forward and share their stories. I also make great use of my own evacuation websites, as well as Facebook and Twitter. Even if an evacuee is not online or using social media, one of their children or grandchildren is.

 

Do you find the evacuees stories emotional at times?

I find them very emotional indeed. I interviewed 200 evacuees for my ‘Guernsey Evacuees’ book between 2008 and 2012, and the book was published in November 2012. I pick it up now and then and read a chapter and am still very moved indeed. The stories I have gathered for my new book have the same effect on me. Sometimes whilst interviewing evacuees they are moved to tears by their memories and I am too. When I read the final proof of my new book a month ago, I wept quite a few times.

I also run a community group for Guernsey evacuees who live in the Manchester area – they did not return home after the war. We organise events in order to share their stories with schools and museums. The evacuees’ memories still have the power to move me to tears especially when I hear them sharing them with members of the public.

 

How long have you been a social historian for?

I have loved history since I was a child and always reading about the lives of ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times. I began to study for my history degrees at the University of Manchester when I was 40 years old whilst I was working full time in an office.  In 2004 I began to write various history articles for magazines and newspapers, and in 2008 I began to interview Guernsey evacuees, both in the UK and in Guernsey. I wanted to find out about their wartime experiences on the UK mainland. It taught me a great deal about evacuation and also about the British Home Front during the Second World War.

 

Is this something you always wanted to do?

I enjoyed writing stories when I was a teenager, so I was very happy when I was offered a contract to write my first history book in 2012. Since writing that book, many of the evacuees have died. I feel it is vital that I interview as many evacuees as I can, while they are still with us, to record and preserve their memories for future generations.

 

Have you got anymore books planned?

I have 5 more book proposals in mind but I don’t want to give too much away at this stage. Four of them relate to the subject of the Second World War. – not just evacuation. The fifth is on a completely different historical subject – however, it does include interviews with people!

 

Describe a day in your life.

I have a part time office job, but on the remaining days I work on various matters including organising events for my evacuee community group, trying to obtain funding for the group and interviewing more evacuees. I send emails or letters to many of the evacuees I have interviewed as we have become good friends. I write down my ideas for future books and write articles for magazines and newspapers.

I have started to share my Guernsey evacuation archive online as much as possible so am in constant contact with museums and websites to ensure that this information is shared digitally. I receive emails from evacuees who wish to be reunited with wartime friends and I try to help them as much as I can. I have reunited a number of evacuees and this is very moving and makes me very happy indeed.

I am frequently contacted by people whose parents or grandparents (now deceased) were evacuees. They want to find out more about their relatives’ experiences during the war. I help as much as I can. Authors and television documentary companies contact me to obtain accurate historical information for their wartime novels and programmes. I also give talks to schools, history groups and museums about wartime evacuation and speak on the radio about my research. There is not much time for relaxation but I am very happy in what I do.

 

Links

You can find out more about Gillian’s new book on her blog:-

http://evacueesofworldwartwo.wordpress.com/

 

Gillian’s books can be purchased on Amazon:-

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gillian-Mawson/e/B008MWQ0IE/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

 

Gillian’s blog on the Guernsey evacuation can be found here:-

http://guernseyevacuees.wordpress.com/evacuation/

 

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