Hello, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sojourn, where I’m joined by Olga Swan, to talk about her war-based historical novels.
So tell me, what first attracted you to the eras you’ve written about?
The first draft of Lamplight grew from reading some of my late father’s diaries. One entry recorded a voyage he took in June 1933 on board SS Manhattan from New York to Plymouth. My character David Klein, therefore, is on this very same vessel on the same date. I’ve always been interested in this period of history.
What sparked your first foray into historical fiction?
History for me has always been very important. It’s how we learn about ourselves. However, more importantly, it records all the tragic errors man made in the past. How else can we hope to avoid doing such terrible things in the future so that they never, ever, happen again? The trouble is, people tend to see each action in black and white, good v evil. When I wrote Lamplight’s sequel, Vichyssoise, it was apparent that sometimes evil can happen not so much by an evil dictator like Hitler, but by a leader, such as Petain, who was too old and sought the easiest option, e.g. collaboration with Hitler.
Tell me a bit about your research process – are you able to stay focused, or do you find yourself distracted by new, interesting snippets or stories?
Once I choose an era, I tend to be completely focused, probably too much. I find myself getting so annoyed that I shout out at the characters!
Which is your favourite of any real historical characters who have appeared in your writing?
Winston Churchill was my hero. In the war cabinet of 1940, which he chaired, he was almost overruled by the majority in favour of the easy option, e.g. collaboration with Hitler! However, fortunately for us (especially me, as otherwise I would not be here writing this now), a cabinet member called Greenwood swayed the argument so that in the end Britain did not sign any armistice but went to war. So, thank you Messrs. Greenwood and Churchill!
Have you ever had to include a real historical character you’ve really disliked?
That’s an easy one: Adolf Hitler. Here was a man who was so mentally deranged that he arranged the murder of six million Jews whilst suppressing the fact that a member of his own family was born Jewish. Why did the German people adore him? Because he brought work, prestige and money to their humdrum lives.
I suppose that is an easy one – there cannot be many who include him in their work today who like him. If you could visit any historical event or period (as a witness only, no changing things!), which would it be, and why?
I would like to have attended Churchill’s 1940 war cabinet.
Any how about ‘rewriting’ the history books? If you could change any single event, which would it be, and what would be your preferred outcome?
Re Vichy France (via Vichyssoise), in 1940 I would try to elect someone else in place of Philippe Petain, preferably Charles de Gaulle, who certainly would not have signed any armistice with Adolf Hitler, thereby avoiding all those murderous deportations east of ordinary, loyal citizens, to their ultimate death in concentration camps such as Auschwitz.
Finally… You’re allowed a whole afternoon to yourself with anyone from history. Who would it be, and what would you want to discuss?
On the plus side, without a doubt, Churchill or De Gaulle. On the minus side, perhaps that evil man Pierre Laval to try to persuade him against supporting Hitler and his own grandiose schemes in favour of supporting his own country’s Egalite, Liberte and Fraternite.
Thank you so much for your time today!