Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Count Down to 5th June, Interview with Theresa Breslin

Today I have an interview with the award winning author Theresa Breslin.

Hi Theresa, thank you for agreeing to an interview as part of the Countdown to 5 June project.

Can you please tell us about your War Girls story?
My story is the WAR GIRLS anthology is inspired by Norah Neilson Gray, a Helensburgh born Scottish artist who, during WW1, worked as a volunteer nurse in hospitals in France which were run by Dr Elsie Inglis.
Elsie Maud Inglis was a British doctor who was active in the suffragette movement and a member of the Suffrage Federation. She was a pioneer of medicine, having founded her own maternity hospital staffed by women. On the outbreak of World War One she established two hospitals in France for use by the French government - the British government having earlier turned down an offer of her services. These were staffed with women: doctors, surgeons, ambulance drivers, admin staff etc.  
I got the idea for my story when I was going over some of the research I did for Remembrance, my novel about youth in World War One. I leafed through my research notebooks, reread the war poets and looked at photographs and paintings. And it struck me that the war artists were predominantly men. Then I came across Norah,who was not appointed as an 'official' war artist but did paint scenes of wounded men while she was nursing in FranceInitially there was some tension between her and the Imperial War Museum, but they eventually did commission a painting from her.

My story is about a girl called Merle whose mother was French and father Scots and they all lived in Paris pre 1914. They died in an accident when Merle was 7 and she was sent to Edinburgh to live with her Suffragette Grandmother who recognises her artistic talent and sends her to Edinburgh College of Art. All this is told by drip-in back story as the opening scene is Merle and chum, Grace, landing in France in 1917 as volunteer Ambulance Drivers for one of Dr Elsie Ingliss units. Almost immediately Merle clashes with Captain George Taylor who is in charge of the efficient running of the hospital trains and transfer of patients in the area between Amiens and Albert, where she will be working. I have invented the ambulance base and renamed a couple of French towns but the essence of the story is true. The geographical locations are real, and the breakthrough of the German army taking Albert and advancing rapidly towards Amiens was very real indeed and incredibly dangerous for those caught behind the lines -as happens to Merle and Captain George.  

There is a whole thread concerning art and artistic interpretation, right through the story to the very end. Merle paints in her spare time George discusses art with her. She witnesses a shell exploding and has to help dig out bodies and survivors and then ferry these to the nearest hospital. She is traumatized about one of her patients. He helps her get over this. They become closer.... 

During the German Spring Offensive of 1918 Albert falls and the Front Line is breached. At the ambulance base they get word that a hospital train full of wounded men is on its way and will arrive at the same time as the German advance troops. In a frantic race against time Merle and George drive to an unmanned signal box in a desperate attempt to change the points on the railway line so that the last hospital train gets diverted away from the oncoming enemy army.

They come under fire, and  

Would you consider writing a full novel around the characters?  I would love to read more about Merle and Captain George.

I've kind of fallen for Captain George in a big way and do think he deserves a whole book - certainly the hospital trains do - there's an amazing story of how, before the carriages connected the nurse would inch along the footplates to get from one carriage to another while the train was moving. I really admire Merle and her granny too and I only touched on the conversation about what Art is - I enjoyed the bit where the Grandmother looks out the window into the garden and sees what the child is trying to capture. I could picture the scene. The housemaid not totally understanding but in sympathy with the child and the governess concentrating on discipline and a life lived within certain lines / boundaries. But the nurses and ambulance drivers etc were incredibly brave. They often left quite comfortable lives to volunteer and were living well out of their comfort zone. 

GHOST TRAIN - due out in July has a lot about the hospital trains in it.     

How old were you when you started writing?
Probably about 9 years old! I used to make up alternative endings for the books I read and ensure that I was the hero.

Who are your favourite writers?
All time favourites are Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.

What books did you read as a child?
Absolutely everything I could lay my hands on, Comics, Annuals, Enid Blyton. I was an avid reader and member of the local library. The Children’s Dept was a room and I began to methodically read my round it from one end to the other in alphabetical order! Seriously.  

What is your favourite book and why?
A Tale of Two Cities. Great opening line. Great closing line. Enthralling story, unforgettable characters – Just Charles Dickens really.

Do you have a favourite place you like to write and why?
I have a ‘Writing Room’ and also a summerhouse (glorified garden hut ) where I can escape to, complete with heater for colder weather.  

What inspired you to take up writing?
I had dabbled a bit. And then I was working on a Mobile library and something happened in one of the towns we visited and I was incensed enough to write a whole book length story about it.

Are any of your characters based on people you know?
Definitely – but the key phrase here is ‘based on’ I would consider it unethical to totally use the character of a living person. I would worry that they might come knocking on my door to complain – although I’ve heard that most people are enormously flattered if they appear in a novel. However I am placing my characters in situations where the real person would not encounter so I don’t think it would work out.  

Do you have a support network for your writing?
Gosh yes. Other children’s authors have been enormously helpful and encouraging. When I was starting out, Anne Fine, Joan Lingard, Alexander McCall Smith, Adèle Geras and Michael Morpurgo were exceptionally kind. A great many writers are personal friends. And there are loads of networks, The History Girls, Scottish Book Trust, Young Book Trust, SAS and lots of chats on the Web.  

What items are on your desk/where you write?
There’s a small facsimile of the Aberlemno Serpent Stone sitting on top of the printer (shortlist prize) But the desk – worktop actually – extended and very deep is generally quite clear apart from the work in hand. Close by on the mantelpiece is the Carnegie Medal, quietly gleaming in its black velvet box, which I admit I do glance at from time to time, especially when I’m discouraged.

Do you have a routine for your writing? ie time of day.
If it’s a writing day then I am very disciplined. I rise early (sometimes very early indeed) and take my breakfast directly to my writing room - no radio, no internet, no phone calls, no distractions at all, at all, at all – and try to get 5 hours uninterrupted hours in.

Any tips for writers who are just starting out?
Never be without a notebook.

Make your writing time top priority – schedule everything else around it. It should be part of your life, not an add on.

Do not give up. If you think it’s a good idea then it’s a good idea.

Listen to advice / comment and then go with your instinct.

Then listen again.

And again.  

Can you share a sneak peak at what you're working on at the moment?
I’m proofing Ghost Soldier for mid-range readers is due out in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the outbreak of WW1. I was very conscious that there wasn’t a lot for younger readers on the theme of the Great War so this is a mystery plus detective story with quite poignant scenes as two children, searching for their ‘missing-in-action’ father, meet the staff and wounded men on the hospital trains that stop near their farm. And there is a ghost….

Have you ever heard a strange/different story that you thought would be great in a book?
Too many. The Shoebox of Ideas sits beneath my desk. As I’m a bit of a shoe aficionada then the box is one from the funkily brightly coloured Irregular Choice range. I chuck notes in there all the time and have had occasion to rummage through. But I’m never going to be able to develop all of them. For instance I heard this on the car radio as I was driving to do an author visit in a school. Did you know that a huge number of household accidents are caused by people slipping on a tea cosy? I thought – this is rubbish. When I got to the school I mentioned it to the class. About half of the pupils put up their hands to tell me that either they had tripped over one on the kitchen floor or they knew someone else who had! How weird is that?  If alien beings wanted to take over this country and disable the population all they need to do is distribute an endless supply of teacozies. That’s a brilliant story idea.  

What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I utterly adore travelling. Usually doing research but any excuse really.  Family gatherings. Reading. Exploring old graveyards. Theatre. Movies. Being with friends.  

Do you like it quiet when you're writing or do you need background noise? (Music or TV)
Total absence of what I would call intrusive noise e.g. TV music. I don’t mind birdsong, the sound of distant trains,and the sea, that kind of ‘natural’ background is OK  

If one of your books was made into a film/TV series, who would you like as the leading lady/man?
Daniel Day Lewis has the masterful gravitas and flash of genius for Leonardo da Vinci in my book The Medici Seal. I think Clare Danes is quite brilliant and would love her as Maggie in Remembrance – she’d be wonderful in showing her whole awakening, both intellectually and as a young girl becoming a woman during World War One.    

Do you have a process for planning your books? I.e. do you talk over an idea with a friend or a partner?
My excellent agent and editor are the two people who are there for me in that respect - insightful and wise.  

Non book questions

Favourite holiday place? Home. With time to take long walks in the hills and woods

Favourite food? Porridge. True

What kind of music do you listen to? Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan

Favourite film?  I love going to the movies. Too many to choose. The Marx Brothers and all those Golden Oldies with Bergman et al. Last of the Mohicans and many manymore. Science Fiction. First Shrek film. Prates of the Caribbean  

Favourite Chocolate? Mint Cream

Favourite drink? Water. From the tap. Also true

Thank you Theresa for answering my questions, your time is most appreciated.

Jo xx

Theresa Breslin (Author) 
Theresa Breslin is an award-winning Scottish author whose work has appeared on television and radio.
Her first book, Simon's Challenge, won the Young Book Trust's Fidler Award for new writers and she was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Whispers in the Graveyard.
The Dream Master was shortlisted for the Children's Book Award and Remembrance,a story of youth in World War One, was shortlisted for the South Lanarkshire, the Sheffield, and the North-East Book Awards.Divided City has been shortlisted for the Sheffield Children's Book Award 2006 and longlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
Her latest novel is Prisoner of the Inquisition - shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
She managed the BAFTA nominated Scottish Writers project and was awarded Honorary Membership of the Scottish Library Association for distinguished services to Children's Literature and Librarianship.

I would also like to thank Jim Dean for all his hard work in organising this countdown and allowing me to be part of it.

Link to main www.countdownya.com site 

Will Hill will be posting  tomorrow as part of the Countdown to 5 June posts: http://ohthebooks.com/ 

1 comment:

  1. What an absolutely fantastic interview - brilliant questions and amazing answers! Thank you both for taking part in Countdown!