Inspirations, Compulsions and Comfort Zones

Gus Bialick (centre) featured in ‘Britain’s Greatest Generation’

My inspiration and my comfort zone is The Past. Twentieth century social history to be exact. All my books so far have been, in some way or other, real-life stories about 20th century people. Three have them have a specific focus on WW2.

Perhaps this is less inspiration, more compulsion. Writing for me is a way of understanding the past, how it shaped my parents’ generation and so how it shaped me and mine.

The history I learned at school majored on the Tudors and Stuarts and at A Level stopped with the Second Great Reform Act of 1867. What little I knew of the two World Wars and the 20th century was picked up piecemeal from TV documentaries and colour supplement articles. So researching books was a way of joining a lot of disparate dots. An exercise in self-education, and a revelation in itself. Learning had never been so totally absorbing and enjoyable.

Doing the research is one of the most satisfying bits of book-making. You learn new stuff and make new connections. And for me, history is brought to life by the stories of ordinary folk who lived through those very different and troubled times.

I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to be able to work with Steve Humphries of Testimony Films on three out of four books, where there was an associated TV documentary or series. This meant I could piggy-back on his talented team’s research effort as a starting point, and make use of many of the interviewees found they for his programmes. Along the way he has acted as mentor, guide, reader, critic, supporter – and co-author.

I wasn’t sure I could write a book without him, so I Heard My Country Calling was a big departure from my comfort zone. It was scary and I had more than a few wobbles. For both practical and stylistic reasons I’d decided on a quasi-fictional approach which I knew would be difficult to pull off convincingly. My subject was a WW2 secret agent, Elaine Madden, who had appeared as a cameo in an earlier book, but my agent suggested that she deserved a biography of her own.

As I write, the book is about to come out, so I don’t know whether readers will think it works, but I know I loved writing it and I hope it does her justice.

This was a tentative step in the direction of fiction with the other foot still firmly in the world of facts and evidence. Having your cake and eating it perhaps. The real leap into the scary unknown would be to abandon the comfort zone of non-fiction altogether and test my imagination. But I’m not sure I’m brave enough yet.

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