I am delighted to be here, celebrating the publication of this intriguing, exciting addition to the Hands On History series by Patricia Murphy, Leo's War. I was even more delighted when Patricia agreed to answer a few interview questions for Fallen Star Stories. Her answers are fascinating and generous; giving an insight into this writers' life and adding another dimension to the telling of Leo's War (and, her other books as well.) Let's jump right in....
Hello, Patricia. Thank you for taking the time for this interview. Let’s start with a very basic question, but one I always find interesting.
How long have you wanted to be a writer for young people? What got you started?
-I think I have always wanted to be a writer. For me it was a natural extension of storytelling. I am the eldest of six and therefore was often left in charge of my younger siblings. I used to tell them stories to keep them amused. They were basically a captive audience and I soon found a joy in weaving tall tales. I was a sort of pint sized, bargain basement Scheherazade, except the audience were the prisoners! I had on-going family serials that I’d tell them every night. The “Woodbine Family” was a big favourite centering around a young inventor called Brains who came up with outlandish inventions and machines.
Storytelling is almost a national pastime in Ireland. My grandparents were all great storytellers and I listened avidly to their stories about their childhood. My grandfather told stories about his time in the Fianna Boy Scouts during the War of Independence and running messages for the rebels. But also about his grandfather who was a Surgeon-Major in the British Army in India and his father who was a sailor who had known the Poet Laureate John Masefield training in the Merchant Navy. My grandmother Bridie too was an astonishing storyteller. She had a photographic memory and would weave vivid tales almost Joycean in their detail. She used to work in her grandmother’s little huckster shop in Ringsend. Everyone used to chat to her and tell her everything. Her grandmother had a reputation as a fortune-teller; reading tea leaves with an uncanny knowledge of everyone’s life history. I’m fairly sure it was because my granny got all the gossip and passed it on! A lot of their stories found their way into both Molly’s Diary and particularly Dan’s Diary.
In terms of getting published, I continued the storytelling with my niece and nephews. I told my eldest niece Aoife a story about “The Chingles”. My sister encouraged me to write it down and when she saw a competition run by Poolbeg and RTE she was very keen for me to enter. I was lucky enough to win and I’m still going. Leo’s War is my seventh book.
From the Chingles series through to the Hands on History books (and the Nutshell Library books), you focus on legends and history, so I have to ask….why historical fiction? Do you feel there is something offered for children in historical fiction that they won’t find in other genres? Do you find children a ‘tough audience’ when it comes to historical fiction?
-I have a degree in history and English so historical fiction is an ideal genre for my interests. History is so interesting! So full of stories and drama. In a sense too all fiction is historical, even if it’s contemporary, some day it will be a period piece. Quite a few classic novels are technically historical fiction, War and Peace, even Ulysses.
With the genre of historical fiction for children, you get a double whammy. An introduction to history as well as the other pay-offs of reading a novel. I think what you find in historical fiction as compared to other genres apart from the obvious introduction to the wonderful subject of the past, is an expansion of empathy but also an introduction to critical thinking and awareness that the only constant is change. For history is a window onto both the past and the future. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, as George Santanya said.
History is all around us too. It’s part of the DNA of our culture. It’s not a coincidence that totalitarian regimes are the ones who always want to re-write the past and burn books, like Hitler or go back to Year Zero, like Pol Pot in Cambodia. Our shared cultural memory is our identity and contains valuable lessons and warnings.
I often find too that children who aren’t that keen on other genres of fiction respond to historical fiction, including boys. They like the action and the fact that they are also learning something. That appeals to some kids.
|LB hiding out with Leo; he thinks he's in the Rome Escape Line!|
In Leo’s War, you are telling the story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Italy. What is it about his story that you found so compelling? And tell us something about the research.
-I was astonished to discover the scale of the rescue operation conducted by the Rome Escape Line. Led by Monsignor O’Flaherty, they saved at least six and a half thousand people right under the noses of the Nazis. The story has a lot of intrigue and jeopardy. The stakes were very high for the Monsignor. Other Italian priests were executed and five of his helpers were among the three hundred and thirty five dead at the Ardeatine Caves massacre.
I also found the Monsignor a fascinating character. He was very high up in the church, a Prince really, of the Vatican. And yet here he was ducking and diving, playing cat and mouse with the Nazi regime. He took a completely moral stand and didn’t hesitate to help those in need, while others were more equivocal. He was a maverick, academically clever, with three doctorates and fluent German and Italian but had the common touch. He knew everyone from aristocrats to cleaners, lots of women were devoted to him. He must have had a roguish charm. He also reached across and co-operated with the British. All these tough as boots military men and society ladies adored him.
It was his clarity too I found attractive. He knew right from wrong and acted accordingly, always standing up for the underdog. He absolutely stuck his neck out. He was incensed by the treatment of the Jews, he admired them. Kappler, the Nazi commander also had this obsession with him and the Monsignor rose to the duel. Then when Kappler was serving his sentence for war atrocities, the Monsignor was his only visitor ending up converting him.
In terms of the research, I drew on as much primary research as I could. I was lucky that a lot of those involved in the Rome Escape Line wrote memoirs. I was able to draw on some other classic first hand accounts including a detailed diary by Mother Mary Saint Luke, a nun who worked at the Vatican Information Bureau and another by a Swiss Journalist, known as M. de Wyss, who lived there during the occupation. There were also Embassy dispatches and letters by many of the people in Rome caught up in the story. There were also some brilliant oral histories that had been translated, most notably The Order Has Been Carried Out by Alessandro Portelli. Many of the key historical studies of the period have been translated. I also read everything I could on the period including many novels, orthodox histories, and military history books, books about the pope. I got some help from Italian and German friends too when I needed some stuff translated. I am a bit of a magpie, picking up shiny bits of gold as I read. It’s a bit like Method acting – method writing if you like. Immersion in the period gives you the confidence to let rip with the story.
But ultimately the research is just the compost for the novel. The story takes you under the facts, through the interpretations to try to get to the core of what if felt like to live through those turbulent times. Much of the research is sloughed off so the story can catch fire.
The story is told through the eyes of a young boy, Leo; a fictional character. Where did you get the inspiration for Leo? What kinds of character traits and background were concerning you in his creation? Where did the other fictional characters come from?
-There is a mysterious alchemy in creating a character. The whole story of the Monsignor didn’t come alive for me until I saw somewhere in my mind’s eye, an image of Leo and his sister Ruby trudging up the hill. They both had red hair and were fish out of water. Ruby was disabled, fragile, and otherworldly and Leo had a black eye. Then there was a process of finding out about him, what on earth were they doing in Italy in the war and what their background was. Michelangelo spoke about chipping away at the rock to uncover the statue within. I have a similar feeling with “birthing” a character. It often feels like I’m discovering them, they shimmer out of the mist. I guess they acquire traits of people I know too; they amalgamate into a whole other person. I knew immediately that Leo was obdurate, bloody-minded, not a conformer. He found the whole idea of priests and nuns anathema. His family was stranded in Italy, and this was not uncommon. The War caused massive displacement. I know of people with grandparents for example with widely disparate backgrounds, a Polish Jew and an Irish nurse, a French governess and an American G.I. who met and married in London during the war, just like Leo’s parents. I borrowed the details of Leo’s father’s Jewish family from a friend of mine, whose grandfather was in the “schmutter” business – selling cloth. My grandmother who lived in Shepherd’s Bush in London at one stage had many Jewish friends and it think some of that must have crept in.
The protagonists, Leo, Ruby, and their mother are imaginary. Almost all the other characters were real people, some are composites. But Delia Murphy the Irish papal legate’s wife, the British ambassador and his butler, nearly all the escapees, Don Pietro the forger priest, were all real people. The challenge there is that they ring true. I try to reflect what is historically known about them. But the historical evidence is always partial, inferences have to be drawn, links made, which the novelist unlike the historian can do. My imagination fills in the gaps left by history.
When you combine historical fact with a fictional story, what are the particular challenges and joys in the weaving together of these strands allow it to ring true, remain historically accurate and still create a crackin’ read will hold interest and carry the young reader on such a marvellous journey? (Leo’s War is very compelling, by the way.)
-Thank you for your kind words about Leo’s War. I compare the weaving of the facts with the fiction to a dance. I love the challenge of meshing them. The aim is to stitch in the historical detail so the reader doesn’t get lost and understands what is going on but at the same time not freight the narrative with too much exposition or historical detail. The child point of view is very helpful here. Kids don’t mind asking questions, they are question-asking machines. And they don’t mind not fully understanding stuff or encountering
And finally, what’s next?
-It will be back to Irish history for the next one! The characters are beginning to dance in my head and a mound of research beckons. It will be a story with a lot of mystery on both sides of the Atlantic. I am actually really looking forward to getting stuck in.
Thank you for your lovely questions Mary. I loved thinking about them and it challenges me to think about my work too!
And now...here's my review review for Leo's War....
Leo’s War (Hands on History)
Author: Patricia Murphy
Poolbeg Press (1 August 2018)
Told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, a ‘mongrel’ living in occupied Italy at the time, this novel is based on the incredible true story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty; a man who saved over 6500 people during World War II.
Italy, 1943. After his mother is arrested, young Leo flees to Rome in a bid to protect his disabled sister, Ruby and himself from the Nazis. He reaches sanctuary at the Vatican with Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty in hopes of saving them. But this is no ordinary priest. Monsignor O’Flaherty is the famed organiser of the Rome Escape Line, secretly working to save those at high risk. Leo soon finds himself involved in the secret network, aiding escaped prisoners of war, the Jews and partisans escape Nazi brutality while never losing sight of his own plight. Now in grave danger himself, Leo must do all he can to outfox Kappler, sinister Nazi leader in Rome who is fast closing in on the Escape Line and the Monsignor. Can Leo escape Kappler and protect his family from falling victim to this evil man?
With a fast-paced plot and expert storytelling, the reader is plunged into this bit of history feeling as if they are there. The story builds quickly, but carefully with great attention to the details of the reality of the times; the sights, sounds; the actions. So much seems incredible, impossible; yet history shows us it is real. Each character is fully crafted, whether real or fictitious and blending of the two is perfectly seamless. Leo stands out as a typical young man; feisty, sometimes impractical, afraid and frustrated; but he is courageous and willing to put himself on the line as he faces much of his own misinformation and uncertainty. This is a whirlwind tale of survival and hope, dotted with bits of humour and joy, as well as grave peril. It is great to see more stories emerging about pieces of history that are sometimes overshadowed and don’t get their due attention. Young readers will be completely captivated by this novel. Compelling, thought-provoking and moving.
Other books by Patricia Murphy include:
|Molly's Diary:Easter Rising|
|Dan's Diary: War of Independence|
And don't forget to tune into the rest of the Leo's War Blog Tour. There are some fantastic contributions by my great fellow bloggers! (And you can find out more on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/groups/rachelsrandomresources/ )