HELEN BRYAN: 90% OF THE STORIES IN WAR BRIDES ARE BASED ON REAL PEOPLE
Posted by Ognian Georgiev
Helen Bryan was born in Virginia, but is living in London. She wrote four books. With each new one her fans around the world are growing. War Brides was published in 2007, but once again is among the top downloaded novels in Amazon (av. 4.2 rating from 7000 plus reviews). Let’s say welcome to our next honorable guest Lady Helen Bryan. She was very kind to share with us many interesting things about her books.
– Helen, War Brides is still a huge hit 8 years after the publication? Did you expect the novel to have such a great success?
– I have to say that I’ve been happily surprised. I don’t think many authors “expect” success, however much we hope for it, so when a book sells well, and you’ve made a connection with so many readers, it’s wonderful.
– Returning back in time, how did you decide to write the story?
– I think the idea for a book set in wartime began germinating before I was aware of it. I was part of the American post-war baby boom. When I was growing up, every family I knew had photos of family members in uniform, and experiences of the war years were fresh in everyone’s memory -the pain of saying goodbye to husbands, sweethearts, and brothers who were shipping out, the letters home, the constant worry, the rationing, the making-do.
Then of course there were the women who played their part. As a small child I was thrilled to learn my mother- a typical housewife and home maker with three small children – had been an officer in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) who escorted military telegrams and top secret communications across a naval base, armed with a pistol she was trained to shoot if necessary. She was said to be an ace shot. This information certainly cast my mother in an interesting new light.
It probably inspired me to wonder what unexpected character traits the war brought out in other seemingly ordinary people. When I moved to England to live, wartime memories were still being recalled after forty years. And people were keen to tell their stories, all I had to do was ask. I heard firsthand accounts of bombing raids, taking shelter in the Underground, lipstick and stockings on the black market, girls who went out to dances and came home to find their homes destroyed, and stories of unimaginable heroism, like that of the office worker known as “Old Fred”, who was to all appearances the dullest of men. Yet it turned out that during the war Old Fred had been in the Royal Air force, and flying in a plane hit by anti- aircraft fire, had crawled out onto a blazing wing to put the fire out and save the crew.
People were self-effacing about their own courage, hardship and devastating losses, they just wanted someone to know what had happened, but bravery and determination in the face of terrible odds made unsung heroes and heroines of many ordinary people. An American friend visiting London for the first time put it very well. He had spent a long day in Churchill’s War Rooms and the Imperial War Museum, and by time he emerged he was so moved by what he had learned that he said he wanted to shake the hand of every English person over the age of sixty. I understood what he meant, and it wouldn’t be wrong to see the book as a tribute to that generation.
– What was the biggest challenge during the write up process?
– Writing is necessarily a lonely, solitary occupation, and I tend to be very focussed when working. To say I hate being interrupted is an understatement. I won’t answer the phone or the doorbell, and totally understand the bestselling American author Nora Roberts, who famously warned her family they’d better not knock at her study door unless someone was bleeding or the house was on fire. Later she qualified that- there had to be actual flames and arterial blood. I may have that embroidered on a cushion some day. You may gather from this that I get quite ratty if interrupted, so I suppose my biggest challenge is trying to be nice when life intrudes. As it does.
– Tell us something more about your main character? Are the brides close to someone from the real life?
– About ninety percent of the stories in the book are based on real people and real experiences I either knew or heard about first hand, including the part about little girls being smuggled into England in a duffle bag. Four of the brides are based on real people I knew personally, but I take it you mean the fifth, Frances Falconleigh, when you refer to the “main character.” I loved all the brides but Frances was my favourite, though I didn’t know the woman on whom she was based. The inspiration for Frances was a real wartime heroine, a beautiful, young, fascinating and brave Polish émigré named Krystyna Skarbek/Christina Granville who played an invaluable role as a secret agent in Churchill’s Special Operations Executive. An extraordinary woman who, by all accounts, didn’t know the meaning of fear.
– What is your opinion of Taya, the wife of Chris Kyle from American Sniper as a modern time War Bride?
– I regret to say I haven’t yet read the book or seen the film, and know nothing about Taya Kyle so I have no opinion, but even if I did I probably wouldn’t express it publicly.
– How you came up with the idea of The Sisterhood?
– Ideas for books are prompted unexpectedly. The Sisterhood was sparked by a visit to an atmospheric sixteenth century Spanish convent that had been a sort of dumping ground for the illegitimate daughters of Spanish aristocrats. The little girls were left to be brought up there and become nuns. I went into the convent for a tour of an interesting old building and came out with an intriguing concept for a book
– Do you think that the current world would be different if Spanish inquisition didn’t exist?
– I’m not sure it’s useful to speculate how the course of history might have been altered if this or that had not happened. History is such a mish mash of events and cause and effect with randomness thrown in for good measure. The Spanish Inquisition was just one instance of religious oppression in human history, and a terrible one it was, too. But unfortunately humankind has shown and continues to demonstrate an unlimited capacity for religious extremism in its many forms in any age.
– Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty is your second book. Would you compare the difference in writing non-fiction and history fiction?
– That’s an interesting question to me because it touches on my preference for writing historical fiction over straightforward biography. I am fascinated by history and historical research, will happily bury myself in the British Library chasing elusive facts and going off on interesting tangents. I think it was Virginia Woolf who called biography the “bastard art” but I have to say that it strikes me as a kind of necromancy. To learn everything you can about a person- their taste, appearance, affections, preferences, loves, hates, to read their letters and vicariously share their joys and sorrows, to put them in their historical context and look at the world through their eyes, creates a disconcerting intimacy and it must be as close to raising the dead as you can legally get. I loved writing Martha Washington, which won an award from the American Colonial Dames, but the difficulty with biography is that there’s a relatively small market for it.
That’s why I decided to write about history via fiction. War Brides is really about World War II . The Sisterhood is really about the Spanish Inquisition and the Incas. And both explore the role of women in the historical context.
So having written both straightforward history and history through a fictional lens, I think they demand much the same input in terms of research and the same requirement for the author to step out of the present and a far as possible into the context of the relevant time period. The trick of writing convincingly about a person in another time period, fiction not, requires an author to suspend present day attitudes and judgements and look at the world through another’s eyes.
– Who are you?
– Unbelievably fortunate to be able to do work I love. To have my family and make a living by reading things and then writing things strikes me as about perfect.
– What are your writing habits?
– Morning is my best writing time. I fight a daily battle to get up early, trying and, usually, failing, to follow the example of authors who rise to write at 4 am. Let’s just say it’s usually later. I love breakfast and must have coffee, which is of the rocket-fuel variety, made with three kinds of fresh ground beans, with a croissant and the newspaper to get my brain working. Then, show up at desk. Open manuscript on computer. Kick start self by sometimes revising previous day’s work, sometimes more research, but am a great rewriter so will often go back to change a detail or rewrite a paragraph. This usually leads me back into the story I’m writing and I work through till mid-afternoon. I break to take a bicycle ride or long walk in the park which is a good time to think, work out plot snags, or just to put the brain in neutral so ideas come. Fortunately I have normal life beyond writing, so usually there’s tea and a chat with some of the family, followed by more revising, research or writing afterwards. The end of the day is for family and friends and I never talk about what I’m writing. We go out or I wind down cooking dinner for my husband with a glass of wine and some music. I tend to have three or four books on the go at once for bedtime reading, have to try and avoid getting carried away and reading until 2 a.m.
– What are you doing to promote your book by the best possible way?
– Thankfully I can leave this to my wonderful publishers, who are very good at it. I do what they tell me to do.
– You are working on a new book. When we will see it, and please give us some hints about it?
– All I can say is, am still working on the new book, the first part of a trilogy set in the United States. Beyond that, I never like to talk about a work in progress. It can invite cries of dismay “ Oh no! You’re not writing about Martha Washington/ World War II/ nuns!!”
– You graduated law. Do you remember the moment when you decide to be a writer?
– I’m not sure decision came into it. I’ve always written –ever since I learned my abc’s and how to hold a pencil, and over the years I have – I hope- learned to write better and more smoothly and engagingly. Being a lawyer was very good training. Preparing a case or writing a legal opinion required absolute focus, and oddly, provided a crash course in constructing a clear and coherent narrative for a judge/jury/tribunal or inspector to consider. And as a lawyer, you’re in the persuasion business. So are writers.
I do however remember the decision to write my first book- a handbook for non-lawyers. I had the idea and thought, “Oh why not?” It was relatively straightforward and easy to do because it was so similar to what I did on a day to day basis. That done, I thought “Let’s try another” and wrote Martha Washington, which was much more of a challenge, first because of the extensive research necessary and second because of the need to provide a narrative for the complexities of seventy years of American history.
– If you may ask yourself one question in the interview what it will be? (Don’t forget to answer)
– Haha! I would definitely have tried to duck this. But I’ll ask myself a question readers often ask of writers, and that is “Where do you get your ideas? How do you choose what to write about?” My answer, somewhat unhelpfully is, I don’t know. I think I don’t choose ideas for a book so much as they choose me. It’s hard to pin down how this happens; all I know is that it does. I have a fairly vivid imagination and I read a lot and I try to stay open to interesting ideas and human stories. I try to listen to and observe people. Ultimately I go with whatever intrigues me, I’ve learned to trust my intuition.
Learn more about Helen Bryan at her Amazon profile page
About Ognian GeorgievOgnian Georgiev is a sport journalist, who is working as an editor at the "Bulgaria Today" daily newspaper. He covered the Summer Olympics in Beijing 2008 and in London 2012. The author specializes in sports politics, investigations and coverage of Olympic sports events. Ognian Georgiev works as a TV broadcaster for Eurosport Bulgaria, Nova Broadcasting group, TV+, F+ and TV7. He is a commentator for fight sports events such as boxing/kickboxing and MMA. In May 2014 Ognian Georgiev released the English version of his book The White Prisoner: Galabin Boevski's secret story.
Posted on February 22, 2015, in Author, BESTSELLER, Books, Interview and tagged author, Helen Bryan, interview, Martha Washington, novel, The Sisterhood, war brides. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.