In the next of our WRITER TO WRITER series of conversations between Prime Writers, Alison Layland, author of Someone Else’s Conflict, and Graeme Shimmin, author of A Kill in the Morning, talk about their novels, which deal in very different ways with 20th century history.
About A Kill in the Morning: The year is 1955 and something is very wrong with the world. It is fourteen years since Churchill died and the Second World War ended. In occupied Europe, Britain fights a cold war against a nuclear-armed Nazi Germany. In Berlin the Gestapo is on the trail of a beautiful young resistance fighter, and the head of the SS is plotting to dispose of an ailing Adolf Hitler and restart the war against Britain and her empire. Meanwhile, in a secret bunker hidden deep beneath the German countryside, scientists are experimenting with a force far beyond their understanding. Into this arena steps a nameless British assassin, on the run from a sinister cabal within his own government, and planning a private war against the Nazis. And now the fate of the world rests on a single kill in the morning…
About Someone Else’s Conflict: Jay has chosen an itinerant life of busking and odd-jobbing, using rootlessness and stories to hide the guilt of his mistakes from the 1990s war in Croatia. When he arrives in the Yorkshire Dales and meets Marilyn, an artist, he feels he has finally found a place he could settle and a woman he could love. Jay wants to be honest, but as the flashbacks that haunt him begin to reappear, he finds it hard. When young economic migrant Vinko enters their lives, the past catches up with the present and stories become reality. Murder and kidnap force them both to decide how much they can believe and what it is they really want.
Graeme: One thing I noticed when reading Someone Else’s Conflict is that you use a lot of dream sequences and the characters in the story telling stories. Both are interesting devices and I use dream sequences myself quite often. I wondered what it was that draws you to that kind of technique and if you had any thoughts on the best way of including devices like that?
Alison: To begin with the stories: the idea of having a main character who is a storyteller came from my interest in mixing fantastical elements with reality. I love oral storytelling, and although live performance involves completely different skills and techniques from written stories and literature, it made sense for Jay to actually tell a couple of stories that relate indirectly to the plot, particularly as a way of portraying his evasion and desire to escape the real world.
I put the flashbacks to the historical scenes across in the form of dreamlike sequences as a way of portraying someone who’s trying deliberately to forget, and to escape the past, but can’t. Although there’s an element of the unreliable narrator, they represent what actually happened, but taking on the dreamlike quality of a distant memory. They go hand in hand with the presence of a young boy who played a central part in the most traumatic event Jay experienced – an embodiment of his conscience or hallucination as a PTSD symptom – again, mixing fantasy and reality.
As for the best way of including such devices, it depends on the story and their place in it. I think they should be enjoyable for what they are, but play an important part in either the plot or character development.
Similarly, I enjoyed the way you used warped Nazi “mythology” to fuel your plot, especially the way it was gradually introduced with the extracts from the mad scientist’s journal in the chapter headings.
Graeme: Yes, my thinking with those epigrams was to give some backstory and foreshadow the revelations that come towards the end of the story. Writing them also helped me to build the world of the story. Though the backstory events are only hinted at in the epigrams, they might be something I revisit in a future novel.
I noticed you used a different font to indicate the dream sequences in Someone Else’s Conflict. I’m quite a fan of having typographic variation in a story and in A Kill in the Morning even included ‘false documents’ (fake maps, treaties, newspaper articles, etc.). Was that something you’ve considered?
Alison: I certainly would consider using ‘false documents’ like the ones you mention, or letters, diary extracts and the like – and I love creating maps – but that just wasn’t part of the story I was telling in Someone Else’s Conflict. As well as adding to the atmosphere and feel of a novel, they can be a really neat way of putting across information without too much exposition in the narrative or dialogue. In the novel I’m currently working on, I’m considering including a series of blog posts by one of my characters.
I enjoyed the way you present the maps and documents as an essential part of the novel. I also liked the detailed timeline (real and alternative) at the end – the novel stands on its own as a gripping read without them but I thought the ‘historical’ background added depth. How did you go about researching?
Graeme: I read a lot of non-fiction about espionage and war. I often come across little bits and pieces while reading that I note and slot in somewhere. Apart from that I find the internet has lots of stuff I can use. Though my plots get pretty fantastical, I like to keep everything as ‘real’ as possible.
For example I spent a lot of time reading about assault courses for the assault course scene in A Kill in the Morning, and the way my hero negotiates it is pretty much how soldiers are taught to (e.g. using your arms not your legs to climb a cargo net as quickly as possible). It does mean it takes me a long time to write chapters sometimes because a day of research can end up being half a paragraph in the novel.
As well as proper history books I like to read more ‘speculative’ books too. Though I’m not a conspiracy theorist myself, I find the way conspiracy theorists extrapolate from known facts to unlikely theories, and the imagination they employ, throws up a lot of ‘but what if?’ ideas.
Alison: I’m intrigued by the way you blend alternative history with elements of pure SFF. Which came first, deciding where history and the fictional world diverge, or the plot and adjusting the timeline to suit? Did you plan it meticulously to bring all the elements together or go with the flow and adapt your alternative history to suit the plot?
Graeme: For hard-core alternate history fans, it’s a cardinal sin to have a desired end point and then try to adjust history to suit. Instead, the point of departure comes first. Then the author is supposed to go with what would most likely have happened, whatever the consequences of that are. So in A Kill in the Morning, the first thing was ‘what if Hess’s 1941 mission to Britain succeeded?’ After that I wrote the timeline. Once I had the timeline that effectively became the setting and backstory of the novel.
The science fiction element came in later, though I had a loose idea that ‘something sci-fi’ was going to happen once they got to Wewelsberg Castle, I didn’t quite know what. I wrote the first draft in three intense bursts: from the start to the Bari harbour scene. From Bari to Wewelsberg airbase. And then the finale.
In the second draft I added almost all the scenes and chapters that aren’t from the hero’s point of view, which made it all make a lot more sense I thought.
How about you? Did you plan carefully, or just go with what came up as you wrote?
Alison: A bit of a mixture: I’m not a great planner but have a vague idea of the shape of a novel which develops as I write. My serious planning tends to come from a series of drafts which shift focus as I revise. Research also played a large part – I started writing long before I felt I’d done enough research into the background to the Yugoslavian conflicts (though you never “finish” researching). As I read and travelled, like you, snippets of things I came across informed and developed the story.
The novel began with the emphasis on Jay needing to confront his past in the Croatian conflict, which he has tried to disassociate himself from, as he meets Marilyn and wants to be honest with her. The third main character, Vinko, a young immigrant who provides the present-day link with that past, took on increasing importance as I wrote and revised, and formed the focus of the way the past catches up with and influences the present.
You used a mixture of fictional characters and those loosely based on historical figures – which did you find most satisfying and enjoyable and/or difficult?
Graeme: Historical characters can be easier to write, because you can read biographies of them, and so have a ready made backstory and character traits. But an imaginary character does give more room for manoeuvre. So historical characters are perhaps easier, but less satisfying to write.
Alison: There’s a lot of dark humour in A Kill in the Morning, entertaining in its own right, but I’m also a great believer that humour can be a powerful way of coming to terms with the darker aspects of life. Was this part of your intention?
Graeme: I think it was more for entertainment value really. It was also partly when I was doing my Creative Writing MA. My tutor encouraged me to include more humour as, to be honest, as a literary author he couldn’t take the plot seriously! I’m a fan of witty dialogue anyway, as I think it just makes a book easier and more enjoyable to read. I also like giving characters’ catchphrases as it’s one way of making them distinctive. Writing in the thriller genre means some comic relief can be a good change of pace too.
Alison: In general, I don’t tend to think of genre much, either as a writer or reader. So I certainly didn’t set out to write to a genre – beyond ‘fiction’ – but just wrote the novel I wanted to write, and any categorisation came later at the publishing stage. How important do you think genre is when writing a novel?
Graeme: I guess I’m very much a genre writer, though exactly which genre is not clear! I always saw A Kill in the Morning as primarily an espionage thriller, with an alternate history setting. But to be fair it does have what can only be described as a sci-fi twist, and it was released by my publishers as science fiction. Despite that, the cover looks more like a military thriller. And I’ve found it in the crime section of the bookshop occasionally!
Alison: I know you also write short stories. When I began writing it was short stories and flash fiction – in Welsh, but that’s another story. I love the freedom of a short story, concentrating on a microcosm in comparison with writing a novel, but love immersing myself in the longer novel form. At present, as I find I’m only able to concentrate on one story, set of characters and atmosphere at a time, I only write short fiction occasionally as developmental scenes for my novels, which may become part of them or may end up as out-takes, but would like to go back to it in future. You’ve recently been involved, as editor, in the publication of an anthology of speculative fiction short stories. Which do you prefer writing, short stories or novels?
Graeme: To an extent I tend to write each chapter of a novel as a short story, with a set-up, conflict and resolution, though I then often move the resolution to the start of the next chapter to give a cliff-hanger ending to each chapter.
I enjoyed the process of editing the anthology too. One thing I found a lot with the stories that were submitted was that, though nicely written, they started too slowly and ended to vaguely, so that’s something I’m going to bear in mind in future with my own work.
I find though that I have to switch between projects, but luckily I enjoy all sorts of writing. I write screenplays as well as prose, and that’s another discipline again. I think you’re right though that concentrating one thing at a time is probably best.