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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Author Interview: Dianne Ascroft (Hitler and Mars Bars)

I would like to start by thanking Ms. Dianne Ascroft for agreeing to take the time to participate in this interview. Dianne wrote a very interesting novel based on the historic events surrounding Operation Shamrock, which was an undertaking by the Irish Red Cross to provide aid and foster families to German children following WWII. Her book was wonderful, and provided a lot of insight into what some of the children faced during those hard times of war and rebuilding.

If you haven't read my review of Hitler and Mars Bars, click here.

Prior to reading your book, I was not aware of Operation Shamrock. What inspired you to write this book?

Although my novel is fiction, it was inspired by the real events of the Operation Shamrock initiative. Operation Shamrock was an Irish Red Cross project which aided German children after World War II, transporting them from their devastated home country to Ireland to be fostered and restored to health.

Several years ago I met a German man who, as a child, had been brought to Ireland as part of the initiative and he told me his story. It was the first time I had heard of Operation Shamrock and his experiences piqued my interest. I wanted to find out more and I read any material I could find on the subject. I also watched an Irish television documentary about the German children’s experiences. There is very little written about the project so I searched for people who might remember it. I contacted people in communities that had hosted the children. I spoke to former evacuees, their foster families, their classmates, their neighbours and members of the clergy. Once I had collected all this information I wrote a non-fiction article for an Irish magazine, Ireland’s Own, about the experiences of one child who participated in the project.

When the article was completed, I thought that was the end of it. I had satisfied my curiosity and put my new knowledge to use in my writing. I didn’t intend to do anything further with my research. But, after the article was printed, I still had images and impressions of the people and places swirling around in my mind. I couldn’t forget their stories. BBC broadcaster and journalist, Brian D’Arcy, when he reviewed my book, realised that the human stories were what moved me and captured my imagination. He wrote, in his review, that the book was ‘beautifully written with a strong human story running through it.’ Family members suggested that the information I’d uncovered could be moulded into a good novel. Initially I didn’t want to pursue it but, unable to forget the anecdotes and stories I’d heard, the idea grew on me until I had to put it down on paper.

Are any of the characters or places you wrote about significant to you?

Although my husband’s family are originally from County Cavan where several chapters are set, I didn’t know any of the people or places the story is based on until I began researching Operation Shamrock. But, after spending more than a year researching the novel, I developed a fondness for several of the places where the story is set and love to go back to visit them.

Can you personally relate to any of the characters or the things they went through?

I guess my childhood experiences gave me a natural empathy for Erich or any child in his situation. Erich’s viewpoint is very different from my own. Gender undoubtedly affects how we react to the world but, nonetheless, some children’s responses to their world are universal. When I was a child my mother had ill health for several years and I was fostered by a family friend then, later, my grandparents. My family also moved several times during my primary school years and I had to settle into new places and new schools as well as make new friends. So I drew on my own childhood thoughts and feelings to understand and portray Erich.

Who was your favourite character to write?

Erich’s godfather and Aunt Elsie’s nephew, Willy, was fun to write. He is a practical joker and full of life but he has a caring nature hidden beneath his easy going exterior. I enjoyed writing scenes that included him - I didn’t always know what might happen next.

What was the most challenging part of writing the book?

Coping with my own trepidation was my biggest challenge. Sometimes I borrow traits from people I know when I create characters. They are often taken from several people and no character is based completely on one person. Characters will also have traits that I have invented. I worried that a friend or family member reading my work might think a character was modelled completely on him. Even worse, I worried that people I know might mistakenly identify with an unpleasant character. This made me hesitant to create memorable characters. Eventually I realised that I wouldn’t be able to write anything believable if I didn’t stop worrying whether others would see themselves in my characters. Admirable and despicable characteristics are universal. I had to trust that my friends and family would realise this and understand that my characters ultimately come from my imagination. If I do sometimes throw in a bit of someone I know, I don’t mean to be insulting.

Were there any aspects of the book that you struggled with, ie. a particular scene, a character or an area of research?

Researching Operation Shamrock was a major challenge. As I’ve said, there’s very little written about the project and I’ve only found one television documentary about the German children’s experiences. So I had to get my information from original sources. I had to find and interview as many people as possible who had been associated with the project. Some people had died by the time I began my research so I spoke to their relatives and asked them to relate any stories their relatives had told them about it. From the stories of the people who had lived through the era and their descendants I gained an understanding of the initiative.

If your book was being discussed by a book club, or a few friends meeting over coffee, what about the book do you think would drive the most discussion? (a particular character, event, theme)?
I think that the theme of belonging would be discussed. In many ways the story is about belonging - to family, community and country. Finding a place in each of these groups is the biggest challenge Erich faces.

Also the main character, Erich, would be a topic for discussion. He is a vibrant, passionate character who captures readers’ attention. He is memorable because he is portrayed as a real child, not an idealised one.

Are you working on another book? If so, can you give us an idea what it is about?

I recently completed a short story, A World Apart, about moving from the city to the country and adapting to the new lifestyle. Although it’s fiction, it draws on my own experiences of moving from Toronto, a metropolis of 3 million people, to a small farm in Northern Ireland. It is included in the Fermanagh Authors Association’s Fermanagh Miscellany 2 that was launched on December 13.

I’ve been busy promoting Hitler and Mars Bars since it was released in March. So my writing has centred on answering interview questions and writing guest posts for others’ websites. I haven’t had a chance to start any new material. But I have some ideas in my head for a sequel to Hitler and Mars Bars. When I completed the manuscript I didn’t have any idea what would happen next to Erich. Then about a week later ideas started tumbling through my head. I will have to start jotting them down, get organised and, hopefully, start writing the sequel after the holidays.

On your bookshelf: Is there a particular book or author that you find yourself returning to from time to time? If so, what keeps you coming back?

I can never pin it down to just one author! Writers who capture the humanity of their characters have the greatest impact on me. Maeve Binchy, Adriana Trigiani, Jodi Picoult and Diana Gabaldon are contemporary writers who create believable characters that I would like to meet in real life. The townspeople of Big Stone Gap in Trigiani’s books as well as Claire and Jamie in Gabaldon’s Outlander series are people I feel I know. When I was in high school S.E. Hinton made Ponyboy and Johnny in The Outsiders step off the page for me. I enjoy reading their stories because they bring their characters to life and they have inspired me to aim for this in my own writing.

I also admire work by several local writers in my area including Bryan Gallagher’s Barefoot in Mullyneeny , Sean McElgunn’s Charleyhorse Rider and John Reihill’s Reflections of an Islander and Where’s My Begonia, Rose?. These authors have written first hand accounts of life during the first half of the twentieth century, bringing to life for me the period my novel is set in. It’s amazing to see Ireland as they experienced it.

While you are working on a book, do you find yourself entering the world you are writing about? If so, do you do anything in particular to prepare yourself for your writing?

Yes, in my head I do step back in time and become immersed in the world I’m writing about. The characters and places are alive in my imagination. They become almost real to me and I sometimes wish that I could be there with them.

I guess having an active imagination helps a writer. I don’t have to do anything to prepare myself to write. When I re-read a bit of what I wrote in the previous session, my mind focuses on the story and I just step back into it.


I understand you are currently living in Northern Ireland. During your research, or in the time since, have you met any of the children who were able to participate in Operation Shamrock (I believe they would be between 55 and 70 years of age now)?

Yes, as I said earlier, meeting a German man, who had participated in Operation Shamrock, inspired me to write the story. I spent several hours interviewing him and drew on his experiences when I was writing the book. He is 68 now and never returned to Germany after the project ended. He went to live in Britain when he finished school.

Also, when I was searching for Irish people who remembered, and possibly fostered, the German children, I made contact with a German woman who had been part of the project. We didn’t meet but we did correspond and she provided helpful information. She is also in her sixties and lives in Ireland.

I felt that you did a great job of portraying the difficulties faced by the children of Operation Shamrock, with the difference in language, adjusting to new foods, a new culture and new families. What do you think was the hardest thing the children went through while in foster homes? On the other side, what do you think was the most challenging aspect faced by the foster families?

As I’ve said earlier, belonging is a central theme in the novel. Trying to become part of his foster family is Erich’s biggest difficulty. He is coping with the loss of his mother (even before he knows she is dead, she still isn’t with him) and trying to form bonds with his new family. And, since he moves several times, he has to do this more than once. The children who participated in Operation Shamrock had survived enormous physical hardships before they arrived in Ireland. Then they travelled hundreds of miles, leaving their families behind, to live with strangers. Even though their physical conditions were much better in Ireland, they missed their families and, like all children, they needed to be loved and included in a family.

I think the foster families faced challenges coping with these children’s emotional needs. It was easy to provide nourishing food and adequate accommodation but, as Erich’s recurring nightmares illustrate, these children had survived horrific events but had not forgotten them. They needed carers who made them feel safe and loved. Their emotional needs were more intense than those of children who had never known such hardships.

Erich lived his life expecting his ‘Mutti’ to show up and take him home. As shown with Aunt Elsie, he fears she won’t come back from her visit to her sister. If Erich had been told that his mother was dead, instead of being allowed to believe she would still show up, how do you think the story would have been different?

I think Erich might have been a more frightened, less optimistic child. If he had found out earlier that his mother was dead, he would have had to deal with the loss without the help of his favourite foster parents, Aunt Elsie and Daddy Davy. He is in a stable, loving home when he finds out that his mother is dead so, although he grieves, he doesn’t feel alone and frightened. He might have been a less resilient, more troubled child if he had found out earlier.

One charming tradition in the book really caught my attention. On page 74 you write, ‘A door creaked, then footsteps padded along the hall carpet. Margaret shrieked with glee. Erich and Paul rushed into the hallway. A trail of silver flakes ran along the red wool carpet from their bedroom to the sitting room.

“What’s that?” Erich asked, pointing to the glittering carpet.

“It’s angel dust. It leads us to the gifts,” Paul replied.’

I thought this was such a wonderful tradition, and one that I had never heard of before. I actually plan to do this with our son, who will turn two years old on Christmas Eve this year. Why did you include this Christmas tradition in your book? Do you have any favourite Christmas traditions?

Like you, Wendi, I found this a charming and unusual tradition. I thought it would illustrate a child’s innocence and delight so wonderfully that I had to include it. In my research for the book I only found this tradition practiced by one family. So I think it is their family tradition rather than an Irish one. Nevertheless, it really is wonderful. I hope your son enjoys it!

When we moved to our farm in Northern Ireland, I discovered that many people in my area decorate pictures, mirrors, mantelpieces and anywhere else they wish to with real holly. When I was growing up in Canada there was artificial holly in every Christmas display. I only associated it with Christmas. But, it was only when I arrived here that I understood why it is such a prevalent Christmas decoration. Holly grows plentifully in the British and Irish countryside, developing its characteristic red berries during the late autumn. So, for centuries, it has been an inexpensive, easy to obtain item. It brightened up Christmas celebrations in drab houses during the barren winter months. Immigrants to North America brought their traditions with them and that’s how holly became an essential part of Christmas on that side of the ocean. Since I’d only ever known the artificial plant, it’s special for me to see our house decorated with the real thing.

My favourite characters in the book were Daddy Davy and Aunt Elsie. They seemed to be a very good influence on Erich. They were loving, understanding, helpful and held him accountable for his actions. They appeared to really have his best-interest at heart. How would Erich’s story have been different if he had been able to remain with them (and Hans)?

I think that remaining with Daddy Davy and Aunt Elsie would have been the ideal situation for Erich. The rest of his childhood would have been normal and happy despite his background. They would have provided the kind of influence he needed and he would have developed to maturity without further trauma. He might have had to struggle more with his jealousy towards his brother but, in a home that is consistently loving and caring, he would eventually have overcome it. The book would have had a very clear-cut happy conclusion and no ends left untied.

What drove you to create a situation where Erich was basically taken advantage of by one of the foster families (I’m thinking of Uncle Bob)? Do you feel this was a real problem during the real Operation Shamrock - that some families may have had their own interests higher than those of the German children?

Every novel needs some conflict for the main character - either with another person or a situation. The German man I interviewed told me about an unhappy placement he had and that sparked the idea for this plotline.

Overall the German children were well treated by their foster families. British children who were sent to Canada for adoption by Barnardos Homes during the early twentieth century fared much worse than these children did. In my research I found very few references to the German children being ill treated. There were very few incidents but it did occasionally happen. I actually hesitated to write those chapters as I didn’t want to sully the image of the initiative. The Red Cross and the foster families did so much to help these children that I didn’t want to tarnish the project’s image. If the German man hadn’t told me about his own unfortunate treatment I would not have developed this plotline.

Fast-forward 10 years into the future from where the story left off (Erich was 15 years old, and was leaving with Mr Griffith for England, with dreams of becoming a sailor some day, and promises to write to Hans, Daddy Davy and Rebecca), what can you tell us about Erich now that he is 25 years old? Has he found adventure and happiness? Has he maintained contact with anyone? Does he have a family of his own? Dare we hope for a follow-up story? I’d love to see where Erich is today!

Well, I don’t know yet where Erich is today. But I do know where he might be 10 years after the book ends - but I’m not telling you!…I have some ideas for a sequel but I won’t give too much away. I’m getting my ideas together and hope to start writing after the holidays. But, I’ll give readers a couple clues…Remember how much he loves to sing? That passion will be a major force driving the next few years of his life.

The book was wonderful, and I can only guess that there were many things that drove you to include everything you did in Erich’s life in both Germany and Ireland. Is there any one thing that you ran across during your research that left a lasting impression? A particular event, a particular child/children, an interview?

I was very surprised and moved by the plight of the German children after the Second World War. While I knew that conditions were harsh during war, I was surprised to learn that food shortages and other privations were even worse during the months after the war ended. As winter approached people were starving and they couldn’t get as much help as they needed. I had never realised how bad the situation was after the war until I researched the time period.

Lastly do you have any last thoughts or questions you would like to share with readers?

I’d like to briefly introduce readers to Erich, the main character in Hitler and Mars Bars. Irrepressible is a good word to describe him. He gets into mischief but he doesn’t mean any harm. Dennis the Menace and Erich would be best friends if they met. Readers have told me that they like Erich because he isn’t romanticised; he behaves like a real child.

Erich is a fighter but not in the brawling sense of the word. Before he’s even school age he has already survived a war and circumstances that most adults never face yet he is hopeful and resilient. He’s not easily cowed and doesn’t give up, even in the times when life just seems to get worse.

Erich is fiercely loyal to the people he loves. Because he feels so deeply, he is also easily hurt by any perceived betrayals. He finds it hard to forgive and can hate as intensely as he loves. Impassivity is not part of his character.

Erich will awaken the reader’s parental instincts to love and discipline him in equal measures. If you have not met Erich yet, please make his acquaintance in Hitler and Mars Bars.

Thanks for having me here today, Wendi. I’ve really enjoyed it!

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Again, I would like to say a huge thank you to Dianne for agreeing to be interviewed! I had a great time chatting with her, and learning more about her book!

If you would like to visit her website, click here.

This interview has been added to the About the Author Index! Click here to read more author interviews.


Anna said...

Great interview! I really enjoyed Hitler and Mars Bars, and I was happy to read there might be a sequel!

Diary of an Eccentric

LissaL said...

Wonderful interview, I felt like I was sitting there with you. I definitely will want to read the book.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear you both enjoyed the interview - hope you will enjoy the book (and the sequel!) as much.

Serena said...

What a lovely interview. A sequel to this book that I've heard so much about would be fantastic.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interview, Wendi and Dianne! I've added *Hitler and Mars Bars* to my wish list!

Anonymous said...

Wendi - you are so good at interviewing. I want to read this book because I feel like I know the author. Keep up the good work.

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