'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Interview: Author Sophie Masson

KBR is really delighted to welcome acclaimed author (and all round nice gal!) Sophie Masson with this wonderful interview. We hope you enjoy - and make sure you check out Sophie's amazing new book - My Father's War.

Bienvenue, Sophie. What inspired you to write My Father's War?
It started off really with a memory of a visit we had paid to the big Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux many years ago when the kids were small. We'd made a detour on a long trip from Paris to the Channel ports, it was a bleak grey day, and I remembered the effect of all those white headstones on the hill, the sheer sense of all those young lives that had been so brutally cut short, and yet the dignity of the sorrow too, and the strong links that were forged between Australia and France during that time, which appealed to me too because I share in both heritages and I wanted our children to understand that too.

When my husband and I were in France for an extended period in 2010 (six extraordinary months!) - courtesy of a wonderful writer's residency grant from the Literature Board - that memory came to me again and I thought, I really want to do something set there, in that time and place. No sooner thought than embarked on!.

Have you always had an interest in writing historical novels?
Yes. I love history - with myth and fairytale, it has always been an abiding interest of mine. I read lots and lots of historical novels as a child, from Anya Seton to Alexandre Dumas, Jean Plaidy to Victor Hugo, Walter Scott to Juliette Benzoni (I've always read in both French and English) and lots more, including historical mystery, plus I read novels of all sorts from the 19th century that weren't strictly speaking historical, such as those by Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Tolstoy, Brontes, and so on. I also read lots of history - my father's a big history buff and has masses of books on all sorts of subjects.

So it felt quite natural for me to embark writing on historical novels.

What is so entrancing about history for you?
I just love the stories- I love the exciting way in which in history you are plunged into such a different place and time - it's kind of an escape from now - but it's also so human and engaging and lively. I love to know the background of things but also the heart, and history has always lived for me not as a dusty thing but as an amazing unfolding continuing story of the human heart.

I remember the first time it struck me that people in history were just like me in many ways - that history wasn't some far-off thing - when our school was taken on an excursion to an exhibition on Pompeii which was I think at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I remember looking at the plaster casts of people who had died trying to flee the eruption and in particular a little girl and a dog, and I felt like a stab to the heart because suddenly, it was there - all there in front of me. I could hear the screams, the panic, It made it so real and moved me to tears.

I think we can learn a lot from history too, but often people don't!

Many people find that frustrating - but I just accept it. That is human nature, but, personally, to have history in your head - to understand how people were - it helps you understand how people are. It gives you a sense of perspective and proportion so that you aren't tempted to think our times are uniquely awful or uniquely wonderful, but have good and bad points just like any other time. And it also makes you less patronising towards the past - not to treat it so much as a foreign country you can't or won't understand.

You write My Father's War from the perspective of a young girl. How easy was it to enter her head?
Quite easy. I remember very clearly what it was like to be that age. I wasn't as brave as Annie but I was pretty much as defiant as her, in a quieter sort of way! (I always hated being told what to do - a bit of a problem as my father, who I love dearly, is a real bossy boots who tried very hard to rule every aspect of our lives and so there were always ding dong battles in our family - all of us are pretty stubborn, with strong wills!).

The other thing is that I've actually kept some diaries and writings from childhood and adolescence which help greatly in actually being clear about just what I did know at that age! I was a real bookworm and scribbler even back then.

You received a writer's grant to Paris which contributed to the penning of this book. How did being so close to the Somme battlefields enrich the tale?
It enriched it immensely. I really like to feel the sensory aspects of my story - the real sights, sounds, smells, etc. When you actually go to a place where your book is set, you often see all kinds of details you might never think of if you are just basing it on research from books or films or the Internet or whatever.

Plus, I was able to buy some wonderful publications there which you can't get elsewhere - books of original photos, anecdotes, etc - and visit the Franco-australian museum at Villers-Bretonneux, which was a mine of useful info. And also to go on a boat trip around the 'hortillonages' the canal vegetable gardens where an important scene of the book takes place - which was fantastic. It's like another world in there, so charming and peaceful.

We loved Amiens, where we stayed (the house where Annie and her mum stay is based on one of the houses on the canal near the little hotel where we stayed) and travelled out from there to the battlefields. Our trip through the fields was intensely moving, especially as we went there not long after Anzac Day and there were flowers and memorials everywhere.

We also had a chance to experience the wonderful food of that region - that was a real plus! And we weren't the only ones with an Australian connection there either - we came across Aussies just about everywhere we went there.

Why is it important to write a book like this for children?
It's hard often for children to understand what the experience of war is like - not necessarily only for the soldiers, but their families.

It's very very hard to comprehend the enormity of it through statistics or dry reporting; a novel is more successful at this because it lets you into the heart of people's lives, into the chaos that often goes hand in hand with war . . the fear, the not knowing what will happen, the cruelty of it all - and yet also the way in which sometimes the most wonderful examples of human love and courage and sacrifice are shown at this time.

You can't TELL children about it - but in a story they may feel it strongly, and it will help them to understand what people have gone through - children of their own age - what they are STILL going through, in many parts of the world. And in the past of children who may be at their own school, or in their own neighbourhood.

What do you hope Annie's story will impart to children?
That even in the midst of horror and cruelty of senseless slaughter, there are moments of hope, of courage, of love, even of happiness. That sometimes terrible situations bring out the best - and the worst! - in people. And that even a child who feels even more powerless than an adult in the midst of the huge unstoppable thing that is a war, can make a difference. But never to forget, too, that for some people, things don't turn out - that there is great sorrow for some families, a time they will never forget, a sibling or parent or spouse who will be gone forever . . . You can't pretend that isn't so, in a novel about war. But I think there also has to be hope.

What are you working on now?
I am just about to finish my second novel about Ned Kelly! This one's called Ned Kelly's Secret and is about when Ned was fifteen and apprenticed to a bushranger named Harry Power. It's told in the voice of a boy of his age, a French teenager called Hugo Mars who is travelling in Victoria in 1870 with his father, a wealthy researcher and historian. They then get ambushed by Harry Power!

Later, Hugo meets Ned, without realising he works for Power. It's an adventure novel and a detective one, too, and I'm thoroughly enjoying writing it! It'll be out next year. (My first novel about Ned Kelly, The Hunt for Ned Kelly, came out last year. It's set around the last year of Ned's life, and is once again through another character's eyes.)

After that I'll be working on several new projects including a novel set in Russia, a digital comic/graphic novel that's a sequel to an earlier graphic novel of mine, which I'm working on with two illustrators and a musician - and quite possibly too, another novel about Ned Kelly! (Yes, I've been severely bitten by the Kelly bug!)

See more of Sophie's amazing catalogue of work at www.sophiemasson.org