I’ve been writing for about 10 years now. I can be a bit of a dreamer and procrastinator so I’d thought about writing for a while before I actually put pen to paper. In the spring of 1998 I heard a short story contest advertised on a radio station in Belfast, where I was living, and I decided to enter it. There was only one weekend left before the deadline to submit my entry so I immediately sat down and got started. I didn’t win the contest but my entry, ‘The Contest’, was short listed and broadcast on Downtown Radio. This success encouraged me to continue writing. In 2002 I enrolled in the Writers Bureau correspondence course and began working on non-fiction articles and short stories. Since then I’ve written regularly.
When did you publish your book?
Prior to writing Hitler and Mars Bars, I wrote mostly non-fiction articles and an occasional short story. So this novel is my first full length book. It was released in March 2008.
What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?
I’m definitely a planner. I don’t really like the extra work involved in organising and plotting a story but I find it necessary to do so to produce a coherent story rather than aimless ramblings. Since Hitler and Mars Bars is loosely set during a real Red Cross initiative, I had to plan it out more carefully than other work I’ve done. Also, I had to plan the timeline carefully as several incidents in the book coincide with real world events. For example, there are segments of the book that are set during the last few weeks of the Second World War, during the Red Cross transportation of German children to Ireland and on the day of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation. As a backdrop to my story, the dates and details of the real events had to be correct.
How do you choose your characters’ names?
Choosing characters’ names is partly my personal preference. I tend to choose names I like - or for villainous characters I may choose ones I dislike. But, since my novel is historical fiction, the names also had to be suitable for the era. I checked a list of common German boys’ names in the 1940s to choose the names for my main character, Erich, and his brother, Hans. I referred to lists of Irish first names, for the same period, to choose names for the rest of the characters. For Irish surnames, I searched regional telephone directories for the counties where the story is set to find common names in each area.
What is your daily schedule like?
Like many writers, writing has never been my primary occupation. I’ve always held a day job and written in the evenings after my household and farm chores are complete. I don’t manage to write every evening but I usually spend a couple hours, several evenings each week, writing. I’m up early each morning but I have chores to do so I don’t manage to do any writing before I leave for the office. I do carry with me the piece I’m currently working on and spend any quiet times during the day revising it. When I sit down to write later, I look over what I’ve already done and then continue on. On the weekends, after the chores are done, I also find time to write.
How do you handle life interruptions?
While I spend most of my writing and editing time at the computer in the spare room, I’m not completely cut off from my daily life. I don’t close the door while I’m working so my husband can interrupt me if necessary. I try to balance the time I spend working on my own and the time I spend with my husband. I sometimes take a hard copy of my work into the living room and edit while my husband watches tv. But, even though I don’t cut myself off entirely, I don’t like to have to stop my work completely. I tend not to answer the telephone when I’m working and get impatient if I have to do something else at a time I planned to be writing.
Do you write with music playing? If so, is the music likely to be songs with lyrics or only instruments?
I usually write with music playing unless I have a deadline approaching and still have a lot of work left to do. Then I need total concentration and work in silence. I listen mostly to songs with lyrics - preferably slow, ballad type songs. They may be classic rock or traditional Irish or Scottish songs. Many of Dan Fogelberg, Billy Joel and Rod Stewart’s songs are good background music for me. Also, country songs often have the soft, soothing melodies that are easy to listen to while I’m working. I keep the volume turned down. If I turn it up too loud, I listen to the song and lose concentration.
What food or snack keeps the words flowing?
I like tea while I’m working and often get a cup before I start writing. I have a terrible sweet tooth and a bit of chocolate is always a temptation during my evening sessions. I’ve been known to sneak away from my desk to raid the cupboard. But I try not to have too many snack breaks as they cut into my writing time and that time is a precious commodity.
What one thing do you like most about writing? Least?
I love the sense of satisfaction I get when I’ve written a piece that I’m pleased with. It’s amazing to re-read work days or weeks after I wrote it and find myself getting lost in the story - as if it had been written by someone else. I’m delighted when that happens.
The process of writing can be difficult. It can be disheartening to edit a piece several times before I am satisfied with it. I get frustrated and start to wonder if it will ever be right and is it worth the effort. But I forget the difficulties when I finish the piece to my satisfaction. With barely a pause I’m already considering the next piece and have forgotten how much effort the previous one was.
Tell us about your novel.
Hitler and Mars Bars is the story of a German boy growing up in war-torn Germany and post war rural Ireland. Set against the backdrop of Operation Shamrock, a little known Irish Red Cross project which helped German children after World War II, my novel explores a previously hidden slice of Irish and German history.
Erich, growing up in Germany’s embattled Ruhr area during World War II, knows only war and deprivation. His mother disappears after a heavy bombing raid, leaving him responsible for his younger brother, Hans. After the war the Red Cross initiative, Operation Shamrock, transports the boys to Ireland, along with hundreds of other children, to recuperate from the devastating conditions in their homeland. During the next few years Erich moves around Ireland through a string of foster families. He experiences the best and worst of Irish life, enduring indifference and brutality and sometimes finding love and acceptance. Plucky and resilient, Erich confronts every challenge he meets and never loses hope.
What is your next project?
I recently completed a short story, ‘A World Apart’, about moving from city to country and adapting to a new lifestyle. Although it’s fiction, it draws on my own experiences of moving from Toronto, a city with a population of 3 million, to a farm in Northern Ireland. The story is included in the Fermanagh Authors Association Miscellany 2 which is due to be published in December.
Since Hitler and Mars Bars was released I’ve been busy promoting it, so most of my writing has been answering interview questions and writing guest posts for others’ websites. I haven’t had much chance to do any new writing. But I do have some ideas for a sequel to the book churning around in my mind. I’d like to start getting them down on paper in the next couple months.
What is your advice for other writers?
Most writers want to focus on the creative aspect of writing - we have stories in our heads and we want to tell them. That’s why we write. But it’s also important to learn as much as you can about marketing before your book is published. Whether you are published by a traditional publisher or self publish, you will have to assume the responsibility for marketing it. It is disheartening to put a great effort into writing a novel that is never read. Knowing how to market a book is essential if you want your book to be bought and read.
What other work of yours has been published?
As I’ve said earlier, most of my previous work has been non-fiction articles. My articles have been printed in Irish and Canadian newspapers including the Toronto Star, Mississauga News, Derry Journal and Banbridge Leader. I’ve also contributed a variety of historical and human interest articles to Ireland’s Own magazine.
I contributed the historical pieces, ‘Derrycullion: Development of a Townland’ and ‘Joe and Maura’ to a local history book, The Brookeborough Story: Aghalun in Aghavea. Edited by Jack Johnston, Brookeborough Historical Society, Northern Ireland, 2004.
My short story, ‘A World Apart’ and several poems are included in the Fermanagh Authors Association Miscellany 2 due for publication in December 2008. Edited by Seamas MacAnnaidh, Fermanagh Authors Association, Northern Ireland, 2008.
Thank you for the interview, Dianne.
Thank you, Marsha. You’ve asked me some interesting questions and made me stop and think about my answers. I really enjoyed it! If your readers enjoyed the interview I hope they will drop by other stops on my Virtual Book Tour. Check my blog, ‘Ascroft, eh?’ (www.dianneascroft.wordpress.com) for full details.