I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Davina Blake to Layered Pages to talk with me about her book, Past Encounters. Davina used to be a set and costume designer for theatre and TV, during which time she developed a passion for history and research. She has also had four novels published under the name of Deborah Swift. A bookaholic, she reads widely – everything from Booker Prize winners to the cereal packets on the breakfast table.
How did you discover indieBRAG?
I saw that several Facebook friends had these nice gold medallions on their books, so I followed their links. I was thrilled when my book was chosen too. (Thanks readers!)
Please tell your audience about, Past Encounters.
I wanted to write something about WWII, as I realized this period was about to disappear from living memory. I drew on things my parents had told me, and interviewed people who lived through the war. The experience was very moving and enlightening.
Past Encounters tells the story of Rhoda, who finds one of her husband’s letters one day and thinks it is from another woman, and that he is having an affair. But when Rhoda goes to confront the ‘other woman’, she discovers she’s not his lover after all, but the wife of his best friend of ten years, Archie Foster – a man she has never even heard of.
How could her husband have kept such a friendship secret for so long? And why? The story goes back to WWII where her husband Peter, met Archie. But Peter is not the only one with secrets from the war years, for Rhoda had her own passionate affair, and this too must be brought to light.
Would you please share an excerpt with us?
This scene takes place in the Refreshment Room of Carnforth Railway Station, where they are about to film the classic ‘Brief Encounter.’ The location crew have just arrived to measure up.
‘Are you listening?’
Patty had been talking and I’d missed what she said. I leaned in and whispered, ‘Those two men behind you are behaving a bit strangely. They look like they might be requisition officers.’
Patty swiveled round to look. By this time the younger one had his notebook out and was penciling notes. The older man paced the floor deliberately, counting his strides. The one with the notebook looked up to see us both staring and smiled.
Patty turned back quickly. ‘Nice-looking chap,’ she hissed, raising her eyebrows with a grin.
‘They’re not from round here, anyway.’
It wasn’t just their clothes, but more than that, it was their confidence. As if they could hold their shoulders back and know the world would always be good to them.
‘Is that the time?’ Patty glanced at the clock above the counter, and grabbed her string bag from the back of the bentwood chair. ‘I must be going. I only got my Mam to mind Melvin and Margaret for an hour, and Margaret will be ready for her feed. Now where’s my hat?’
‘Under the seat.’
She fished it out and put it on, fluffing out her blonde hair at the sides. ‘Now you take care. I’ll see you later.’ She gave me a perfunctory hug.
I watched her go, and she had to brush past the two men who by now were standing right in front of the door. The good-looking one in the paisley scarf was sketching into his notebook. He startled as she said ‘Excuse me’ but then apologized and stood aside to let her pass.
He glanced back to my table but the way they were scrutinizing everything made me nervous, so I dropped my gaze to my plate.
Evelyn, the frazzle-haired waitress, brought the tray round to the two men and eased it on to their table. ‘Don’t let it go cold now.’ Her manner suggested that if they did it would be a personal insult.
‘We won’t,’ the man in the scarf said and winked at me.
I smiled and watched them covertly for a few more minutes. The older one made a face at his friend as if to say the tea wasn’t very good. But then they looked down again to scribble in their notebooks.
There was much laughter. They were enthusiastic, lively, in the grip of some great idea. Every now and then, the young man with the curly copper-coloured hair would glance my way, as if to see if I was listening. I tried to pretend I wasn’t.
I could not help staring. It was as if they were from a different England altogether, one where young men didn’t die, where clothes were always new and well pressed. It was like two parakeets arriving in a world of sparrows.
And I recognized the pang, the lure of it, even as I nodded to Evelyn on the way out. As I left, I let my eyes drift back to see the young man still watching me, and I shivered, shaking off some feeling I couldn’t quite name, an excitement, as though he’d seen right through to my core.
Rhoda wants more from life. Will you share what that may be?
Rhoda wants more intimacy from her husband, and a sense of closeness and romance. She got engaged to Peter just before the War, but when he enlists, she has no idea the conflict will go on for so long. When Peter is captured and imprisoned in a POW camp by the Nazis, Rhoda builds a new life without him and falls passionately in love, though this relationship ends in tragedy.
When Peter comes back, they are both irrevocably changed. Neither can reveal to the other what happened in the five years they are apart. The novel is about what it takes to unpick the past, to be able to go forward and build a future together, and about how Rhoda and Peter find the love they both so desperately need where they least expect it.
Please tell me a little about Peter’s and Archie’s relationship?
Archie is a raw recruit, too young to understand at the outset what war means. At first Peter finds him annoyingly naïve, but after he takes him under his wing, they become close. From radically different backgrounds, they are thrown together by circumstance, and would never have otherwise been friends. The hardships of the POW camp in Silesia form their common experience, and both discover just how important it is to have friends in war – that they need each other, if they are to survive.
I read your story when it first came out and it left me with many impressions of POWs in WWII. I admire the way you told about the camps and the treatment of the prisoners. Was there any challenges in writing that? Was there research involved? Could you give an example of what was going on in the camps?
I read a large number of memoirs and diaries, and first-hand reports. There is also a lot of material online – the BBC People’s War website was particularly helpful. People at home in the UK and US did not understand the terrible conditions that their captured soldiers endured. News about them was suppressed, because morale at home needed to be kept high, and the politicians did not want to be side-tracked by horrified families asking them to do something about it.
POWs were just not considered important in the larger scale of things. In the camps the POW’s had to do hard labour such as breaking rocks or working in the mines, and many worked to keep Nazi Germany fed, by forced labour in the fields whilst on starvation rations themselves. In some camps, men who could not work, or who were injured, were shot.
Towards the end of the war, POW’s were marched in sub-zero conditions across Poland and Germany, to keep them as hostages and out of the path of the advancing Russian army. I wrote to two people who had been on the Great March. Both were reluctant to reveal details because many died, and the journey was harrowing. Some diaries and testimonies of the March survive.
Please tell me a little about the Great March of Allied POW’s?
Over 80,000 POWs were forced to march in extreme winter conditions across Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months of the 20th century in Europe. The men marched through blizzards and temperatures as low as –25 °C, and some covered as many as a thousand miles.
The POWs, having suffered years of poor diet and in unsuitable clothing, were soon exhausted and suffering from frostbite or hypothermia. Only the strongest survived. Some froze to death in their sleep. Figures estimated American POW deaths from the March at 8,348 between September 1944 and May 1945.
Under these conditions Peter and Archie struggle to survive. When Peter breaks an ankle, he fears he will be left to die, but help comes in an unlikely form, and Peter and Archie soon discover that not all Germans are the same.
It can take a lifetime to learn much about the war. I discover new details all the time. Is there something new you learned about the war while writing your book? And what are your own personal impressions of the war?
We tend to only look at the history from the perspective of our own country, and we are apt to be partisan. One of the most upsetting pieces of research I needed to do was to examine facts about the bombing of Dresden by Allied Forces. Footage of that is enough to make me feel enormous pity for all victims of war. There are so many innocent casualties. Women out pushing a pram in the park; children boarding a train.
Yet even amongst the carnage of war, it is still the individual act of courage or compassion that inspires me. And one way to look at it is, that in so far as war has any bigger purpose at all, it must be that great acts of human dignity and courage can come from it.
How did you come up with the title for your book?
I wanted to link the title with the film ‘Brief Encounter’ because one of my characters works as an extra in the film. In England this is a very famous war-time film, though I don’t think it is quite so widely known in the USA. The title ‘Past Encounters’ works very well I think, because all the characters have a secret past, or some sort of traumatic encounter that is still affecting them deep below the surface.
When you’re stuck on a scene in your story, what do you do?
If I can’t solve it with tea and a chocolate brownie, I usually go back to the research! There is often something vital I’ve missed, and the saying is right – truth is often much stranger than fiction.
Who designed your book cover?
The book cover was designed by Damonza; very efficient and professional. Their team also designed the inside layout and typography to be in keeping with the overall slightly old-fashioned feel.
What are you working on next?
Under the pen-name of Davina Blake I am working on a book set in the 1960’s and 70’s, about a commune in Scotland. Under my other pen-name I’m finishing a 17th century teen trilogy and a novel based around Samuel Pepys’s mistress, Deb Willet.
Do you stick with just one genre?
I write 20th century historical fiction as Davina Blake, and 17th century historical fiction under the name Deborah Swift. It is refreshing to have a change every now and then so I don’t grow stale, and to research both archival material and something which is still in living memory.
Where in your home do you like to write and what is your process?
I have a small office (the spare bedroom!) with a lovely view of our garden. I chose it because it is the warmest room in the house, and I get cold easily sitting and typing. The chimney from the wood-burner passes right by my desk, and the sun streams in from a skylight overhead. Most of the walls are covered by bookcases, but there is still never enough space for the mountains of books. I have piles of research materials stacked up all around me. The walls have photos of my daughter and some paintings I have done myself. They are not great art, but in my free time I like to paint and draw, and I’m the only one who can stand the results!
Is there a favorite food or drink you like to enjoy while writing?
Chocolate in any shape or form – I have a particular weakness for brownies as long as they are squishy in the middle. Oh, and tea – large quantities of tea, preferably made with proper tea leaves, not tea bags. I’m not a big fan of crumbs on my keyboard though, so I have to nip downstairs to the kitchen to indulge. When I get back, I often find the cat has curled up on my nice warm seat!
Is there a particular hobby you enjoy when you’re not writing?
I enjoy painting and drawing and I also practice a lot of physical disciplines like Tai Chi and Yoga. These keep me sane by getting me away from the desk, and getting my poor body moving and stretching. Too much time at the desk isn’t healthy, so I do something physical at least once a day, and I also love to walk in the countryside near my home.
A Message from indieBRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Davina Blake who is the author of, Past Encounters, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Past Encounters, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.