Gill James is a prolific writer and publisher. As well as running Bridge House Publishing, Chapeltown Books and Cafelit (along with Debz Hobbs-Wyatt), Gill has written dozens of books ranging from science fiction (The Tower Trilogy) to historical fiction (The House on Schellberg Street). She has also been a university lecturer in creative writing.
I’ve also interviewed Gill about life as a small publisher. Each genre has its own joys and tribulations when writing it and I wanted to discover more about this from Gill on her historical work.
The link will take you to the Goodreads page for The House on Schellberg Street, where you will find both a summary of the book and reviews. The book is a good introduction into exploring how young Germans at the time leading up to and during World War 2 may well have felt. There is a palpable sense of menace (especially for one of the characters) because I read, knowing more than the characters could have done about the horrors of the Nazi regime.
I love reading history – fact and fiction – but the amount of work to get it right is tremendous. With historical fiction, where the writer has to convey the era, the details must be right (someone will pick you up on it if not).
Also, the era chosen for the historical fiction is almost like a character. You are entering another world (time travel between the pages if you like!) so the era must be set up well enough so there are no jarring notes. The reader must be convinced the historical fiction writer does know their “stuff” and then they will happily follow the story.
There is also the question of putting in enough information to get this across to the reader without “info dumping”. Info dumping is where the writer tells the reader things they need to know in huge blocks of text. It is better to “drip feed” information. People absorb it better and you haven’t bored them!
Gill, it’s great to talk to you again and I know The House on Schellberg Street has been a real labour of love for you. So on to the questions.
Tell us why you wrote The House on Schellberg Street and what you hope it will achieve.
I wrote it because my mother-in-law started to write her story in 1981 and was taken from us with cancer before she could finish it. I also had photocopies of an exercise book full of letters written by German girls between 1943 and 1947. These were all in German and had arrived with my mother-in-law late in 1979.
As she read them she began to remember names. These were the girls she had been at school with until she was 13. She left that school in December 1938, thinking she was going to go to a new one in Stuttgart the next term, only to be told a few days later she was Jewish and would be going to England on the Kindertransport in January.
That made it difficult to sell the book to a publisher. “She must have known she was Jewish,” I was told over and over again. No, she didn’t. She was racially Jewish because she had two Jewish grandparents. These two grandparents converted to the Lutheran religion at the beginning of the twentieth century. The family wasn’t very religious anyway. She had no reason to suspect she was Jewish. Fortunately one of the partners at Crooked Cat, my publisher, is German and understands this very well.
The letters were fascinating. Some were very difficult to read. I did learn a lot about the compulsory work experience and war work the girls had to do. I also became aware of some mild indoctrination: the girls really valued the camaraderie being in the girls’ Hitler Youth movement (BDM: Bund Deutscher Mädel) brought. They also developed a heightened sense of duty. In addition they worried about their brothers, fathers and fiancés just like the British girls did.
I first started on the story for the non-fiction module on my MA in Writing for Children at the University of Winchester.
“I wouldn’t go there if I were you; it might get a bit grizzly”, said the tutor.
I passed the module and the book was on hold until after I’d finished my PhD and I began lecturing at the University of Salford. I wrote a few more chapters and eventually put it forward for a sabbatical project. It was very well received and I had five months off work in order to get the bulk of the novel and research done. It was a very cost-effective sabbatical. I have five “novels” out of that sabbatical.
The first task was to transcribe and translate the letters. This was time-consuming but gave me a real feel of what the girls were about. The House on Schellberg Street is unusual because it gives a German point of view. By telling the girls’ story I’m exploring how ordinary, decent people can be taken in by something we now realise was terrible.
There was a wonderful newspaper misprint ages ago which was reproduced in Private Eye where someone claimed they were being the “devil’s apricot” instead of “advocate” and I can never think of this phase without thinking of that! Being devil’s “apricot” myself briefly, isn’t “straight” history full of stories as it is without the need to make things up?
Well, we fiction writers are professional liars, aren’t we? But we don’t half tell the truth as well. I’ve written an academic paper about this. Allison: The link takes you to an extract from Gill’s paper. There is a fee if you want to read more. And there are several extracts from Clara’s Story here. This is the second “novel” in the Schellberg Cycle. (As an aside I’ll mention that that is now out with beta-readers and I could do with a couple more. So, if anyone is interested, do contact me.) Allison: If anyone would like to do this please let me know and I’ll put you in contact with Gill.
I’m also rather intrigued that in many European languages the word for history and the word for story are the same – Geschichte, histoire, historia, for instance. Yes, there are some wonderful “stories” in history and aren’t there some great retellings? Think of what Shakespeare has covered.
Allison: Have mixed feelings on this. Richard III is a great play but accuracy is another matter but I always did like my roses white so am not unbiased.
I’m also very interested in what historians leave out. They do all that research and then have to make decisions about what to report and what to leave out.
In fact, I do need to “make things up” in the Schellberg Cycle, as although it is all based on some real events, there are huge gaps in our knowledge. I have to use fiction a bit like method acting or private detective work. How will this character react to that situation or what makes her do that?
Here’s a concrete example: Renate’s father wasn’t allowed to leave Germany as he worked for defence. He eventually became involved in designing the V2 bombs. How could he do that, knowing that his wife and child were living in England? Well I decided that he dragged his feet. To my great delight I read a few weeks later that German engineers working on the V2 bomb did drag their feet – they thought it was a terrible weapon.
When I was teaching on the Masters in Creative Writing at Portsmouth University I had a student who already had a Masters in history. He claimed to be learning more about the seventeenth century by setting his novel there than he did when he wrote his dissertation for his history degree.
Fiction sometimes pulls out some truths that verifiable facts can’t.
Allison: A great example of this is The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, which has led to many people querying the version of Richard III’s story told by Shakespeare and Thomas More.
What attracted you to write historical fiction at all? It is quite a departure from sci-fi! Or is it a question you have to write about this character and it “happens” to be a history or sci-fi tale?
I think the story always comes first and the setting then has to be what it needs to be. For my SF stories, the first one of which was part of my PhD, I wanted to experiment and I’d not done SF before. I’d always “written what I knew” (Ha ha) and a lot of fantasy (Ha!).
I think fantasy, SF and historical fiction all give us objectivity. They distance the real world for us so we can look at it more rationally. Anthropomorphism does it for younger readers. All three of these genres require the writer to be precise about the world they are creating.
I spent months creating my world for the Peace Child books and I still needed to invent more as I went along. What was the latest cooking technology? How did driverless cars work? What were the latest building materials?
The Schellberg story needed to be told and it needed a specific setting. So, I had to spend a lot of time researching the 1930s, the 1940s, the Holocaust and World War II. But you’ll still suddenly stumble across something you need to know.
For instance, which cut flowers would be available in September 1939? I had some problems working out how they lived without mobile phones and the Internet and then suddenly realised the girls wouldn’t have kept up with the news as much as a modern teenager does.
But you’re still using what you know. You project what you know of human emotions and your particular characters on to the circumstances that are around them and then you see what happens.
Are there other eras you’d like to write about and, if so, which and why?
I’m drifting away from young adult a little at the moment. I even question The House on Schellberg Street is young adult. It certainly contains young adults and I’m getting feedback young adults are reading it but I think it’s also a book about feisty women, as are the other books in the cycle. So a new theme is emerging – feisty women in history.
I’m a great admirer of a local writer, Vivienne Docherty, who writes books like this based on the research of her family.
I’m now thinking about my maternal grandmother who was almost adopted by a vicar and his wife but chose to go home and look after her blind mother. I quite fancy writing a series of books about real but maybe less well-known extraordinary women from history.
Two books in the Schellberg Cycle cover the Great War, and book number two goes into the end of the nineteenth century. The book about my grandmother would go further back into that century.
Allison: Part 2 of my interview with Gill will be next week when Gill shares the joys and woes of writing historical fiction and offers advice to writers new to this genre. We also discuss what historical fiction is trying to convey – the truth or something that might have been.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.