Good morning everyone! Can you believe it is already September? Days are cooling down (FINALLY) and Mithril and Arwen have at last given up on nesting for the year.
Over the summer I became acquainted with Jem Duducu, one of two hosts of the Condensed History Gems podcast. At the end of August, Jem and Greg (Chapman) were kind enough to bring me onto the podcast to talk about historical fiction verses narrative history, Shakespeare, and even share some period music from China, Korea, and Scotland. Take a listen to our podcast episode which I hope will be the first of many.
Post recording the podcast I decided to check out some of his writing work. You can find my review for “The American Presidents in 100 Facts” at https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/RDBPCR4GC47AP.
I also decided to download Jem’s new novel “Silent Crossroads” and ask him some questions about it. Here is that Q & A for your reading pleasure.
LR: Silent Crossroads takes place during both World War I and World War II. What interests you most about these time periods? What do you personally find most compelling about those years?
JD: World War 1 really is the end of the “old world”. At the start of the war you have a Kaiser in Germany, the Habsburgs rule Austro-Hungary, there’s a Tsar in Russia and a Sultan in the Ottoman Empire and yet within a few years after the war, none of those century old institutions existed anymore. There were men fighting for institutions that literally were history by the end of the war.
As for World War II, it’s the war to go for so many people because it’s easy to work out the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. It’s rare to have such moral absolutes in a war. It’s also the most destructive war in human history, nothing to be proud of but scared Western Europe so much that this has been the longest peace in Western Europe since history began…
LR: You are best known for your non-fiction history books. What made you decide to take on a historical fiction novel?
JD: On my Facebook page (@HistoryGems) as a “thank you” to regular followers, I used to make up history stories around their names. Everyone loved them, and the more grizzly the death, the better. I came up with the basic conceit for Silent Crossroads with one of them- a man changing sides in both world wars. It’s the only one that had a few people reply that it would make a great novel. I kept piecing it together in my head, allowing the idea to evolve for a couple of years and then started writing it out when enough of the framework was there. The original was just a few paragraphs long, the final work is a little over 400 pages! I guess I got a bit carried away.
LR: Most writers draw at least some inspiration for characters and/or plot lines from their own lives. What parts of Silent Crossroads come from your life?
JD: Harry Woods the soldier is nothing like me. Harry the husband, father and shop keeper, that’s much more me. My parents owned a shop in Portobello Market in London so the creaky stairs the serving customers, that was all in the back of my mind when describing the more mundane elements of his life.
LR: Are there any characters in Silent Crossroads who resemble people you know or parts of yourself at a specific time? Elaborate, please.
JD: A number of characters are named after friends and they get a sort of cameo although their characters may be quite different, they know who they are. Richard Barley has a small but vital part to play in the book and he’s a real guy, and just as smart as the fictional version of him but works in a very different line of business and s far less Machiavellian than the Richard in the book. Feisty clashes of will displayed by the female characters aren’t a specific woman, but as my wife, sister and mother are all very independent women, you could say they are all influences and vital in making the women believable. Also, the German Nurse Katarina is inspired by my sister in law and she loved what I did with the character.
LR: What details from real life did you integrate into this book that perhaps most people are not aware of as being historical?
JD: I put a brief synopsis of what’s real and what’s not right at the end. The battles in the wars and the rise of the Third Reich are well known. I think it may be the largely historically accurate character Wilhelm von Thoma that may surprise readers to know he did virtually everything that’s in the book. He is not widely known of and an example of a senior German officer who was genuinely uneasy about the direction Hitler was taking both his country and his army.
On the lighter side of things, I had an argument with the editor that there were ice cream parlours in Germany in the 1920s, but I proved to her I had done my research and there were.
Perhaps the most poignant bit of research is the message some American troops sent towards the end of World War I about being under friendly fire. The incident and message are both real.
LR: What lessons from WWI and WWII do you feel most people need to learn and remember about this time period?
JD: I think World War I is arguably the most misunderstood major moment of history there is. It wasn’t all sitting in trenches for 4 years, troops were rotated out of the front lines every 7-10 days. The generals did care about their troops and there are many examples of innovation to try and break the deadlock be it the tank or the first example of (major) aerial bombardment. Also, it wasn’t a stalemate, the allies (particularly Britain) very much won the war and were amply compensated.
The less militaristic point is I wanted to show how dreadful Germany was after the war. Most people outside of the country don’t know there was a brief civil war in Germany, everyone knows about the hyperinflation but don’t realise that after recovering from that they were crippled again with the stock market crash of 1929. So it wasn’t just about the Versailles treaty. I think about how in desperate situations, people sometimes make desperate choices. If everything in Germany had been “fine” in the 20s and 30s then Hitler would never have risen to power.
LR: What do you feel is the greatest legacy of each of the two wars?
JD: With the First World War, it was the redistribution of power. This was the point where Britain’s Empire reached its maximum size. It was also the end of a number of other empires (as previously stated). New countries were carved out like Palestine, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria…and nothing bad has happened in any of those countries since!
World War Two, however, ended the last “traditional” Empire, Britain and cemented the power of two new empires. The Soviet Union had its own empire and influence spread across Eastern Europe and supported the Communists in China, something that is still impacting the news today. Of course, America was the big winner from both conflicts and again is still reaping the rewards 75 years later.
I could go on but I don’t want to turn this into a degree in 20th-century politics!
LR: If you decide to write another historical novel, what time period do you think would be the most interesting to explore and why?
JD: To try and catch the eye of the agents I actually have already written a second book. I deliberately made it very different to try and counter the reservations some had about Silent Crossroads. Set in the Middle East, in the 13th century, the protagonist is an Italian woman. Silent Crossroads looks at the horrors of mechanised warfare and the politics of the 20th century. This other work is about religion and how it may not have been used in the way you’d assume 700 years ago. This era and area are what I specialised in at university so it felt a bit like coming home.
Also being a woman in a man’s world she has all the best ideas, that none of the arrogant men give time too until it’s too late, I think you may like it. Saying that it didn’t catch the eye of the agents either, depending on how Silent Crossroads go, I may release that one too.
LR: What did you most learn about yourself in the writing of this book?
JD: Ha! Great question. That I can write battles and stoicism easily, that stuff just flows out of my keyboard. I guess I’ve watched too many war movies and documentaries. But I had to break a sweat to make the domestic elements and the female characters compelling too. And that’s important. If this was a just about a soldier fighting it wouldn’t be half as interesting as the end product. A wise person once told me “women are 50% of history” and therefore to show a mother’s worries as she see’s her daughter being seduced by fascist ideology and having to keep physically safe from all kinds of external threats, in some ways that are more what the book is about than Harry.