Saturday 18 May 2013

Interview with Annemarie Neary – author of A Parachute in the Lime Tree

Last month I reviewed Annemarie's engaging historical novel, A Parachute in the Lime Tree, and now it's wonderful to welcome her back to the blog to answer a few questions.

You can find the book's blurb and links her website, social networking accounts, and a place to buy the book at the end of the interview.

Q: What influenced your decision to write A Parachute in the Lime Tree from both Irish and German perspectives during World War 2?
A: Ireland during the ‘Emergency’ was a rather colourless, isolated place so Oskar and Elsa, my German characters, would have seemed like exotic birds. Like many people in Ireland, I grew up hearing comic book tales of incompetent German spies during the war and I was intrigued by the idea of Germans who might have been there for other reasons.

Oskar is intent on a quest that really has nothing at all to do with the country in which he finds himself, a place that must have seemed a world away from the lurid blare of war. However, he is much more conspicuous than he thinks and I wondered how he would have fared at a time of such great anxiety and apprehension about a possible German invasion.   

As for Elsa, I wanted to explore her experience of exile. In Ireland, she experiences utter disconnection from all she has ever known and in a place where, having effectively come in through the back door, she has no real sense of security.  

The novel tackles some notable historical adversities, including the holocaust. Did you encounter any obstacles whilst researching and, if so, how did you overcome them?
My inability to read German was the biggest obstacle. Ideally, you want to be able to trawl through letters and diaries in order to get a feel for ordinary lives, and I found there was surprisingly little available in English about either the conscript experience or the lives of ordinary Germans on the home front.

Through an online forum, someone in Australia got in touch and offered to put my questions to his elderly neighbour who turned out to have been a member of KG100 based, like Oskar, in Vannes. That was invaluable because I was able to ask him questions about things like the relationship with his comrades, how he spent his free time in Vannes, what it felt like to be in one of those planes.

Someone else put me in touch with the widow of a pilot whose Heinkel had come down over neutral Ireland. She was kind enough to send me her only copy of her late husband’s memoirs (in English!) from her home in Canada  a vivid insight into one young German’s experience of Ireland at the time.

I studied art history and tend to approach things visually, so I find images a very useful source of both inspiration and information. Often it’s the things on the fringes of the main image – the details the photographer or painter took for granted – that are the most fruitful. I spent a lot of time with newspaper images and advertisements because they tell you a lot about people’s preoccupations and priorities.

I really enjoyed the novel's balance, with sections focused on a particular character's perspective or location. Was this something you decided to integrate into the novel before writing, or was it something which just unfolded during the process?
I wrote the first draft in a bit of a splurge, and actually ended up with much more material than I needed. That’s when the hard work of pruning and shaping began. The book concentrates on events in four intertwined lives during a six-week period. However, the relationship of Oskar and Elsa in Berlin some years before (and their subsequent individual experiences) is crucial to understanding what comes later. I needed to find a way of including these aspects without diluting the tension of the main narrative strand. I’m so pleased the eventual structure worked for you.

What advice can you give to other writers interested in tackling historical fiction?
At the moment, I’m immersed in Venice in the 1920s with a handful of characters and the faint outline of a plot. So, right now I’m in evangelical mode when it comes to the value of research as a source of ideas. An object, a photograph, a throwaway remark in a letter – they can all send you off down paths you’d never otherwise have considered. Some of these will be dead ends and you might have to retrace your steps, but it will still lend a quality of authenticity to your writing. This time, incidentally, I can read enough Italian to get by!

Finally, what projects are you working on at the moment? Can we expect to hear more from any of the characters in Parachute?
This summer, I’m going to be spending a week in Annaghmakerrig, an artists’ retreat in Ireland, and I want to have a good chunk of the new novel written by then. I’m also editing Siren, my second novel restructuring it and firming up aspects of the plot with a view to arriving at a final version before I go away. I love writing short stories and I have lots of bits and pieces that need attention, but I probably won’t get round to those for a while. 

I don’t have any plans to revisit the characters in Parachute at the moment, though somebody did ask me at a book club recently ‘What happens after the end? I mean you know, right?’ One character I do wonder about is Emmi, Oskar’s sister, but I’m not sure I want to write her story.

April 1941. German bombers are in the air, about to attack Belfast. 
Oskar is a Luftwaffe conscript whose sweetheart, Elsa, was forced to flee Berlin for Ireland two years before. War-weary, he longs for escape. 
In remote Dunkerin, Kitty awakes to find a parachute trapped in one of the lime trees. When she discovers Oskar, injured and foraging for food in her kitchen, he becomes a rare and exciting secret. But Ireland during the Emergency is an uneasy place, and word of the parachute soon spreads. 
Meanwhile, Elsa is haunted by the plight of the parents she left behind. With the threat of Nazi invasion, she feels far from secure.
A chance encounter with Elsa, and Charlie, a young medical student, finds himself falling in love. Oskar, Kitty, Elsa, Charlie. Their lives intertwine in a climate of war, exile, and ever-uncertain neutrality.