Today I have the absolute pleasure of closing out Urbane’s 12 Days of Christmas Blog Tour with not only an AMAZING Q & A from John Simmons, but also an international giveaway (for hardcovers to boot <3), and a very thorough guest post. The perfect way to end off my posting until after the holidays, wouldn’t you agree?
Spanish Crossings is a beautifully written, heart wrenching tale that I haven’t stopped recommending since I hit the 50% mark when reading. The craft, pacing, and detail throughout transports you not only to another time, but to another world. The human elements far overshadow the historical fiction elements, which is entirely fitting as so many of the themes throughout are still relevant today.
I hope that you enjoy the Q & A, Guest Post, and book as much as I did and I am looking forward to sharing some more book love in the new year.
To enter for a chance to win 1 of 3 hardcover copies of this amazing book, simply like this post and share on twitter. This contest is open INTERNATIONALLY and will run from 12/ 22/ 2017 – 12/ 29/ 2017.
Like and share my friends, like and share.
This book is absolutely worth it!
Q & A
The Spanish Civil War has been the inspiration for many novelists, myself included. In this post I interview John Simmons, who has recently published a novel with a Civil War background. Spanish Crossings (Urbane Publications, 2017) is set mostly in 1930s and 40s London but his characters, English Lorna and Spanish Pepe, are deeply affected by what is happening in Spain.
I believe you drew on events in your own family history to write this novel. Could you tell me something about that?
Back in 1937 my mum and dad, Jessie and Frank, were young, newly-married and committed to fighting the rise of fascism. When 4000 refugee children arrived in Britain from northern Spain, sailing on the boat Habana from Bilbao, they volunteered to ‘adopt’ one of the children. I knew him only from photographs in our family album, and that his name was Jesús. He had returned to Spain, and I had never met him or heard anything more from him. In my family, growing up in the 50s and 60s, Spain was a forbidden country – we boycotted it because of Franco’s dictatorship.
Unfortunately my mum and dad died when I was a teenager so I didn’t get to ask them all the questions that I would now wish to ask. But three years ago my daughter Jessie (named after my mum) gave me a book Only for Three Months (by Adrian Bell) that told the story of the refugee children. It’s an extraordinary and little-known story, and it was one of my main sources in writing Spanish Crossings. It allowed me to reconnect with my family history and to take that as inspiration for the novel.
Your descriptions of 1940s London come across as very authentic. How did you go about researching the background for this novel?
That time was history for me, but it was also only a few years before I was born. I remember growing up in flats facing a bombed site from the war. Those flats were Levita House that feature as a location in part of the novel. The main detail – particularly of the 1943/44 period – came from reading that I did. I found the local history archive in Holborn Library useful for articles; read a lot of fiction written and set in the period; and found contemporary photographs amazingly evocative.
Is the story of Lorna and Pepe based on any real history you discovered in your research?
Neither character is directly based on a real character but each are amalgams of people I knew or read about. People often assume Lorna is based on my mum, but she isn’t – though I imagined my mum might have been present as an observer in many of the scenes. Pepe came mainly from my imagination and reading, but probably the most important influence was a photograph of a boy called Angel who was a friend of Jesus.
How would you describe Lorna? Did you find any problems in writing from the POV of a woman?
The first words for the book – “Mother declared herself happy” – came to me in a dream when I was staying in Seville in 2014. That’s the only time that has happened to me. I wrote down the words in my notebook when I woke up and that day I wandered around Seville writing in my notebook while sitting in cafes and parks. By the end of the day I had the first draft of what is now the Prologue of Spanish Crossings. So my first writing about Lorna (as I subsequently called her) was in the form of a frail old lady visiting Spain for the first time in the mid-1980s. But the Prologue established so many threads of the backstory, and I wanted now to imagine what Lorna had been like in her prime, in the 30s and 40s.
It was a great starting point, having that backstory, and Lorna came to life in my head fairly easily. I’d been brought up in a household where left-wing politics were constantly discussed, so Lorna came out of that knowledge and experience. I’d seen and heard people who were politically idealistic, as Lorna is, and I’d seen that this didn’t make them romantic dreamers. They wanted to do practical things to make the world a better place. Lorna has that aspiration, even as she realises the difficulty of her ambitions in those turbulent times. She is a determined fighter, part of what drew her towards her real love Harry, the International Brigade member.
I think it was only after the book was written that people asked the question you ask. I hadn’t asked it of myself while writing. It just seemed a natural thing to do in fiction – to write from the point of view of any of your characters. Of course there are things I have never experienced as a man – for example, a miscarriage – but I’ve never experienced being a soldier either. It’s what I really love about writing fiction, you enter the lives and minds of other people, discovering more about them and more about yourself.
Spain is ever-present in this novel, partly through Lorna’s passionate political beliefs, partly though Pepe’s yearning for his lost country. Yet except for the prologue and epilogue in the 1980s, all the action happens outside Spain, mainly in London. The sense of exile is potent. Did you manage to speak to any of the few Spanish exiles still alive? Or to their children?
I think the sense of exile is common, and always poignant, not simply in the Spanish context. When I ran a writing course in Wales a few years ago I was introduced to the Welsh word Hiraeth. I was told it has no English equivalent but refers to a yearning for your lost homeland. It’s a powerful emotion and in a way we all feel that sense of exile from where we originally came from. I sensed that in the photographs of the Spanish refugee children, even those who stayed.
After I’d written the novel I was lucky enough to meet some of the refugees who had stayed on and made their lives in Britain. In that strange spirit of serendipity it turned out that my next-door neighbour Rosa (who’s Spanish) had an aunt Agustina who lived just up the road. I had a very pleasant and moving afternoon talking to this lovely old lady who had lived a full life in London after leaving Spain as a child.
How did you come up with the title?
As you say, very little of the book is set in Spain but the episodes that feature Spain are about crossings (by boat in the case of the children, over the mountains in the case of the International Brigaders, across the estuary at the close of the book). It seemed to fit, and I guess I also had a faint thought of exploring ‘trust’. Is this character to be trusted or is he in some sense ‘double crossing’? But, of course, journey metaphors also relate to psychological states too and the book is about individual relationships with all those borders that exist in life – political, social, class, cultural.
Did you know what the ending would be when you started writing the novel?
I don’t think I knew what the beginning would be when I started. But it led on quickly from that Prologue. Fairly early on I decided on the three-part structure of the book so I knew where the story was heading, though there were many changes along the way before I got to the final chapters.
Spanish Crossings was published on the 80th anniversary of the arrival from Bilbao of the Habana, the ship carrying 4,000 child refugees to Britain after the bombing of Guernica. Do you think it’s important that people today know the history of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath? Why?
History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes. I believe in the truth of that. I was conscious of writing a novel that had many modern points of resonance. The refugee situation is the obvious one, but I think it’s broader than that. I find it horrific that, despite the second world war, we look around at examples of modern demagoguery and political brutality. I think we can, and should, know what happened in the past – particularly in the relatively recent past. It’s the best way of avoiding similar mistakes in the future, though we don’t seem to be particularly good at doing that. I was struck a few days ago to hear Lord Adonis likening the situation of Brexit to the 1930s and appeasement. I don’t think you can ever say specifically ‘don’t do that, look what happened on 24th April 1937’ – but it does help to see life today in a historical context. Human beings don’t change that much.
It’s a human story but Lorna’s socialist convictions come across strongly. Was there a political motive to writing this novel? What do you hope readers come away with after reading your novel? Does it have lessons for today?
Lorna’s convictions are similar to the ones I was brought up with through my mother. But I don’t see Spanish Crossings as a didactic novel. There is no party-political message in it. But on a broader level, yes, I hope people will come away with a reinforced belief that we are all individual human beings, we each of us deserve respect and need to give others respect. We should remember the past without allowing the past to dictate our future.
You’ve written non-fiction books and you teach creative writing for business. What do you think are the main differences between writing for business and writing fiction? In both there must be a connection with the reader (as you say on your Dark Angels website), but is it the same?
In our Dark Angels workshops we always have two strands – business writing and personal writing. That’s because we believe each can inform and improve the other. Business writing needs to be more human and individual; personal writing can learn from the best of business writing to use words with impact.
Which do you prefer? What made you turn to fiction?
I’ve always wanted to write fiction. My first novel Leaves was only published in 2015 but I started out originally writing it straight after university. I set it aside for decades and revised it more recently; it was published more than forty years after the first words were written. But that’s a good example of why I prefer fiction: it lives with you, it’s part of you, and you walk around with a whole world in your head, and that world is full of interesting characters that you learn a little bit more about every day.
What are you working on now? Is there a new novel in the pipeline?
I still run my Dark Angels workshops and I still write special commissions in the business world – they help subsidise my fiction from which I have few expectations of making money. But I carry on writing fiction because I love it, so I am currently writing the final chapter of a new novel called The Good Messenger. This time I am setting it either side of the first world war. It begins in 1912 and ends in 1927, with a short middle section on Armistice Day 1918 (that gives me a target for a publication date). With the first draft completed soon, I’ll then have a few months editing before I can show it to anyone.
In a strange way I see it as the prequel to Spanish Crossings. Part of me is thinking in rather grandiose terms that I might need to write a third novel, set after the time of Spanish Crossings, to make a trilogy.
Eighty years ago my mum and dad, recently married, were active in the local Labour Party and its resistance to fascism that was rising in the 1930s. In 1937 during the Spanish Civil War they turned their sympathy into active support for the Spanish republican, anti-Franco cause. They adopted a Spanish boy called Jesús. In our family photo album there were a couple of pictures of Jesús and pictures of my mum surrounded by Spanish boys giving the No Pasaran salute.
My daughter Jessie – named after my mum – got interested in these photos of the Spanish boy and the grandmother she had never met. My mum and dad, Jessie and Frank, had died in the 1960s when I was relatively young. So all those questions I now wanted to ask, could not be asked or answered. Jessie started digging and I started reading books about the Spanish Civil War, the International Brigade and the 4000 Basque children who had been evacuated to Britain in May 1937 almost exactly 80 years ago to this day.
With these thoughts in my head, by chance I was going to Spain three years ago to run one of my Dark Angels writing courses. Before the course I had a night and a day to myself in Seville. That night I slept badly but I dreamed and for the only time in my life I dreamed some words that I remembered on waking. I wrote down the words in a notebook because I thought they were interesting, a good phrase: “Mother declared herself happy”.
Who was this Mother? And why had she come to Seville? I decided to find out by writing and seeing what followed on from those words. Wandering around Seville, sitting in coffee shops and on park benches, I carried on from those words. Like this:
“September 1984, Spain
Mother declared herself happy. She had not liked Madrid. In her head it still rang with the steel clang of jackboots on the cobblestones. Standing in front of Picasso’s newly installed painting Guernica, paying silent homage, had left her tearful. Now we had moved south to Seville, and her mood lifted.
Sometimes we rattled through the streets on trams but mostly we walked. Even in late September Seville was hot, the heat rising from the pavements as well as burning down from above. So our walking was strolling and our strolling was sitting in the gardens. Watching the world go by was what Mother did now, now that the world was passing her by. It seemed that way to me too, now that I was nearing my fortieth birthday.
I had been a disappointment to Mother and Spain had been the reason for her disappointment. In her youth, her beliefs and her friendships had been defined by the Spanish Civil War. In north London, particularly in Hampstead, the war had raged fiercely through the weapons of words. I wish I had heard her then, in her prime. I was left with the black and white photos of a young woman with dark hair tied back and a raised clenched fist. “No paseran!” she shouted from the centre of her eccentric group of comrades.”
That was the start and it continued. I wrote a story of 1000 words, read it out at the Dark Angels course, and got good reactions. So when I returned home I began writing. That story became the Prologue to a life story that would be set before, during and after the second world war. This Prologue had already suggested much of the back story to this elderly woman’s life – Guernica, her son, Spain’s political history, the pursuit of happiness by trying to live a good life.
When I began writing there were three important characters: Lorna, elderly in the Prologue but what had she been like in her younger days? Harry, a member of the International Brigade, and Pepe a Spanish refugee boy adopted by Lorna after he had arrived, with 4000 others, on the boat Habana from Bilbao to Southampton in May 1937.
There’s a phrase much used at the moment: History does not repeat but it rhymes. Supposedly written by Mark Twain, though no one’s sure. Over the last week it’s been used to point out similarities between two American presidents, Trump and Nixon, both crooks.
But as I wrote it became clearer to me that the story I was writing had real relevance and resonance to the times we live in now. History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. A rising authoritarian right wing. A refugee crisis. History rhymes.
The second part of the book is set in the second world war, the third part in the post-war 1947. A time of hope and optimism. The National Health Service founded. The nationalisation of the railways. The world I was about to be born into.
Which brings me to why we’re here in this pub on Levita House estate. Just there, 100 yards behind me, is the flat where I was born. A few years later this is the pub where my mum would send me to buy her a bottle of Guinness for her nightcap. Yes, nine-year-olds could do that in the 1950s.
I decided that I would feature Levita House as the place where Lorna would be living in the third part of the novel. After all, I knew I could write about it authentically. I didn’t really have to do much research. History rhymes. Here’s a bit from the book…
“They now lived in Levita House, on a council estate between Euston and St Pancras stations. The estate was regarded as something of a model for new public housing when it was built in 1930. Its architects had been influenced by modernist styles from Germany and Austria. Part of the post-war reconciliation, thought Lorna, not really believing herself. But she remained pleased with her new home even as she stared from her balcony towards the bank of snow that had been shovelled from the pavement against the high redbrick wall that ran along Ossulston Street. Behind the wall the trains were still not moving in the station goods yard.”
I need to round up now and strain your patience no further. I hope you’ll want to read the book and find out more about the story of Lorna who is not, by the way, based on my mum. But in the most magical way of writing fiction, I found myself writing scenes that I imagined my mum might have been present at. Along with my dad and my aunt Ce.
So you can see, it’s a very personal book but novels need to be written from deep feelings. If this novel has any merit, that is why.
John Simmons is an independent writer and consultant. He was a director of Newell and Sorrell from 1984 until the merger with Interbrand in 1997. He headed many large brand programmes with companies as diverse as Waterstone’s, Royal Mail, Air Products and the National Theatre. He established Interbrand’s verbal identity team before he left in 2003. His current clients include Allied Irish Banks, Anthony Gold Solicitors and Marks & Spencer.
John runs “Writing for design” workshops for D&AD and the School of Life. He also runs “Dark Angels” workshops, residential courses in remote retreats, which aim to promote more creative writing for business http://www.dark-angels.org.uk. He has written a number of books on the relationship between language and identity, including “The Dark Angels Trilogy” – We, me, them & it, The invisible grail and Dark angels. His books helped establish the practice of tone of voice as a vital element of branding.
He’s a founder director of 26, the not-for-profit group that champions the cause of better language in business, and has been writer-in-residence for Unilever and King’s Cross tube station. In 2011 he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the University of Falmouth in recognition of ‘outstanding contribution to the creative sector’.
His most recent books are 26 ways of looking at a blackberry, about the creative power of constraints, and Room 121: a masterclass in business writing, co-written with Jamie Jauncey as an exchange over 52 weeks. In June 2011 John’s first work of fiction, The angel of the stories, was published by Dark Angels Press, with illustrations by the artist Anita Klein.
He recently initiated and participated in the writing of a Dark Angels collective novel Keeping Mum with fifteen writers – the novel was published by Unbound in 2014. John is on the Campaign Council for Writers’ Centre Norwich as Norwich becomes the first English City of Literature.
Many thanks to Abby Fairbrother at Anne Bonny Book Reviews for wrangling me into this Holiday book-love madness and arranging for a fabulous Q & A, to John Simmons for providing such thorough answers AND supplying a beautiful Guest post, and to Matthew at Urbane Publications for making sure that I had absolutely everything that I needed despite my being across the pond and on exactly opposite time zones.