Blog 100 05/08/2020 A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with M.K. Tod
A LITERARY WORLD
An Interview with M.K. Tod
My guest today is the talented M.K. Tod, a writer I have followed for a while now. She is well-known both for her WWI and WWII historical fiction books and because she is an excellent blogger who always has interesting posts and interviews with other authors.
Welcome to A Literary World, Mary. It’s great to have you with us. Tell us about your background? When did you decide to become an author?
My husband was transferred to Hong Kong for three years. Jobs were not easy to come by, and with no family or friends, I searched around for something to do. Learning to write was a marvelous way to occupy many hours. A year and a half after returning to Canada, I began writing full time.
What are your novels about and where are they set?
I’ve just completed my sixth novel—a fact I find astonishing. The first three—Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and Time and Regret—are published. Each one deals with the challenges and horror of WWI, while Unravelled also features WWII. Novel four – Paris in Ruins – is set during the siege of Paris in 1870/71. The Admiral’s Wife is a dual-time novel set in present day and early twentieth century Hong Kong. My latest novel, You Don’t Know Me, is a contemporary novel set in Boston and New York City. Writing a contemporary novel has been a very different experience.
What is it that inspires you to write about WWI and WWII?
While living in Hong Kong, I researched my grandparents lives and the times they lived in. My grandfather served in the Canadian army during WWI and went overseas at the age of nineteen. Just think about that for a moment: he was nineteen and exposed to the inhumanity of trench warfare, gas attacks, vermin, filth, battles where they dug graves in advance for the thousands who died in a single day. I became obsessed with understanding that war—the whys and wherefores, the leaders involved, the strategies deployed, the sights, sounds and smells of battle. The fact that my grandfather was there made it all the more meaningful, all the more visceral. I think this is what attracts readers to novels set during WWI and WWII. We have fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, people only a few generations from us who were there. People who lived or died, were heroic or merely survived. People who experienced such awful circumstances and deprivation. We want to understand and empathize with what it was like for them.
Can you tell us about your latest novel?
You Don’t Know Me is my latest novel. It’s a contemporary novel built on the premise of identical twins, one of whom goes underground while the other takes over her life. At a writer’s retreat in 2018, I was assigned to an agent who critiqued The Admiral’s Wife and gave me advice on how to position it for the marketplace. At the end of our time together, I asked her what novel I should write next—I had three ideas. When I mentioned the twins idea, she told me without any hesitation to write that one because it would have much greater appeal for publishers. Fingers crossed.
What sort of research did the stories require?
I’ve written several articles on my blog about the research required for historical fiction. Your readers might be interested in Setting – Research Sources which outlines an extensive list of the research materials available to historical fiction authors. Or Four Dimensions of Researching WWI.
A photograph from Mary’s blog
What was the most surprising thing you discovered when researching.
Such a difficult question to answer! With every story I write, I find something intriguing. For example, while doing research for Paris in Ruins, I discovered that the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt turned a theatre into a hospital during the siege of Paris and nursed wounded soldiers for the duration.
Are the characters based on real people?
The only novel with real characters is Unravelled, which is based on the lives of my grandparents with lots of fictional elements thrown in. I was fortunate to have known my grandparents quite well and to have been able to talk to my mother about them as I wrote that novel.
What is the most challenging aspect of writing about WWI and WWII?
For me, the challenge is to give readers a real sense of those wars without overwhelming the story with blood and guts.
Do you think fiction helps us understand the past?
Absolutely! I’ve conducted five reader surveys and the number one reason participants give for reading historical fiction is to understand and appreciate the past.
Do you have a special writing space?
I have an alcove in our bedroom which is large enough to contain my desk and two bookshelves. Of course, there is often stuff on the floor as well and at times my desk gets so crowded with research materials that there is no space left!
Is there a special time of day that you like to write?
I write during the day and almost never at night. Four hours of writing would be a good day. In addition to working on the latest manuscript, I also maintain a blog which requires a few hours each week.
What is favourite WWI or WWII movie?
I have a horrible time with the notion of favourite! However, a few stand out from the last two or three years. Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour feature Winston Churchill’s role in WWII and are so filled with tension I was on the edge of my seat even though I know the ending. 1917 was a wonderful depiction of WWI—if you can use the word wonderful in connection with war. Also War Horse, Passchendaele, and My Boy Jack.
Do you have a favourite piece of music from the WWI or WWII era?
Music can be very evocative of time and place. When I was writing Unravelled, I often played music from the 1940s to keep me centered. Bette Midler’s For the Boys was a favourite.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on an idea based on a character who is introduced in Lies Told in Silence. The character’s name is Claire—spoiler alert—and at the end of the story she learns that the man she thinks of as her father is not her biological father. She tracks down her biological father and the story ends as he answers the phone. So many readers have asked about Claire that I conceived a story of her life during WWII and a chance encounter she has with her biological father ….
Would you like to tantalize us with an excerpt from one of your books?
Henri knew Lise was angry. More angry than usual. He could tell by the way she flicked her skirt back and forth as she left the table and by the tight circle of her mouth. He sighed and made for the library, where a reflective cigar would prepare him for the verbal swordplay to follow. She would be even angrier when he told her his plans.
The last time he was in the library had been with Charles and Maurice. That discussion had unsettled him more than he cared to admit as it became clear that each government department was separately and actively planning for war. Surely to God it won’t come to that. But the analytical voice in his head said otherwise.
He was increasingly worried for his family’s safety. A German attack would inevitably focus on Paris, just as Maurice had said. The way matters stood, the French army would not be strong enough to repel a larger German force. Henri believed in his country’s values and took pride in her contributions to the world; nevertheless, he felt that the French army would not prevail unless Britain helped. Discussions were underway between France and Britain, but nothing had been formalized and he worried that time was running out.
Cigar smoke drifted like fading ribbons as he crossed the room to stare out the window. The weather was warmer than usual, and colourfully garbed women strolled along the streets below, some with their children, others with husbands or lovers. Henri could always distinguish the lovers from those who were married by the closeness of their interlinked arms and intimate glances of anticipation. It made him sad that he and Lise no longer exhibited those signs of deep affection.
How has love slipped away? he wondered. When did we stop shouldering each other’s sorrows, sharing stories over morning coffee, trading knowing glances when friends or family acted true to form? When did we start fencing like adversaries?
He looked at his watch and took a deep breath. Unless he went to see Lise now, she would begin preparations for bed, and he preferred to have this particular conversation while she was still fully clothed. A few minutes later, he rapped on the door to her bedroom, waited two or three heartbeats and entered without permission.
Lise stood by the window of a room they once shared wearing a long-waisted blouse and a skirt, the fabric white with pale green stripes. Around her neck was a double strand of pearls. When they had first occupied their home, she had chosen blue and taupe décor, telling him that it was neither feminine nor masculine and so would suit them both. With age and workload had come insomnia, and a year ago Henri had begun sleeping in a room across the hall. Whether from annoyance or merely a desire for a fresh look, Lise had replaced the décor with rose and ruffles.
For a moment, Henri admired the curves of his wife’s silhouette and the loose waves of her light brown hair. Normally, her hair was pinned up or encased in a close-fitting hat, but when he had first met Lise, it was the way her hair fell softly along her face and neck that had caught his attention, each curl seemingly designed to accent a particular feature.
He closed the door. Lise turned, but there was no smile on her lips or warmth in her deep brown eyes.
“Yes?” she said.
“Lise, please stop this. We need to talk.”
“You know very well what.” Henri pulled the corners of his mouth down. She’s being deliberately obtuse, he thought, and she knows how irritating that is.
Lise fingered her pearls, twisting the largest one around and around. “It seems that you tell others your concerns before you tell me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Lucille Ribot told me all about your conversation with Charles and Maurice. To avoid embarrassment, I had to pretend I was in your confidence. Which clearly, I’m not.”
Henri cursed himself for not anticipating that Charles would tell his wife, one of Lise’s best friends. “I’m sorry. You’re right, I should have told you. I suppose you wouldn’t believe me if I said I was trying not to worry you.”
“Really.” It was a statement not a question.
“It’s complicated, Lise. Stop posturing and listen.”
Henri had considered various alternatives for describing the political and military situation. Should he err on the side of alarm, which might make his decision more acceptable, or calm logic in order to avoid an irrational outburst? He used to be able to tell her anything.
Lise folded her arms and tipped her head in a slightly mocking way. “I’m listening.”
As Henri summarized the conversation he had had with Charles and Maurice, her brow furrowed. She rubbed her chin several times but to his surprise did not interrupt once.
“So you think war is inevitable? Just yesterday Papa said that he’s certain Germany and Austria-Hungary are just being provocative and have no malicious intent.”
“With great respect to your father, his diplomatic contacts are mostly retired and out of touch with what is really going on.”
As Lise turned away from him, he could hear the slow release of her breath. Henri put one hand on her shoulder.
“What will this mean? Our children . . .” Her voice wavered and she did not move away.
“I’ve been making plans. I think it will be safest to leave Paris for a while. The next few months could be a turning point. If for any reason conditions worsen, Paris will not be safe. Madame Lalonde says she can have Tante Camille’s house ready for you and the children with a week’s notice.” Henri paused. “I think Maman should go with you.”
“Beaufort? You want us to go to Beaufort?”
“My duty is here.”
“And your mistress?” Lise whirled away from him like a cat from a hot spark.
“Will she be in Paris? Very convenient, Henri, to send your wife out of town for an extended period. No doubt you thought I was too stupid to notice the way Madame D’Aubigne flirts with you and the way your tongue hangs out whenever she’s around. And if I was too stupid, others made sure that I knew.” Lise raised her shoulders and gestured with one hand. “Don’t look so shocked. You should know that’s the way it works. Gossips love an embarrassed wife just as much as they love a cuckold.”
A woman of his wife’s upbringing would consider the word cuckold too crude for polite conversation, so Henri knew she had chosen it to emphasize her contempt for his behaviour.
It was true, though he was not ready to admit it. Vivienne D’Aubigne had flirted with him since the night they were introduced at the opera. Bold and provocative, she wore dresses promising barely hidden delights while beguiling him with red lips and curving hips. Everything about her was different from Lise, and he had allowed himself to be enticed into an arrangement that had only recently lost its appeal.
No wonder Lise has been so remote and sharp-tongued, he thought. During his weekly visits to her bedroom, she had submitted to his love making which, he now realized, was merely a charade to avoid confrontation. And she had withdrawn from him, offering a cheek to be kissed rather than her lips when he returned each evening, failing to smile when he teased the children, conversing without engaging, her countenance subdued rather than animated.
Henri’s back stiffened as he went on the offensive. “Are you suggesting that I don’t have the welfare of my family uppermost in my mind?”
“It’s only your children you care about. You stopped caring about me years ago. And don’t think I’m fooled when you say you’re working late. I can smell her on you. Such cheap perfume.” She pressed a handkerchief against her nose.
“You’re hysterical and don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Lise raised a hand to slap his face, but he grabbed her wrist before she could reach him and held it in the air.
“Enough. You and the children will do whatever I decide.”
Henri dropped his wife’s arm. Never in twenty years of marriage had Lise attempted to strike him. She glared at him but remained silent, blotches marking her face, breath unsteady. Now would be the time to apologize, he thought. Admit the affair and face the consequences. He wondered where such a conversation would lead and whether it would be best to ask her forgiveness when emotions were calmer.
God she looks beautiful when she’s angry. Whatever possessed me to start up with another woman?
Henri stepped closer. His wife stepped back and turned away.
Thank you for being with us today, Mary. It’s been a great delight to chat with you and I have to say, you have us hooked with this excerpt. I haven’t seen the film My Boy Jack yet so thanks for mentioning it. On behalf of my readers, I wish you continued success.
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Author: M.K. Tod