Blog 95 30/04/2020 A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with Angela Petch

Posted in on 30 April, 2020 in News

A LITERARY WORLD

An Interview with Angela Petch

On the Mountain of the Moon – a location for The Tuscan Girl.

My guest today is someone I have followed for a while, not only because she writes such great WWII novels, but also because she spends much of her time in one of my all-time favourite places – Tuscany. Like many of us who write WWII books, the setting is essential to the story and Angela knows her history well. Without more ado, kick off your shoes, pour yourself a glass of Prosecco, and let Angela transport you into her writing world.

Welcome to A Literary World Angela, please tell us about yourself and what inspires you to write about WWII?

I live in the Tuscan Apennines each summer – although with the epidemic this year, our usual plans are on hold. The area was occupied in World War Two and the Germans constructed the defensive Gothic Line, part of which is a stone’s throw from our old watermill. Italy holds a special place in my heart as I spent much of my childhood in this beautiful country. My husband’s mother is an Italian war bride, having married her handsome British army captain just after the war. Her stories, together with stories from my elderly friends in Tuscany meld into stories that won’t leave my head.

I believe that the past is the counterweight to our future; we need to know what happened during the war, learn from it so that it will not happen again. My parents’ generation never talked about their war and so there is a danger that many truths will be forgotten. We need to catch them while we can.

Can you tell us about your latest novel?

“The Tuscan Girl” is my third Italian historical fiction novel. I was inspired to write this when I met an elderly gentleman on one of my walks in the mountains a few years ago. I speak fluent Italian, but halfway through our conversation, he responded in quite good English. This was a huge surprise to me, as most of the elderly folk where we live had little education. It turned out that Bruno had been a POW in Nottingham during the war. When I researched, I learned that there were over 155,000 Italians detained in Britain during the war. I had met one when we lived in Suffolk and part of his story was added to Bruno’s.

The story is in dual time. In the present day, Alba, a girl in her late twenties who has recently lost her boyfriend in a tragic accident meets Massimo on a walk. The unlikely pair forge a special friendship and help each other through their time together. In flashbacks, Massimo is able to reveal things from the war that he has never shared and Alba is able to open up about her grief. Mysteries are unraveled and ghosts from the past are laid to rest.

With Bruno (who inspired much of The Tuscan Girl – and the character of Massimo). As Angela points out – he is 100 years old and very precious.

The house in Tramarecchia where Angela placed Massimo

A sign for the site of a house used by the partisans and which appears frequently in my The Tuscan Girl.

The third book shows activities along the Gothic Line in the area where the story takes place. (Around Badia Tedalda, Tuscany)

I have had some wonderful reviews. “heartfelt, powerful…”; “hard to put down…”; “packed with heart, soul and wisdom…” I am pleased that my message about the importance of remembering the past got through to readers: “As that generation slowly disappears, these stories are precious and should be heard as well as learned from.”

One of my favourite quotations is from Cicero:

What sort of research did the stories require?

As I speak Italian fluently, talking to my elderly friends was a start. These accounts throw up tiny details that can grow when you write: descriptions of the food, how the girls coped with their periods, the smells and tastes they remembered, their fear. One of my Italian friends is a professor of history with a special interest in the Second World War in our area. He is so helpful. He gave me a recording that Bruno had made with him a few years earlier when Bruno was able to relate lots of detail. Bruno turned one hundred this January and is quite frail. But he occasionally remembers a couple of words in English. Recently I met a wonderful local author who has written copiously about WW2 and he and I regularly write to each other. I am also very fortunate to live near the national museum of diaries which is a brilliant resource. I read around the subject a lot, mostly in Italian.

Victims of a local massacre.

Two partisans brutally tortured and murdered. The Bimbi brothers.

The watermill where Angela and her family live each summer

What is the most challenging aspect of writing about WWII?

Finding the balance between fact and fiction and knowing when to stop with research. There’s a danger that the narrative can be pulled out of shape if too many facts are included. On the other hand, it annoys me intensely when incorrect facts crop up in stories. Not mentioning the title, but I read a WW2 story very recently where basic events could not possibly have occurred on the date that the author had used. I lost trust immediately and the book felt trivial from that point onwards.

What is your favourite WWII movie?

I love Mrs Miniver, inspired by the book written by Jan Struther. The author wrote “elegant prose and witty poetry” for Punch, The New Statesman, The Times and The spectator during the war. Apparently her editor, Peter Fleming (brother of Ian Fleming) summoned her to his office. He told her that the trouble with her articles “is that they are all about woodpeckers”.  It was 1940. He asked for something fresh and new. So, she invented Mrs Miniver. The book was turned into a film and became a kind of propaganda, showing the indomitable spirit of a British family in 1942. I watched it when I was 11 and at boarding school. Mrs Miniver was played by Greer Garson, who reminded me of my own mother. I think it was the first time that I realized what my own parents might have gone through during the war. They never talked to me about that time. When my father died, we found two accounts he had written as a twenty-year old: one of walking through London after a bomb raid and the second, an account of when his ship was torpedoed. I have plans to use some of his descriptions in a subsequent novel.

Do you have a favourite piece of music from the WWII era?

One of the characters in “The Tuscan Girl” is Molly, a young mother. She is lonely with her husband away at sea and loves dancing. While I wrote the scenes between her and Massimo (aka Bruno, but tweaked), I played music of the time in the background: Frank Sinatra, Harry James, Frankie Laine, Artie Shaw. The music reflects the mood of the times – carefree, as if there are no tomorrows – and deeply romantic. I particularly love Perry Como’s beautiful voice when he sings “Till the end of time”

Link –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSJ-oT2ZBa0

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do to chill out?

I have quite a few interests and, luckily, am still active in my late 60s. In normal times, I play tennis at least twice a week and walk most days. This is a useful antidote to being hunched over a laptop for too many hours. Cooking is another passion (and eating – hence the need for exercise ?). I like to sew, although I have never had proper lessons and a seamstress would certainly raise eyebrows at my methods. I find sewing very relaxing and buy material like other people buy chocolate. So, during this enforced isolation period, there should be no excuses for my hoard to be used.

Who are your favourite authors?

Lisa Jewell, Julia Gregson, Erica James, Nicci French, Anthony Doerr, Dinah Jeffries, Richmal Crompton… but these are only a few and I’ve left a whole bunch out.

Favourite piece of music?

Gosh this is an impossible question. It depends on my mood. I adore the aria, Vissi d’arte from Puccini’s Tosca and it never fails to bring a tear to my eye. I had never been to an opera until I returned to Italy in my 20s and my future husband took me to an open-air opera performance in the Roman amphitheater in Syracuse. Mesmerising.

Link:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXQvPwYYVBI

For sheer brilliance and sometimes as a background to my writing, especially a busy scene, I love Chopin. Loads of pieces but the Piano Concerto 1 in E Minor is a good start… I love the Nocturnes for calm moments.

What’s next for you?

I am contracted by my publisher, Bookouture for two more books set in Italy. At the moment, I am working on a story set in the immediate postwar period, with flashbacks to late 1943 and 1944. As I research, I am uncovering more fascinating stories. There is no title yet and it will most likely be published in spring 2021, maybe earlier if self-isolation lasts longer.

Excerpt from ….. Chapter 14 of The Tuscan Girl

{It is 1946 and Massimo has arrived back in his home village after being away for 6 ½ years from Italy, most of that time as a prisoner of war}

“In the evenings, Massimo took to lighting a fire outside his front door and sitting on a bench, smoking his roll-ups and gazing at the stars in the black sky. One evening he heard wolves calling from the opposite peaks. He could identify with their wildness, their freedom to roam, and he felt like howling back.

‘Why do you sit outside with your fire?’ Robertino asked one evening. ‘Why don’t you use your hearth, like everybody else?’

‘Because I can,’ was Massimo’s simple reply.

He planted a row of deep purple iris along one side of his vegetable patch and dug up young bushes of bright yellow broom from the wild to fence off his plot, thinking back to Molly’s English country garden spilling over with roses, and her tangle of strange-sounding flowers like delphinium and snapdragons that she used to stuff into jars on her windowsills.

‘What are you planting that for?’ Robertino asked, when they were sharing a bottle of vinegary wine another evening, the women sitting on chairs by their front door, darning cotton bed sheets. ‘You can’t eat any of it,’ Robertino observed.

How to explain that he wanted to surround himself with the beauty of nature that he hadn’t been able to freely enjoy for so many years? On his walks, Massimo would stop to observe the shapes of the leaves in the canopies of trees above, or bend to examine the many separate petals on an orchid flower, relishing the ability to do what he wanted in his own time. It was too hard to explain to somebody who hadn’t been confined for years and years. Massimo knew that his neighbours had not been without suffering, but his own war had been different. His privations had been of another kind.”

Thank you so much for being a guest on A Literary World, Angela. I have to say, the photographs you shared are particularly poignant. They make me want to know more about their stories so I am looking forward to reading the new book.  We share similar tastes in music too. I wish you continued success with your writing and hope you will be able to get back to Tuscany soon.

Also by Angela:

LINKS:

The Tuscan Secret

Now and Then in Tuscany

The Tuscan Girl

Mavis and Dot

website

Amazon Author Page