I love writing realistic, believable adventures for young teens (and anyone else interested) that are based around history, where the reader can learn something interesting that they might not have learned at school. The books follow the adventures of four teenagers, whose archaeologist parents work together excavating ancient sites in different parts of the world. Hence every book has an historical setting, such as an archaeological dig, with a very international flavour. I love sparking the imagination of my readers, introducing them to things that they hopefully will want investigate further.
So I was asked in a phone interview for a teen magazine, if any of my own experiences in life had made their way into my books. As with most writers, my own experiences do definately seep into the core of the stories. I began to tell her about one scene in particular, from Secrets of The River, the sequel to The Obsidian Mask (out end of Oct 2014).
Lorenzo, fifteen, who lives in a beautiful ancestral villa overlooking the Trebbia River just south of Milan, is showing Alex, thirteen, just arrived from London, the library, in his rather grand, old, if a little worn for ware, sun-baked home. Lorenzo is not showing off, in fact he is a little embarrassed at Alex’s awe, knowing Alex lives in a terraced house in south London. (between you and I, probabbly worth more than his Italian home, but that’s beside the point!) But there is something he has been dying to show him in this library. He stands back and lets Alex walk around it, and asks if he notices anything unusual about the room.
In answer to the interviewers question, Alex from London, was really me at fourteen, and it was my French host, Bertrand, whose seventeenth century home outside Versailles I had been sent to as an exchange student to practice my French. I stayed in his amazing country home for two weeks, and then Bertrand was to come back with me to London for two weeks, to practice his English.
I told the interviewer the story of how, when I first arrived at his ancestral home, with vast fountains in the manicured grounds, how he had taken me into the library to show me something ‘tres interresant’. I stood there, surrounded by wall to wall, floor to ceiling book-laden bookcases, most of which were behind protective glass cabinet doors. Not really understanding what he meant me to look at, I looked around for a clue.
Sure, the books were very impressive, and I’d never really seen such a collection of old leather-bound books in a private home quite like that before, but I knew that wasn’t what Bertrand meant me to look at. He was egging me on to look further, deeper into the room. He started giving me clues which I didn’t understand too well, as he was speaking French, and then when I finally gave up, he told me to look at the cabinet door handles.
Then I understood. I stood there absolutely shocked. Every wooden door knob on every cabinet door had a beautifully engraved Swastika.
My interviewer went quiet on the other end of the phone as I relold her this story, and she didn’t really say anything for what seemed like a whole minute or so. I continued to explain to her how the home had been occupied by Nazi officers during the war, and that the family had left the Swastika handles as they were when they returned to their home after the war, as a reminder to future generations, as the stamp of Nazi Swasticas were now part of the history of their home. This point I have made in the book, as I think it is a good point. Ripping off the handles and replacing them, would eliminate this chunk of the homes’ history. Still, she didn’t really respond at all. I felt like the interview was over. Maybe I had offended her? I wasn’t sure. But this was real history, living history, as the owners of the home faced the fact every day. Perhaps Americans are too removed form the war, it is too much in the past, as they never had the threat of German soldiers landing by tank or parachute on their doorsteps to take over their homes. But this is the whole point of putting it in the book, so that the occupation is never forgotten. Was I too offensive to talk about it? To write about it? I feel readers should know these things.
It certainly seemed to have done something to my interviewer. Maybe she wasnt expecting Nazis in a YA story, I dont know. I didn’t tell her that after seeing the library, Bertrand then took me into the large dining/breakfast room, and again, the Nazi occupation of his home was even more evident, as across one wall in a large arch, was machine gun spray. His family had left that, too, holes in the plastered wall, as a really big reminder.
As a fourteen year old, I didn’t sleep well during that trip to France. I was worried about German soldiers hiding under my bed, or in my vast, cold bathroom. I remember looking at the old mirror over the sink in my bathroom, and wondering who had stood there looking in the morror before me, perhaps shaving every morning. I personally think it is fascinating reminder of a terrible period of our history. I hope the readers do too. The book isn’t all doom and gloom, it is a present day adventure where four teens discover the hidden artwork stolen by the Nazis, and the Contessa, Lorenzo and Gabriella’s grandmother, has more to hide than the average Italian Nonna!
An excerpt from Secrets of The River;
(Lorenzo is the Italian host showing Alex, his English friend.)
Lorenzo pushed open the double doors and stood aside to let Alex enter the room first.
“This is the library, Alex.”
“Impressive,” he said, and walked in. Wall to wall glass fronted cabinets covered every inch of wall space and they were crammed with leather-bound books from floor to ceiling.
“Cool! You’ve even got one of those ladders that wiz around the room on little casters. I’ve got to try that! I’ve seen them seen in films. I didn’t think people had them in their homes.”
Lorenzo shrugged, a little embarrassed. “That’s not why I brought you in here. Look closer.”
Two worn leather sofas faced each other in the middle of the room, with a long, narrow table behind each of them, with lamps, newspapers and a tray with a few pairs of reading glasses and pencils. On the floor, a Persian rug bound the furniture together like an island. It was a sombre room for a private house, Alex thought, but impressive none the less. But he wondered why Lorenzo would be so keen to show the room to him. He didn’t intend to do any reading this holiday, that was for sure.
Lorenzo stood grinning at him, and was obviously waiting for some kind of reaction. Alex looked back at him, a little puzzled.
“What, is it a test?”
Lorenzo gave him a little shrug. “Keep looking!”
Alex looked around the room again.
“OK, I’ll give you a hint. Something small and… plentiful.”
“Small and plentiful? What the…?” The books were plentiful, Alex thought, but not particularly small. “I give up, Lorenzo, come on, tell me!” he said, and walked round the room, still looking, not really wanting to give up.
“OK, I’ll give you another hint. Look at the handles on the cabinets.”
Alex walked over to the nearest of the wall of cabinets to have a closer look. He stopped dead in his tracks when he recognized the symbol carved onto the round knob.
“Yes, on every handle.”
“But why, Lorenzo? Why swastikas?”
“The house was occupied by German officers during the war, and they left their mark.”
Alex walked around the room and checked every set of knobs. Lorenzo was right; they had left their mark, all right. Every single mahogany handle was beautifully engraved with a swastika. There must have been at least twenty pairs of them!
“Why didn’t your family have them removed after the war? It must be a horrible reminder every time anyone comes in here. Why would anyone want to keep these swastikas on the bookshelves?”
“I think for exactly that reason, Alex, as a reminder, so we never forget. If they had been removed, I, for one, would never have felt the significance of the occupation. And I then wouldn’t have been able to show you. Seeing them so close, and being able to touch them like this, has shaken you in such a way that just telling you about it would never have had the same impact. It is part of the house’s history. It cannot be erased. And I suppose it shouldn’t be.”
Alex thought of his bath upstairs. He wondered which German officer had sat in it with the water almost up to his neck, and looked in that horrible mirror. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it.
“Come, Alex,” Lorenzo said and lead Alex out of the library. “There’s something else I want to show you.”
Lorenzo took Alex, still a little shaken, to another room across the hall, which was obviously the dining room. The long table had ten high backed chairs around it. The arched ceiling, with the wide, curved supporting beams reminded him of a cathedral. Between the beams were cherubs, floating amongst the clouds. The cherubs were holding long scrolls, showing curly, Latin writing. Alex tried to read some of the script, thinking there might be a clue hidden there, but he couldn’t understand much at all, not because it was old and faded, but because he didn’t know the vocabulary. Now he wished he had paid attention in Latin at school before he had given it up.
One section of the fresco, nearest the fireplace, he noticed, was almost blackened from years of smoke escaping from the chimneybreast.
“Is that what you wanted to show me?”
Lorenzo shook his head. “No, you’re so cold! Keep looking…”
Alex examined the fireplace mantle. It was at least five feet high, and very deep. The grate in the hearth was large enough to burn whole tree stumps in. Impressive? Yes, Alex thought. But again, he wondered what he was supposed to be looking for. There wasn’t a knob in the room, except for the two door handles, and he had already checked those for swastikas. None to report there. He checked the chairs to see if anything was carved on them, but saw nothing that could be construed as German or from the war. He searched the polished wooden planks of the floor for clues. Nothing.
Lorenzo had that grin on his face again, enjoying Alex’s confusion.
“I give up. Come on, give me a hint then,” Alex said at last.
“Look up at the ceiling again.” Lorenzo pointed to the far end of the room. “I thought you would be interested. Remember you told Gabriella and me about Colditz when we were planning our escape from the cave?”
“Yes, I do. But what am I looking at in here? I can’t see any swas….” he stopped.
Looking up at the far end of the room, he saw what Lorenzo was talking about.
“Lorenzo,” he said slowly, hardly believing his eyes, “those aren’t… bullet holes, are they?”
“Semi-automatic rifle, I believe.”
Alex didn’t say a word. It sent a chill down his spine. He was almost afraid to speak. He looked at the holes sprayed in the wall on the far side of the room. They went in an arc from halfway up the wall to the ceiling, over the door to the kitchen and then down the other side. Alex didn’t know how he had missed it when he had come in; it was so obvious now that he was looking at it.
“I thought it was just the plaster falling off… I didn’t really look…”
He didn’t like it. Although the Nazis had left over sixty years ago, it felt as if they could be back any minute.
“My grandmother told us that the Germans did this when they had to leave the house in a hurry. The allies had landed to the south of Rome on the beaches, you see, at Anzio, and they were gradually fighting their way up the country pushing the Germans north. It took many months and they suffered terribly during the winter months.”
“Who, the allies?”
“Yes, of course Alex! The Germans too. There was terrific fighting around Rome and throughout the surrounding countryside. Thousands and thousands of young men died; British, Polish, American, even Moroccan. It took many months of battles to push the Germans back. Have you not heard of Montecassino? That was a major one. The countryside is full of cemeteries of young men not much older than us, Alex, who died, so far from home. They say that Italian soil has soaked up more blood than it will ever produce in wine. And believe me, Alex, we have a lot of vineyards in Italy.”
“Lorenzo, that’s horrible.”
“I know, and we should not forget, ever. During the last war the Italian resistance fighters were very active in this area, it was a nightmare for the Nazis as it is so hilly. There was a lot of underground partisan activity. Especially here in these hills and valleys.”
“Yes, it was! I like to think that if I had been alive then, I would have joined them too. Most people think of France whenever resistance fighting is mentioned, but here in Italy it was very active also. The partisans played a large role in expelling the enemy. We also suffered greatly because of it. You know, Alex, every German soldier that we Italians killed, they rounded up ten of us in retaliation to be shot.”
“Yes. Ten for one. If the Germans couldn’t find ten men to take, they took the boys to make up the numbers.”
“You’re kidding Lorenzo!”
“And listen to this! Should a German officer be killed, not just a regular soldier, an officer, it meant one hundred Italian males were rounded up and shot.”
“A hundred! A hundred lives for one officer?” Alex was astounded.
“Yes. Not many people know that. They, the partisans, had to find ingenious ways to hide our male population when we managed to kill a few of them. It had to be very well planned.”
“Oh God, Lorenzo, I can’t imagine how horrible it must have been. I didn’t know about the raids on ordinary civilians. They didn’t tell us that in school. Its certainly not in any history books we have in school.”
Alex focussed back on the spray of bullets on the wall. “But why would the Germans do this to your home?”
Lorenzo shrugged. “This is nothing, really. They destroyed a lot of things much more precious when they were leaving Italy. Ask my father; he feels physically ill if you mention it.”
“Like what? What do you mean?”
“Well, for my father, being an archaeologist, the burning of the two incredible ancient Roman pleasure barges, that for over two thousand years at been at the bottom of Lake Nemi; this is the worst thing ever, for him.”
“Roman barges? On a Lake?”
“Yes, they were built for the Emperor Caligula, you see, on this big lake just outside Rome. Caligula held his lavish, extravagant parties there in the hot summer months. He would escape the oppressive heat of Rome and go to his barges on the lake with hundreds of guests. They were enormous floating palaces really, opulent beyond imagination.”
“Wow! I’ve heard about Caligula. There was a film on him that my mother didn’t let me see.”
“Well, Caligula wasn’t one of the best Emperors the Empire ever had. However, my father said these