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Saturday, March 26, 2005

War and Peace

Best selling author Robert Ryan may be best known for his 'Morning, Noon and Night' trilogy, but all that may well change with his latest work 'After Midnight.' Another war story, this one too has been inspired by facts. Just what is it that draws Robert to these facts and how does he blend them with fiction. We put the question to the writer himself on 'Off The Shelf':

Q : What do you write about?
A : I write books that are normally set in the Second World War or just afterwards. They are always based on true stories or there are always real events that are at the core. I take those real events and run them through my imagination and see what comes out of them.

Q : And you call that fact-ion?
A : Yes, fact-ion, I suppose its not a very nice word. But these are facts that are turned into fiction and its the best way to describe them. I suppose the thing that I am trying to do is make readers believe that the part that I am making up could equally be real.

Q : Why do you use this form of writing - blending fact and fiction?
A : I think when people know there's an element of truth in a story, it gives it more reality, makes it more grounded. When there's no real event, it's very easy to run away but when you are dealing with something like the second world war, its tough not to have the facts. When dealing with a war like that I wanted to use real people stories and bring it to a much more personal level.

Q : Your original works are based in the US. Tell us about them?
A : That's right, I was a travel writer for The Sunday Times in London and I used to go down to the US a lot. I had no real idea about writing a novel and then I was in Seattle and found that there was a hidden city underneath Seattle. I thought that would make for a great setting for a novel - a thriller in fact.

Q : Then you moved on to another one called 'Transam'? Were you driving a 'Transam' across the US?
A : (Laughs) Wish I was! But I wasn't, I couldn't find one to hire one at that time. But yes, that was the idea - of being on an open road in a big muscle car with music blaring out of the stereo. So I guess that one is what you would call a 'road book.'

Q : How did you transition from that to World War Two works?
A : It wasn't a very smooth transition. I'd found a story about a resistance hero, though I hadn't quite figured out how to write it. But the first three world war books that I wrote gave me the confidence to write a narrative about the war.

Q : Let's move on to 'After Midnight'. It seems as real as it gets. How did you come across this plot?
A : I wanted to do something in Italy because I felt the war in Italy was quite neglected. While researching that I came across a letter on the internet that a pilot wrote to his one year old daughter in Sydney explaining why he couldn't be there for her first birthday as he was fighting in the war. It was a very simple and very moving letter. I tracked down the one year old daughter, who was then 61. She's still alive. I explained to her what I wanted to do with the letter. I told her I would fly her to Sydney, but she said she'd moved to London, actually pretty close to very I live. So I went to see her and told her the letter would make for a great book and she said 'go ahead.'

Q : Do you just bump into all these people with great stories? How tough is it to get these compelling stories?
A : What happens is that once you've got one book written people start stopping you and telling you about their stories. For instance, 'Night Crossing' was based on a story that a friend of mine told me about his grandfather. Once I got to Anne, she told me the story which formed the plot for 'After Midnight'. It goes on and on. I feel we are at a stage where people who were in the Second World War really want to tell their stories.

Q : How many stories have you received over the past couple of years?
A : Several. There are stories about people who have finally admitted to being spies during the second world war after keeping it under wraps for all these years. It's just a case of finding the one that touches a chord, like that father's letter to his one year old daughter did in the case of 'After Midnight'. The idea of being away from your children and fighting for what you believed in really moved me.

Q : These don't sound like boring stories to begin with, how do you then weave them with all the elements of fiction?
A : I think after having written the first three American thrillers the idea was to bring the pace of those thrillers to second world war stories. The idea was to have the facts there but give the cliff-hanging ends to the chapters. My job really is to give the story pace and structure.

Q : Who are you writing for?
A : I am writing for anyone who likes a good yarn. Some of my work is like The Guns of Navarone on wheels.

Q : Your next book, I understand will have a bit of Singapore and parts of Asia as a backdrop. Doesn't seem to be consistent with your earlier writing?
A : Its consistent alright. One of the great things about doing these books is that you meet fantastic people. I met a chap called John Taylor who's now 85. He served in Asia with Special Operations for the British at the end of the war. He told me about an operation based in Kunming about smuggling watches into China. He introduced me to a woman who was in charge of that racket at that time. She in turn told me fantastic stories about the flying tigers. It went on from there. The book starts in Singapore and ends in Singapore in 1948, which is quite an interesting time to write about and its quite a cracking story.

Q : How long have you been working on this and when will the book be released?
A : I've been working on it for a year now. I've been speaking to DC-3 pilots around the world. This trip to Singapore is to get my geography right. I've got a couple more trips to make and I should imagine the book will be out by March next year.

Q : You've been varied things. You've lectured in natural sciences, been a journalist. How has this contributed to your writing?
A : I'm quite pleased that I came to novel writing quite late. I switched from natural sciences because I was writing a lot. I found that I enjoyed it more than lecturing. So I moved from lecturing to writing. And then I moved to travel journalism, just by sheer luck. I loved journalism, and I thought it was slightly demeaning that writing novels is somehow considered better than journalism. I don't quite agree with that. I was very, very happy being a journalist, it was just happen stance that I found this setting in Seattle that I just couldn't resist writing about. And that led to my full fledged foray into novel writing.