Friday, September 25, 2009

Interview With Paula Phelan

Thank you for joining me on the Historical Novel Review Blog, Paula.

1. How long have you been writing historical fiction, and is this genre your only foray into writing?

I began writing historical fiction in 2003. I was inspired after not being able to travel on a business trip to China due to SARs. I wanted to understand how the threat of a flu should stop one’s ability to do business as usual. I discovered that the 1918 flu epidemic had been a great example of under-reported history. This spurred me to uncover other facts, events, and people that had slipped through the cracks of time.

Historical fiction is only one of my writing outlets, as the CEO of a robust technology public relations firms in Silicon Valley, I write non-fiction daily including articles for management publications and technology journals. I have also written fictional short stories for adults and children.

2. What other eras are you interested in writing about, apart from early 20th century American history, which are the settings for your trilogy?

When I started on the road of historical discovery I decided I would write Ten-of-Nine. Ten books on a year that ended in nine, that would span three centuries the 20th, 19th, and 18th centuries.

3. What made you choose such an unusual format for your novel, 1939-Into The Dark, and how did you come up with the template?

1939 was the first year I knew I would write about because of the great output of film and theatre in that year. In order to be able to provide commentary I created Alan Stipple a contemporary of the powerful critics of that day men and women who could make or break an artistic endeavour.

Nancy Ames, the African American reporter, is based on a real person who wrote for one of the negro papers in 1939 and spoke plainly about the atrocities in Europe and the implications for young black men who would be called up to serve.

4. I got the impression from the novel that the war correspondent was shouting at her readers, trying to get them to sit up and take notice, but no one was listening. It was a powerful premise. Was that what you intended?

Indeed, as an African American in the United States at that time Nancy Ames had the ability to recognize racism and its dangers. She, and other reporters like her, attempted to awaken the American public to what was going on. At the time the country was committed to neutrality, no one wanted another war. It had been twenty years since the First World War which was very unpopular when the citizens realized it was a war of economics not righting wrongs. The young men born when their fathers returned would be sent off if another war should occur.

5. What was your personal view of how American citizens regarded the outbreak of war in Europe, and did your own perspective form part of the story?

I had grown up believing people in the U.S. didn’t know, which proved not to be true. I asked individuals who were in their twenties at the time – why there wasn’t an outcry and the answer was poignant, “We were so worn down by the depression, excited by the glimmer of light that things could get better, that it was easier to say nothing. Besides what could one person do?”

And in truth how different is that from today? We all know about Dafur, however, feel powerless to do much besides send money.

6. I found myself waiting for the rest of the cast to fall in line with the premise that something had to be done about the atrocities being perpetrated on the Jewish community, but no one really did. As President Roosevelt held out until the end of 1941 before entering the war, was that a social comment?

Yes, there were a few people, the Roosevelts, Churchill and others who wanted to do something, however the sentiment was so strong toward neutrality these individuals were in the minority. What’s more there was a great deal of anti-Semitism in the U.S. at the time (which Nancy Ames reports on) another reason why Jewish Americans were afraid to speak up.
7. You leave the reader hanging – sort of – at the end as three characters sail off into the sunset with their own agendas. Is that to leave us with our own ending to the story, or do you hope to get across that those who are worth redeeming find their way?

The characters defined their own outcomes. I personally believe that life is an adventure and the more it can be faced pure of heart the greater the chances for success. In fact all three gentlemen make it back and appear in 1969 – The Dream of Aquarius as supporting characters.

8. In the UK, apart from being too caught up with our own survival, the consensus of opinion was that Americans didn’t know what went on in Europe. Your novel shows that news reports were readily available and that the apathy was voluntary. Is that what you were trying to say?

The apathy or unwillingness to engage is one of those ‘under-reported’ facts of history. In the U.S. we are told of our contributions to World War II, however, there is never any mention of our unwillingness to act until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

9. Now the more frivolous bit. What has been the biggest stumbling block in writing and getting your work published?

The biggest challenge for me was getting the novel published without allowing a publisher to significantly alter my work. I had a vision for how the novel would look and feel, and the first publisher I worked with wanted to turn it into a romance novel. After numerous historical characters were removed I finally drew the line when I was told to take out Ernest Hemingway because no one would know who he was. Needless to say, I didn’t end up working with that publisher.
10. What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?

I truly believe we can learn from history. Learn how to not to make the same mistakes. History taught in schools is packaged and polished to take off all the rough edges – it lacks the whys and personalities that brought us to this moment in time.

That is why I focused each book on one year, in order to not be overwhelmed and able to find the nuggets of under reported history and bring them to light.

To write historical fiction for me is to be part private investigator, part empathetic therapist, and mostly willing to be awed by what I don’t know and share what I learn with others in a way that entertains and inspires.
You have quite an unique view on your ambitions as a writer, Paula.many thanks for talking to me and may I wish you every success with 1939 Into The Dark