MA: Dianne Ascroft is a Canadian writer, living in Britain. She has been freelance writing since 2002. Her non-fiction writing focuses on history, arts/music and human interest stories. She particularly enjoys interviewing music personalities and has had the pleasure of chatting with a variety of people including former Bay City Rollers lead singer, Les McKeown and the classical singing trio, The Priests. Her articles have been printed in Canadian and Irish newspapers and magazines including the Toronto Star, Mississauga News, Derry Journal, Banbridge Leader, Senior Times and Ireland’s Own magazine. She has had several short stories published in Irish magazines. Hitler and Mars Bars is her first novel, and it is an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarter finalist!
Dianne started life in a quiet residential neighborhood in the buzzing city of Toronto and has progressively moved to smaller places through the years. She now lives on a small farm in Northern Ireland with her husband and an assortment of pets. If she ever decides to write her autobiography the working title will be Downsizing.
It sounds like you’ve had a variety of writing experiences that no doubt led you to your first novel, but that all seems to have begun within the last eight years. What else have you done that may have contributed to your writing career?
DA: Like many writers, writing has never been my primary occupation. I’ve always held a day job and written in my spare time. I’ve held a variety of jobs over the years. In Canada, after I graduated from university, I focused on the information management field. I worked as a library clerk in a corporate library and as an archives clerk in the public sector. When I moved to Northern Ireland, in 1990, I landed every booklover’s dream job – an assistant in a bookshop. Needless to say, that was heaven for an avid reader like me and I stayed there for several years. Since 1998 I’ve held various clerical positions on short term contracts. I like this flexible approach to employment as breaks between assignments give me a chance to spend some extra time writing. It also allows me time to enjoy country life with our animals on our small farm.
MA: With all your experience writing non-fiction, what inspired you to write a novel?
DA: I had toyed with the idea for ages before I began Hitler and Mars Bars. I had ideas for plots but I couldn’t decide which one to start – until I found a tale that I had to tell. And it was a much bigger tale than I could tell in a short story so it pushed me into writing a novel. I heard about a Red Cross humanitarian aid effort, Operation Shamrock, which brought German children to Ireland to recuperate after the Second World War. The story of this endeavor opened up a new aspect of Irish and German history for me – one that has been overlooked in the history books. It aroused my curiosity so I waded into researching the project. Fascinated by what I learned about this little known episode in history, I wanted to bring the events and the era alive for readers. The novel was born from that. I found it exciting and a challenge to create a story that was entertaining and also recounted real historical events.
MA: You certainly have an interesting title for the novel, as well as a fascinating historical backdrop for it. Tell us about the story.
DA: Hitler and Mars Bars is the story of a German boy growing up in war-torn Germany and post war rural Ireland. Set against the backdrop of Operation Shamrock, a little known Irish Red Cross initiative which helped German children after World War II, my novel explores a previously hidden slice of Irish and German history. Erich, growing up in Germany’s embattled Ruhr area during World War II, knows only war and deprivation. His mother disappears after a heavy bombing raid leaving him distraught. After the war the Red Cross transports Erich and his younger brother, Hans, to Ireland, along with hundreds of other children, to recuperate from the devastating conditions in their homeland.
During the next few years Erich moves around Ireland through a string of foster families. He experiences the best and worst of Irish life, enduring indifference and brutality and sometimes finding love and acceptance. Plucky and resilient, Erich confronts every challenge he meets and never loses hope. Hitler and Mars Bars is the tale of a boy who is flung into a foreign land to grow and forge a new life.
MA: Obviously since you live in Ireland you understand the culture there, so I imagine that helped you shape Erich as a character. What else did you do to bring him to life?
DA: It was a challenge for me to develop Erich’s character and understand how he sees the world. Erich’s viewpoint is very different from my own. It isn’t his nationality that is ‘foreign’ to me as much as his gender. Some emotions and responses to our life experiences are universal but there are differences between male and female perceptions of the world. I used the recollections of a German man who was part of the initiative to help me understand how Erich might feel about what was happening to him and to decide how he would behave.
This man’s recollections, as well as information I gleaned from my research about other children’s experiences as part of Operation Shamrock, helped me create my character. I tried to create a character that is believable – one who acts and thinks like a real child.
The book is set in 1940s and 50s Ireland where the people had deep Christian beliefs. These beliefs, and the actions they prompted (living their lives in keeping with their beliefs), are clear in the novel’s main characters.
MA: Describe Erich some more.
DA: Irrepressible and impulsive are good words to describe Erich. These characteristics can be either positive or negative aspects of his personality depending on the situation he finds himself in. He frequently gets into mischief but he doesn’t mean any harm. Erich is a fighter in the courageous rather than the brawling sense of the word. Before he’s even school age he has already survived a war and circumstances most adults never face, yet he remains hopeful and resilient. His spirit borders on brashness which annoys some people he meets. But it serves him well as he’s not easily cowed and doesn’t give up even when life just seems to get worse.
He is fiercely loyal to the people he loves. Because he feels so intensely he is also easily hurt by any perceived betrayals. This can cause him to misinterpret situations and overreact. He finds it hard to forgive and can hate as intensely as he loves. Readers have told me they like Erich because he isn’t romanticized; he behaves like a real child. He will awaken the reader’s parental instincts to love and discipline him in equal measures.
MA: Given the nature of the story’s setting…post-war…I suspect there are one or two antagonists in the novel.
DA: There are several adversaries in this story. People and events both conspire against Erich. The most significant event that affects him is the Second World War. Erich’s early years are difficult and deprived because of the devastation caused by bombing raids. He spends nights huddled in the cellar of the Children’s Home where he lives to shelter from the threat of bombing. He is constantly hungry due to the food shortages. His mother disappears after a bombing raid and he must leave Germany without learning what has happened to her. The war affects every aspect of his life. Several people are also his adversaries.
Erich encounters uncaring, even brutal foster parents at two of his foster placements. The first one is Aunt Rachel, a widow with one daughter. She fosters Erich and his brother, Hans, to earn some extra money to meet her bills and she really isn’t interested in the boys’ welfare. She is cross and cruel, making the boys’ lives a misery. Erich hates every minute he spends at her house and seethes with anger at her treatment of them.
The other one is quick tempered, harsh Uncle Bob. Although Uncle Bob plans to adopt Erich, his main reason for wanting the boy is to have unpaid farm labour. His priority is to get as much free labour as possible and he is abusive and unconcerned about the boy’s welfare. Erich has a place to sleep and the basic necessities for existence but he does not have a real family with Uncle Bob and his wife, Aunt Annie. How Erich overcomes his situation is the climax of the story.
MA: Living in working Europe no doubt helped you frame the story, but did any real life experiences manage to squeak into the plot?
DA: A lot of my writing is inspired by my own memories and experiences. But I sometimes hear an interesting story about someone else’s life and it sparks an idea that forms the basis for a story. As I’ve mentioned earlier, in the case of Hitler and Mars Bars, my research about Operation Shamrock and tales I heard from people who had participated in it sparked the ideas for my novel. I used material I discovered during my research about the project to create a story that was as true to the real events as I could make it.
MA: Are you working on any new project, perhaps a follow-on to Hitler and Mars Bars?
DA: Hitler and Mars Bars was released in March 2008. During the following months I didn’t have much time for new writing as I was busy promoting the novel. After the initial whirlwind of promotion I had a chance to put pen to paper again. I contributed fiction and non-fiction pieces to the Fermanagh Authors’ Association’s yearly anthologies in 2008 and 2009 and I’ve also been writing non-fiction articles about a variety of subjects for several magazines. Most recently articles I wrote based on my interview with the classical singing trio, The Priests were printed in four Irish and Canadian magazines. I enjoy non-fiction writing, especially profiling people in the arts and plan to continue interviewing interesting people I meet.
I’m also doing some short story writing and have begun research for the sequel to Hitler and Mars Bars. Many people have asked me what happens to Erich after Hitler and Mars Bars ends so I will have to answer that question in the next book. The sequel will follow Erich and his adventures. Several of the major characters from the first book will also re-appear. Their lives will have moved on from where we left them in Hitler and Mars Bars but they will be the same people readers loved or loathed. People often ask me where I got the idea for the book’s title. A couple amusing incidents in the story sparked the idea for it. So I linked the words that represented each incident together to form the title. But I won’t tell you anymore – you’ll have to read the book to figure out exactly where the title came from.
MA: Well, we’ll have to let that remain a mystery that people will have to explore on their own by buying the book. For more information about Dianne and Hitler and Mars Bars, please visit her website and her blog: www.dianne-ascroft.com and www.dianneascroft.wordpress.com