The seeds of my series The Spoils of War were planted way back. As a Forties kid growing up in a house without a television I spent winter after winter in the company of countless books – both fiction and non-fiction – that had emerged from a war that still felt close enough to touch. My dad had flown in Beaufighters. My mum had been under the London Blitz. Their stories were the written word made flesh and bred a fascination with how war can touch literally millions of lives.
After university, I went into TV. I spent twenty years making documentaries and looking back, I still marvel at the magnetic pull of those anniversary films. Dunkirk. Dieppe. D-Day. The desperate race to be first into Berlin. Each of these waymarks on the road to victory offered new faces, fresh revelations, yet deeper insights into the terrifying chemistry of that huge, continent-wide convulsion.
Then came my entrée into the world of publishing, and my first seven years writing one-off ‘International Thrillers’. This, to my alarm, led to a plunge into crime fiction – Orion’s idea, not mine – but I took the documentary route in shaping a Portsmouth-based series, badgering endless police mates to help think my way into the darkness of copdom, and to my great surprise (and relief) Orion’s punt on little me worked out. The books sold well and bred a spin-off series of French movie adaptations, but sixteen books down the line I was getting tired of the crime beat and sensed, once again, the ageless pull of that long, long war.
I knew that swopping genres was never going to be an easy gig, especially given a substantial readership, but I wrote the first book of the series uncommissioned and managed to persuade my agent – Oli Munson – that WW2 was the biggest crime scene ever. Finisterre, I told him, was simply cri-fi writ large and making the jump to historical fiction was therefore no big deal. I suspect he must have tried this line on Nic Cheetham, but Nic turned out to be a lifelong war buff, and – lucky me – really liked the book.
We had a bit of a tussle about the notion of a central character carrying what we both hoped might be a long-running series, but this was another trap I was determined to avoid. What I wanted (needed?) were the writerly freedoms I suspected were there for the taking, given the sheer length and complexity of the war, and so I came up with the notion of ‘soft-linkage’. Some of my characters would be real – think Robert Oppenheimer, Winston Churchill, Joseph Goebbels – while others would be wholly fictional. The latter would recur from book to book, shouldering more or less of the action as circumstances demanded, growing all the time in the reader’s imagination. I also lobbied hard for the chronological freedom to dip into the war at random intervals as the series began to develop. This, I knew only too well, demanded an act of faith on Nic’s part but thankfully I suspect his punt is working out.
As the series has grown and grown, with a bunch of more-than-decent reviews, I’m truly revelling in the freedom to pitch my authorial tent wherever takes my fancy. Katastrophe publishes in July 2022 (from the Gulag to Berlin, 1945), and offers a mini-trilogy within the series along with Last Flight to Stalingrad, and Kyiv, while the next book – The Blood of Others – is now complete in first draft. With the usual mix of historical and homemade characters, the latter explores the background to the 1942 Dieppe Raid, a catastrophe (that word again) that no contemporary headline dared admit. High society, sex, scandal, and slaughter. All courtesy of a war that fascinates me still.....