From time to time I come across a real gem. You will no doubt know by now how much I love books, and this post is a pure delight. When I was asked if I’d like to be involved in a book tour for Leo’s War I read the blurb (see the end of this post) and jumped at the chance. It sounded right up my street and with Irish heritage and a love of studying English and history I felt drawn to finding out more about the author, Patricia Murphy, too. I was delighted to be given the opportunity to interview her, and was both swept away and inspired by her answers to my questions.
Please let me introduce you to the author of Leo’s War – Patricia Murphy. Enjoy!
Hi Patricia, can you tell me a little more about yourself?
I am Irish, born in Dublin, the eldest of six. I now live in Oxford in England with my husband who is an academic at the University of Oxford and my livewire ten year-old daughter. Before I had my daughter I worked in television as a Producer/Director, mainly of documentaries. I have made award-winning series such as Born to Be Different for Channel 4 about growing up with disability and Children of Helen House for BBC 2, a series set in a children’s Hospice. But also series on criminals and history programmes such as Worst Jobs in History with Tony Robinson.
I now write full time, while bringing up my 10-year-old daughter, although I still do some film and television work. When I’m not working or being a mum, I love to watch films and cook.
Can you explain a little about your writing background?
I have always written even when a very small child. I was always making little books and also comics. I was very fond of comics. As the eldest of a large family, I used to tell my brothers and sisters lots of stories, mainly as a form of crowd control. They were “follyer-uppers” – a different episode every night. One was about a family called the Woodbines. And another about a girl called Stinkbomb whose mother ran a perfume factory.
Later, I got involved in journalism as a student and wrote for newspapers. I continued to write for newspapers while I was working in television. I got my break into publishing novels through winning a competition held by Poolbeg and the Irish broadcaster RTE in 2004. So my advice is always enter competitions, you never know where it might lead!
Who do you think Leo’s War will appeal to?
I am very lucky to have a wide readership. Officially they are for 8-12 year-olds, a middle grade readership. But I’ve met seven year olds who have read them and also people in their eighties. My books seem to appeal to both boys and girls and even reluctant readers. Also adults who were alienated from history when they were children and are now discovering an interest. Often a parent and child will read my books together, and even grandparents. That’s very satisfying.
Where did you get your inspiration for writing Leo’s War?
My sister and her family live in Killarney and I am a constant visitor. It’s one of my favourite towns – as beautiful as a postcard yet full of life and bustle, punching far above its weight compared to its size. There is a statue of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty in the town, which I’d noticed many times. It’s really dynamic capturing him in mid stride with a warm smile on his face. But I didn’t do much more than admire it, until I went to visit my nephew Sennan’s school, the “Mon”. I gave a talk about my book, Molly’s Diary which is about the Easter Rising in 1916. When we were taking photographs, the headmaster Colm Ó’Súilleabháin pointed to a mural on the wall of a towering priest and said, “Behold the subject of your next book.”
The story of the Monsignor immediately snagged my attention. It has everything – drama, adventure, high stakes. But I wasn’t sure that children would respond to the story of a priest, no matter how heroic. I went away to research and think. One day, Leo and his younger disabled sister Ruby came to me and I was away.
How did you create the central character, Leo?
I usually see my characters first, almost like a hallucination. I saw Leo toiling up the hill, pulling his younger sister Ruby in the cart. He had a black eye. He came to me in a flash with a very strong personality. He is a typical boy in some ways, lively, cheeky with this fierce protective loyalty to his disabled sister. Irreverent, always getting into scrapes and fights. And they both had red hair.
Then I did a little bit of research about how plausible it would be to have a half-Irish/half Jewish boy living in Italy. I soon discovered it was entirely possible. There were lots of people stranded in Italy during the war, particularly in cosmopolitan Rome. There was one particular memoir that helped me with the perspective of being a young, alien boy transplanted from England to a fascist country. It’s called A Boy in Fascist Italy by Peter Ghiringhelli. His father in Leeds was an Italian fascist supporter and the whole family was deported to Italy when Mussolini entered the war on Hitler’s side. Leo’s story is different, but it gave me a real sense of the isolation of being a transplanted child and the kind of bullying an outsider would have to deal with.
If Leo’s War was to be made into a feature film, who would you love to see in the roles Leo, Ruby and Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty?
Leo and Ruby would have to be cast from unknown child actors. There are any number of fabulous actors who could play Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. Colm O’Dowd springs to mind or Dominic West.
There is another wonderful actor from Killarney called Donal Courtney who has written and performs a play called God Has No Country. I haven’t actually seen it yet and I didn’t want to in case I accidentally plagiarised it. But I heard he is marvellous as the Monsignor. He discovered Michael Fassbender – so he could play Herbert Kappler!
If I was casting the British Ambassador Sir D’Arcy Osborne I would choose Stephen Fry. He has a wonderful humanity about him as an actor. He is also an amazing human being. I know someone who worked with him and he said he is unfailingly kind to everyone.
I know that you have written about Irish characters and history previously, what specifically draws you to focus on this?
I have written a trilogy about Ireland’s revolution in the beginning of the twentieth century that led to the foundation of the state – Molly’s Diary about the 1916 Rising, Dan’s Diary about the War of Independence 1922-23 and Ava’s Diary about the civil war 1922-23. I grew up in Dublin where history is a living breathing thing. It leaps from the very stones and has an almost tangible presence. There is a very famous quotation from William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” I think this is very true of Ireland – there is a lot of unfinished business in Irish history. Ireland is still dealing with the legacy of the Famine for example, the creation of the border, mass immigration.
On a personal level my grandparents on my mother’s side were both fascinated by history and used to talk to me a lot about the past. The main character in Dan’s Diary is based on my grandfather in fact. He played football for Ireland. As an adult he was very anti-violence. But when he was a very young boy, he used to run messages for the guerrilla fighters in the War of Independence. He told me stories of burying guns in Ringsend Park in Dublin. But also of playing with the sword of his grandfather who used to be surgeon major in the British Army. His father had been born in India, part of the colonial empire. I could see even though I was young myself that his experiences marked him and there is no black and white. So I guess I was also trying to make sense of the complicated legacy we get from our families, often we have roots on both sides of conflicts.
I had such a love of history as a child, I feel motivated to share this. I have met children who have told me that their imagination has caught fire through reading my books. And hopefully this becomes a life long journey for them.
I understand that you studied English and History at Trinity College Dublin. Do you draw on experience from your university days when writing your books?
I was taught by some brilliant historians and they had a lasting impact on how I think about history. Professor Fitzpatrick wrote a famous history book Politics and Irish Life 1913-1921 telling the story of the period by focusing on one county, Clare, in the West of Ireland. It was based on a huge variety of sources – newspapers, personal recollections, official records, family histories. It was very specific and detailed, witty and well-written and unfolded with the pace of a novel. I think the vividness of that stayed with me – how history comes alive in telling details, and how exciting it can be.
We had another wonderful lecturer called Professor Aidan Clarke who taught 16th and 17th century history but also contemporary American history. He was a real intellectual, pushed us to think and challenged our understanding of the past. He encouraged us to think about events from multiple perspectives. That stayed with me too.
Studying history gave me a great respect for primary sources and the confidence in how to use them. We used to have to do “gobbets” every week – analyse an original document, decipher “pig” Latin for example or de-code an official report on the Famine. That was very instructive. I use a lot of primary sources when I’m researching – letters, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, memoirs. I love that – the way the past leaps off the page.
English too was taught with a lot of rigour and inventiveness. I took a lot of drama courses. I think this gave me a huge respect for plot, how it’s the thread pulling the story together.
A degree in English and History is never wasted! It teaches you how to write and research.
What kind of research do you do before writing a book?
Usually the idea comes first, then the character. Then the rough outline of a plot when I know a bit more about the subject matter. I research and write as I go along. It’s a dance really, between the research and the writing. I need to know enough to get the setting and story right. But also not over-research so I get to feel weighed down by it. The character will often pull the story in a different direction. For example, Leo has a boy soprano voice, so that suggested he could sing for the Sistine Chapel choir as an alibi even though he’s not keen on religion at all. He also has a wicked sense of humour, so he invents songs and jokes about the Nazis. He is half-Jewish, so this makes him more vulnerable and more engaged in the fate of the Jewish community in Italy.
I do a lot of fact checking once I’ve written the novel too. And my editor Gaye Shortland is a stickler for accuracy. But it’s not a historical re-construction, it’s a work of imagination. The characters take on a life of their own!
What do you find most satisfying about the writing process?
I love so much about it – the immersion in the story, then the challenge, almost like a puzzle of how to encode and plot the narrative for the reader. I love getting lost in the characters and plot.
But perhaps the most satisfying thing is when the book connects with the reader. When I visit schools I hear all kinds of wonderful stories. One little girl who had dyslexia told me she read Molly’s Diary to her father who was blind. Other parents have thanked me for getting their children interested in history. Last year Ava’s Diary was the subject of a “Battle of the Books” in Dublin, I’ve had readings where all the children were dressed as characters from my books. I also have quite a few adult readers. One just emailed me the other day with a story about the Irish crown jewels. It’s a wonderful on-going dialogue with readers and I’m deeply touched when they enjoy my books.
Do you have a favourite spot to write in?
I’m very adaptable. But I often like to write at the bottom of my garden. I live on an island on the Thames (along with hundreds of others!) and a tributary, flows by my garden. I really enjoy sitting watching ducks and swans, even the odd kingfisher when I get stuck!
And finally, what’s next for you?
I’m returning to Irish history for the next book – a murder mystery set on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ve already got the characters and have started plotting it in my head. But I won’t say much more than that. I’m superstitious. It’s a bit like coaxing a shy animal out of a burrow at the start and I need to feel I’m well and truly on the way before I can talk about it!
Thank you Patricia for taking the time out to talk to me about your new book and your creative process! To find out more about Leo’s War and to be in with a chance of winning a £30 Amazon voucher, read on…
It’s 1943 and young Leo tries to protect his disabled sister Ruby as the Nazis invade Italy. After his mother is arrested, he turns to Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty to save them. But he is no ordinary priest. Known as ‘The Pimpernel of the Vatican’, the Monsignor is the legendary organizer of the Rome Escape Line. Soon Leo is helping out with this secret network dedicated to saving the lives of escaped prisoners of war, partisans and Jews. But as the sinister Nazi leader Kappler closes in on the network, can Leo and his sister stay out of his evil clutches?
If you’d like to purchase Leo’s War you can find it for sale here:
N.B. I have not received anything except this wonderful interview in exchange for promoting this book. The links above are not affiliate links. Please see my disclosure page for more information.
As part of the book tour, you could be in with a chance of winning a £30 Amazon Gift Voucher (Open to UK Only) – see below!
*Terms and Conditions –Worldwide entries welcome. Please enter using the Rafflecopter box below. The winner will be selected at random via Rafflecopter from all valid entries and will be notified by Twitter and/or email. If no response is received within 7 days then I reserve the right to select an alternative winner. Open to all entrants aged 18 or over. Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. This will passed to the giveaway organiser and used only for fulfilment of the prize, after which time I will delete the data. I am not responsible for despatch or delivery of the prize.