Monday, 21 April 2014

Pass the Baton

I’d like to thank twitter friend, Faye Rapoport DesPres, for passing the writing baton on to me. I happily agreed to take the baton from Faye because this ‘blog hop’ is designed to help writers get to know a little more about each other, introduce more readers to a variety of writers’ work and maybe pick up a few helpful tips. Please let me introduce you to Faye.

Currently living in the Boston area with her husband, Jean-Paul, and their four rescued cats, Faye has previously lived in England, Colorado, New York and Israel. Her debut book, Message From A Blue Jay, is to be published this spring by Buddhapuss Ink. Message From A Blue Jay is a beautifully-crafted memoir-in-essays and between the pages can be found a lone humpback whale, an amazing blue jay and tales from the streets of Jerusalem to the Tower of London. It tells of Faye’s passion for the natural world, of second chances at love, unexpected loss and the search for a place she can finally call home. Faye has spent most of her writing career as a journalist and business/non-profit writer. In 2010 she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College’s Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program, where she focused on creative nonfiction.

Early in her career, Faye worked as a writer for environmental organizations that focused on protecting wildlife and natural resources. In 1999, after switching to journalism, she won a Colorado Press Association award as a staff writer for a Denver weekly newspaper, where she wrote news stories, features, and interviews. Her website can be found at here.

Pass the baton questions for Angela Barton.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve nearly completed my third novel entitled, The Midday Moon. My book is a contemporary and historical dual narrative, the protagonists’ stories being told in both war-torn France and modern day France.

Arlette Blaise is nineteen when the Second World War reaches France. She lives with her father and brother in a farmhouse on top of Montverre Hill; her mother having died in childbirth with her third baby. She falls in love with her father’s Jewish farmhand, a doctor who is forbidden from practicing by the Nazis. As the war progresses and the Germans cross the demarcation line into the unoccupied zone, Arlette and Saul’s lives change irrevocably as Jews in the south are hunted down. The Gestapo become neighbours by moving into a local manoir - forcing Saul into hiding. Tragically Arlette is also present when the Germans massacre all but a handful of people in the small town of Oradour-sur-Glane. Shocking events occur at the farmhouse and remain a secret for seventy years. When Arlette leaves her run-down farmhouse to her great-niece, Rachel Blaise, in her will, Rachel makes horrific discoveries during the building’s renovations. Somehow Rachel must unravel her great-aunt Arlette’s secrets whilst coping with her own problems.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

The Midday Moon includes two genres; contemporary and historical fiction. Although my story and characters are entirely fictional, the theme of my story is factual; the war, the martyred village of Oradour and the persecution of Jews. I feel the weight of responsibility for accurate and non-glamorized storytelling in memory of the people who lost their lives during such a dreadful era of our history.
This is the first time I’ve written a historical story and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning and researching a subject I knew little about. We all know of the horrors of wars through books and films, but I’ve made a couple of harrowing visits to Oradour-sur-Glane for research purposes. I’ve written a post about my visit which can be found following on from this post.
I also alternate chapters between Arlette in the 1940s and Rachel in 2013/14. I found it interesting how my ‘voice’ naturally changed between the two eras, a fact I think helps to easily separate my protagonists’ different stories.

Why do you write what you do?

I’ve always told stories. Before technology (now that makes me sound old!) I was a great letter writer; in fact I still write long-hand letters to friends. These weren’t just newsy letters about work and family with information given factually. If I was describing going to town with my mum I’d be writing that my hands were dug deep in my coat pockets to keep the cold out, while my fingers played with the bobbly bits of material found inside pockets. Or I’d go into detail describing the cinnamon-spiced and syrupy smells coming from the Christmas market. Everything had to be described visually. I suppose I just love to paint a picture with words and as my three children grew older and I had more time on my hands, narratives started to build in my mind. My characters urged me to tell their stories and disturbed my sleep with their incessant interruptions.

In 2007 I started writing and haven’t stopped since! No matter how easily imagination comes to someone, it’s essential to follow the learning curve which is necessary when writing fiction. To accomplish this I joined writing groups, attended workshops, visited Harper Collins in London, listened to published authors speak at literary festivals, spoke with Jonathon Lloyd of Curtis Brown Literary Agency about women’s fiction, joined master classes at The London Book Fair, bought ‘how-to’ books and joined a fiction critique group at Nottingham Writers’ Studio. I also started my own blog and joined twitter where I made friend with other writers. Gradually my confidence grew the more I learned and I began to win competitions for prose, poetry and novel writing - proudly accepting trophies and a beautiful silver rose bowl.

How does your writing process work?

Describing it as a writing process makes it sound as if I organise my writing time, which is impossible! I’m a company director and also have a part-time job at the City Hospital in Nottingham. If that doesn’t keep me busy enough, I’m owned by two spaniels that need walking twice a day and sadly there’s no escaping the housework! Having said that, my wonderfully supportive husband, Paul, has built me a writing room in the garden and I escape to my sanctuary as often as possible. I try to write something every day, even if it’s a few hundred words - but I’m happier if I reach 1,000 or more.

I also keep in contact with hundreds of writers, publishers and agents on twitter under the twitter tag @angebarton. I would recommend any writer, new or established, joins twitter. I’ve made so many friends (and met up with several for coffee and cake) and I’ve learned so much from them. If I have a problem with the computer or can’t think of the right word, one sentence on twitter is all it takes to get my answer! As The Midday Moon is set in France, there are some colloquial phrases I needed to know which can’t be found in a French/English dictionary. French writers on twitter have helped me out with those too.
Another great tip is to read as many novels as you can about the genre you’re writing in. I’ve picked up invaluable pieces of information from other writers about World War Two.

I’m passing the baton on to Kay, a writer friend on twitter who tweets under the tag of @1_Lovelife. Here she tells us a little about herself.

I am a writer. It’s what I do from time to time. Recently I became distracted by a new project but the heavy work is finished so I’ve time to spare. The project that distracted me was a full refurbishment of a flat. A new kitchen, bathroom, heating system and a full re-decorate. It was an opportunity to explore my other creative talents. It’s almost done. Over the coming weeks I shall make cushion covers and attempt to recover a chair!

But when I’m not doing this I will write… I’m currently working on a short story. I’ve realized how much I’ve missed writing: developing an idea and building a character. Also, I’ve decided that I need to set myself some writing challenges to get my flabby writing muscle fired up!
Firstly: I’m going to join a new writing group!
Secondly: I’m going to write a blog article- twice a week.
Thirdly: I shall allow this process to evolve naturally.
From here on this re-boot challenge is about enjoying my writing. I’ve a best friend in America who I write to frequently and she loves my letters. Apparently they are hilarious, full of humour and candour. Let’s see if I can do this for my blog too… and I shall be kind to myself, if I get distracted.

Kay's blog can be found here.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Massacre At Oradour-sur-Glane

Human beings are capable of wondrous achievements and extraordinary kindness. We care. We love. We cure. We share. We protect. The vast majority of mankind possess a conscience; a voice inside each of us that tells us what’s right and what’s wrong. Occasionally however, either through weak self-preservation, fear or mental instability, people perpetrate such violence that it leaves the rest of us breathless at the magnitude of malevolence humans are capable of inflicting on others. One of these occasions was the atrocity committed by the Germans in the small French town of Oradour-sur-Glane on a sunny afternoon on 10th June 1944.

What visceral imaginings went through the Germans’ minds while on their way to the Oradour, we’ll never know. We can only speculate as to whether they noticed the abundance of flowers growing along the hedgerows or valued the beauty of the River Glane and the surrounding countryside. Sadly, speculation isn’t necessary for what happened when they arrived.

I've visited Oradour-sur-Glane twice to walk the roads of the once quaint town, to absorb the atmosphere and to witness first-hand the place that I’m writing about in my latest novel, A Hill In France. My story places a young farm girl called Arlette, in Oradour-sur-Glane on the day of the massacre. I couldn’t possibly write about such horror without visiting the martyred village myself. Charles de Gaulle declared that the ruins must stay as a permanent national monument to the townspeople’s suffering, so I found Oradour just as it had been left on the day of the genocide; frozen in time.

As you can imagine, I feel a weight of responsibility in writing about a fictional character living through a real atrocity; and rightly so. I want to honour the villagers' last hours with respect and honesty and it’s essential that I choose the right words and don't glamourize this horrendous crime. Below are photographs taken on my visits and a summarized account of what followed the Germans’ arrival. The facts are true and from first-hand accounts, as miraculously several villagers managed to escape that day.

At 2pm on Saturday 10th June 1944, German SS soldiers from 2nd Panzer Tank Division, drove into Oradour-sur-Glane. Being a Saturday, the village was busy with many visitors from outlying areas who were either shopping, visiting family and friends, keeping an appointment at the hairdressers or stopping for a drink after cycling the peaceful lanes. Fatefully, all the school children were attending school as a vaccination programme was taking place. Due to war rationing, it was also the day of tobacco distribution meaning that men from outlying villages had come to collect their rations.

The people of Oradour-sur-Glane felt safe from the horrors of the war and despite the obvious food and fuel restrictions they enjoyed a comfortable seclusion. They were therefore surprised to see lorries carrying 150-200 German soldiers enter the village. Soon people began to assemble in the main square from all directions as they were ordered at gun point to congregate in an area the locals called the fairground, due to an annual fair being held there. The elderly were hauled out of their homes, clients pushed out of the hairdressers with wet hair, men with half-shaved faces forced from the barbers and mothers pushing prams were directed towards the growing crowd in the centre of the town. The baker joined them - still covered in flour, school teachers holding children’s hands, the local priest and diners at restaurants. The carpenter was forced to leave his shop, also the cobbler, the village cart-wright, the blacksmith, the butcher and the confectioner. A sick school teacher was forced to join them still wearing her pyjamas.

The fairground

Standing in the fierce summer sunshine, hundreds of people packed the village square. Several women fainted overcome by heat and fear. The doctor arrived in his car having finished his morning rounds, was forced from his car and ordered to join the others. The Germans even scoured nearby fields for farmers working the land. A couple of cyclists enjoying a day out on the outskirts of Oradour were forced from their bikes – those same bikes are left rusting where they dismounted, to this day.

The women and children were separated from the men. The men were ordered at gun point towards several barns before the SS mounted machine guns at the barns’ entrances. A signal was given and the executioners in front of each barn, opened fire at the same time. To add to this horrific image, the Germans strafed their guns at the legs of the men, meaning that escape was impossible and death would be more gruesome. The Germans clambered over the injured men and boys, covering them with ladders, straw and cart slats which were then set alight.

One of the barns where the men were murdered

Meanwhile the women and children were being shepherded towards the church. Once crammed inside, the SS placed a device inside attached to a fuse. The Germans lit the fuse and ran to safety, bolting the doors behind them. The explosion killed many. Those who survived and tried to escape, some in flames, were shot. The Nazis re-entered the church, machine gun fire strafing back and forth. Soon the fire took hold and thick black smoke filled the main church and two side chapels. We know what happened inside this holy place because one woman survived by climbing out of a broken window behind the altar. A burnt out pram still lies in front of the altar, left as a memorial.

Oradour's church where the women and children died

The Germans finished their genocide by visiting each house individually to search for people hiding in terror. Bodies were found throughout the village still inside buildings and having been shot in the head. A mother, father and two children were found charred inside the baker’s oven. It defies belief that lives could end in this way. Hours later the soldiers left, having failed to destroy all the evidence. Save for the bodies that have been buried, Oradour-sur-Glane is left today as it was found.

My Visit

Walking into Oradour-sur-Glane, I was shocked by its unembellished rawness; as if I was entering a sacred place where everyone spoke in hushed whispers. The ruins have been left untouched because future generations would be incapable of absorbing the magnitude of what happened here on 10th June 1944 should it have been razed to the ground. Typescript alone isn’t enough to tell of the atrocity. Over the years the words would surely fade and corrode the story of Oradour as surely as the metal work left behind is rusting and crumbling today. Some things need to be seen and touched in order to truly feel the horror.

Nature now invades the ruins of the buildings and the everyday items left behind. Tiny purple flowers weave their way through rusting Singer sewing machines and cooking pots from the families' last meals are left next to fireplaces. Birds peck amongst old machinery and the grills of decaying log burners. I walked beneath telegraph poles and tram lines. Where once rattled tram carriages carrying chattering townspeople to and from Limoges, the wires now hang limply swaying in the breeze.

I followed the main road. Houses were charred black from fire. Modern plaques informed visitors what the buildings used to be. A café. A hairdressers. The post office. The doctor's surgery. A school.

The post office

Front gardens and pathways lead to shattered homes. Half demolished inner walls exposed the layout of rooms that had once been adorned with pictures and ornaments. Rubble was strewn everywhere and even decorative tiles still lay where they had fallen seventy years earlier. Weeds, grasses and flowers were interlaced between rusting bed frames that had fallen to ground level when the bedroom floors collapsed in the fires.

When I reached the village square and saw the doctor’s car parked close-by, the sight made me catch my breath. I’d read so much about what had happened that day and here I was, looking inside the doctor’s car parked on the edge of the fairground. It must have been a strange sight to see hundreds of his patients huddled together. The rusting shell of his Peugeot lists to one side, its tyres long since perished, its thin circular steering wheel in the position the doctor had parked it for the last time.

The doctor's car where he left it on the day of the massacre

The doctor's car

Homes surrounding the village green still show hints of their beauty. Ornate railings, carved window shutters and elaborate mirror surrounds now twisted and bent in the inferno. A mature tree stood in the centre of the green, its canopy offering a circle of shade to visitors. Some houses were less destroyed than others, giving more clues to their previous inhabitants. The metal skeletons of tables, chairs and bed frames, ornaments, Singer sewing machines, cooking implements, bicycles, mirror frames and cooking scales. Cars parked in garages.

I followed the old tram lines along more roads where upper floors of houses were castellated with jagged charred beams, tiles and exposed bricks. I could almost sense the horrifying randomness of suffering inflicted on these streets. I passed the bakers and gazed in silence at the rusting oven where a family was discovered. The butchers shop still had the skeletal remains of its awnings that protected its produce from the sunshine. Weighing scales were decaying next to decorated tiles, their colour still vibrant after seventy hot summers and bitter winters.

The butcher's shop

The butcher's weighing scales

Next I visited the barns where the men had been taken, their grey stone shells now overgrown with plants and flowers. Other visitors stood close by, everyone of us silent in thought.

I turned a corner and standing in a small dusty square, stood Oradour's church. A tall mature tree stood sentinel in front of it and I wondered as I walked beneath it, if the women sighed with momentary relief as they passed through its shade on that hot June day in 1944.

I needed to stop and wait beneath a rusting figure of Christ on the cross before walking up the steps into this holy place. The horrific images I’d read about had taken place a few feet in front of me. Here where I stood, mothers had pushed their babies in prams or guided their small children by their hands; generations of strong women taking their last footsteps. They’d stumbled over these steps as Germans aimed their guns.

I stepped inside. It was smaller than I’d imagined. My footsteps echoed in the silence only broken by birdsong due to the roof having long since been destroyed. My overall feeling was naturally a weight of intense sadness, but also a deep sense that I was intruding. So many final excruciating breaths were taken here; so much pain.

I was drawn inexorably towards the altar. A small mass of rusting tangled metal lay before it. As I got closer, I saw that it was the remains of a baby’s pram.

A marble memorial with the names of the local men who’d fought and died in WW1 hung on a wall, now peppered with bullets; their monument defiled in WW2.

The church bell lay on the floor having fallen from the tower in the inferno. It laid twisted and unrecognisable, testament to the intense heat.

The confessional box miraculously stood unscathed. The bodies of two suffocated small children had been discovered here wrapped in an embrace.

Oradour reminded me of a visit I made to Pompeii. Although the aftermath is similar to look at, what is most difficult to understand is that mankind's violence destroyed the village of Oradour, not nature's. But how do you end a blog post which tells of such human cruelty? I don't want to offer platitudes or repeat rhetoric from past articles. Like most traumatic events, people cope and pray in their own way. I've found a poem called, Chanson de la Caravane d'Oradour, by Louis Aragon dated 1949. Here's one verse. (apologies for lack of accents in appropriate places - blogspot didn't enable me to make them.)

Que nos caravanes s'avancent
Vers ce lieu marque par le sang
Une plaie au coeur de la France
Y rappelle a l'indifference
Le massacre des innocents

Translated as best I can
As our caravans advance
Towards this blood-stained place
A wound in the heart of France
Remember the indifference shown
As the innocents were massacred.

Louis Aragon