AHF author interviews: Rebecca Cantrell

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AHF author interviews: Rebecca Cantrell

Post by Marcus » 02 Dec 2011 13:27

Rebecca Cantrell has written several fictional books the Third Reich era, including "A Trace of Smoke" and "A Night of Long Knives".
How did you get contact to publishers when starting out?

My agent marketed A TRACE OF SMOKE for me. I met her through the Maui Writers Conference. They had an online submission forum where I submitted my book to and 23 agents and editors signed up to read it. Two agents and one editor were interested, and, luckily, one of them was my dream agent, Elizabeth Evans at JVNLA.

Have you got any specific training (history degree, writing courses)?

I have an undergraduate degree in European History, German, and Creative Writing from Carnegie Mellon. I’ve taken many writing classes at conferences and university extension classes since then too. But the best practice was hours and hours of reading and writing.

How did you first become interested in military history and what made you choose the topic of your first book?

I’m more interested in how wars affect individuals than in military history. The genesis of A TRACE OF SMOKE was a faded pink triangle pasted on the wall of Dachau Concentration Camp. I wanted to know more about the people who had worn it.

My German host brother and I were the same age and often went clubbing in Berlin. He had perfectly styled 80s bottle-blonde hair, an extravagant fashion sense, and he was gay into the marrow of his bones. We would snag a table at Metropol where we would both drink a Berliner white beer (his with a red shot of syrup, mine with a green) and then dance with our respective guys. At the end of the night, we’d hook back up and start our long bus ride home. Forty years before those innocent evenings would have been enough to send him to the camps.

How did your interest in the Second World War begin?

As an exchange student in the 1980s, I fell in love with Berlin. I loved its sights, sounds, tastes, and historical burden. More flirting teenagers, guest workers, and GIs danced to Starship’s “We Built this City” in the Kuh-Dorf disco than lived in my Alaskan home town of Talkeetna.

In Berlin, the war was still present in the Wall that came up after it, the buildings in the East still pocked with bullet holes from the invading Russians, the ruined Gedächtniskirche, and the memories of those who had lived through it.

How hard is it to write fiction on historical topics? A lot of research is still required?

Tons of research is required. Every detail must be as accurate as I can make it. Most of what I learn doesn’t make it directly to the page, but I think it informs everything I write. I think if you don’t know what you are writing about, readers know it.

Have you ever considered a non-fiction work?

I write tons of nonfiction in the high tech field, from database manuals to Java programmer online help to marketing briefs. I don’t have the credentials to write history books but, if I did, I would like to write an exhaustive biography of Ernst Röhm.

Is WW2 fiction a good seller?

I don’t really know. I’ve heard that it sells briskly in the UK. In the US historical novels seem to fit into a much smaller niche than modern works. It’s not something I would recommend doing for the money.

How do you select topics for books?

I wanted to set the first one in the last full year of the Weimar Republic so that I could explore what was lost, so A TRACE OF SMOKE was set in 1931. I planned to write one during the Berlin airlift next, but the publisher asked from something set closer in time.

Because Ernst Röhm was a character in the first one, it seemed logical to set the next one during the Night of Long Knives. I’m looking for moments of sharp transition, times that stand out from the years before and after so I can look over both edges of the knife.

Which archives have you used and how do you find working in them?

I live in Hawaii, so it’s tough for me to have access to any archives. I’ve done some research at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and also the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. They’ve both been extraordinarily helpful.

What in particular needs to be kept in mind in archival research?

Dealing with first person accounts you must remember that it’s only a small piece of events and that it’s biased because it’s one person’s point of view. For me, that’s actually an advantage as I’m trying to document an individual’s passage through these events. I’m not looking for the vaster scope, except as background. I’m writing fiction set in a particular time and place through the eyes of particular characters, not a nonfiction analysis of larger issues.

Who decides on the contents of an index, and how do you decide what's listed and what's not?

I don’t have an index. I do have a glossary and Author’s Notes. For the glossary, I try to include terms with which your ordinary reader might be unfamiliar. If anyone is confused by a term during the editing process, I add it in. For the Author’s Notes I try to explain a little of the real history and how my story connects with actual events or diverges from them.

What are your plans for future books?

My second novel, A NIGHT OF LONG KNIVES, comes out in paperback in April 2011. The third, A GAME OF LIES, is set during the Berlin Olympics and comes out in July 2011. After that, there will be a fourth, A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS, set during Kristallnacht, that comes out in the summer of 2012.

I would like to do nine total: a pre-war trilogy, a war trilogy, and a post-war trilogy. The pre-war trilogy is finished and the books are set in 1931, 1934,and 1936. I’ve started the war trilogy with A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS. I know that the official war between Germany and other nations didn’t start until later, but I view Kristallnacht as the first giant bloody battle in the war against Germany’s Jews.

What has the greatest challenge for you as a historical researcher been?

Living in Hawaii. I’m far from all of the archives, from anyone who lived through the events, and from the locations in the books. You’d think I would have had better sense than to choose to write about Berlin in the 1930s from Hawaii in the 2010s, but clearly I didn’t.

In hindsight, are there any things in your books that you would have done differently?

Like the people in the events, I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight when I wrote them, so I’m going to stand by them now. My mistakes are my own.

How did you manage your time between daily life (work and family) and work on the book; do you have a regime in regards to work time on the book?

I write every day, usually between 8 and noon, then do promotion, paid work, and family life around that. It’s a challenge, particularly with all the promotional commitments, but I feel damn lucky to have the job I do—making up worlds for others to enjoy.

How do you as an author view the Internet, both as a source and as a competitor to books?

The Internet is an amazing source of information. I’ve recently found many home movies filmed in Berlin in the 1930s on YouTube (of all places!). The Internet is a treasure trove of pictures from the era, online archives, and enough goodies to keep me so lost in research that I’d never write another word if I weren’t careful.

People do spend time on the Internet that they used to spend reading books, but the same could be said of film, TV, and radio. It’s the inexorable march of technology. I generally try to make peace with it.

What is the key bit of advice you would give to those who want to write a book on military history, especially World War 2?

Do your homework. It’s a very well known era and if you make a mistake, people will know. Treat it seriously and with respect.

What is your opinion of the recent rise of interest in the second world war in popular culture? What effect might it have on the historical research community?

I think it’s cyclical and we’ll see that interest wane again in a few years. But perhaps all the books and films about the era will inspire a new generation of historians and writers to delve into the past and bring its secrets out to show the world.

Can you live off the proceeds?

Not yet, but I’m hopeful.

Cold Spring Child
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Joined: 07 Dec 2003 19:03
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Re: AHF author interviews: Rebecca Cantrell

Post by Cold Spring Child » 10 Dec 2011 05:06

Thank you, Marcus and Ms. Cantrell, for a very interesting conversation!

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