Thank you, Deborah, for your time and for sharing a bit about yourself & your writing. I adored A Time of Secrets and have been keeping a careful eye for your next book so am very very happy with having one in my hands now 🙂
Thank you, Tien, for those kind words. I’m so happy that you liked Stella in Secrets – she’s one of my favourite people too. I do hope that you like Lily in Ambulance Girls, too. She’s a feisty Aussie girl in the thick of the Blitz mayhem.
Dark Chocolate or Milk Chocolate? It’s chocolate!! Whatever way it comes, I’m happy.
Coffee or Tea? Coffee in the morning (crucial!) and tea in the afternoon (preferably with scones).
Dog-ear or whatever else as bookmark? Ummm. I was known to dog-ear in my misspent youth, but now I’m a scrupulous bookmarker. I use anything, leaves, twigs, postcards, envelopes, pamphlets, anything available – even a real bookmark occasionally.
Plot or Character? Definitely character, but this comes after I’ve decided on what themes I want to explore.
I usually begin a book with a couple of themes, for instance, anti-Semitism in WW2 Britain, the Australian Intelligence Service, the effect of war on those who fight, the impact of hordes of young American servicemen on a small city like Perth, what it is like to discover that your first love has died in battle in a country far away.
But I can’t begin writing until I know who my heroine will be, and I have a good idea of her back-story. I need to know where and when she was born, her family circumstances, where she grew up and what she is passionate about before I am able to imagine what she will undergo in the course of my book. Then other characters begin to appear in my mind and I need to know their back-stories in detail as well. Every character in my books (even quite a minor one) has a detailed back-story in my mind.
HEA or unexpected twist? Happily ever after! Always!!
What fascinates you so much about history that you have 3 history degrees?
I have always been fascinated by the past. Even as a child I would walk through the streets of Perth imagining how it had looked when my mother was a girl, or when her mother was young. My favourite books as a child were ones set or written in the past.
Also, history is about stories, and I adore stories.
And the study of history allows you to have some insight into why the world is the way it is today. It offers explanations, which I like.
Any other era in history that you like aside from WWII?
The 1920s. Like WW2 it was a time of enormous change for women. But it was a time of hope also, as people wanted to forget the horrors of WW1. And it has the added bonus of great clothes and music!
Any era in history you dislike? Why?
I don’t really dislike any historical period, but some don’t interest me as much as others. I doubt that I would write about the eighteenth century, for example, because I don’t know much about it.
When did you first start writing and what was the road to publication like for you?
I began to write in 2009, finished A Stranger in my Street in January 2011, and by April 2011 I had an agent and a publisher. So I can’t share any stories about having to paper my walls with rejections.
I will say in all humility, though, that I doubt a publisher would ever have considered my first book if I hadn’t paid to have the manuscript professionally edited before trying to find an agent. That really made all the difference. The editor suggested that I make a lot of changes to the pacing of the book. She also suggested that I write new scenes and remove others. Because of my editor I was able to see my ‘baby’ from an entirely new point of view and the flaws of the first time writer were horribly apparent. It’s not easy to accept that what you thought was wonderful needs a lot more work, but I’m so glad that I accepted her advice, because after re-writing I was able to offer a polished manuscript to literary agents, and I was accepted almost immediately.
What was the inspiration behind ‘Ambulance Girls’?
A 1941 newspaper article headed: “WA Girl is ARP Heroine”. It was about Stella O’Keefe, the first Australian A.R.P. [Air Raid Precautions] worker in Britain to be presented to the Queen for outstanding bravery in the London Blitz. Stella was born in a small town 160kms out of Kalgoorlie and (like me!) was a petite girl. (She was known to her colleagues in the London Auxiliary Ambulance Station where she worked as “The Mighty Atom,” which amused me.) In November 1940, at the height of the Blitz, she climbed up to the ninth floor of a bombed and dangerously unstable building in the blackout to rescue a trapped family.
In the article, Stella was quoted as saying, “Other girls at my station have done stickier jobs than this rescue. I am the only driver who so far has not crashed an ambulance into a bomb crater while going to hospital with wounded in the darkened streets. Many times bombs have been so close that I saw the explosion and disintegration of buildings, but the pressure of the job is so intense that there is no time for fear.”
After reading that article the character of Lily Brennan appeared in my mind, and the story soon followed.
Hmmm, I would love to know what’s happened to Stella O’Keefe after the Blitz!
What kind of research was involved in the writing of Ambulance Girls?
I was living in Oxford, UK at the time, and had access to Oxford University’s marvellous Bodleian Library. It is a deposit library, so every book ever published in the UK is in there. I just had to ask and books magically appeared in a few hours. This meant that I was able to read a lot of out of print novels written in WW2, and could peruse any books about the period that seemed interesting.
But I also like to visit the places I write about in my books. So I wandered around central London with a bomb map and worked out which buildings had been destroyed or damaged, so that I could get a sense of the city under siege. I also visited wonderful museums, such as the Imperial War Museum, the Cabinet War Rooms in Whitehall, and Bletchley Park (where they broke the German Enigma Codes).
And I went to the Westminster City Archives, where I was able to inspect the actual records of the Blitz. I touched the detailed incident reports filled out by the ARP Wardens each day. They listed what bombs were dropped on what streets, the time they hit, the damage they caused to property, and the casualties. That was an amazing experience, because even after 75 years there was still a faint scent of smoke in the yellowing paper.
Was there a particular historical incident you came across during research that really touched you? Could you please share it with us?
This story, from a book that set out people’s memories of the Blitz, really affected me. It still makes me want to cry, for so many reasons:
“She was a beautiful little girl, about eight years old, blonde, the sort of girl you’d see in the old Pears soap advertisements. She was lying on the ground and she was dead. We checked her over but there was no injury except that a piece of shrapnel had taken off the back of her skull. She had a beautiful smile on her face. We took her to the hospital and asked for a doctor to certify her as dead and a young doctor came out. He took one look at her and took off his white coat and said he was going off to join the air force, because he wanted to drop bombs on people who were dropping bombs on us.”
Could you share your top 5 favourite WWII novels, please?
(in alphabetical order)
Enigma by Robert Harris
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Anne Shaffer
A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Black-out/All Clear by Connie Willis
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I’ve read 3, have got Blackout off the shelf to read, and added the other 2 to my tbr (ack!) ~Tien
What’s next for you?
Ambulance Girls is the first of a trilogy, which all deal with women ambulance drivers in the blitz. The books are loosely connected, so that Lily from Ambulance Girls will appear in the other two, but as a more minor character.
So, at present I’m writing the second in the trilogy, Ambulance Girls: Under Fire.
Eeeek!! I can’t wait 😀
You can check out my thoughts on Ambulance Girls, here
About the author
Deborah Burrows was born and grew up in Perth, Western Australia. She is the author of four novels, all set in the Second World War. Deborah’s inspiration is her late mother, who was widowed by the long shadow of that war and who loved to tell stories about life in wartime. Deborah’s latest novel is Ambulance Girls, which is the first of a trilogy set during the London Blitz.
Deborah’s ‘day job’ is in the law, but she has a passion for history. Perhaps that is why, although she adores the clear skies, beautiful beaches and easy-going atmosphere of her home town, she so loves spending time in dreamy Oxford, where she completed a post-graduate degree in medical history. She now divides her time between the two cities.