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A Telegram from Berlin by A. O’Connor

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews
telegram from berlin

By A. O'Connor

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Historical author Andrew O’Connor reflects on how the pandemic is shifting the way resources can be used and events can be viewed in a dramatically changing world.                       

It’s strange what goes through our minds in this, the strangest of years. As I was trying to finish my new novel during the lockdown, I was being constantly distracted by the 24 hour news coverage of the pandemic. I remember feeling grateful I was a writer of historical fiction. I could only imagine what those authors who were writing a novel set in 2020 were going through.  How on earth could their plots survive this pandemic? How could their characters continue with their storylines when they must all suddenly become housebound?  How could those illicit affairs continue? How could those work- place relationships flourish? How could those feuds implode when all of a sudden nobody was allowed to meet each other outside their immediate home?

The mind boggles as to how many storylines for novels were suddenly thrown off course by the arrival of this pandemic. At least the plot that I was writing for my new novel A Telegram From Berlin , which is set in the lead up to and the early years of the Second World War, was Covid free. I had started the novel late last year when there was some periphery news story about a new virus that appeared to be circulating in a distant province in China that few had heard of. As the events of the past few months unfolded and as I continued to research and write my novel, what really struck me is how the fear of the unknown affects society and the human spirit in the same way, even though events may be generations apart. And what the world has been going through this year gave me a real sense of understanding of the time my novel is set in during those dark days at the onset of the war. 

As historical writers, we want to portray the era we are writing to the best of our ability. Our responsibility is to bring the era back to life, as it were.  I think the key to writing historical fiction is to actually get into the mindset of the time. It is important for us to realise that we are looking back from the ‘safety’ of our characters’ future, with the knowledge of how things turned out. But for the people at that time it is a different matter. It sounds obvious, but it is more difficult to do than people imagine as it entails you suspending your knowledge of how things turned out while writing the book. For writing A Telegram From Berlin, I used the usual history books and documents that I rely on for historical facts. But to capture the real atmosphere at the time I looked to some more unusual sources. And being in lockdown, what would any of us have done without the internet to do our research?

One source I found fascinating was the correspondence of the Irish Ambassador to Berlin. As Ireland was a neutral country, it was one of the few nations that maintained a Legation in Berlin throughout the war. In his reports back to Dublin, the envoy William Warnock gave a detailed account of life as an independent witness in Germany during the war. Again, suspending our knowledge of how things actually turned out, we can see from the correspondence that in the early years of the war Berliners saw themselves as victorious, almost dizzy from the quick successive victories in the first months of the war.  As Hitler and his home in the Alps, the Berghof, appear in my novel I tried to garner as much information as I could about this place that is shrouded in evil and darkness in our minds today. As I researched more on the Berghof, I found it had been featured in many British, American and French newspapers and magazines in the years before the war. As I delved deeper, I was shocked to realise these feature articles appeared in magazines such as Tatler and were showcasing Hitler’s home in the same the way Hello magazine might feature a footballer’s luxury house today. It is very difficult for us now, with the full knowledge of Hitler’s crimes, to comprehend that respected magazines once photographed and admired his soft furnishings.

But that is the job of the historical writer – to portray things as they were and not as we see them today.  I think that is why newspapers give an excellent guide to capturing the true spirt of the time as well. From reading the news as it was printed, we can get a real sense of the urgency and terror of the times. This is probably in the same way that future generations will look at the news reports from this year to understand the panic and anxiety that swept through the world resulting from Covid. Another source I used was to read the emergency legislation that was brought into Britain and Ireland once the war started. Again, there is amazing comparisons to this year insofar that a series of draconian laws were brought in restricting personal freedom in order to protect society. With the outbreak of war, the British government had expected a breakdown in society and a kind of mass hysteria to result from the expected German air raids. However, as the news reports showed, this did not happen as the people showed incredible endurance during the blitz. It will be fascinating to know in the years to come how future historians and historical writers will look back and report on the pandemic of 2020. However much frustrating the pandemic might cause to writers today to try to weave it and explain it into fictional plots, will it provide a fascinating tapestry for writers of the future looking back? As fascinating as a writer like me finds the Second World War? I very much expect it will.

About A Telegram from Berlin:

Sometimes the past is too frightening to visit.

1939 – As the clouds of war gather across Europe, diplomat Gabriel Ford is sent to London to outline the Irish government’s intended policy of neutrality. While there, Gabriel, recently engaged and the son of a War of Independence hero, has his life thrown into turmoil when he meets a beautiful mysterious woman, Karina Harper.

Karina watched as a child as her magnificent home in Ireland was burned down by rebels and her family were driven out of the country. Now a secretary at the British Foreign Office, she is using all her contacts as she desperately tries to rescue the man she loves from Nazi Germany.

As war erupts and Karina is posted to Dublin, Gabriel risks everything for a scandalous affair with her. Gabriel and Karina become engaged. But is she all she seems? Is she just using Gabriel’s diplomatic status to rescue her true love trapped in wartime Germany? Or does she have some other darker motive for pursuing the relationship?

As a Nazi victory in Europe looks imminent, Gabriel is sent to Berlin by De Valera to try to avert a feared invasion of Ireland. Karina uses the opportunity to accompany him, to find her old love.

But as she and Gabriel board a plane for Berlin, Karina is hiding one more secret. And if discovered, this secret will ensure neither ever return.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

A. O’Connor is the bestselling author of The House, The Secrets of Armstrong House, The Left Handed Marriage and The Footman. A graduate in History and English from the National University of Ireland Maynooth and Trinity College Dublin, the author has contributed to two books of short stories in aid of Barnardos Charity and played a key role in A.M.D’s Fighting Blindness campaign. The House has been translated into German and the Russian edition is due for publication in 2016.

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