In 2009, I interviewed British historian and historical non-fiction writer, Dr Helen Fry, for my Research Secrets feature in the #94 July 2009, issue of Writers’ Forum.
Helen Fry specialises in history books, specifically refugees in the British forces in the Second World War; as well as English Jewish community history. But she co-wrote with James Hamilton under the pseudonym of J. H. Schryer for her first novel, Goodnight Vienna. It is a love-triangle within MI6 British operatives, set against Hitler marching into Vienna in March 1938, based on authentic background research which she did for some of her history books.
For example: on 10 May 1933 Hitler ordered the burning of Jewish books in Berlin, including those of Sigmund Freud. As each book was hurled into the burning pile, a ritual chant was said by the SS, SA men and students. In our novel Goodnight Vienna, we have a scene of burning of books in Vienna in 1938, this time one of the central characters, a young headstrong anti-Nazi student hurls a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf into the fire. It never happened in reality, neither were books burned in Vienna, but one historical event in 1933 sparked the idea for a powerful fictionalising of it in a scene for the novel.
Goodnight Vienna came out in June 2009. The sequel, Those who Avenge, came out in March 2010.
Helen enjoys interviewing war veterans, many of whom have not told their stories before. The main focus of her writing and research was refugees from Nazism who fought for Britain in the Second World War. She feels there seems to be no other historian taking down their stories, which will very soon be lost and cannot be reconstructed from official government papers.
“It is important to me to capture the human dimension of what it was like in the war. I also enjoy searching through unpublished documents and material in national archives. Shaping a wealth of diverse material into a book is an art and skill.” (Helen Fry)
A number of her books are based on the oral testimony of war veterans. She rings them up after they have replied to a search notice in a paper or journal, and arranges to visit them. Helen explained it is important that they feel relaxed and are not pressurised to tell what they find too painful. You have to build up trust and their confidence. This often necessitates two or three visits. It is a lengthy process but makes it easier if you need to interview them for a sequel book because they then have your trust.
When researching, she often uses unpublished documents, papers, memoirs and the Sound Archive at The Imperial War Museum or the British Library. A prime example of this was for her book Music and Men: The Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen in which she used the archive of 3,000 letters which Harriet Cohen bequeathed to the British Library.
Sometimes Helen will visit the area she is writing about. For example, for Music and Men: The Life & Loves of Harriet Cohen after she discovered Harriet Cohen’s ashes were interred at Stoke Poges Memorial Park in Buckinghamshire she felt the need to go and see her final resting place, especially after having written what was an intensely emotional book, working through all her love letters. Helen discovered her final resting place was totally in character with her life. She is on her own tiny rockery island in the water garden, alongside her sister. Everything in her life was imbued with deep meaning and emotion, Helen felt this was no ordinary burial place, and so typical of her.
Many of her original sources are found in museum and government archives as well as specialist libraries, so for example when she was writing her book From Dachau to D-Day, it’s the story of a tank driver (originally a refugee from Nazi oppression), she used the official war diaries from D-Day to the end of the war at the Public Record Office, Kew. She also consulted the archivist at The National Tank Museum.
Helen revealed the Sound Archive at The Imperial War Museum was especially useful when she was adding research to my existing material from veteran interviews she had conducted. The Sound Archive contains masses of veteran interviews, some of which are specific to refugees who served in the British forces in WWII.
Helen told me she rarely, almost never, conducts research using the internet, as she believes this is how historical inaccuracies creep in.
“I believe that historians should use primary archives and sources and not rely on the internet, except to search for people who can help them with something specific. I am wary of online encyclopaedias.” (Helen Fry)
The key to her success as an author is being highly organised and methodical. Once she has carried out an interview with notes in her notebook, she types it up chronologically according to a veteran’s life story and asks the veteran to check it for errors. Then she files it in a single clear document wallet. Each veteran is given their own wallet which is then filed in a box file. Helen explains this makes it easy to retrieve when she comes to the writing-up process. She has gathered an archive of several box files of original interviews with war veterans, plus copies of photographs from their personal albums.
It is important to keep the reader’s attention throughout your book even if some of the material is heavy.
For example, material for Freuds’ War could have been overwhelming, but she came across some wonderful quotes which just summed up the moment – so used them in the text. She explained:
“I wrote something about how Sigmund Freud was wrestling with the biblical character of Moses whilst he and his family were waiting for exit visas to leave Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938. Freud was working on his final publication before his death called Moses and Monotheism. He wrote to one of his friends Ernest Jones: “Moses haunts me like a ghost not laid.” A brilliant quote which I incorporated into the relevant chapter because it captures the voice of the person you are writing about (in this case Sigmund Freud) and lifts the text. It gives one’s writing a lively flare.” (Helen Fry)
Helen told me one of the most unusual, or seemingly obscure, research she has done was about Jews in North Devon during the Second World War. She discovered that over 4,000 Jewish refugees were in North Devon during the war and they were all the intellectuals of German and Austrian society who had volunteered for the British army and were training there. This inspired her to produce a detailed book with over 250 black & white photos. It was awarded Devon Book of the Year, was made into a mini documentary for BBC South-West and has led to commissions for over six more books published since 2007.
“Books once they are published take on a life of their own. They can do extraordinary and unexpected things which are fun, like a mini documentary or radio programme. Few authors are lucky to have their books made into a blockbuster film, but there are other ways in which books can make their mark, sometimes beginning in small ways. The most important point is to get published. Then one can build on what is already in print to raise the profile.” (Helen Fry)
Her tip for other historical writers is to always have an acknowledgements page in your books, to firstly thank the people who have helped you, and also for the reader to see that the research behind the book is thorough and credible.