Saturday 23 February 2013

Annemarie Neary - Under the Spotlight

Interview with Annemarie Neary

Sheila and Jill talk to Annemarie Neary  author of A Parachute in the Lime Tree
Triskele Books are always interested in books with powerful settings. A Parachute in the Lime Tree is a perfect example. As someone who lives in London and is obsessed by Venice, what drew you to set the book in wartime Ireland? (Jill)

My parents’ generation had direct experience of wartime Ireland, North and South of the border. There were apocryphal tales of U-boats and parachutes and smuggled butter. But there were stories of the Blitz too - of unimaginable horrors.  Attitudes to Irish neutrality varied. One view was that - WW2 being that rare thing, a just war - Ireland’s wartime stance had been wrong-headed and a lost opportunity to stand on the moral high ground. Others considered that - the new Irish republic being fragile and conflicted - benevolent neutrality was the only feasible course. These contrasting viewpoints lodged with me, I suppose, and I became fascinated by the period. 

As an Irish person, I knew very little about Jewish refugees in Ireland during WW2 and thought it was an interesting approach to your story? Can you tell us what your inspiration was for Elsa and the Jewish community she ends up with in Dublin? (Sheila)

Sadly, there were very few Jewish refugees – many fewer than there might have been. It’s a sorry tale, and a complicated one, but the role of Charles Bewley was a key factor. Bewley was the Irish representative in Berlin in the crucial years leading up to the outbreak of war. A rabid anti-Semite, he repeatedly thwarted Jewish visa applications when he was in charge of the Legation in Berlin (something alluded to early on in the book). Very tragically, he was not removed from his post until war broke out. By then, of course, it was too late. 

Some children made their way to Northern Ireland via the Kindertransports. Most were accommodated in a farm at Millisle in County Down, though a small number were placed with families in Belfast. Seventeen was the age limit, so Elsa would just have squeezed in. There has been very little fiction written about this, though about 10 years ago O’Brien Press published Faraway Home, a children’s book set in Millisle during the war, by Marilyn Taylor. For anyone interested, Dermot Keogh’s book, Jews in Twentieth- Century Ireland, is a fascinating and very readable history of the Irish-Jewish community.

My inspiration for Elsa was a face in a photo.  An intense, watchful face. The girl was a music student in Dublin in the late thirties. My aunt remembered her as a brilliant pianist and a German Jewish refugee. I don't even have a name for her - but she was the spark for Elsa.

I loved Kitty's character. Superficial on many levels but with an inner strength that we really only get to see towards the end of the novel. Did you set out to deliberately draw a contrast between her and Elsa's characters? (Sheila)

It wasn’t really a deliberate contrast, though I did see the German characters as having been darkened by their experiences.  Kitty is little more than a child really, with a kind of hard-edged innocence about her. She imagines herself the spit of Hedy Lamarr -  so why is she stuck in Dunkerin, with her options already starting to close down? At times, she is almost willfully naïve because she is just so determined on having an adventure. Elsa, on the other hand, is re-constructing her world from the inside out. She’s already been deeply wounded by dislocation and loss. Music is her route to healing. When we meet her, she’s just trying to survive emotionally, to protect and preserve the core of who she is. 

Writing fiction from the historical angle fascinates me. What advantages does that give a writer? (Jill)

That's a very difficult question. I suppose the main advantage is that you can throw off the straitjacket of the present day, though that has its challenges too. If you enjoy research you have plenty of excuses to immerse yourself in that, but you have to try and see things with a period eye.  If you continually draw the reader’s attention to historical detail that the characters themselves would have taken for granted, it will sound forced.  One big advantage is having access to first-hand accounts of historical events – I had some input from a former member of a Luftwaffe bomber crew and I also had access to the memoir of a German WW2 internee. These give some firm ground on which to stand, though you have to be prepared to jump away from them too. 

You drew a beautiful picture of Dublin during the war years. How much historical research did you have to do? As an author, how important is this research for your novel, do you think? (Sheila)

I wanted to communicate the kind of shabby gentility of that time, and the sense of vulnerability. I did read a lot, though I’m not sure how much of it found its way into the book. My bible was In Time of War by Robert Fisk, though there are lots of other interesting books written about Ireland during the Emergency - by T Ryle Dwyer, Clair Wills and others. The Irish Times archives, with their photos and small ads, were a very rich source. I was a permanent fixture in the Newspaper Library in Colindale for a while, struggling with the microfiche readers.
Music is a vital element of the book. Do you listen to music as you write? (Jill)

Generally, I prefer to write in silence (or what passes for silence in my house!). Having said that, music can be a very important emotional prompt. That's principally how I use it – to set the mood in preparation for writing a difficult scene. At the launch of A Parachute in the Lime Tree, a wonderful young pianist, Mishka Rushdie Momen, played the piece I imagined Elsa playing at the end of the book, Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 27, No.2 in D flat Major. That meant a huge amount to me. 

I found the ending very moving - it made me cry, in fact. Did you always have this ending in mind? (Sheila)

Not at all. Actually, with regard to the previous question, listening to music did help to suggest the ending.  

The image of the parachute in the lime tree is lovely. In fact, I didn't know we had lime trees in Ireland! Where did this particular image come from? (Sheila)

Funny you say that – the Bookbag reviewer made the same comment!  We do, in fact, though they're broad-leaved limes, rather than the citrus limes you might find in terracotta pots on sunny terraces.

The image of the parachute in the lime tree is one of the first things that came to me.  It wasn’t a conscious metaphor, though in retrospect it embodies two key motifs - trap and escape – and echoes the lime trees of Berlin.

The novel is written from 4 different character viewpoints. This is ambitious for a first novel. Did you struggle to get inside each character's head and find their individual voice or was it easy to do? (Sheila)

I found it quite refreshing to be able to switch between viewpoints. I admire anyone who can sustain a narrative through one point of view. However, I did find it difficult to get inside Oskar’s head. I had a horror of constructing a kind of cartoon WW2 German, but I didn’t want him to sound too worthy either. In reality, Oskar is quite an ordinary man. He wasn’t especially brave back home in Berlin. He doesn’t really seem to have grasped the seriousness of the Frankels’ situation.  Even when he makes his leap, he struggles to understand how he could have betrayed his comrades in this way and veers between boyish romanticism and confusion at what he’s done.

I thought you achieved a brilliant balance in making us want all the characters to get what they wanted, even though it was impossible. Did you find it difficult to rouse reader support for contrasting strands? (Jill)

I’m glad you felt like that. My own sympathies were torn! 

What are you working on now and how long do we have to wait for the next Annemarie Neary novel? (Sheila)

I’m close to finishing a new draft of Siren, a novel set in post-Troubles Ireland, having completely re-structured it over the summer. I’m also developing ideas for a historical novel set in Ireland and France, and planning more Venice stories.

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