Carolyn Kirby's debut novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns was shortlisted for The CrimeFest/Specsavers Debut Crime Fiction Award 2020, and longlisted for the 2019 Historical Writers’ Association debut Crown Award. We are absolutely delighted that she will be joining us as part of our programme of LIVE Zoom Events this Autumn, to talk about her new novel When We Fall, which was published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day, and is based on WWII war atrocity the Katyn massacre. Here, Carolyn gives us a little bit more insight into the book, and her talk on Monday 12th October...
1) Can you tell us a bit about your book, 'When We Fall'?
It’s the story of two women at the sharp end of the Second World War. Vee is a pilot ferrying warplanes around Britain who puts up with the prejudice she encounters along the way as well as her own doubts about her abilities. At the opposite side of Europe, Ewa lives in the occupied Polish city of Poznań hosting German officers in the family guest house whilst secretly working for the Polish resistance, the AK. The two women don’t know each other and meet fleetingly only once, but they are both in love with the same man. This man, Stefan, is a Polish RAF pilot consumed by an obsessive quest to expose the truth about one of the most shocking atrocities of the war, the mass murder of Polish POW’s in the Russian forest of Katyn. Haunted by a terrible choice he made whilst himself a prisoner, Stefan’s quest brings Vee and Ewa into grave danger and tests the loyalties of all three to the limit.
2) What inspired you to write the book?
An obituary for the Air Transport Auxiliary pilot Diana Barnato Walker. When I read this obituary in 2008, I hadn’t written a story since I was a child and I knew shamefully little about WW2. But reading about Diana’s incredible life; one that was filled with glamour and adventure as well as tragedy, I had the sudden realisation that if I was ever going to write a novel as I had often fantasised that I might, it would be about someone like her. The novel took over ten years to complete and the second book I wrote, The Conviction of Cora Burns, was actually published first but it was in the world of When We Fall that I got started as a writer.
3) What did you learn when writing the book?
That you could spend a lifetime reading about the Second World War! The resources for this period are unparalleled in their richness and range which can be a bit of a minefield for the novelist as there are so many intriguing rabbit holes of research to fall into. I struggled in writing the early drafts of this novel (of which there were many!) in knowing what to leave out and this is part of the reason why When We Fall took so many years to write. Now, I have learnt to focus much more closely on the story and to research only what is needed, a bit like learning to fish with a rod and line rather than a supertrawler-sized net. I’m still often tempted down historical rabbit holes though!
3) What did you learn when writing the book?
One of the characters in When We Fall, the pioneering Polish aviator Janina Lewandowska, was a real person and I was astonished, once the book was published, to be contacted by two of her relatives. This was a slightly unnerving surprise as I had written about Janina, who died young, as if she were a fictional character by imagining events at the end of her life purely for the purposes of my story. I assumed, without giving it any real thought, that because she and her sister were killed during the war and had no children, there would be no living family connection to her left in the world. This assumption turned out to be entirely wrong as her memory is kept alive amongst her father’s relatives, the Dowbor-Muśnicki family in Argentina, and her husband’s new English family, the Lewandowski’s. It has been a fascinating and a truly humbling experience to find out so much more about the real Janina, and the lives of the people she loved, through her young relatives.
4) What was the last book that you bought at a bookshop?
It has been marvellous to start visiting bookshops again! When I called in at the lovely Warwick Books a couple of weeks ago, I bought Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski. This excellent novel about a gay man finding his way through life in communist Poland has just been long-listed for the Historical Writers’ Association debut Crown Award. The debut list is really strong this year and I’d recommend any reader looking for good historical fiction to take a look. I may be biased, though, as my own debut, The Conviction of Cora Burns was long-listed last year!
5) What was the best book you read during lockdown?
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. This novel has it all; unforgettable characters, a constantly twisting plot, a portrait of a vanished society (post-war Ireland) and the most sublime sentences, both heart-breaking and hilarious, that any novelist could hope to write. John Boyne seems to have no trouble producing a brilliant book like this one every couple of years. I can only look on in wonder!
You buy tickets for An Evening with Carolyn Kirby here!