Interview with Helen Watts, Author of ‘One Day in Oradour’ and CILIP Carnegie Nominee
Helen Watts has worked in publishing for 25 years – editing, commissioning and producing fiction, non-fiction and poetry on a wide range of subjects for readers of all ages.
After years spent shaping other people’s words, Helen wanted to focus on her own writing. Her historical novel, ‘One Day at Oradour’, based on the true story of the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane during WWII, was released earlier this year and has been nominated for a CILIP Carnegie Medal.
Helen Watts’ second novel, ‘No Stone Unturned’, will be published in 2014 and she is also co-writing two collections of World War I legends – one for adults and one for children – to coincide with the World War I centenary celebrations, beginning in 2014.
Helen is currently working on her third novel, a mystery story for teenagers set in York, which is claimed to be the most haunted city in England. Book Walrus interrupted her busy schedule to ask her about ‘One Day in Oradour’ and her recent award nomination.
Hello Helen, it’s the second Sunday in November, so it seems a good time to ask – do you think it’s important for young people to understand the significance of Remembrance Day?
Yes absolutely. We can learn so much from the past, and the efforts, courage and bravery of former generations deserves to be remembered. Hopefully, if young people are given the opportunity to learn about past wars, they can help to make sure that their own and future generations can live together peacefully.
From your experiences, doing school visits or book readings, do you think young people are well informed about this period in history?
The majority of children in the schools I go into are surprisingly well informed about the Second World War. One of the slides in my presentation is a shot of Allied soldiers landing on the Normandy beaches and there is usually someone in the audience who is able to identify the picture as D-Day.
They also have a good knowledge of the Holocaust – both from their history lessons and from reading books like John Boyne’s Boy In the Striped Pyjamas. But young people seem to have far less knowledge of what everyday life was like for people in occupied France during the war – and I rarely come across anyone who knows about the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. That was largely why I was determined to tell that story in my novel.
Have you had anyone suggest this story isn’t ‘appropriate’ for children? If so, what was your response?
No one has challenged me yet about the appropriateness of the story. However, if they did I would argue that, while I was careful not to include some of the most graphic details of the true events, I was determined not to write a version of the story which was too safe or too sanitised. This was, after all, a real event. People can be cruel. To have over-simplified the story of Oradour-sur-Glane would have meant doing a disservice not only to those who lost their lives or lost loved ones that day, but also to the reader, for this is a story which can open the reader’s eyes to the extremes of human behaviour. It can hold up a mirror to a world in which, side by side, there can exist a man like Gustav Dietrich, who is willing to order the mass slaughter of hundreds of innocent people, and a seven-year-old boy like Alfred Fournier, who has the courage and sheer determination to survive against all odds while his world is turned upside down around him.
How have children responded to the story? Have you had any interesting letters/emails?
I have had a fantastic response from young readers. Children seem particularly captivated by the stories of the survivors and I have had lots of questions from children in schools – and emails – asking what I would have done in those circumstances, what happened to these people after the war and so on. The story I tell is, without doubt, a shocking and a surprising one and it does seems to capture the interest of even the most reluctant readers.
How did you find out about events at Oradour-sur-Glane? What made you decide to visit that particular part of France?
My sister-in-law has a goat farm not far from Oradour-sur-Glane and it was on one of my first visits to see her there – over 10 years ago now – that I went to the memorial village at Oradour. I knew nothing at all about the events there beforehand. Because my sister-in-law lives so close, I was lucky to have a base there on subsequent research visits.
What was it in particular that inspired you to write?
It was a photograph in the Oradour-sur-Glane visitor centre: a picture of Roger Godfrin, the only school child to escape from the village that day. The picture was taken a year after the massacre and he was standing in the rubble of the destroyed village, looking so lost and so small. I wanted to know more about his story. I discovered that he was only seven and three quarters when he made his escape, which was about the age of my own son at the time – and so I was really touched and moved by the fact that a boy so young had the capacity to be so brave and so courageous in such frightening, alien circumstances.
Did you deliberately end with a degree of ‘retribution’ to reassure your readers that life isn’t as desperate and unfair and horrific as the book’s events suggest?
I did feel a responsibility to give my young readers some kind of reassurance at the end of the book – and I guess there was some part of me, personally, that wanted the character of Gustav Dietrich to pay some price for what he did. But to be honest I did not stray too far from the truth either. What happened to him in Normandy just 19 days after the Oradour massacre was mostly factual. I simply put my own interpretation upon what really happened.
What other books would you recommend for children who are interested in finding out more about WWII?
Well you can’t beat The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas, can you? That certainly influenced my approach to writing One Day In Oradour. But Morris Gleitzman’s Once is also an amazing book and I am a huge Sandi Toksvig fan and would highly recommend her book Hitler’s Canary. I like that because it tells the story of the war from a different perspective, drawing on Sandi’s Danish roots.
We were thrilled to hear you’d been nominated for the CILIP Carnegie medal. How did you feel when you heard?
Ecstatic, thrilled, over the moon… I couldn’t quite believe it. (I jumped around the room a bit too!) Seriously, it’s such a huge pat on the back and I feel honoured to be in such great company. Wow!
Book Walrus loved talking to Helen and believes that fictional accounts of real life stories, like One Day in Oradour, are a wonderful way to keep the memory of the bravery of past generations alive.
And we wish her the best of walrus luck with the CILIP Carnegie award!
We will be reviewing ‘One Day in Oradour’ on site tomorrow in our ‘reviews’ section.
One Day in Oradour, by Helen Watts
Published by A&C Black Childrens & Educational (9 May 2013)
AMAZON DESCRIPTION: On a hot summer afternoon in 1944, SS troops wiped out an entire French village. 644 men, women and children died that day. Just one child survived. This book tells the story of what happened in Oradour, and imagines what drove both the SS officer who ordered the massacre, and the seven-year-old boy who escaped it. Powerful, moving and almost unbearably tense, this book weaves the truth about what happened to the people in Oradour into a powerful fictional story centred on two characters: the plucky, inspirational seven-year-old Alfred Fournier, refugee and resident of Oradour, and the hot-headed, power-hungry SS commander who shattered his world and changed his life for ever, Major Gustav Dietrich. As their two worlds collide, we gain a fascinating insight into the extremes and contradictions of human behaviour and emotion. With a twist in the tale, this is a story which leaves the reader surprised, inspired and profoundly moved.