Friday 11 August 2017

#Blogival Interview: Monika Jephcott-Thomas

Last Updated: 02 June 2024

Today I am pleased to welcome author Monika Jephcott-Thomas to the blog for my second offering as part of Clink Street Publishing's 2017 summer Blogival.

Clink Street Publishing Summer Blogival banner

Good morning, Monika! Could you begin by telling me a little about your background?
I grew up in Dortmund Mengede, north-west Germany. In 1966, I moved to the UK, married and raised three wonderful children. After a thirty-year career in education, I moved into the therapeutic world. 
By 1998, along with my partner Jeff, we had established the Academy of Play & Child Psychotherapy, became founder members of Play Therapy UK and in 2002, I was elected President of Play Therapy International. Our work together culminated in the official recognition of the play therapy profession by 2013, an endorsement of our devotion to help the twenty percent of children in the world who have emotional, behavioural, social and mental health problems by using play and the creative Arts. I have published various papers on strategies of psychological support for children for the likes of UNICEF, but Fifteen Words is my first foray into fiction.
How did you first become interested in writing?
I was doing some research into my family history, as most of us do at some stage of our lives and, also as most of us do whose parents grew up during the world wars, I felt their stories were the stuff of novels. My parents were both German. They met during the Second World War and were eventually separated by it, as Max and Erika are in the novel – my father having to go off and serve as a doctor in the German army, not because he wanted to (he was not a supporter of the Nazi party), but because he was conscripted, like so many young men across the globe in the early ’40s.
Tell me about Fifteen Words.
The novel is heavily inspired by the real-life trials and tribulations of my parents’ early married lives – simply because they are so inherently dramatic – whilst allowing me to depict the complexity of growing up in Nazi Germany among the potent forces of religion and fascism competing for young souls. It is also an exploration of the strength of human relationships, which the war tested greatly, in an age when letter writing was one of the few long distance forms of communication available to most; when the fighting separated husbands and wives, children and parents for extensive periods of time and over vast distances. 
Fifteen Words by Monika Jephcott-Thomas book cover
In the book, Max is a POW in a Russian labour camp on the edge of the Arctic for four long and painful years. I was shocked to find out, during my research for this novel, that German POWs in those Soviet labour camps were only allowed to send letters home if they contained a maximum of fifteen words. So, in the novel, Max struggles over how to express everything he wants to tell Erika with such limitations. He enlists the help of his more artistic friends to help him. But finally in despair he writes something damning. It becomes one of the themes of the book: how we can say so much in so few words to beautiful or destructive effect.
Writing historical fiction must require a lot of research. How do you go about the research process?
One difficulty with researching history is the history books themselves. As we all know, history can be a very subjective thing, open to interpretation and manipulation by historians, depending on their political and cultural bias. Every few decades, top secret documents are released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, the 30 year rule, etc and we find ourselves a little closer to the truth; a little more aware of how history is not as black and white as we might have thought. 
That’s why I think some of the greatest tools for research are photographs. During the research for Fifteen Words, I would pore for hours over photos found in archives, on the internet and in my families own collections. Luckily, the age of photography was still reasonably young in the early-mid twentieth century, so the photos I saw could not have been doctored; and as such they are often the most honest and objective interpretation of the past we can find. Photos are so full of stuff to inspire your imagination; full of details that can populate a writer’s descriptions.

Private letters are similarly useful, as they can help you imagine the voices of your characters, the vocabulary they might use, the turns of phrase they might employ. Letters often can tell us what kind of issues occupied the minds of people during the eras you are writing about. For example, nearly all of the letters in my novel Fifteen Words are near transcriptions of genuine ones I found in archives. I would match a letter to the appropriate character, or sometimes a letter I stumbled across inspired a whole new turn of events in the book.
Monika Jephcott-Thomas author photo

What made you decide to tell the story of the German experience of the war?
There are not many books written in English about the German experience of WW2. Many early readers of the manuscript of Fifteen Words found it an eye-opener, informing them about the war in a way they never thought of before, without it being a text which tries to rewrite history. In no way does it attempt to say the Nazis weren’t to blame for the atrocities of the war, but it merely points out that not all Germans were Nazis. As with any war, which we see all too often today, there are many civilian casualties, from all strata of society. In this very human story I hope I have been able to reaffirm how all of us, from whatever nation, for all our differences, still suffer and rejoice in remarkably similar ways.
What’s your writing process?
Most of my best work is done in the morning. I am a very early riser. I have to be to get everything done as I am still heavily involved in Play Therapy International full time.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
One of the main difficulties of writing historical fiction is the research – or more specifically getting bogged down in the research. Research is important of course and reality is so often stranger than fiction, which is why history provides such good fodder for novelists, but at the end of the day we are writing historical fiction.  
As a reader, if you want to read a history book, I would suggest you don’t pick up a novel. As a writer, I would suggest, that as soon as something you research sparks your imagination, get writing and stop researching. I often have blank spaces in the pages I write; spaces where a fact or detail needs to be added, but it is not so vital to keep me from actually writing the drama my characters are going through. Later on, after the writing is done, I can go back and fill in the blanks. The internet, being just a click away, is a very tempting and useful tool, but it can lead you down labyrinths that are a massive distraction sometimes. It’s better not to go there until after or before your actual writing time.
What are you currently working on?
The sequel to Fifteen Words is coming soon. It is called The Watcher.
Fifteen Words is available to buy now (paid link; commission earned). 

What do you think? Will you be reading the book? Let me know in the comments below!

No comments:

Post a Comment