The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Giles Milton

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Giles Milton


Summary: Here at Bookbag we're great admirers of Giles Milton. He writes great fiction, wonderful children's books and we've just enjoyed his latest history book. The chance to talk to him was just too good to miss.
Date: 1 March 2011
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Here at Bookbag we're great admirers of Giles Milton. He writes great fiction, wonderful children's books and we've just enjoyed his latest history book. The chance to talk to him was just too good to miss.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Giles Milton: I don't have to close my eyes because I see them, for real, at the many speaking events I do. I'm always surprised what a mixed bunch they are! Young, old, men and women. I think that more women tend to read my novels and more men my history books. But I am hoping that Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War will change all this. As a family saga, and a particularly touching one at that, I think it will appeal to women just as much as men.

I particularly enjoyed my publicity tours in America (for Paradise Lost) and Australia (for White Gold). The audiences in both countries were young and very dynamic and they posed scores of thought-provoking questions.

  • BB: Wolfram: the Boy Who Went to War is the story of your father-in-law before and during World War II. How difficult was it for you to probe his life at that time – and did he find it traumatic to relive what happened?

GM: For years, Wolfram never spoke about his experiences during the war. I was desperate to ask what had happened to him, but - as you can possibly imagine - it's not the easiest question to ask your German father-in-law.

It was my daughter's school project that gave rise to the book. My father-in-law suddenly woke up to the fact that he had a fascinating and valuable story to tell. He spoke with ease and no subject was taboo. But he did tell me that he still had traumatic visual images of his time at the battlefront, when he and his comrades came under sustained attack from the Americans.

  • BB: Have your wife and daughters read 'Wolfram'? What did they think of it?

GM: My wife helped enormously with the book. I decided right from the outset that Wolfram needed to relive his experiences in German. I don't speak German and so it was Alexandra who conducted all the interviews - 60 hours of them. I set all the questions and requested more information if and when I needed it. My eldest daughter has just finished the book and found it fascinating - not just because it was about her family, but because she had never before considered what ordinary Germans experienced during the Third Reich.

  • BB: Some critics have said that it would have been better if Wolfram had been written by a non-family member, but as I read I saw Wolfram as the German 'Everyman', with the particular subject being almost irrelevant. Have I missed the point?

GM: No, you're right. Of course, Wolfram's family was not typical. They were bohemian, eccentric and highly idiosyncratic - that's what makes them so interesting. But the book is about more than one family. It's also about the many Germans who did not vote for the Nazis, who detested Hitler and who tried to live their lives under the Third Reich without compromising all of their ideals and sacrificing all of their morality.

  • BB: How long did it take you to write Wolfram and where and how do you write?

GM: It took about two years, like most of my books. Almost every word was written in the London Library - the most fabulous private library in London. A lot of writers work there and it provides a very stimulating environment. We tend to help each other by reading first drafts, chatting about our projects and suggesting changes. Oh, yes, we also go to the pub occasionally!

  • BB: Your main interest in history is in the survivors, which at first glance seemed rather like a newspaper concentrating on good news stories. How did your interest in this area develop?

GM: Actually, I'd say - in a nutshell - that my books are about ordinary people who find themselves (often through no fault of their own) in the most extraordinary situations. William Adams was a common mariner who ended up a samurai at the Japanese court. (Samurai William) Thomas Pellow was a cabin boy who found himself a slave at the Moroccan sultan's court. (White Gold) And Wolfram, in similar fashion, was an ordinary German who found himself conscripted into Hitler's brutal war machine.

  • BB: Here at Bookbag our eyes light up when we hear of a new Giles Milton book. We loved According to Arnold: A Novel of Love and Mushrooms, which was fiction for adults. We know of one four year old who thinks that Zebedee's Zoo is one of the bestest books ever and now we're enjoying Wolfram, a serious biography and history book. Is there no end to your genius? What can't you do?

GM: You're very kind! I can't do anything except write. And cook. Yes, I do love to cook. Maybe one day I shall write a cookery book. My favorite cuisine is Middle Eastern and North African. Meat with fruit - that sort of thing! And I can rustle up a delicious fish tagine.

  • BB: You seem to have embraced the internet more than most authors, with a brilliant blog and website and you're active on the social networks too. Do you see this as the future and do you enjoy it?

GM: Yes and no. I think it's essential these days for writers to embrace every single social network that exists! I'm lucky to have teenage daughters who are much more switched on than me and they give me advice! They keep telling me that twitter is a waste of time - we'll see! I think they're wrong.

I'm pretty hopeless with computers but I decided that if I was to have a website, I'd build and maintain it myself. That way, I could continually update it. I know too many writers who pay someone to build their site - and then baulk at the idea of having to pay £100 each time they want it updated.

All this networking can take an enormous amount of time and energy - and for little tangible gain. But I'll keep doing it in the hope that one day I will reap rich rewards!

  • BB: You've got one wish. What's it going to be?

GM: For a publisher to publish a trilogy that I'm writing for 10 year olds. (Only the first volume is actually finished.) It's the story of the first English settlers in America and it's written from the point of view of four children. I wrote it without a commission or anything - it really was a labour of love, written - in part - to read to my daughters at bedtime. The first volume has just been sent to publishers - so watch this space.

  • BB: What's next for Giles Milton?

GM: I'm about to embark on a new history book. But I'm reticent to talk about new projects. If you talk about them, you can very quickly lose your enthusiasm. And when you're a writer, enthusiasm is everything!

  • BB: We won't even tell anyone that we asked you, Giles, but good luck with the book and we're looking forward to reading it.

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