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Interview with Dianne Ascroft, author of Hitler and Mars Bars

December 12, 2008

Dianne Ascroft, author of Hitler and Mars Bars, not only sent me her book to read (my review), but also graciously agreed to answer some question about her book, writing, reading, and some other random things. Welcome Dianne!

Buy Hitler and Mars Bars at Amazon!

What was the ‘spark’ for this novel? Was there a particular scene that came to you, or a moment when you said to yourself “oh yes, I have to write about that”, or was it a more gradual process?

Deciding to write this story was definitely a gradual process. Hitler and Mars Bars was inspired by the real events of the Irish Red Cross humanitarian initiative, Operation Shamrock, which aided German children after World War II. Several years ago I met a German man who, as a child, was brought to Ireland as part of the initiative and he told me his story. It was the first time I had heard of Operation Shamrock and his experiences piqued my interest. I wanted to find out more about it and read any material I could find on the subject. I also watched an Irish television documentary about the children’s experiences.

There was very little written about it so I spoke to people from the communities that had hosted the children, including some evacuees, their foster families, their classmates, their neighbours and members of the clergy. At this point I was researching it for my own curiosity. Then, after I had collected all this information I wrote a non-fiction article for an Irish magazine, Ireland’s Own, about the experiences of one child who participated in the project.

With the article completed, I thought that was the end of it. I had satisfied my curiosity and I didn’t intend to do anything further with my research. But, after the article was printed, I still had images and impressions of the people and places swirling around in my mind. I couldn’t forget their stories. BBC broadcaster and journalist, Brian D’Arcy, when he reviewed my novel, saw that the human stories were what moved me and captured my imagination. He wrote in his review that the book was ‘beautifully written with a strong human story running through it.’ Family members suggested that the information I’d uncovered could be moulded into a good novel. Initially I didn’t want to pursue it, but with the stories still in my mind, the idea grew on me and I decided to write the novel.

Why Erich? How did you pick him as a narrator, and what made you choose to tell the story almost exclusively from his point of view?

Most of my research about Operation Shamrock centred on boys’ experiences in the programme and I spoke at great length with the German man who originally told me about the programme. So it seemed natural that the main character would be a boy. Also, with Irish society’s rather rigid gender roles in this era, many of the scenes I planned could not be written with a girl as the central character.

Since Hitler and Mars Bars is the story of a child’s experiences as part of Operation Shamrock, presenting the story from his point of view has the most impact. What the child thinks and feels is more important than any other character’s perceptions. I wanted the reader to understand what life was like for Erich, not those around him.

What surprised you most about your book and/or characters as you were writing? Did anything turn out radically different than you’d originally thought it would?

Nothing turned out radically different than I initially imagined it would. Because I set fictional characters into real historic events, I had a rough idea how the story would go so I didn’t deviate much from my original plan. I also felt that I knew my characters well (and after the research I’d done, despite never meeting them, I felt I knew some of the people they were drawn from) so they didn’t surprise me with unexpected behaviour.

I think some of the details I discovered about life during that era surprised me most. It wasn’t very long ago but their lives were so different from ours. For instance, I was amazed to find that electricity lines weren’t installed at rural Irish homes until the mid to late 1950s and that Ireland didn’t have their own television station until 1960. I was also amazed to find that it was still common in the 1940s for country women to cook over the open hearth and to have an oven built into the fireplace. Major changes to their lifestyle happened much more recently than I’d imagined.

What’s the most recent “gotta recommend it” book that you’ve read?

A Man Like Any Other: The Priest’s Tale by Mary Cavanagh (Troubador Publishing). The plot is original and the characters jump off the page. I want to meet these characters in real life – and I always want to feel that when I read a novel.

What books are on your nightstand at the moment?

The Gathering by Anne Enright, Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon, Where’s My Begonia, Rose? by John Reihill, Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy and Through the Year with Brian D’Arcy. As you can see, I really need more time to catch up on my reading! I’ve been working my way through Gabaldon’s book for ages – and it’s too big to carry around with me during the day to read in any free time I have!

What’s one thing you can cook better than anyone else?

Well, it’s not apple sauce…I was making some last night but I forgot about it when I went to feed the cats and it was burnt to the pot when I got back to the kitchen…Nothing was on fire though, thankfully. My husband wasn’t too impressed when he washed the dishes…

I guess I cook a decent pork loin, roasted in the oven with sweet potato and turnip. No one else I know, in Northern Ireland, roasts vegetables (other than potatoes) with meat. I learned to make this dish in Canada. With a few herbs, such as thyme, rosemary and sage added, and gravy – and apple sauce when I don’t weld it to the pot – it is lovely.

Where would you go on your dream vacation?

I don’t really have a ‘dream vacation’ but there are still quite a few places I want to see. The next destination on my list is a mountainous region of France – either the Pyrenees or the Alps – in spring or summer. I’m not a skier but I enjoy walking. There’d be an amazing sense of freedom to walk surrounded by such fantastic scenery.

Is there a question that you always hope an interviewer will ask, but no one ever does?

Do I have to answer it as well?! Oh, okay…

I don’t have a particular question that I have a burning desire to answer but, during the Virtual Tour I’m doing, I wrote a guest post on the website to discuss one question I’ve never been asked.

The question is ‘How did you name the towns and villages you created for the novel?’

Although I used the real names of larger cities and towns, I invented the names of the smaller places where the story is set. Using simple Irish Gaelic words, I combined the words to create new words based on the traditional way places were named. The more detailed explanation is given in my guest post at Historical

Conversely, is there a question you’re sick of answering?

I can’t say I’m actually sick of answering any question, but my heart sinks when an interviewer asks, ‘What advice would you give an aspiring writer?’ Since Hitler and Mars Bars is my first novel, I still feel like a new writer and I’m not sure that I’m qualified to answer the question. I have a few tips that might help other new writers but, give me a few years to get more experience behind me then I will be able to answer it more confidently.

Okay, I ask this of everyone, so I’ve got to know: Who do you think would win in a fight, pirates or ninjas?

Oh dear, I think I must be out of the loop here. Which pirates or ninjas are we talking about? If it’s Johnny Depp and his crew in Pirates of the Caribbean, then the pirates always have to triumph, don’t they?! I’d be crushed if they didn’t.

Dianne Ascroft is a Canadian author and writer, living in Britain. Her first novel, Hitler and Mars Bars was released in March 2008. You can learn more about the book by checking out her website, and more about her by visiting her blog.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2008 8:19 am

    Great interview.

  2. December 12, 2008 1:56 pm

    Lol. Great questions!!!

  3. December 12, 2008 4:17 pm

    I enjoyed your review, and this is a great interview! I learned a lot about the time period just from the various reviews I’ve read in the past few days. *Hitler and Mars Bars* is going on my Friday Finds!

  4. December 14, 2008 2:08 pm

    bermudaonion – Thanks!

    Jen – Heh, thanks. My last question always makes me giggle, but I’m never sure if an author’s going to get my sense of humor, or if they’re going to see it and go “oooooooookay, crazy lady.”

    Dawn – It is an interesting time period, and one that it doesn’t seem like there’s that much written about it.

  5. December 16, 2008 12:41 pm

    Great interview. I love the final three questions and Ascroft’s answers. Fantastic.


  1. She Is Too Fond Of Books … » Blog Archive » Friday Finds: December 19, 2008

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