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Exquisitely Written Historical Fiction: Q&A with Kate Furnivall about her new book The Survivors

October 23, 2018

About The Author:

Kate Furnivall didn’t set out to be a writer. It sort of grabbed her by the throat when she discovered the story of her grandmother – a White Russian refugee who fled from the Bolsheviks down into China. That extraordinary tale inspired her first book, The Russian Concubine. From then on, she was hooked.

Kate is the author of eight novels, including The Russian Concubine, The White Pearl and The Italian Wife. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages and have been on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Purchase a copy of The Survivors here 

Read our full review here 

You have written quite a collection of historical fiction novels (ten and counting!). There’s no doubt that this is such a popular and beloved genre. Why do you think people are so drawn to and engaged by historical fiction?

All of us wonder who we are and where we came from. We look back at the past and ask ourselves questions about how we got where we are today. What were the triggers along the way? This is where historical fiction plays an important role in helping us answer those questions.

Readers want to be swept away by an enthralling story that carries them to a different time and place, but they also want the writer to unlock history for them. To make it more accessible through their stories. This is what I aim to do. When I write my books I invite my readers to step inside the minds of my historical characters to make the reasons for certain events in the past clearer. I relish the fact that time and again readers contact me to tell me they have learned something new from my books. It means a lot to me.

In my latest book, The Survivors, the story is set in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany and I am finding that this is a small blind spot of history that few people know much about. My narrative is about refugees in 1945 but I feel that their situation still resonates with us today when we see the tragic pictures of the Syrian refugees on the news. We have to learn from our past mistakes to prevent repeating them and I believe that historical fiction helps us to do so.

Historical fiction is, of course, inspired and influenced by historical events and people. Even though the writing is fictionalised, how much research must go into these books to make them as authentic as possible?

Historical fiction has to be, above all else, accurate in its facts. It is something I feel strongly about. I see it as my duty as a writer of historical fiction to make certain I get my research facts absolutely accurate. My readers have to be able to trust me. Occasionally a genuine historical figure does pop up for a brief appearance in my books, figures like Mussolini and Josephine Baker, but I keep them very much within their known behaviour patterns.

My research always starts with books on my chosen place and subject. I scour the internet for them, I devour them. I learn the history, politics and geography of a place, so that I can move through it with ease. But my passion is for autobiographies. And diaries. They give me goosebumps. They provide the kind of intimate details that are gold-dust to a writer. I also spend weeks pouring over old photographs and tracking down old film footage on YouTube.

The trouble is that I can get so hooked on the thrill of research that I forget to start the book! But when I’ve read everything I can, then I pack my case, pocket my passport, and with my heart thumping with anticipation I set off to see the location with my own eyes.

I have read that to write your books, you embark on research trips, using your experiences as a means of enriching your novels. Do you think lived experiences are more valuable than research when it comes to writing historical fiction?

They are definitely a lot more fun! Sitting in the Old Town Square in Warsaw sipping a Polish nalewka or wandering down Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin certainly beats pouring over books and photographs in my study, that’s for sure.

When I have absorbed all the facts and figures from books I’ve studied, I head over to the chosen setting for my story – whether it is Paris or Naples or Berlin – to check it out for myself. To get my hands dirty. To absorb the smells and hear the sounds, to drink the wine and listen to the voices. I have to let the atmosphere seep under my skin. To tread the cobbles where my characters will walk, to sit in the cafés where my characters will talk. I chat with locals, I plague my guides with question after question, I become part of the place.

All these impressions reverberate within me, so that by the time I sit down to put pen to paper they should spill readily on to the page. That’s the theory anyway!

At the core of your story The Survivors is a mother’s undying love for her child. As a mother yourself, did you draw on your own experiences of motherhood to portray that motherly, innate instinct to protect one’s child at all costs?

Of course. The maternal instinct is hard-wired into all animals. You only have to watch a fragile gazelle defending its young fawn against a lion attack to see the self-sacrificing devotion and ferocity triggered by the threat to its offspring. I can recall incidents with my own two sons that set my blood boiling at times, but never did I have to confront a threat to their lives, the way Klara has to in The Survivors.

As soon as she spots Oskar Scholz – a man from her past – in the Displaced Persons camp, her senses are on full alert because she knows he is a danger to her daughter, Alicja. She reacts with the ferocity of a tigress. In that instant she makes the decision to kill him, a life-changing decision. There is no middle ground. His life or her daughter’s. Klara does not hesitate. He has to die. How many of us are capable of making that decision? Capable of that kind of love. It raises all sorts of moral questions that Klara has to wrestle with in the silent still moments of the night. But the maternal instinct to protect her child drives her on. Would I do the same?

You bet I would.

The protagonist of your book is female, and is very much focused on how she experiences and navigates the war as a woman and mother. We are seeing a trend of this at the moment – women writing women, putting female experiences at the forefront. What are your thoughts on this? Why do you think we are seeing more female protagonists in historical fiction, as well as more female (bestselling) authors?

Women in this #MeToo age are taking control of their lives in unprecedented numbers.  And so they should. They are making their voices heard very publicly and of course they want to see themselves in the books they read, to see that the women in the stories reflect this shift of focus. They expect to be given role models, to be reminded of what they can achieve. Reminded of what they should not allow. They need to see, within the safe place that lies between book-covers, that women can reach out towards wider horizons.

We are now increasingly aware of the major role that women have played in the past, the unsung heroines and power-brokers of history. But history was traditionally written by men, so the female role in it was always underplayed. The wonderful author Philippa Gregory has done a truly brilliant job of unearthing the experiences of some of the strong female figures through the centuries whose stories deserve to be told, whether a maidservant or the Queen of England.

We are looking at history with fresh eyes, with more and more women taking up their pen to re-examine the events of the past from a female perspective. I intend my own strong-minded female protagonists to be a part of this powerful growing voice.


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