Blog tour: The Partisan Heart

Welcome to my date on the blog tour for The Partisan Heart, which I was recently lucky to read ahead of publication day.

I will share my review at the end of the week and today I have a treat for you: an interview with author Gordon Kerr!

Hi Gordon! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Partisan Heart! Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you. The book is a thriller, set in two different time frames, mostly in North Italy. The first is during the Italian Civil War which was fought between 1943 and 1945, partisans and communists fighting against fascist forces and the occupying Nazis. A young partisan falls in love with the wife of his commander and no good comes of it. Interlaced with this is a story set in 1999 when a journalist, Michael Keats, loses his wife in a hit-and-run incident. He discovers that she has been having an affair and in trying to find the identity of her lover and investigate the kidnapping of the daughter of a local industrialist, he discovers that the brutal repercussions of the war still reverberate. Five decades of duplicity and deception are revealed in an explosive finish. 

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing the book or did it take an unexpected turn as the characters grew on the page?

A: I know it sounds implausible, but the story arrived with me almost fully-formed, as if it found me, rather than I created it. Of course, there were amendments as I put it down on paper – when you’re juggling two complicated timelines, there are bound to be adjustments and new turns of plot. But, I knew, on the whole, what the start was, what the main body of the book was, and, most importantly, how it would end. I can’t say I sat down and wrote down the structure or anything as organised as that because that’s not really my style. But I knew where it was going. To my mind, the ending is the most important bit of a book like this. If you know how it is going to end, you can just work backwards and everything will be alright. Or, at least, that’s the way it worked for me. But you also have to remember, although I’ve written many non-fiction books, this is my first venture into the world of fiction. It might not happen like this again for me.

What kind of research, if any, did you have to carry out while you were writing this novel? In general, is research something you enjoy or a means to an end?

A: I have to enjoy research as my day-job is writing books of history, travel, art, biography etc. This was more organic, I guess. My sister-in-law married an Italian from the Valtellina where much of the book takes place and we have been visiting that area for decades. Therefore, I am very familiar with the region. We have also got to know the people of the Valtellina and when we first visited, there were still many who had gone through the war and a number who had even fought as partisans. Also, the area at that time was still quite rooted in the past. There were no supermarkets or motorways. Now, it’s like everywhere else with shopping malls and a motorway cutting right through the middle of the valley but back then it was so different. And there were men in my brother-in-law’s family who had fought as partisans in the surrounding mountains, although they were dark, silent individuals who did not really talk about their experiences. His father was even transported as forced labour to Germany. So, I think I assimilated that kind of atmosphere and eventually used it in the book.

If this novel was going to be turned into a film, who would you cast in the role of Michael?

A: Tom Hiddlestone would be rather good as Michael and I rather fancy Al Pacino as the older Sandro! 

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: I’m very proud of a scene that I call ‘Michael’s Dream’. It is a recurring dream that he has throughout the book. It’s quite random and serves no real purpose other than to demonstrate the disturbed state of Michael’s mind after his wife’s terrible death. I thought of taking it out, because, of course, nothing should be in there that isn’t driving the plot forward, but I couldn’t. I reasoned that there was nothing wrong with a little bit of random mystery and it kind of helps to build the atmosphere. There are a couple of other scenes of which I am also very proud but they would be spoilers, I’m afraid – so I’ll keep them to myself.

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: My editor was very good at expunging my clichés and stereotypes. Not that there were a lot, really, but it definitely helped the book. I learned a very big lesson about that kind of thing from her. She was also good at excising my more purple passages! It brought to mind that piece of advice that William Faulkner gave: ‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings’. It means, of course, that you should cut out sentences or phrases to which you are particularly attached, but which do not really work within the context of the whole piece of writing. You need to look at the whole work with a wide-angle lens at all times.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I am hoping that Michael Keats will return in another thriller set in Italy. It might not have a Second World War theme, but he will get into plenty of scrapes and escape, once more, by the skin of his teeth.

What are you reading at the moment?

A: I am reading a brilliant spy novel – All the Old Knives - by a master of the art – Olen Steinhauer. It’s intense, complex and magnificently well-written. I’ve loved all his books, but this might be his best yet. I am also reading a lot of books about the Korean War as I am writing a short history of that conflict for publication in 2020. 

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: My history projects don’t get this kind of scrutiny – so this is an entirely new world for me. It is demanding, but I regard the opportunities provided by social media as nothing but positive. I have worked in publishing and bookselling and am keenly aware of how limited the opportunities to promote or publicise a novel were back in the days before the internet and social media. If you failed to get a newspaper review or get into a bookshop promotion, there wasn’t a lot else you could do. Now, there are so many opportunities and the great thing is, you are often preaching to the converted, as it were, to an audience which is interested in – and extremely knowledgeable about - your particular genre of writing, whether it is thrillers, sci-fi, historical fiction or fantasy. I never really took to Twitter until a few months ago when I was advised by my publisher just how useful it could be in building momentum for a book. I have been astonished and delighted. The Twitter crime-writing community is amazingly supportive. I have had lots of positive and supportive messages from people I don’t know. Whereas Facebook seems somewhat limited to your particular friends, Twitter has the knack of creating ripples of interest that spread across the community. I just need to get to grips with Instagram now! As for my writing schedule, well, it has been up the creek for weeks now, but that’s fine. I knew the publication of the novel would create a certain amount of disruption and I’ll get back to normal once the excitement has all died down…not that I want it to!

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: Just do it!

Thank you for your time!

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