Author Interview: Helena P. Schrader

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott is talking with Helena P. Schrader, author of Grounded Eagles: Three Tales of the RAF in WWII.

FQ: Have you traveled to or maintained any personal ties to the countries/locations about which you write, and if so, how does that affect your compositions?

SCHRADER: I spent a number of years in the UK as a teenager, a formative age, and visited regularly thereafter. I still have friends there, although it has been a decade since I last spent much time there. My father was teaching engineering at Portsmouth Polytechnic when we lived in England, and I visited RAF Tangmere more than once. That was where I became fascinated by the Battle of Britain. So, yes, visiting a place is very important to my ability to get inspired by a topic and also to visualize it and write about it.

FQ: What single piece of advice would you give to a person preparing to read your work with little previous knowledge of the RAF and the wartime events you depict?

SCHRADER: I’d like to think that no reader needs any background information before reading my books. Yet it is also clear to me that people with RAF ties will probably be my best customers. Since two of the stories revolve around minor characters in Where Eagles Never Flew, reading that first might enhance the experience of reading Grounded Eagles. On the other hand, the tales in Grounded Eagles are only about 100 pages each whereas Where Eagles Never Flew is 600 pages long. So, I suspect more people will want to start with these simple tales and then, if they are intrigued by the era, milieu and characters, go on to read Where Eagles Never Flew. For those unfamiliar with RAF 1940s jargon, it might be useful to scan through the glossary before starting to read so that one doesn’t have to interrupt the action to look up something.

FQ: What initiated your fascination for aviation?

SCHRADER: It may have been flying at the age of three across the United States from Michigan to California and from there to Hawaii and finally on to Japan. Those flights were in DC-4s — four engine propellor planes with a maximum passenger capacity of 80. Air travel at the time was still a luxury with excellent service and an ambience of adventure rather than stress. It was also an age when children travelling were extremely rare, and everyone made a fuss about me. Two years later, we flew back from Japan via Hong Kong, Bangkok, Karachi, New Delhi, Ankara, Istanbul, and Rome. We drove across Europe from Rome to Copenhagen but my five-year-old brain could not absorb so much data and I remember the early parts of the trip better. From Copenhagen, we flew to London and finally via Dublin across the Atlantic. I can being invited into the cockpit on several occasions. I loved it! In retrospect, I suppose the flights punctuated the stream of impressions, and aircraft interiors, being more or less identical, seemed familiar and so comforting. I have certainly had a love of travel ever since.

FQ: Once settled on aviation as a focus, what drew you so strongly to concentrate on World War II?

Author Helena P. Schrader

SCHRADER: It started with the Battle of Britain, which was a classic underdog-beats-bully fight. The Luftwaffe seemed to hold all the cards and the RAF was not given much of a chance of winning — certainly not in the U.S. that was still strictly neutral and had almost written Britain off. It was also a close-run battle — despite what some pundits will tell you with the benefit of hindsight. At squadron level, the RAF was sustaining between 50% and 70% casualties (including wounded). Replacement pilots were sometimes shot down on their first combat sortie; many did not survive ten days. The average age of pilots in the Battle was 20, and these were very ordinary young men, still immature and often incredibly irresponsible. But perhaps most appealing to a novelist, they were literally fighting over their homes, their girl-friend’s place-of-work and the playing fields of the schools they had attended only months before. They could return from a near-death encounter with the Luftwaffe and go out to a dance with their girl or drop in on their Mum for dinner. That mixture of war with home-front was unique in history and provides a wonderful setting for fiction.

FQ: Other than its relative rarity, what prompted you to compose a romance about older people?

SCHRADER: “A Rose in November” was a wedding gift for my older sister when she married at age 55. She had complained to me that all romances featured young lovers and longed for a story that featured mature lovers. I’d just finished writing “Where Eagles Never Flew,” and one of my favorite characters in that novel is Hattie Fitzsimmons, an unmarried woman in her mid-forties, who rather than sitting around feeling sorry for herself had become active in the Salvation Army. Her role in Where Eagles Never Flew, was almost insignificant, however, so as soon as my sister complained, I thought: “That’s it! I’ll tell Hattie’s story.”

FQ: Have you considered writing your own life story, since it must surely be very interesting (!)?

SCHRADER: Never. I can’t think of anything more boring than talking and writing about myself. I’ve lived my life, for heaven’s sake! Day by day and week by week Why would I want to relive it again and again as I develop a manuscript?

I’m not saying I haven’t had an interesting life. I have. If someone else wanted to write a biography at some point (long after I’m dead) it might even make a good read. Yet, I’m not at all attracted by the idea of spending my time wallowing in memories and glorifying myself in any way. I firmly believe that if I have any skill at all it is gift intended to tell the story of others — people more deserving than myself.

FQ: Do you believe that current thinking on PTSD among soldiers is as advanced and sensitive as it needs to be?

SCHRADER: I’m not qualified to answer that question. I’m a historian and novelist and my research focused on the RAF’s concept of Lack of Moral Fibre (LMF) — which is not the same thing as PTSD.

PTSD is a recognized psychological diagnosis describing symptoms caused by a traumatic experience such as being a victim of violent crime, a natural disaster, rape, or combat. LMF, in contrast, was a term invented by senior RAF leadership in 1940 to deal with the unexpected refusal of some volunteer aircrews to fly.

The refusal to fly was in some cases caused by PTSD triggered by combat experiences, but not always. Nearly one third of all LMF cases came from Training Command and involved men who had not seen any combat at all. Other factors such as lack of confidence in commanders and aircraft also led to the refusal to fly. In short, LMF should not be conflated with PTSD, and I have no qualifications whatsoever to talk about PTSD in the modern environment.

FQ: Can you say a bit more about the next novel you have planned and the role to be played by a previous character depicted in Grounded Eagles?

SCHRADER: I’d be delighted! Without any spoilers, the leading character in “Lack of Moral Fibre”, Pilot Officer Christopher “Kit” Moran, also plays a leading role in my next release Lancaster Skipper.

Lancaster Skipper is a long overdue (on my part) tribute to the men of RAF Bomber Command. While the “fighter boys” of the Battle of Britain are everyone’s darling because they were indeed so “few” fighting a defensive war against the Nazi aggressor, the “bomber boys” were trapped in a subsequently discredited bombing offensive against the German people. The efficacy of strategic bombing was called into question almost before the war was over, and the horrible toll on the civilian population — particularly the fire storms that consumed Hamburg and Dresden — horrified many in the post-war era.

While hardly anyone blames the pawns of this war, the aircrew, they are usually portrayed in literature as victims rather than heroes, as the dunces of the diabolical and heartless political and military leadership. Yet interviews with surviving veterans don’t wholly support this popular view. Many former Bomber Command aircrew firmly believed that they contributed materially to victory in WWII. I agree with them. I wanted, therefore, to write a book that highlighted their role and gave them more nuanced faces and voices. Lancaster Skipper follows the pilot of a Lancaster from the start of operational training to the end of a tour of operations. The woman he loves and the other six members of his crew all have supporting roles — particularly his girlfriend.

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