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Author Interview: Helena P. Schrader

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Kathy Stickles is talking with Helena P. Schrader, author of Cold Peace: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift, Part I.

FQ: I must tell you that, while this is the first book of yours that I have read, I have just become your biggest fan. What makes World War II the topic that is so fascinating to you?

SCHRADER: I'm delighted that you enjoyed Cold Peace so much! I was a little afraid that it had too many characters and too complex a structure to captivate readers. On the other hand, I couldn't bring myself to "simplify" the story because that ultimately meant reducing the different perspectives. Now that you've discovered my work, I hope you will try one or another of my earlier books.

Now to your question. The easy answer is: I don't know. I don't know why I'm drawn to any particular topic. It is ultimately irrational. Something about a story, a period, a person, or an incident simply "clicks" within me and I know "I've got to write about that."

That said, World War II was obviously a transformational event for the whole world, and the long-term effects are still evident today, which makes it a never ending source of fascination to many writers. Personally, although I was born after the war, my parents, teachers and all the adults who influenced me growing up had experienced it in one way or another. I grew up watching reruns of WWII movies on TV. As a result, I feel "at home" in the era of the Second World War. The people that inhabit that era are as familiar to me as my own parents. That makes it easy to imagine them, their thoughts, attitudes, prejudices etc.

FQ: How long does it take to do the research on a topic before you can get the writing started? I have to imagine that it’s substantial, even with your background. Do you enjoy the research as much as the writing?

SCHRADER: I have a PhD in history and so I both learned the importance of and hoe to do exhaustive research - and I learned to love it. So, yes, I do enjoy researching a topic and an era as much as writing about it. In fact, if I'm interested in a topic/era, I keep on reading about it long after I'm finished with writing about it. As to how long it takes, there is no good answer to that because it depends so much on what you need to research. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the German Resistance to Hitler, so I had done extensive research predominantly in German about Nazi Germany long before I dreamed of writing this book. I also did massive amounts of research for my novels on the Battle of Britain and Bomber Command. These gave me a strong basis of knowledge about military aviation and the RAF culture. Add to that the fact that I lived in Berlin for over twenty years. That wasn't technically "research" but it means I know the city, the Berliners and, naturally, over time I met and talked to many people who had lived through the Blockade and Airlift. I visited the Airlift airfields, flying out of both Tempelhof and Tegel at various times because they were still operational airports when I first lived in Berlin. All that was part of the "research" that shaped Cold Peace, but can't really be counted in "how long it took" to research. The focused, specialized research on the Berlin Airlift took roughly one year and included many interviews, a trip to the UK to meet with participants, and correspondence with many more. That research was for a non-fiction book about the Berlin Airlift that I published in 2008. So when I returned to the topic to write a novel, I didn't have to do new research, only refresh and supplement my earlier research. I basically got to work right away and did the additional research as I discovered a need for it.

FQ: How did you come up with such a diverse and interesting group of fictional characters to add into the mix? Do you have a particular favorite among them?

Author Helena P. Schrader

SCHRADER: There are really two sets of characters in this book. The first set (Robin and Emily, Kit, David, Kiwi, and Christian) were characters in earlier books. It was because readers kept asking me "what happened to them after the war" that I was inspired to bring them together again in this novel. So I didn't have to invent them, they already existed.

The second set of characters (Charlotte, Jakob Liebherr, Kathleen and Hope, Galyna and Mila) introduced themselves as I started writing. They came to me as I considered key elements of the story that I wanted to tell.

Charlotte represents the women of Berlin, brutalized on an unprecedented scale and without any self-defence or retribution. I felt a traumatized young woman had to be central to the story and the fact that most books by male authors just show the women of Berlin as "loose" without seriously describing the reasons so many women were selling themselves for cigarettes made me doubly determined to give Charlotte a voice.

Liebherr, obviously, was invented to represent "official Berlin," the SPD and those fighting by legal, political means for the Berliners. They were historically incredibly important and admirable. The Airlift would have been called off if the Berlin government had not been so firm and dynamic. So I needed someone to bring them to life and make the people rather than chess figures. I fashioned Jakob on the Social Democratic leaders of the German Resistance to Hitler: Julius Leber and Wilhelm Leuschner.

Air Traffic Control was critical to the success of the Airlift but almost always mentioned only in passing in other books. This is simply because it is not as glamorous as flying or spying or politics. I wanted to have a storyline that enabled me to talk about the challenges and innovations in air traffic control, and when I read that the RAF had women Air Traffic Controllers on the Airlift, it "clicked." I wanted a woman Air Tafffic Controller as a character. A WAAF controller would almost certainly have been a controller in Bomber Command and so was most likely widowed. I added the fact that she was a single mother because that was a common fate then remains a major challenge for many women today.

I hadn't really planned on Soviet characters because I felt I didn't know enough and that I would get them wrong. At the same time, it bothered me that the main victims of Stalinism were his own people. The book was already in the re-write phase when Russia invaded Ukraine. Suddenly, I felt I should - even if only obliquely - do homage to Ukraine by reminding readers of the atrocities committed by Stalin against Ukrainians. In short, Galyna and Mila emerged because I felt the victims of Stalin needed a human face.

FQ: I see from your other books that some of these characters have made appearances in other stories. Tell us about those characters and books.

SCHRADER: Yes. Robin and Emily are the central figures in my Battle of Britain novel, Where Eagles Never Flew. That book is a comprehensive look at the Battle of Britain that strives to show what a close run thing it actually was, AND to show it from the perspective of a range of actors including ground crews, controllers, instructors, and civilians. It also has a German plotline (more on that later). One lead character in the book is Robin Priestman, an RAF pilot who rises to the position of Squadron Leader in the course of the book - and falls in love with Emily. The book ends in Oct. 1940 - so eight years before the start of "Cold Peace." A lot has happened to both of them in between!

David and Kiwi are comparatively minor characters in Where Eagles Never Flew. They are young recruits from overseas, David from Canada, and Kiwi from New Zealand. They land in the same Operational Training Unit and go on to the same frontline squadron - the squadron commanded by Robin Priestman. David is also the hero of my novella "A Stranger in the Mirror" which describes his identity crisis after being shot down in flames. Over eighteen months while the surgeons reconstruct a new face for him, David must come to terms with what his injuries mean and find decide who he is and wants to be.

Kit Moran is the hero of the novella Lack of Moral Fibre which describes how he, as a flight engineer in Bomber Command, reached a breaking point in November 1943 when he refuses to fly. As a result, he was posted away from his squadron for alleged cowardice and sent to a psychiatric diagnostic centre, where the staff must determine if he has had a mental breakdown or is just a coward, requiring disciplinary action. After finishing Lack of Moral Fibre I was woken up in the middle of the night by the realization that the novella was only the teaser for the "real" book - Moral Fibre that follows Kit after his release from the psychiatric facility. Moral Fibre ends in Oct. 1945, after the end of WWII.

Christian von Feldburg is the younger brother of the hero of Traitors for the Sake of Humanity. This novel about the German Resistance to Hitler traces key historical characters involved in the July 20 Plot against Hitler and the hero, Philip von Feldburg shares their fate. Christian is also one of the key characters in the German plotline of Where Eagles Never Flew. A Luftwaffe fighter pilot, Christian is shot down and taken prisoner by the Americans in North Africa. This ensures that he survives the war. In Cold Peace he represents the non-Socialist Germans who opposed Hitler and made such an important contribution to the foundation and development of West Germany.

FQ: Is it hard as a writer to intermix the historical figures and happenings with the fictional ones? You seem to do it so flawlessly.

SCHRADER: I don't actually find it difficult to work historical figures into my narrative because history is always the guide - the framework - of my novel. Because I'm not changing historical outcomes or tampering with the facts, I can let the historical personalities just be themselves.

Based on research, I know what the historical figures did and said publically. Sometimes we also know their more private thoughts based on letters or diaries. As appropriate, I let my fictional character interact with them to include key historical events in the narrative. An example of this is having Liebherr go with Ernst Reuter to his meeting with General Clay. The meeting between Clay and Reuter (both historical figures) on June 25, 1948 is legendary. I have read Clay's memoirs and the notes by Reuter's aide, Willy Brandt. By substituting Liebherr for Brandt, I could put one of my characters in the room with the two principals and allow the reader to share in this historic event - all without breaking out of the narrative. Likewise, by making Robin a friend of Colonel Howley, I can show the reader what this lynchpin, historical figure "Howlin' Mad Howley" was like, and bring him more to life. Although the dialogue between historical and fictional characters is always invented, it is based on what we know about the historical personalities and their opinions and attitudes at the time.

FQ: The descriptions regarding flying as well as what happens in the control tower are so vivid that the reader feels like they are there. How do you do that? Are you a pilot?

SCHRADER: Thank you for saying that! Although I took flying lessons, my husband felt flying small aircraft was dangerous and insisted that I stop. So, no, my descriptions are not based on my own experiences. My source material was memoirs, memoirs and more memoirs. First-hand accounts of pilots from WWII and the Airlift itself are my bread and butter. I have a cousin who is a retired USAF fighter pilot and a good friend who was an Air Traffic Controller for thirty years who I occasionally consult. I have also had some correspondence with other pilots, but mostly I rely on memoirs.

FQ: Can you give your readers, especially me, a glimpse into book 2 (and possibly book 3)?


Book 2, Cold War, picks up exactly where book 1 ends, on July 1, 1948. The Airlft has started, but there anywhere near aren't enough aircraft or crews to deliver what Berlin needs. The runways are grass (mud); there aren't enough air traffic controllers; no one is in overall command, and there is near chaos everywhere. The characters struggle to cope, prevent accidents, and deliver enough food and fuel to keep Berlin alive. We see the overview through the eyes of Robin Priestman as Station Commander and Jakob Liebherr as City Councilman, but we experience the problems through the eyes of Charlotte (who is terrified -- and faint from too little to eat) and David (who has to find ways to finance more aircraft and hire more crews and keep flying), and Kit, Kiwi and Emily who are flying in the crowded skies over Berlin, being shot at by the Soviets or encountering near misses in the heavy cloud. Meanwhile, Galyna gets an unexpected call from her mother, who is suddenly in Potsdam; the tentacles of Stalin's secret police are reaching out for her.

Book 2 also introduces two important new characters. Anna Savage is a former US Army nurse, a black woman from Georgia, and via Mrs Howley is recruited by Air Ambulance International to fly patients out of Berlin. J.B. Baronowsky is a USAF reserve pilot, who flew B-17s in WWII and is reactivated to fly on the Airlift. So, three weeks before his wedding, he finds himself flying a C-54 cargo plane via Newfoundland to Berlin. J.B. soon teams up with Lt. Gail Halvorsen, another hugely important historical figure, who has gone down in history as "the Candy Bomber," and he discovers that the "woman controller at Gatow" was the woman who once saved his life. He soon starts to wonder if that girl in Detroit is really the right one for him...

Book 2 essentially depicts the huge challenges the Allies faced in trying to supply 2.24 million civilians by air alone. They are still falling short of their goals when the worst fogs of a century roll in. In November the Airlift begins to break down and the book ends with Robin and J.B. both being sent home -- for different reasons.

Book 3, Cold Victory, continues the story showing how the Allies overcome the logistical difficulties and how the joint effort to overcome Soviet extortion solidifies the relationship between the U.S., Britain and the emerging West Germany. But it highlights that this success comes at a price, namely, an increasingly dangerous and vicious "cold war" with the Soviet Union. So there is a victory, but also a growing understanding of how difficult the conflict with the Soviet Union will be.

FQ: The photos on the front and back covers of the book are wonderful. Was it your idea to use actual photos instead of some type of artwork?

SCHRADER: I'm glad you like the cover images! Yes, I design my own covers. I'm a historian and find real photos wonderfully evocative. Art work never seems to live up to the real thing in my view. The use of photos continues a tradition starting with Where Eagles Never Flew and Moral Fibre both of which feature RAF pilots from the Second World War.

FQ: I see from your author biography that you have done some non-fiction books as well on World War II. Which is easier for you to write…the non-fiction or the fiction?

SCHRADER: Non-fiction is always much easier to write. You have a clear brief, do the research, then just sit down and write it. There's no need for extraneous research on topics like music, art, food, social customs, medical practices, popular literature, fashion, hotel prices, etc, etc. The structure is also straight-forward, whether chronological or topical. Writing non-fiction is an exercise of the brain. Writing fiction, on the other hand, takes heart and inspiration as well.

FQ: What does Helena Schrader do when she is not writing and/or researching? What hobbies do you have? Do you enjoy reading yourself, and, if so, what types of books do you like to read?

SCHRADER: Once upon a time when I was young and fit, I was both an avid sailor and a passionate rider. I crewed on three-masted schooners multiple times and once on a square-rigger, but mostly, after I finished my studies, I sailed the Maine coast in the family 26-foot O'Day Outlaw whenever I could get away from work. Sadly, we sold the boat roughly ten years ago when it became increasingly difficult to maintain the boat from overseas. As for riding, I've owned a half dozen horses successively and was still stadium jumping at 64. After retirement, however, I gave up my horse and adopted two dogs instead. They have consoled me - not to mention entertained and amused me. My husband and I, like to walk, to travel, and to meet with friends over dinner and wine. We enjoy classical music and opera. Yes, I love to read, but find that I need focus when writing. That means I read either relevant non-fiction or novels about the same era and topic as I am currently writing about.

Thank you for this interview! I enjoyed the questions! I do hope you'll read and enjoy others of my books.

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