What inspired you to write The Partisan Heart?
My sister-in-law married an Italian from the beautiful Valtellina region of north Italy and we have been visiting there for decades. When we first went, there were still many of my brother-in-law’s relatives alive who had fought in the war as partisans in the mountains around the valley. Stories of that time would sometimes emerge but, on the whole, these were dark, silent mountain men who very much kept their counsel about the dark events they witnessed and in which they participated. I was intrigued. Eventually, with a story forming in my mind, I began to do some research and finally wrote the story.
What was your experience of writing the book?
I wrote it initially as some light relief from my day job which is mostly writing history books, although I have also written biographies and books about art. (Yes, I write a lot. Always have. It’s my job as well as my hobby.) I would write about the First World War during the day, have dinner and then settle back down at my desk to write the novel into the night. Very quickly I discovered that writing fiction is hugely enjoyable – for me, at any rate. I discovered that making the twists and turns of a piece of crime fiction work and juggling the various complexities of different timelines is hugely challenging but very rewarding. It becomes all-consuming and took up a lot of space in my head when I wasn’t working. I’d have to say that on the whole, I had a ball.
Your novel focuses on themes of love and betrayal. What made you decide to set these themes against the backdrop of the Second World War?
Can there be any richer setting for themes such as love and betrayal than war? The Italian Civil War towards the end of the Second World War was a time when brother fought brother and family fought family, depending on their political affiliations. Betrayal was the stock in trade of the time, but laced with an illicit and ultimately doomed love affair, it became quite compelling in terms of a story. In fact, my book features two stories, one taking place in the war, the other in 1999; but both coalesce at the end and the dominant themes of both, I guess, are love and betrayal.
What message or feeling would you like to leave with your readers?
I’d love readers to feel the same things I feel when I read a good thriller, and especially, the satisfaction provided by the coming together of plotlines at the end of the book. I have no illusions about the book I’ve written. I hope it provides entertainment. Of course, I would also hope that people will think it is well-written and a good example of its genre, but I want them, most of all, to enjoy the hours they lavish on reading it. It’s actually a chastening thought, that someone will spend their time reading something that was born in your mind, whether they do so on a beach, by a pool or in bed at night. Quite humbling really, but also quite terrifying!
What are your hopes for post-publication life – is there a sequel in the works?
I am really looking forward to starting my second novel in the autumn when I’ve finished writing my current history book, A Short History of the Korean War, which will be published in 2020. I’d like to feature the main character from The Partisan Heart – Michael Keats – in the second one, put him in more difficult situations and see how he handles them. It may not involve a story of the Second World War, but he will almost certainly be in Italy once again, dealing with bad men!
And finally, could you tell us what you are reading at the moment?
I just finished Will Dean’s second thriller, Red Snow. If you haven’t read that or his first, the marvellous Dark Pines, do yourself a favour. I also recently read AJ Finn’s scarily intense thriller, The Woman in the Window. It’s as gripping a book as I’ve read in ages. Currently on the bedside table is the American writer Olen Steinhauer’s spy thriller, All the Old Knives. Steinhauer is a veritable master of the spy novel and this might just be his best yet.