Friday, December 05, 2008

Author Dianne Ascroft

Through the wonderful world of the Internet, I recently met an author from the UK. Dianne Ascroft is the author of Hitler and Mars Bars, a fiction story set in Germany after World War II. I got to interview Dianne for her current virtual tour:

Explain your book’s title!

A couple amusing incidents in the story sparked the idea for the title. So I linked words that represented each incident together to form the title. In the first incident, naively and cheekily, my main character, Erich, threatens to send Hitler (unaware even who the dictator was) to exact revenge against a police officer who chastises him for his poor school attendance record.

In the second incident, Erich is caught stealthily eating a Mars Bar during class. His teacher is exasperated and amused by his behaviour (he has a knack for getting into trouble in class) and orders him to put the candy back in his lunch bag. With great reluctance, and the eyes of the whole class on him, he puts the chocolate bar away. Both incidents illustrate Erich’s irrepressible, indomitable spirit. He is often naughty and sometimes unrepentant yet he doesn’t mean any harm.

What research did you do for this book?

There was a lot of research involved in writing this book. Although the novel is set only sixty years ago, during the ten year period from the last few months of World War II to the mid-1950s, it was before I was born. So I have no memories or firsthand knowledge of the era. I did a lot of background reading about that period in Germany and Ireland. They were very different countries – Germany a battle scarred, industrialised nation and Ireland a quiet, mostly rural place. I read general histories and also biographies. I asked people who had lived through the era to tell me what it was like. I needed to understand their attitudes and ambitions as well as the practicalities of their lives.

I did as much research as possible about Operation Shamrock, the Red Cross initiative that forms the backdrop to my story. I spoke to people in communities that hosted the children - the former evacuees, their foster families, their neighbours, their classmates and the local clergy. I contacted the Red Cross for details about the initiative.

I did background research about the region where the German portions of the book are set. The City Archives in Hattingen, Germany were very helpful. I wasn’t able to go to Germany to do my research but the archivist provided me with general information about the area and also the Children’s Home where the opening chapter is set. He sent period photos so I could see for myself what the area looked like. He also put me in contact with the company that owns the Children’s Home and they provided further information about the building and its history.

In Ireland I did background research about several towns and villages, learning about the schools and churches where scenes in the story are set. I relied on history books for basic facts but I also contacted the organisations directly to add details. I visited each area where the story is set so I would have an overall impression of it as I was writing.

I had to familiarise myself with various aspects of daily life during the period including their farming methods and domestic routines. There were lots of details about life in Ireland to check, such as when electricity was installed in rural homes and when television broadcasts began, to avoid anachronisms creeping in. Ireland and Germany, during that period, were two completely foreign worlds to me. Though it involved lots of work, I found the research fascinating and sometimes I had to pull myself away from it to write.

What prompted you to write a book set during WWII?

I didn’t initially set out to write this book - or a book set during this period of history. The idea gradually evolved. Several years ago I met a man who was born during the Second World War in the heavily bombed Essen area of Germany. He lived in a Children’s Home until the Red Cross project, Operation Shamrock, transported him along with hundreds of other German children, to Ireland to recuperate from the horrendous conditions in their homeland. His life story opened up a new aspect of German and Irish history for me - one that has been overlooked in history books. I was very curious about Operation Shamrock and, as I’ve mentioned in my answer to your previous question, I began researching it. I did extensive research then I wrote an article for an Irish magazine, Ireland’s Own, about the experiences of one child who participated in the endeavour. I intended to stop there but family members urged me to use the information I had found to create a novel. At first I wasn’t interested but the more I thought about it, the more the idea grew on me. I couldn’t get the stories of the people who were part of Operation Shamrock out of my head so I finally put pen to paper and began the novel.

You’ve done several virtual tours – do you do physical tours as well?

This is my second Virtual Book Tour. The first one, in August, was a trial run with only 3 stops on it. So this is my first full Virtual Book Tour and I’ve really been enjoying it. Because I work full time, apart from my writing, it is difficult to organise a physical tour. So I haven’t done one yet – but I’m always open to invitations to drop by any bookshop or place where people are interested in books!

When did you begin writing and what’s your favourite genre?

Since I was a child I’ve always enjoyed reading. I rarely went anywhere without a book and I spent every free minute reading. But, despite having a very active imagination, being an avid reader and enjoying essay writing at school, I didn’t consider becoming a writer. I enjoyed reading others’ stories but didn’t have the desire to create my own.

I was in my thirties before I got the urge to write and it occurred to me that I might be able to do so. Then, for several years after the idea first occurred to me, I yearned to write but didn’t put pen to paper. I was busy with too many other activities. Finally, I was galvanised into action, in the spring of 1998, when I heard an advertisement for a Belfast radio station’s Annual Short Story writing contest. I decided to enter it. There was only one weekend left to submit my entry before the contest deadline so I got started immediately. I didn’t win but my story, The Contest, was shortlisted and read on air. That success encouraged me to continue writing. I wrote sporadically, without any attempts to get my work published, until 2002 when I enrolled in the Writers Bureau correspondence course. Having assignments to complete focussed me and helped me decide what I wanted to write. Now I fit in course assignments between my other writing projects. One day I may find time to actually finish the course!

Though my first novel is an historical fiction, I enjoy writing contemporary and historical fiction. It’s the characters that are most important to me rather than the time period that the story is set in. If a writer captures the humanity and personality of a character then they write the kind of books I want to read. And those are the kind of books I want to write too. I have ideas bouncing around in my head for both contemporary and historical stories so I plan to write a bit of each in future.

Tell us a little about your past…you’re a Canadian but living in the UK…?

I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. Growing up there I loved the hustle and bustle of city life and was very involved in several historical societies and music organisations. I earned a B.A. in History at the University of Windsor, Canada in 1984. When I turned 30 I decided to try something different as well as explore my roots. So, later that year, I moved to Britain; I’ve lived in Scotland and Northern Ireland since moving here in 1990.

Since I left Toronto I’ve been continuously downsizing. I moved from Toronto, a city with a population of 3 million people to Belfast, a city of half a million to a small town in Ayrshire, Scotland, with a population of 18,000. Now I live in the country, on a small farm in Northern Ireland, with my husband and several pets. The farm is wonderful. I have a view of fields and rolling hills from my front window and keep pets that wouldn’t be allowed in a city garden.

Although writing isn’t my primary occupation, I love it and spend as much time as possible indulging my passion. I’ve been freelance writing since 2002. Most of my writing focuses on history, arts/music and human interest stories. My articles have been printed in Canadian and Irish newspapers and magazines including the Toronto Star, Mississauga News, Derry Journal, Banbridge Leader and Ireland’s Own magazine.

I’ve contributed material to an Irish local history book, The Brookeborough Story: Aghalun in Aghavea and the Fermanagh Authors Association’s second collection A Fermanagh Miscellany 2. Hitler and Mars Bars is my first novel.

Curiosity about the past has inspired my love of history and genealogy as well as spurring me to write historical fiction. Music is also an important part of my life. I especially enjoy folk, Celtic, Americana and bluegrass. I play the bagpipes and am learning to play guitar. Quilting, hiking and traveling number among my hobbies. I’m a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Fermanagh Authors Association.

What do you like to read? Who’s your favourite author?

I couldn’t pin it down to just one author I like to read - there are lots of them! I read a variety of contemporary and historical fiction though I tend to steer clear of ‘chic lit’. Writers who capture the humanity and personalities of their characters have the greatest impact on me. Some of these authors and books include Maeve Binchy’s ‘Light A Penny Candle’, Adriana Trigiani’s ‘Big Stone Gap’, Jodi Picoult’s ‘Plain Truth’ and Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series. These authors create believable characters who I would like to meet in real life. The townspeople of Big Stone Gap in Trigiani’s books as well as Claire and Jamie in Gabaldon’s work are people that I feel I know. I enjoy reading these stories because the writers bring their characters to life. They inspire me to aim for this in my own writing.

Where can those in the USA find your book?

Hitler and Mars Bars isn’t currently on US bookshop shelves but American readers can get my novel online. Quite a few online outlets are stocking it. It can be ordered directly from the publisher, Trafford Publishing (, or from retail outlets including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Signed copies can also be ordered directly from my website (

What are your future plans? What’s next for Dianne?

I recently completed a short story, A World Apart, about moving from city to country and adapting to a new lifestyle. Although it’s fiction, it draws on my own experiences of moving from Toronto, a city of 3 million people, to a farm in Northern Ireland. It will be published in the Fermanagh Authors Association’s Fermanagh Miscellany 2 this month.

Since Hitler and Mars Bars was released I’ve been busy promoting it. So most of my writing has been interviews and guest posts on others’ blogs and websites. I haven’t had a chance to do any new writing. I do have some ideas rolling around in my head for a sequel to the book though. Hopefully when things slow down a bit after Christmas I will start to put them down on paper….

And the final word….

Thanks for letting me drop by today, Diane. I’ve enjoyed answering your questions and I hope your readers found my answers interesting. Let me finish up by briefly telling you a little about the novel.

Hitler and Mars Bars is the story of a German boy, Erich, growing up in war-torn Germany and post-war rural Ireland. Set against the backdrop of Operation Shamrock, a little known Irish Red Cross project which aided German children after World War II, the novel explores a previously hidden slice of Irish and German history.

If you would like to learn more about the novel, please drop by my website at My Virtual Book Tour continues until December 24. The full schedule is available at

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