Interview with George Stratford
Author of Buried Pasts
I had the very great privilege of interviewing George Stratford, author of Buried Pasts. I was interested in George’s book for personal reasons: my father spent some time in England preparing for the D-Day invasion, and he always spoke with such fondness of the friendly people who took on thousands of rowdy American boys such as he was. As you will see below, George is an gifted story teller. Thank you so much, George, for sharing yourself with us.
Have you done research into your father’s squadron and the events surrounding his death? Did finding out details make you feel closer to your father, or give you an insight into yourself?
Dad was on his 28th mission as a pilot and serving with 78 Squadron RAF Bomber Command when he died on 19th July 1944. He was on the way home after successfully bombing his target when he received a radio call for assistance from Allied ground troops in northern France under severe pressure from German heavy artillery. In the subsequent low level-attack, armed only with lightweight machine guns, his Halifax aircraft suffered a direct hit. I was just six weeks old at the time, so everything that I learned about him has come either from my late mother’s memories or personal research.
The research involved for the writing of Buried Pasts was considerable, involving everything from long talks with former Bomber Command pilots to studying a street map of wartime Berlin that I was lucky enough to find. Discovering the nightly hell that the men of Bomber Command went through made me realise even more forcibly what a hero Dad was. The fatality rate for aircrew members of Bomber Command was fifty percent, by far the highest suffered of by any arm of British WWII forces. Their average life expectancy could be measured in weeks. Yet still these men found the courage to keep going. Naturally, this drew me closer than ever to Dad.
As for gaining any insights into myself - perhaps there is only one. Would I have had the courage to do what Dad did? Somehow I doubt it.
Is the character of Alan, the son of Mike’s crew member who died parachuting under Mike’s orders, based on someone you knew growing up in post-war England? Or perhaps upon yourself?
Sure, there were a lot of other kids of my age during the 1940 – 50s who had also lost their fathers during the war. Some spoke with enormous pride of their dads, some spoke with bitterness and anger directed mostly at the Germans they held responsible. At various times of my early life I experienced both emotions. In fact, it wasn’t until I joined the army and was posted to Germany in 1964 that my view of the people there really began to progress beyond the basic black and white.
I can’t honestly remember meeting any other British kid who directly blamed a comrade of their father’s for his death. But there were indeed a fair number of fatherless and disturbed youths just like Alan around, most of them needing an outlet for their anger and constantly getting into trouble at school and with the law. This, despite the punishments risked back then being a darn sight harsher than today.
So no, the character of Alan is not based directly on any single person. He is a composite of many, with his resultant bitterness and anger merely given a different and far more personal target. Of course, the way children in the same position as myself developed back then was governed to a large extent by the spin on what surviving close relatives such as uncles and mothers told them. Which of course, is Alan’s fictional world exactly.
Characters in Buried Pasts lose their homes and families in war. You lost a father you never got to meet. Did you feel challenged to write about events and emotions that were close to your own experience? Was writing the book in any way a catharsis for you?
The only way in which I saw the writing of Buried Pasts as being a challenge was to make it a fitting tribute to the father I’d so longed to know all of my life. It’s no coincidence that the hero’s surname of Stafford is so similar to Dad’s own, nor that he comes from Brandon in Manitoba, Dad’s hometown. Even Stafford’s fictional number 79 Squadron is as close as possible to the real thing. To tell the truth, throughout the writing I liked to fondly imagine that Dad, had he lived, would have handled the situations and dangers that Stafford faces in exactly the same manner. Call it a combination of hero worship and wishful thinking if you like.
Writing the novel did in many ways help me to get to know Dad better. Certainly after all my research I came to understand the terrible pressures and dangers he faced a whole lot more clearly. He was amongst the very first Canadians to volunteer at the outbreak of WWII, joining the RAF as early as 1939. When he was killed he was a Warrant Officer pilot with only two more operational flights left to make before his tour of duty with the RAF was completed. Once that was completed he was due to be transferred to the Canadian Air Force as a flight instructor with the immediate rank of Squadron Leader. As an instructor, his war then would have then been effectively over. For him to have gone through all the dangers for nearly five years, only to die with probably no more than two weeks of active service remaining, still breaks my heart. Although writing this novel was as you suggest in many ways a catharsis for me, nothing will ever take away that particular heartache.
We read so often about the unique bond that develops between soldiers who fight side by side. How did you decide to write about ‘survivor guilt’?
I can’t say that I specifically set out at the start to write about ‘survivor guilt’. I have a very random (some would call it haphazard) way of developing a plot. This comprises mostly of ‘what if’’ type questions.
All I knew at the beginning was that I was going to create a fictionalised tribute to my father. After coming up with the character of Mike Stafford, a young Canadian bomber pilot who survives the war, I then needed not only a reason for him to return to England in later life, but also enemies and complications waiting here for him when he arrives to provide the necessary conflict.
A squadron reunion was the easy answer for a return to England, but questions such as: ‘Who might he least like to encounter whilst on this trip?’ followed. The first answer this delivered was: ‘An embittered German woman who has lost a close relative during one of the very air raids that Stafford took a part in.’ From this, Siggi, who provides so much of the emotional conflict in the story, was eventually born. Then only at this later stage, after the additional creation of Alan to provide the physical conflict I was also seeking, did the ‘survivor guilt’ theme really take a hold.
Do you read lots of history? What are some of your favourite books?
Yes, I do read a fair few historical novels. The author Ken Follett is a particular favourite of mine. As well as fast moving contemporary stuff, he has also written brilliant stories that centre on both world wars, plus amazingly researched novels set in medieval times. His 12th Century novel, Pillars of the Earth, and its sequel, World Without End, which features the Hundred Years War and the arrival of the Black Death in Britain, are true masterpieces. His latest near thousand-page epic, Fall of Giants, beginning at the start of the 20th Century, is a great read too.
Aside from Ken, I also enjoy John Grisham’s novels a lot. And on a comedy level, the Wilt and Porterhouse series of farces by Tom Sharpe always amuse me, although possibly these may be of a peculiarly British sense of humour.
You worked at Saatchi & Saatchi. What was your job there?
Well Marcia, you are now referring to the most amazing period of my life to date.
After losing my position with a shop-fitting company during the recession of the early 1990s, things were looking bleak. Due to the general shortage of jobs, having no educational qualifications to my name, and being uncomfortably close to my fiftieth birthday, for over a year I was unable to find employment of even the lowest description. Living only on state benefits in a rented room, I felt as if life had very little meaning left for me. My pride had completely disappeared. Never had I been so low.
Eventually, following a clear message from my deceased Mum (I won’t go into details of this here), and with some wonderful people helping me to overcome a mountain of problems, I somehow found myself back in full-time education. Two years later I had gained a Higher National Diploma in Advertising Copywriting at Falmouth College of Arts.
From there on it was largely a case of being in the right place, at the right time. A three-week work experience placement at the London HQ of advertising giants Saatchi & Saatchi at the exact time their healthcare division was seeking a mature copywriter, magically led to me being offered the job. Later I moved into the main agency creative department, working on briefs for such famous international clients as Toyota, Carlsberg, Visa and Sony. Somehow the national media managed to get a handle on my rags-to-relative-riches story, and before I knew it I was appearing on a succession of TV chat shows and featuring prominently in the national press.
Naturally, nothing lasts forever. Just like flower power and regular Apollo missions to the moon, all of these things are now long gone. But I have written a light-hearted account of this incredible six-year period called Ain’t Finished Yet. I hope to publish this soon. Meanwhile, if you are interested, you can read the opening pages on my website at www.georgestratford.com .
How do you think your work with a company that communicates through amazing visuals has influenced your writing? Do you visualise scenes before you write them?
Yes, absolutely. I see scenes and characters very clearly in my head, sometimes before writing about them, but more often whilst actually typing out the words. And writing scripts for TV commercials is definitely great training for this.
However, I think that any further comparison between advertising and novel writing is unrealistic. With advertising, especially that of the printed variety, the communication has to be virtually instant. If the message is not clear immediately to the consumer, he or she will be highly unlikely to spend any time trying to work out what it is you are attempting to sell them. It’s been calculated that if you haven’t captured the average person’s interest within just a couple of fleeting seconds, then you’ve generally lost them.
With novel writing on the other hand, the customers are paying good money of their own to enter the world an author has created. So they’ll be much more prepared to be led in gradually and drip-fed information along the way. It goes without saying that this is not a licence to bore the reader to death with a ton of unnecessary description or technical detail. But a certain amount of each is definitely required otherwise a realistic picture just can’t be painted.
Tell us a little about your process. Are you a disciplined writer? Do you have any techniques you are willing to share with other writers?
I think I’ve inadvertently covered much of this one in previous responses. The question and answer process I spoke about when discussing the matter of survivor guilt will nearly always produce results, even if you have to sometimes ask a lot more questions than you originally anticipated. If it doesn’t, chances are you’ve painted yourself into that dreaded corner of no escape. In which case, the best plan is probably to go back several notches and start all over again.
It may be a cliché, but curiosity (the ‘what happens next’ factor) is surely the greatest page-turner of all. Always try to have at least one unresolved situation going on, even at the very beginning of your novel. On the very first page of Buried Pasts the reader is immediately left to wonder if Stafford’s Lancaster will be able to survive yet another trip to the Big City – Berlin. By the end of this chapter there is a second question – will Siggi’s family survive this latest air raid? It’s OK to have several questions left hanging at the same time, but never OK not to have any.
If anyone is interested in my further thoughts on the writing process, there are five separate pages on my website offering tips on Characters, Conflict, Finding Ideas, Advancing the Storyline, and Re-writes. So, like a true advertising man, here’s that website link again: www.georgestratford.com
What are you working on now?
I’m currently putting the finishing touches to an adventure/thriller novel called A Fine Line. Without giving too much away at this point, it’s about a controversial USA Senator who travels incognito to a small English village during the Christmas and New Year holiday in order trace his roots and get over the death of his wife. He takes with him his recently divorced daughter and his Godson, a former Delta Force bodyguard now acting as the senator’s bodyguard. But unknown to any of them, there is a five million dollar price on the senator’s head, and the UK’s most feared and successful hitman is closing in.
As in my previous novels, with this latest work I also try to introduce human emotions into what otherwise might simply turn out to be a hard-edged thriller story. When Buried Pasts was a quarter-finalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, Publishers Weekly, in a comprehensive review described the story as both: “A sentimental thriller’, and: “An adventure story with a heart.”
Either of those descriptions works well enough for me.