Hello everybody! Today, I’m incredibly excited to be part of the blog tour for the Swallows’ Flight, which is a companion novel/sequel to one of my favourite books of all time. Onto the post!
Hi Hilary, thank you so much for being here and answering my questions!
Well, thank you for asking me, and for your insightful (and very hard) questions.
To start us off, can you please describe the Swallows’ Flight for us in 5 words?
Four friends and a dog
2. I read the Skylarks’ War in February and fell so utterly in love with it, so when I discovered a sequel was due soon I was absolutely thrilled. What made you want to continue Clarry and Rupert’s story by telling us about the next generation of the family, while the Second World War is taking place?
I didn’t intend to write a sequel; it seemed impossible at first, mostly because Skylarks covered more than twenty years in time, and by the end all the characters were grown up. But there was a link: the next generation had put in a brief appearance a few pages before the end. A little mathematics made it obvious that they would be just in time for World War
2. Also, there was a family story told to me by my lovely editor at Macmillan. It was about the Battle of Britain, an airman falling from the sky and a young girl rushing to the rescue. I wrote Swallows focusing on this scene. So thank you Venetia, and Venetia’s very brave granny too. I couldn’t have written it without you.
3. Speaking of the families we follow in Skylarks, I honestly absolutely adored each and every one of them, to the point where it’s nearly impossible to choose a favourite. However, I’m afraid I’m going to be a bit mean, and ask if you have one, whether it’s from the Skylarks’ War or the Swallows’ Flight?
No, I don’t, I really don’t. I like the friendship stories: Clarry and Vanessa, Simon and Peter, in Skylarks’ War. Kate and Ruby, Erik and Hans in Swallows’ Flight. I found the German family and their story very interesting to write. Often, after a cataclysmic event, like a war (or a pandemic) we ask ‘How could it have happened?’ I liked exploring that question, and although I didn’t find the answer, I think I came a little bit closer, from one family’s point of view.
4. I also love the time period the first book is set in, as it’s so rich in detail and the World War One home front isn’t explored in fiction very often. I’m also really excited for the period you’ve set the second book in, particularly as part of the book focuses on what life was like in Germany at this time. How did you go about research for the series?
The research is the best bit. For both Skylarks and Swallows I used the wonderful British Library: especially the newspaper archive and the period magazines. I also found odd rare books: translations from German of ambassador’s reports, accounts by German pilots, old street plans of Berlin and Plymouth, papers on the historic price of rubies. There I read the history of Berlin Zoo, with maps and dates of all the most exotic animals. I used photographs from the Imperial War Museum, and discovered Clarry’s bathing costume in the V & A. Tolkien’s grumpy letters to his son were useful for a snapshot of Oxford in WW2. I looked up old weather reports, the sites of German Luftwaffe camps in occupied France, the cost of Woolworth’s Christmas lights, ration books, train timetables, the first aid training of Sea Cadets, and many other things too. I didn’t put a quarter of it into the books, but I had such fun finding it out.
5. And on a similar note, what are some of your favourite historical periods and who are some of your favourite historical figures?
I wrote a little book about the Iceni and Boudicca once, and I’d love to revisit that period. I’m fascinated by Charles Darwin, he was so extremely young and so very seasick when he set off as Ship’s Naturalist on the Beagle. I’d like to write a Beagle book, that voyage, the revelations. Those pristine seas…
6. I think it’s safe to say that Skylarks is one of the most incredible, moving and clever books I’ve ever read. In honour of this, can you please share some of your all time favourite books, that you wish you could for the first time again?
You are very kind. Thank you. My list of all time favourite books is very long, and continually growing, but here are a few, in order of appearance in my life. The Tailor of Gloucester, Beatrix Potter. Her most exquisite paintings, a gorgeous conjuring of Christmas. And ten thousand gold stars for Simpkin, the best cat in English Literature. The Hobbit, Tolkien. Epic friendship story (far better, I thought, than LOTR). The food, the dragon, Thorin’s last words to Bilbo. Ring of Bright Water, Gavin Maxwell. I still have my childhood copy with ‘Hilary Damms 1H’ in the front. So I must have been eleven or twelve when I started reading that book, and fifty years later I still haven’t stopped. His words, they fall like bright water. His evocation of the natural world. I know in real life G M was a bit of a nightmare, but on paper he is a genius. Nancy Mitford makes me laugh. My most recent discovery is Helen MacDonald. H is for Hawk and Vesper Flights. Lovely books.
7. In terms of your writing, what is your usual routine? Do you have any unusual habits or quirks? And has the pandemic/lockdown affected this at all?
I write in the mornings, and late at night. I collected junk on my desk and have a life size cardboard cut out of David Attenborough to keep me company. The isolation and bleakness of the pandemic has frozen my brain. Words take ten times longer. My concentration is shot, and my reasoning has slowed to hardly moving at all.
8. Also on the theme of writing, what advice would you give to other writers trying to develop a unique narrative voice? I fell in love with yours after one page of Skylarks, and it’s one of my favourite narratives of all time.
I don’t know that I’m much good at advice. I can only say what works for myself. I like simple descriptions. Less is more, when it comes to adjectives. I have a friend who paints in colours made from ground up semi precious stones, lapis, and agate and green jade. Her paintings are very simple and clear. She doesn’t squander those colours. I often think if words were equally expensive, we wouldn’t waste so many.
9. Finally, can you tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment, and will be releasing next?
I am trying to shape a sequel to Swallows’ Flight. It’s not going well (see question 7). Thankfully, the delivery date is 2024. I may yet need an extension.
Favourite meal? Bread and cheese and apples.
Your favourite species of bird, in honour of the titles? Depends on the day. Starlings today.
Your favourite thing about nature? The way it doesn’t need us. It just needs space.
Top 3 books of 2020 so far?
● Between Sky and Sea, Nicola Penfold.
● Vesper Flights, Helen MacDonald.
● V for Victory, Lissa Evans.
Thing you’re most looking forward to about summer? Friends in the house.
Thank you so much for reading! Have you read any of Hilary’s books? Are you planning to pick this up? I’d love to hear in the comments!