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Interview: SL Beaumont talks about The War Photographers

SL Beaumont is an award-winning mystery and crime writer with a passion for travel and history. She lives in beautiful New Zealand, which is only problematic when the travel bug bites (which it does fairly often)! Her love of travel has seen her take many long-haul flights to various parts of the world. Her enjoyment of history helps determine the destination and the places she visits are a constant source of inspiration for her. Shadow of Doubt won the 2020 Indie Reader Mystery/Suspense/Thriller Award and was long-listed for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel. Death Count was a semi-finalist for the Publisher’s Weekly BookLife Prize. She talks to NZ Booklovers

Tell us a little about The War Photographers.

The War Photographers is a dual-timeline historical fiction novel. It’s set in 1943 during World War II and 1989 in Cold War Europe. It follows the story of Mae, a young British woman who works as a translator at Britain’s top-secret codebreaking facility, Bletchley Park. She is recruited to help unmask a spy authorities believe is stealing classified secrets. Her life is turned upside down when she meets NZ war photographer Jack Knight, and tragedy strikes when one of his photographs risks exposing a traitor.

Decades later, Mae’s granddaughter, Rachel, is working as a photojournalist in the male-dominated foreign press in Cold War Europe. When the chance comes to visit East Berlin, she uses the opportunity to search for the man whom Mae blames for betraying their family, but she gets caught up in the East German protest movement and finds herself in grave danger.

The War Photographers is fiction but set among real-life historical events.

The epigraph at the start of the book is from Winston Churchill, and I think it sums up the story's premise pretty well.

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."

What inspired you to write this book?

I’ve long been fascinated by what was achieved at Bletchley Park during World War II, so when I read an article a few years ago about a woman in Wellington who had worked as a codebreaker there during the war, my interest was piqued. She had moved to NZ after the war, had her family, and because she’d signed the Official Secrets Act, she, like most others who had worked there, had never spoken of her war work.

In fact, many never told family or friends of their achievements. We now know that the work carried out there under Alan Turing, Tommy Flowers, and others not only shortened the war by an estimated two years but also led to the invention of the modern-day computer.

As a crime and mystery writer, the secrecy surrounding events at Bletchley during the war is fertile ground for spies and intrigue, and indeed, double agents such as Kim Philby and John Cairncross worked at Bletchley for a time.

The idea of a crime committed during the war but not solved until years later intrigued me, and I also wanted to write something that had a NZ element to it, so Mae and Rachel’s stories were born.


What research was involved?

Research has always been my favourite part of the writing process. I love history and travel, so writing The War Photographers scratched both itches for me. My travels took me to many of the locations in the book. I’ve visited Bletchley Park several times and was lucky enough to visit Berlin. Walking along the double-brick route that marks the Wall's path in a united Berlin was fascinating, as was visiting the fabulous Checkpoint Charlie Museum. In London, the Imperial War Museum, the London Transport Museum’s London at War exhibit, and Churchill War Rooms were also great research sources.


Much has been written about Bletchley Park in recent years, and I am indebted to McKay Sinclair, whose books The Secret Life of Bletchley Park and The Secret Lives of Codebreakers capture so much about the men and women who worked there. The Bletchley Park Podcast is a fascinating and invaluable source of information, particularly the veteran’s oral histories.


The internet made my research into Europe’s changing political and social climate in 1989 a little easier, with access to video and newspaper articles from the time and many contemporary accounts. In fact, I was able to obtain primary source information from a colleague who grew up in West Berlin in the shadow of the Wall, a friend who happened to be in Berlin on the weekend the Wall came down and others who travelled to a newly united Berlin in the early 1990s. There is no better resource for a writer than those who were actually there when events happened.


It was around these actual historical events and recollections that I wound Mae and Rachel’s stories.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I tend to create a fairly detailed outline (I’m more a plotter than a pantser), although I do tend to find that the ending reveals itself differently than I originally planned in most of my books.


For The War Photographers, I wrote the two stories separately but ensured I hit the elements linking to two time periods. Once I had a first draft, it was a case of going back to do more research on certain events, then revising and editing until it all came together.


If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

I have a playlist on my website of songs mentioned in the book and others from the time. Young people in East Berlin secretly tuned into RiAS (Radio in the American Sector) and listened to Western Music. In fact, in 1987, a huge outdoor concert on the Western side of the Wall in front of the Reichstag, featuring David Bowie, the Eurythmics and Genesis, was listened to by groups of East Berliners in parks and on rooftops near the Wall until the Volkspolizei moved them on, arresting many in the process. However, the authorities relented in 1988, and Bruce Springsteen was allowed to play a concert in East Berlin, where an estimated 300,000 turned up to hear him perform. Rather than appeasing GDR’s youth, this only showed what they were being denied.


So, a soundtrack to accompany the book would have to include a couple of tracks from around the time, such as “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions, Springsteen’s “Glory Days”, and the Eurythmic’s “When Tomorrow Comes.”


If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

I know some authors have an actor in their heads when they write, but I don’t. However, if The War Photographers were made into a movie, I could see the following playing the lead characters:


Mae:   Lily Collins 

Jack:   KJ Apa

Rachel: Holliday Grainger

Leo:    Tom Glynn-Carney


What did you enjoy the most about writing The War Photographers?

The challenge of weaving the story around real-life historical events and, of course, the in-person research!


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I had a quiet glass of red wine with my husband. Writing “the end” is really just the beginning of a book’s journey, and I find that the design and marketing are almost as time-consuming as the actual writing!


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I’ve just read Trent Dalton’s Lola in the Mirror, which will be hard to top. He has a unique storytelling style. The book is gritty but heartwarming and tells the story of an artist and her mother on the run, living on the darker edges of society. I loved his novel, Boy Swallows Universe, a few years ago and have just enjoyed the TV adaptation.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

Next up, I’m working on the third book in the Kat Munro financial thriller series called Blood Count. Then, since the historical fiction bug has bitten me, I will likely write another dual-timeline novel. This time, looking at society and the changing role of women in post-war Britain and Europe. All in the guise of a crime novel, of course!


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