Tom Palmer, many congratulations on your new book, Arctic Star. Can you tell us a bit about your characters, Frank, Joseph and Stephen?
They’re composite characters, so their stories are made up of the memories of several men who took part in the Arctic Convoys, all drawn from the Imperial War Museum archive of interviews. I listened to around 100 hours of material to find what I needed. I tried to define each character to separate them Frank is patriotic, Joseph left-wing and Steven nihilistic. But every naval scene is based on the testimony of a veteran, so I like to think it is accurate.
The Arctic Campaign of the Second World War were of vital importance in supplying our allies, the Russians – but we don’t know much about the convoys. Why is that?
I am not sure why, but, certainly in children’s books the focus is almost always WW1 Tommies and WW2 airmen. There’s nothing about the Navy. It is hard to see why considering the UK’s maritime history and the massive role the Navy had in winning WW2. I sensed in some of the men’s interviews that supplying the Russians was more controversial than, say, D-Day or the Battle of Britain. That – post-war – there was a distaste that they’d been our allies.
Can you tell us a bit about your research, which included help from the IWM and HMS Belfast and the Russian Arctic Convoy Exhibition?
It was hard because I wrote Arctic Star during lockdown. I would have liked to go to the Arctic and Plymouth where it is set. But I couldn’t. Luckily I’d been to both before, so could use that. The museums you mention were fab. Really helpful. They gave me the primary sources that you need to make a book like this work. And I did get up to Loch Ewe and the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum, which, although a long way from Halifax (Yorkshire), was worth the trip. And IWM HMS Belfast gave me a private tour even when the ship was still Covid-closed. That helped a lot. The book is dedicated to IWM for all the help I’ve had from them.
What were the worst weather risks to the Merchantmen and the Royal Navy vessels?
There’s a passage in the book where Stephen tells the others that there are ten ways they could die, making a joke of it that a lot of the other sailors don’t find amusing. That includes weather threats like ice build up on the ship causing capsize and powerful storms. But the greater threat was the U-Boats and the Luftwaffe.
Right, so on with the U-boats and aircraft, do we know which the sailors feared most?
From what I listened to and read, it was the U-Boats. Or – more precisely – the expectation of U-Boats once a Condor spotter plane had been sighted overhead. Once they’d done their recce, the Condor would alert the U-Boats to the convoy’s position and then the men felt like it was a matter of time before torpedoes would be incoming.
Why do you think this story is so compelling for children?
I am not 100% sure. But, I think they’re genuinely surprised to read about what a nightmare the convoys were. The constant threat and the conditions. And that includes how the men lived on the ships. Where they ate and tried to sleep. And details like how the drenching gear would be used to put out fires in the engine room by killing all the men in there at the time.
You have striking book covers which we can see with D-Day Dog, Arctic Star and Over the Line to name a few – can you tell us about the artist?
Tom Clohsey Cole did Arctic Star and D-Day Dog, but Over the Line and After the War were done by Violet Tobacco. I love the covers. They make such a difference. I’ve been doing sport and history books for years and they sell around 5000 copies each, maybe a few more in one or two cases. But – with these covers (and my brilliant editor) – these books sell twice or three times as many. I think the covers are a major reason why. My editor the other.
You’ve written an acclaimed series of books on football, why did you turn to historical fiction?
I’ve always liked reading about and thinking about history, especially the two world wars, but never dreamed I’d write them. I didn’t have the confidence. I felt good writing football because I like to think I know a lot about it. Then I did a football/history book, Over the Line. The history challenged me, but the football confidence carried me through. Then, when it came out, people liked it and that gave the confidence to try to write more history books.
You’ve sold over ½ million books and have been writing for more than ten years. Do you have any advice for budding novelists out there?
Yes. Write what you are passionate about. Read lots, but not just books and learn what you like and don’t like. And don’t give up. Millions of people try to write books, but one in ten finish them. If you don’t give up there’s still a chance you’ll be successful.
Was there a history book that you read that you’d recommend to readers if they want to learn more?
Rosemary Sutcliff was a children’s author in the 50s and 60s. Her books are set in the Iron Age, Roman Britain, Viking/Saxon times. They’re so good. You feel like you’re in the period of history you are reading about with her. I have studied her and other authors’ history fiction to learn what I think works and what doesn’t.
What are you planning next?
A book I am not allowed to talk about yet. But am desperate to. It’s set in Holland in a city beginning with A.
Tom Palmer is a bestselling and award-winning author of novels aimed at children. His previous books are D-Day Dog, and Over the Line. Arctic Star is his latest.
Aspects of History Issue 6 is out now.