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Helen Fry

Helen Fry

What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?

I have always been interested in history – inspired from a charismatic and quirky history teacher at school. As a teenager I loved to read historical fiction from the Tudor period. I was obsessed with Elizabeth I. However, doing A level history nearly killed my love of history because we studied The Hundred Years War and other, often obscure, European campaigns with little enthusiasm from the very elderly history teacher.  He had taught my father-in-law in the old Grammar School and was using the same notes 25 years later – read word for word in monotone from his folder, and with no interaction ever with the pupils. Myself and one other chap were the only ones that year that passed A level history!

My love of World War Two history came through meeting veterans – in particular German-Jewish refugees who fled to Britain and fought in the British forces. I was enthralled by their accounts, ordinary stories but touching history and transporting you back to their era from their accounts. This I miss with the passing of that generation.  I soon discovered that they had not really spoken about their war to anyone. It was these veterans who got me into World War Two history because I did not learn about World War One or World War Two at school or college.

Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?

When I am assigned a topic to write for a book, I initially scope the subject and sources available: files in archives, video or sound interviews, try to find relatives who might have material, and any personal papers in National collections. I make notes by hand in a notebook from these sources, and after doing a lot of research, I begin to type them up – and often there is a gap of several weeks before I type up the material. As I type, the material starts being subconsciously worked on and ordered, connections made, by the brain. Then from these typed up notes I begin to write up my chapters. I do enjoy meeting war veterans and, increasingly now, the families of veterans and embarking on the journey of discovery together. Often it is the case the families have papers and photos but no means to understand what their parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents etc did in the war.  For me the process of research hasn’t changed in 25 years, except that technology has advanced. Instead of volumes of photocopies from the national Archives, for example, these can be stored on a digital device (i.e. photographed on a camera or iPad).

The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?

Not necessarily. It is a fine line between new understandings of history because material has come to light and countries who are trying to re-write history for their own contemporary political agendas. It is hoped that historians can use rich multi-layered material to get as close to the truth as possible.  With access to more archives from other countries, some digitally, some eye-witness experiences, it is possible to see different perspectives which can then inform interpretation of history, but also provide a critical assessment of inherited histories.

Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?

Budding historians should go into an independent bookshop, scan the range of history section and pick out what appeals to them. I am not convinced that recommendations for history books actually works. There are such a wide range of topics and eras, different levels of factual information and styles, that it is a hard area to recommend. Choose your own three!

If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?

To meet any figure from history for me it would be the ‘historical Jesus’, not because I am religious, but because I would love to know what really happened in the diversity of the first century and know how close to the text the Biblical stories were. So many people read the Bible as history, but this misrepresents what kind of genre it is.

If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?

To keep the Second World War firmly on the curriculum because I think we are losing the depth and understanding of World War Two in young people. I have come across young adults who have not heard about Rudolf Hess, for example; so keeping an eye on the central figures of each era of history and ensuring that we have a broad and good education about them and their context. I also believe it is important for each of us to delve into our past to discover where we have come from and keep us rooted in our histories. I would advocate that we encourage young people and adults to research and write something of their own family genealogy and social history.

If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?

Learn to work from primary archive sources. Although it requires patience to shift volumes of paper in the archives, the breakthroughs are in the detail which others have missed and this has the power to transform research and historical narratives. As a writer, not to expect that your work has to be perfect first time. I have met lots of people who have a block because they think they have to get their narrative right first time and it means that they don’t start the journey. Writing, being a historian, is a journey not only in research, but in writing style too.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?

My projects are always fast-moving. I am currently completing a biography of an MI6 intelligence officer and spymaster, Colonel Thomas Kendrick who was pivotal for the history of SIS and espionage in the first half of the 20th century.

Helen Fry