Talking History

Deborah Swift on The Lifeline, her new historical novel, set during World War Two
The Lifeline is the latest novel from Deborah Swift.
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Could you tell us about The Lifeline and why you set the novel in Norway during the occupation?

The Lifeline is a WW2 story with two historical aspects; firstly the Norwegian teachers’ strike, and secondly, the Shetland Bus. The Norwegian teachers’ strike is a little-known example of effective passive resistance against oppression and is still used as an example in Norwegian schools today. The Shetland Bus is a Special operation in which boats from Shetland in Scotland supplied the Norwegian Resistance with arms, ammunition and intelligence, and helped those in danger from the Nazis escape.

I wanted to blend the two stories together and saw potential in the extreme courage it took to stand up against the Nazi regime, both on the part of the teachers on strike, and the men who manned the Shetland Bus in sub-zero conditions and always subject to enemy attack. I also saw that my two main characters, Astrid and Jorgen, would have ample opportunity to change and develop from the people they were at the beginning of the book.

How much of a challenge was it to put yourself in the minds of people living under such circumstances?

As always I refer to research to try to get a sense of that. I read quite a few memoirs of life in Norway at the time, and there is a Facebook group for people with memories of wartime Shetland. The trouble with memoirs and letters though, is that they give good account of the facts, but often not much of a visceral sense of what is was like to live through the events they describe. This is usually because letters are written to minimize the effects the reality might have on the recipient, and because what is obvious when you are living through it (blackouts, fear of bombs etc) is left out of the narrative. These omissions are what give life to the book for reader who is reading about events more than fifty years later, so it’s my job to research them and put them back in.

Norway during World War Two evokes the disastrous campaign of 1940, Quisling and the Resistance movement. Are there other events about which you’d recommend reading further?

The story of King Haakon of Norway is interesting to consider. When Norway was invaded by Nazi Germany in April 1940 the King rejected their demands to legitimise the fascist Quisling regime, and escaped into exile in Great Britain. The story is told in the film, The King’s Choice. Refusing to abdicate, King Haakon was instrumental in uniting the Norwegian nation in its resistance to the Nazi interlopers and broadcasting from England, he offered hope and inspiration during the long five years that Norway was under Nazi rule. This sense of ‘all being in it together’ was vital when Nazi reprisals against resistance activities were at their worst.

I’d also recommend the story of the heroes of Telemark. This story intersects with the story I told, and is one of the most extraordinary of the Norwegian Resistance campaign, telling the story of how agents sabotaged the Nazis’ attempt to produce ‘heavy water’ for bombs.

In The Lifeline, you refer to the historical events of The Shetland Bus and the Norwegian Teacher’s Strike. What research did you do – was there a particular book or historian that was helpful in dealing with the Norwegian occupation?

I couldn’t have written the book at all without David Howarth’s excellent first-hand account, The Shetland Bus. I’d also recommend Hitler’s Arctic War: The German Campaigns in Norway, Finland and the USSR 1940-1945 by Christer Jorgensen and Chris Mann for a general overview. For the general viewer, last year’s film, The Birdcatcher, will give you a sense of the occupation from a Jewish civilian’s perspective.

The Lifeline seamlessly flows whilst remaining unpredictable. Did you encounter any problems during the writing process, and if so, how did you overcome them?

The main problem was one of the timeline. The two stories needed to interconnect in certain key places, and juggling how much time it takes to trek across unknown mountainous terrain on skis was a challenge from Google maps! The disparity in timelines meant I had to give my teacher Astrid extra help by providing an excuse for a car, so she could ‘catch up’ with Jorgen’s story. I encounter these timeline problems every time I write from multiple points of view – and it’s a case of supplying plausible reasons to add an extra day, or speed up a journey without losing the reader’s interest, and make the new scene part of the plot.

In some cases these unforeseen parts are often very enjoyable to write, and give a chance to add other interesting characters to the mix. See if you can spot them when you read the book!

Why did you choose to write a dual narrative from both a male and female perspective? Do you think the story could have been told from a single perspective?

I was keen to explore the effect the Resistance had on the civilian population of Norway.  Acts of resistance or sabotage by Milorg, the military branch of the Resistance, led to random reprisals on the civilian population, resulting in mass slaughter of innocent people. This meant that acts of rebellion were unpopular with certain members of society. So it made sense to see the story from the perspective of a male operative in the Resistance, and a female civilian who was not.

I’m also very aware that women and men had different roles in this period, and I was interested to see how far I could make those roles cross over without losing the period feel. For example, Astrid ‘saves’ Isaak, and he has much more of a nurturing role than is usual in wartime. Jorgen on the other hand, is beset by doubts, and is the opposite of the decisive hero. This approach gave room for a lot of manoeuvre and character development.

You’ve now written on the 17th century and World War Two. Are you looking at other periods?

I’m going back to the 17th century for my next trilogy of novels, but a change of location to Baroque Italy, which was a fascinating period in which the Catholic Church was trying to bolster itself against the rise of Protestantism, and this leads to an explosion of activity in the art world. The books will be set in Naples, Venice and Rome.