Interview with R.L. Bartram

Today, we're visiting with R.L. Bartram, author of Dance the Moon Down...

In 1910, no one believed there would ever be a war with Germany. Safe in her affluent middle-class life, the rumours held no significance for Victoria either. It was her father’s decision to enrol her at university that began to change all that. There she befriends the rebellious and outspoken Beryl Whittaker, an emergent suffragette, but it is her love for Gerald Avery, a talented young poet from a neighbouring university that sets the seal on her future.

After a clandestine romance, they marry in January 1914, but with the outbreak of the First World War, Gerald volunteers and within months has gone missing in France. Convinced that he is still alive, Victoria’s initial attempts to discover what has become of him, implicate her in a murderous assault on Lord Kitchener resulting in her being interrogated as a spy, and later tempted to adultery.

Now virtually destitute, Victoria is reduced to finding work as a common labourer on a run down farm, where she discovers a world of unimaginable ignorance and poverty. It is only her conviction that Gerald will some day return that sustains her through the dark days of hardship and privation as her life becomes a battle of faith against adversity.

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Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born in Edmonton, London in 1951, but spent several of my formative years living in Cornwall. I think it was here that I began to develop a life long love of nature and the rural way of life.

Eventually I left Cornwall and settled in Hertfordshire, where I still live, in a comfortable three bed roomed house with a large secluded garden which I planted with lots of fruit trees, so that now it resembles a small forest. I usually write at the dining room table, by the window, which overlooks the garden (my muse lives there). I‘m a night owl. I prefer to write at night, it’s quieter then and I can hear my thoughts, generally from 11pm to 3 am, seven days a week. I’m fuelled entirely by tea which I drink from a pint mug that never goes empty.

I’ve often been accused of having a dry sense of humour and being something of an eccentric. Fair enough, my wit is on the desiccated side and as a rank Individualist I suppose I must seem eccentric at times, anyway, that’s my excuse. I seldom watch television, don’t (can’t) drive and hate going to the barbers, I cut my own hair. There have been a few close encounters of the romantic kind, but so far I’ve managed to stay single. You know what they say, “Good guessers never marry”.

When did you begin writing?

I was bitten by the writing bug at 17. Once bitten, forever infected. I read a very good book and thought “I’d like to do that” immediately after I read a very bad book and thought “I can do better than that” That’s how it all began. I experimented with lots of styles and genres, including Science Fiction. This was the pre Star Wars era and S/F wasn’t in favour. Nevertheless, I sent a couple of short stories to a London agent who suggested I try my hand at romantic fiction. I did as she advised and many of my short romantic pieces were subsequently published in various national periodicals, including “Red Letter”, “Secrets” and “The People’s Friend”.

Ultimately, it was my passion for the history of the early twentieth century that finally dictated the genre of novel I would go on to write. It’s been a good choice for me and one I’ve never regretted.

Can you tell us about your most recent release?

Dance The Moon Down is an historical drama set against the background of the First World War. The novel attempts a new slant on an old theme by focussing on the lives of the women left behind. The story’s central character, Victoria, has been married for barely a year when her poet husband, Gerald, volunteers to fight and then goes missing on the Western Front, leaving her to fend for herself in a male dominated society. Her struggle to survive and her refusal to give up hope that her husband will one day return give the novel, I feel, a uniquely poignant flavour.

Extensive research showed that whilst a great deal has been written about the men who fought in the Great War, virtually nothing has been done about civilian life particularly that of women on the home front and the tremendous contribution they made to the war effort. I hope my novel will go some way to redress the balance. As 2014 is the centenary year of World War One, this will be the optimum time to read it.

How did you get the idea for the book?

Actually the idea originated from two separate sources. I read an article in “The Nation”, a now obsolete periodical, for June 1914, written by John Galsworthy, the author of the “Forsyte Saga”. Basically it was a critique of the younger generation who, he said, “had been born to dance the moon down to ragtime”. With the benefit of hindsight we now know that they, in fact, fought the bloodiest conflict of the twentieth century. The irony of Galsworthy’s statement had such a profound effect on me that I took it for the title of my novel.

The idea for the story itself came from the letters and diaries of some women who lived through the trauma of the Great War, which I discovered whilst researching for another project. The sentiments they expressed were so poignant that I felt that theirs was a story that demanded to be told. Thus Dance the Moon Down was born and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of all your characters, which one is your favourite? Why?

It has to be Victoria, my heroine and central character. For me she embodies not only what’s best in women, but people in general. She is forced to face some huge changes in her life and some pretty desperate situations, but throughout it all she remains strong and hopeful. She has a cheerful and compassionate nature and is always ready to help others less fortunate than herself. She’s highly educated and headstrong, but terribly naive in the ways of the world which make her a complex and interesting character as well as getting her into plenty of scraps. All in all, I think I’m a little in love with her myself.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your book?

I think it was knowing when to stop, coupled with what to leave in and what to take out. Obviously, with historical fiction it’s important to get your facts right, but it was how to balance the actual structure of the novel that I found most challenging. I realized that whilst most of my readers would know a little about the First World War and why it happened, I couldn’t assume that everyone did, therefore I had to set the scene so that everyone could understand what the story was about. It was difficult, but I think I got it right.

What is your primary goal as an author?

First and foremost it’s to write a rattling good read. To my mind that’s the most important element in any work of fiction. People like to live vicariously through fiction and it’s the author’s duty to give them the best possible experience. I suppose, as with all authors, I have a message to offer. How could it be otherwise? However, what that message is tends to be something for the reader to decipher.

What projects are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m researching for another novel. This one’s set against the background of the American Civil War. As with Dance the Moon Down, I think I’ve found a new slant on an old them. This one also has a female central character (my favourite), but that’s all I’m saying for now.

What advise would you offer to new or aspiring authors?

Above all write for the love of it. Fame and fortune are very elusive in this business. Many are called, few are chosen. Always believe in yourself, sometimes you’ll be the only one, but never take yourself too seriously. Never, ever, give up or give in, there’s always a place for a good story. Good luck.
Extract from Dance the Moon Down:

Victoria heard someone pass close by, approach the desk and stop. After a moment, not having felt a hand on her shoulder, she opened her eyes to see a young officer standing in front of her. He bore such a striking resemblance to Gerald that for a moment she thought that it was actually he.

‘This is Lieutenant Fairchild,’ Colonel Bass informed her bluntly, ‘temporarily assigned to this department. I’ve put him in charge of investigating your husband’s case. In future, you’ll direct all your questions to him.’ Closing the file, he handed it to the lieutenant. ‘Carry on, Fairchild.’

The lieutenant took the file, turned to her, smiled and gestured that she should follow him.

Victoria was only too glad to do so, but as she rose to leave, Colonel Bass had one last word of warning. ‘In future, young woman, I suggest that you confine your activities to the appropriate channels. If you persist in pursuing your original course, you may discover that this department is no longer disposed to offer you the leniency it’s shown today.‘ With that, he looked down and began writing again.

With an outstretched hand, Lieutenant Fairchild reaffirmed his invitation for her to follow him. Victoria couldn’t wait to get out of the room. She was shaking from head to toe and in such a state that, by the time she reached the corridor, she was desperate to confide her feelings to just about anyone.

‘That man,’ she told the lieutenant, her voice wavering with emotion, ‘that awful man is overbearing, rude and insensitive!’

‘He’s a colonel in the British army,’ Lieutenant Fairchild pointed out. ‘He’s supposed to be.’

His candour did nothing to alleviate her distress. ‘Do you know, he accused me of being a spy?’

The gravity of her statement merely seemed to amuse him. ‘My dear Mrs Avery, if he’d ever once thought that you were actually a spy, then you’d never have been allowed into this building. At this moment, you’d be languishing in His Majesty’s Prison Holloway, awaiting execution.’

Victoria drew a huge gasp, her eyes widening with incredulity; she could hardly believe her ears. ‘You mean to say that he put me through all that, knowing all the time that I wasn’t a spy?’

‘Believe it or not, he did you a favour,’ Lieutenant Fairchild told her. ‘It could have been far more serious had he wished to make it so.’ Victoria was incensed. She felt completely humiliated.

Disregarding his remarks, her agitation began to boil over. ‘That’s despicable!’ she fumed. ‘I don’t think the corridor is the best place for this conversation,’ he advised. ‘I’m certain we’ll be much more comfortable in my office.’

The lieutenant’s office was tiny in comparison to the baronial hall occupied by Colonel Bass, but it was far more inviting. It was hardly bigger than a cupboard, lined with filing cabinets and cluttered with stacks of paper that further reduced its size.

‘Sorry about the mess,’ he apologised, ‘but lowly lieutenants don’t rate a lot of space.’ He paused, studying her for a moment. ‘May I offer you some tea?’ he asked. ‘You look as though you need it.’

When the tea arrived, Victoria was grateful to receive a cup. Her ordeal had left her parched, and it was all she could do to stop herself from gulping it. Nevertheless, to her acute embarrassment, each time she tried to replace the cup back onto the saucer, her trembling hand made it rattle conspicuously, and in spite of trying not to, she slurped when she drank.

Lieutenant Fairchild waited patiently for her to recover enough to continue. Eventually, Victoria put the cup down and eyed him warily. Despite his good looks and easy charm, she was still paranoid about military conspiracies. ‘It won’t work, you know,’ she told him.

The lieutenant folded his hands on the desk top and smiled indulgently. ‘What won’t work?’ he asked.

She was certain that he knew exactly what she was talking about, but if he insisted on continuing this silly charade, then she would tell him anyway. ‘I’ve made a nuisance of myself, and after frightening the life out of me, that colonel of yours thinks to distract me by putting a pretty face in my way.’

It took him some moments to comprehend what she was alluding to. Then suddenly, his eyes widened in surprise. ‘Oh, I see. You mean me. I can honestly say that I’ve never thought of myself in quite those terms before,’ he admitted, still somewhat bemused by her remark. ‘Do you suppose Colonel Bass sees me that way?’

Victoria was only too well aware that his amusement was entirely at her expense, and was determined not to be the butt of the joke. ‘You know precisely what I mean, Lieutenant,’ she remarked coldly.

‘Please, call me Alan,’ he invited, taking her by surprise, ‘and may I call you Victoria?’

He had a beguiling way about him that easily disarmed her caution, and after an appropriate pause required by formality, she nodded her consent.

‘Excellent,’ he beamed. ‘I’m sure we’re going to be great friends.’

Under any other circumstances, his remark might have been considered presumptuous. Perhaps the harrowing events of the last few hours had tired her, wearing down her resistance, making her susceptible to his overtures. In any event, Victoria found the suggestion not altogether unattractive. Maybe Colonel Bass was a better judge of character than she’d given him credit for.