Anne here, interviewing my friend, Barbara Hannay about her newest book, THE SECRET YEARS. Barbara is an award-winning, bestselling author. She's written many short series romances for Harlequin, and has won several major awards, including RWA's RITA, the Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award and Australia's Romantic Book of the Year Award (twice) — but in recent years she's moved into longer, more mainstream fiction.
I mentioned her book Moonlight Plains last month in What We're Reading, but her new book is something else again. It's been listed as a book of the month on iTunes-books, and Penguin Australia has given it one of their coveted "Guaranteed Great Read" medallions on the cover. The reviews are also glowing, and since there is a strong WWII thread in the book, I thought wenchly readers might enjoy meeting Barbara and finding out more about THE SECRET YEARS.
THE SECRET YEARS is set across two eras; World War II England (and other places) and modern-day Australia. As the blurb says, it "spans three generations of secrets, romance and heartbreak."
Anne: Welcome to the Word Wenches, Barbara. There are two intertwining stories in THE SECRET YEARS — a contemporary and a historical story, but since this is a historical blog, let's start with the historical one — your hero Harry and your heroine, George, aka the Honourable Georgina Lenton. Tell us about Harry and George.
Barbara: Thanks so much for the welcome, Anne. I'm thrilled to be visiting with wenchly readers. As for Harry and George… they meet on a train in London during the Blitz in 1940. Originally an Australian cattleman, Harry Kemp is in England prior to being posted to Tobruk in the Middle East. Georgina is the daughter of a baronet, but has joined the Army Service Corps.
Being a cheeky Aussie, Harry asks Georgina if she will show him the sights of London and she ends up taking Harry home. Her parents are away on their Cornwall estate and she and Harry spend the night in the basement of their house in Belgravia.
The war provides many twists and turns for both of these characters, however, and they end up meeting again in New Guinea where they flee through the jungle from the Japanese. Of course, in the midst of all this, they also fall in love… with ramifications for subsequent generations.
Anne: Wenchly readers would, I think, especially enjoy reading about the London debutante scene when young women were presented to the King in 1939, in what became the last ‘ season’ before World War II was declared. What drew you to this period?
Barbara: I loved researching the glamour and excitement of the London season and I was fascinated by the way everything must have changed in a blink for these elegant girls from wealthy families. One minute they were enjoying the height of luxury and sophistication in Buckingham Palace and at parties in London’s best hotels; the next they were plunged into the horror of another war, coming far too soon after the previous war that had devastated their parents’ generation.
I was inspired by how many of these girls threw themselves into the war effort, not only coping with the London Blitz, but learning how to type, or to nurse, or to drive trucks and change tyres. It was out of this fascination that my character George, or rather the Honourable Georgina Lenton was born, and, of course, I had to make her heroic.
Anne: And she is. The story takes us to some wonderful places — Cornwall, London, the Australian outback, New Guinea, and I have to say, you evoke those places superbly.
Barbara: Thank you, Anne. Evoking a sense of place has always been important for me as a writer. Settings can provide a wonderful layer of atmosphere.
I prefer to write about places I've actually visited and in the past I've written many stories about the Australian outback where I've spent a lot of time camping and canoeing. I've also been lucky enough to visit both London and Cornwall, so I enjoyed bringing these places to life, too. I love how totally different these settings are from Australia.
The sophistication of London and the stormy cliffs of Cornwall are a far cry from the red dirt of the Aussie outback and I do enjoy a strong contrast in settings! I think it helps to add drama to the story.
I had planned to travel to New Guinea as well, but this idea was abandoned when my husband became ill. (He's fine now.) Fortunately though, the rainforest of Far North Queensland where I live is not all that different from New Guinea's mountains and jungle, so I felt comfortable about taking my readers there. (Note from Anne: the photos on this blog, of Cornwall and of the outback, are Barbara's)
Anne: You didn't only have to research history and geography to write THE SECRET YEARS, did you? Tell us a little about some of your other research.
Barbara: The heroine in the contemporary thread of this novel is Lucy Hunter, a female soldier returning to Australia from Afghanistan. Although my focus is mainly on Lucy's adjustments after arriving home, I also wanted to understand what she might have experienced in Afghanistan. Tracking down someone from the army who was prepared to answer my questions was quite a challenge. Going through official army channels became a nightmare, but eventually a kind friend of a friend who had a son in the army came to my rescue. My interview with a real soldier proved to be a highlight of my research and I'm very grateful to him.
Anne: Would you give us a brief taste of THE SECRET YEARS please?
Barbara: This 'after-dinner' scene takes place outdoors, by a lake on Georgina's family's estate in Cornwall. Harry has made the long journey back from Australia after the war.
Georgina couldn't stand it, couldn't bear the suspense a moment longer. 'Harry, please don't play games.'
'That's the last thing I want.'
'You are going to ask me to marry you, aren't you?'
'That's what I'd planned.' He seemed to speak with difficulty, as if he was dragging the words out. 'But I realise now that I was fooling myself.'
'Why?' The single word was a cry, a howl of despair.
'George, I –'
'You love me.' Georgina didn't care that she sounded desperate. Harry had told her that he loved her. So many times.
'The thing is… I have so little to offer you.'
So there it was. Just as she had feared. Harry had been overawed by her family, by the estate, the titles.
Here's a link to a longer excerpt.
Anne: Lovely, thank you — and I loved the longer excerpt as well. So, what's next for Barbara Hannay?
Barbara: I've really enjoyed writing these dual time lines that combine a historical and contemporary thread, so I'm working on another one with the working title The Grazier's Wife. The settings for this will be Far North Queensland and wartime Singapore.
Anne: I'm looking forward to it. Thanks, Barb, for visiting the Word Wenches and sharing a little about THE SECRET YEARS with us.
Barbara: Thanks again, Anne for the invitation to join you here.
Anne: Barbara will be giving away a copy of THE SECRET YEARS to someone who leaves a comment or answers the following question: Do you enjoy reading books with dual timelines? Any favorites? What about WWII stories—do you enjoy them or not?