William Ryan on reading, writing and researching the Holocaust for his HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown shortlisted novel, The Constant Soldier.
Your previous Captain Korolev novels have been very successful but you’ve moved away from historical crime with The Constant Soldier – why the change?
Well, originally it was a crime novel – but it became pretty clear once I started writing it that a typical crime story just wouldn’t work, given its setting in a rest hut for SS men involved in the Holocaust. In the end, the novel became about an individual’s responsibility for the Nazi regime’s terrible crimes, about guilt and about atonement.
How did the initial idea for The Constant Soldier come about?
It’s based on a photograph album that belonged to a man called Karl-Friedrich Hoecker, who was the adjutant to the Commandant of Auschwitz from June 1944 until its liberation by the Soviets in January 1945. A lot of the photographs in the album were taken at the Solahutte – a rest hut for the men and women who worked at Auschwitz – and what struck me was how ordinary they appeared and how relaxed they were given the war was lost at the time the photographs were taken. The photographs came to light in 2007 but they chime with Christopher Browning’s 1992 masterpiece of Holocaust history – Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland which was also a crucial influence. The novel draws on both – and many other sources as well.
Historical research: a pleasure or a chore?
It’s always fascinating and there is a pleasure to finding the threads of a fictional story in amongst the facts, but researching The Constant Soldier was emotionally very hard. And the more time I spent exploring the Holocaust, the more I felt enormous pressure to tell a story that had real meaning and conveyed some of the emotions I felt. So, it wasn’t exactly a pleasure, more something I took very seriously – a responsibility, as much as anything.
Did your research for this book turn up anything unexpected?
I was aware that Germany had lost a lot of its Eastern territories at the end of World War 2, but it was only when I was trying to track the Soviet advance that it became apparent how widespread and total that loss was. For example, the war histories that I used to track the Soviet advance use the German names for the towns and cities that were captured in 1945 – but those names no longer exist on maps, having been replaced with the Polish versions. So, Breslau became Wroclaw, and Auschwitz became Oswiecim. It wasn’t only the names. Millions of ethnic Germans were forcibly removed from areas where they had been settled since the twelfth century, in some cases. That ending of their history, as a result of the crimes of the Nazis, was something I wanted to explore in the novel.
Antonia Senior, Chair of judges said, ‘Our shortlisted writers, although very different in subject and style, all share a talent for making the past holler to the present.’ Were you conscious of any modern day parallels when writing the book?
I think the holocaust came about because of a populist politician capitalising on and inflaming anger towards particular religious and ethnic groups – and there has been an increasing amount of that in the last few years. I don’t think The Constant Soldier was written as a direct reaction to that, but the parallels were very much on my mind.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing routine, if you have one?
I try to go to a library most days, if I can. The more you treat writing like going to work the better, I think, and I have too many distractions at home.
Get the words down on the page. Writing a novel is like a marathon, you have to keep putting one word after another. And, unlike a marathon, once you’ve got to the end, you can go back over it and make it much, much better.
Which recent novels, historical or otherwise, would be on your personal shortlist?
I’m reading Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow at the moment which I’m savouring. But, to be honest, I think the rest of the HWA Gold Crown shortlist is uniformly excellent. I’m very pleased, and pleasantly surprised, to be in their company.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
I think we can get behind the facts – fiction can recreate emotions and atmosphere in a way that non-fiction just can’t. When a novelist knows his period, as all the other writers on the HWA Gold Crown shortlist do, then the reader can experience from a particular time and place in a very vivid way. It’s a little bit like time travel – there might be some imagination involved, but it gets us into the hidden parts of history …
William Ryan’s Captain Korolev Novels have been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, the Ellis Peters and John Creasey Daggers and the Irish Crime Novel of the Year (twice). William teaches on the Crime Writing Masters at City University in London. His latest novel The Constant Soldier is shortlisted for the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown Award.