Mike, thanks for the opportunity to talk with you. I’m thrilled to have you and to learn about you and your involvement in your grandfather’s work, especially Pegasus Falling and It Never Was You, the first two books of the Cypress Branches Trilogy.
It’s a thrill to be here, Susan. Thank you so much for inviting me on to your blog today.
Tell us about THE CYPRESS BRANCHES. What is the time, the place, the story, the overarching theme, the main concern?
If you were to categorize The Cypress Branches, it would have to be as an epic family saga, but that doesn’t really do it justice. It has so many elements to it that make it a wonderfully rich read – there’s history, war, politics, comedy and tragedy all mingling and jostling for space within its pages. But at its heart is a beautiful love story – well, several beautiful love stories, really, that have stayed with me ever since I first read it nearly 20 years ago.
William wrote The Cypress Branches as one epic novel. At over 350,000 words, it was far too large a book to publish in its original form, so I have used its episodic structure to break it down into a series of shorter novels.
Pegasus Falling is the first part of what is now the Cypress Branches trilogy. It follows the story of Sammy – a British paratrooper who, after being captured at the infamous battle of Arnhem in 1944, has a violent coming together with his German captors and is sent to a concentration camp for “disposal”. He survives the atrocities of the camp by clinging to a Jewish German hausfrau, Naomi. The two come to rely on each other for strength, but when the camp is liberated they are separated and Sammy sets off to discover what happened to her – a journey which takes him across Europe and into the political hotbed of Palestine.
In part two of the trilogy, called It Never Was You, the story moves on to a new set of characters. Harry is a middle class merchant seaman from the London suburbs. Mary is a waitress who hails from the docklands area of Liverpool. When the two meet and fall in love, they find the collective weight of post World War II societal values and their own prejudices and peccadilloes threatening their relationship.
In Part Three (which is as yet untitled) the stories from both books are tied together as the action moves into the 1950s and 60s. The characters’ relationships become more and more intertwined and we reach a devastating conclusion. Throughout the books, the characters find their lives influenced by the tumultuous events of the mid-twentieth century. Many readers, myself included, are finding that we’re learning a lot more about an era which is too recent to be considered history but too long ago to be remembered by younger generations. It is a fascinating period, one which was marked by seismic social changes and political upheaval, and it makes for an intriguing backdrop to the storylines.
The work has a theme song, the beautifully lyrical and solemn Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony that many of us remember Bernstein conducting at Robert Kennedy’s funeral. Tell us about this leitmotif and the themes in PEGASUS FALLING.
I had no idea the Adagietto was played at Robert Kennedy’s funeral! (I’m a Brit, so I hope I’m allowed to not know that!). I’m not surprised, though. It is one of the most romantic, beautiful and poignant pieces of music I have ever heard and it never ceases to move me.
By coincidence, it is Bernstein who conducts the orchestra in the scene that features the music in Pegasus Falling. The scene takes place in the Dizengoff Hall in Tel Aviv and I believe William attended concerts there himself when he was a paratrooper stationed in Palestine. He must have seen the young Bernstein conduct and he was obviously impressed by what he heard, because he owned a huge vinyl collection of Bernstein’s recordings.
Mahler’s music is not only important to the book, it is also very important to William. And not just Mahler – he is a huge music fan, particularly of classical and jazz (although he also has a penchant for The Eagles!). He is now severely incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease, and one of the few ways we are still able to communicate with him is through his music collection.
In Pegasus Falling, the music has a profound effect on Lesley Carrington, and it can have quite an astonishing effect on William too. Often, when one of his favourite pieces is played to him, his eyes will open and he’ll raise his hand as if conducting the orchestra. It is through music that we as a family still feel able to reach him through the fog of Alzheimer’s.
The musical theme continues through the other parts of the trilogy too. The title of book two, It Never Was You, is derived from the famous Kurt Weill song. The main character, Harry, is an accomplished pianist (as was William) and the song features in a key scene, as well as reflecting one of the overarching themes of the trilogy – that of unrequited love.
The short answer is “as soon as possible”! Pegasus Falling was released in March last year. It took me three years, working in fits and starts between work contracts, to get it ready for publication. I wanted to release part two as quickly as possible, so I took time out of work last year to speed the process up, but it has still taken a surprisingly long time – over a year. I wasn’t prepared to rush it and risk launching a book that wasn’t ready.
But I am happy to report that, as of this week, It Never Was You, part two of the trilogy, is available as an ebook. The paperback will follow very shortly. After a short period of intense marketing, I’ll be knuckling down and trying to complete the third book before the end of this year. I’d love for the trilogy to be completed before the year is out, but again I’m not going to cut any corners to achieve that goal. The most important thing for me is to make sure I do William’s work justice.
All I can say to readers who are waiting patiently for the conclusion is, keep a look out on my blog where I’ll be posting updates on progress. And if readers really can’t wait, drop me an email and I’ll sign you up to the newsletter – that way, you’ll be the first to know when and where the third installment will be available.
You sent me an excerpt and introduced me to Sammy, obviously the main character. Why is he different from other men? What drives him?
When I first read the books, Sammy was the character who stood out from all the others. His story is an incredible one, and to this day, having read the story over and over, I still find it difficult to pin him down.
As a reader you jump from being frightened of him to loving him, and back again – and many of the other characters, Lesley and Naomi included, feel the same way.
Sammy is a Captain in the British Parachute Regiment. He is not your average soldier – he is a research fellow at Cambridge University, leaving his studies into genetics to take up the fight against Fascism. He is a very intelligent and well-read man, and can’t abide the “bullshit” (his word) * that goes with army life. The close camaraderie and unconventional discipline in the parachute regiment suits Sammy – he is not one for standing on parade and barracking the troops. Instead, he treats his fellow soldiers as friends, regardless of rank, and shows a distinct disdain for his superiors who insist he acts otherwise.
In battle, as well as in life, he chooses which rules to follow, depending on whether they fit in with his own world view. If they help to make the world a better and fairer place, they’re worth following. Otherwise, you can forget it. It is this bloody-mindedness which both gets him into trouble with the Germans in the first place, and helps him to survive.
On the surface, Sammy is a brute – he is described as having a pugilist’s nose, and his training and experiences have left him with an intimidating physique and formidable demeanor. There is, however, a softer, more humane side to Sammy. His treatment of Naomi when she comes to him in the camp is heartbreakingly compassionate. He is willing to defend his friends and those he loves by any means, even if he finds himself at odds with their political point of view.
Both women in the book fall in love with this gentler, more sensitive man, and in the end, I think it is this man that the reader comes to recognize as the true Sammy.
How did the war change the main characters?
William’s own experiences in the parachute regiment changed him profoundly, so this was always going to be a major theme throughout the books.
Sammy, a quiet, bookish research fellow from Cambridge, is turned by training and a need to fight for what he believes in, into a brutish thug. When he is liberated from the concentration camp he finds it very difficult to adjust to life. His battle scars run very deep indeed.
And Sammy is not his real name, after all. It’s Stanley Adam Malcolm Parker. His platoon buddies coined his nickname from his initials (S.A.M.), but after the war, Sammy finds it difficult to go back to using his own name. At one point, Sammy explains to a friend he hasn’t seen since before the war, “young Stan Parker is dead. He died in Matthausen. The man who came back was a different person.”
Naomi, the woman who Sammy meets in the camp, is irrevocably changed by her terrible experiences at the hands of the Nazis. Before the war, she was a quiet housewife and mother from Dresden. The war takes away from her, not only her husband and children, but also her home (Dresden was almost entirely obliterated by the RAF in a bombing raid in February 1945, just months before the war ended). She also loses her dignity, forced as she is to act as the camp commandant’s mistress in order to stay out of the showers.
How did you first become involved in promoting your grandfather’s work?
My grandfather wrote The Cypress Branches a little over 20 years ago now. As so many do, he wanted a project to keep himself entertained when he retired. But whereas many sit down to write their memoirs, instead William set about producing an epic work of fiction. It took him two years to complete and became an obsession for him, writing at every given opportunity, stopping only to eat and read what he’d written that day to his wife (my grandmother), Sheila. I remember clearly watching him and hearing him at the typewriter, completely absorbed in his work and his characters, and I was astonished when I first saw the fruits of his labours.
Unfortunately, shortly after finishing his magnum opus, William’s health started to deteriorate, and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. His illness meant that he could not pursue his dream of getting his book published, as I and many others who had been lucky enough to read the book had urged him to do.
It was by chance one day that I spotted an advert for a print-on-demand publishing service on the London Underground which got me thinking – perhaps there was something I could do to help. In order for William to see his book in print (and for it to still mean something to a man who’s short-term memory was fading fast), I chose to publish a hardback version of the entire work myself. At this point it was very much a family project, but I knew that the book could have a much wider appeal, so when the hardback was finished, I set about turning the huge novel into a series of smaller paperbacks.
So, William’s obsession became mine and the rest, as they say, is history.
William Edward Thomas was born in West London in 1925.
He left The Brompton Oratory School when he was 14 and started work as a messenger at the BBC. When war broke out, he went to work with his father at a factory in Harrow. While still a teenager, William joined the army and was soon recruited in to the Parachute Regiment. By May 1945, he had been “dropped” in to a number of key battles and become a much decorated soldier. He was still only 19 years old. Following the war, William served in Palestine until 1948.
William has six children. As they were growing up, he was working and studying in shifts as a merchant seaman and an engineer. In his mid fifties, he decided to work full time as a lab technician at his Alma Mater, The Open University and remained there until his retirement. It was during his retirement that he decided to set himself the challenge of writing a novel. The Cypress Branches is the result.
William was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006. His health has since deteriorated to the point where he can no longer live at home and he is now in full-time care in the town UK of Milton Keynes, where he had lived for 25 years. He is visited by friends and family daily.
Note: This interview is part of the IT NEVER WAS YOU Blog Tour at http://acuteanglebooks.blogspot.com/2013/04/inwy-tour.html As part of the tour, Mike Harris is using Rafflecopter to give away a $50 Amazon gift certificate, 3 paperbacks and 10 ebooks. You can enter here: a Rafflecopter giveaway
Listen to the theme song of the trilogy, the beautiful Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony: