16 August 2011

Q&A with John Heffernan

As promised, we bring you an interview with John Heffernan, author of Harry's War, out this month, and already being reviewed here. Teachers' notes available here.

What gave you the idea for the story of Harry and his grandpa? 
Harry's War is based around the stories that an old man tells his grandson about his time in the second world war. He makes the stories so exciting and fantastic that the boy dreams about being a soldier himself. I realised how easy it is to impress young minds and fill them with romantic ideas about war which is a horrible experience in reality. I also realised how people often embellish the stories they tell about things they do such as fighting in a war. There can be a fine line between telling a good story and telling lies. Harry's War is partly (but only partly) about that. It's also about the secrets families keep and how they will often tell lies to guard those secrets from being discovered. And it's about how knowing the truth will in the end make you stronger than all the lies in the world.

Harry thinks a lot about exciting things that happen in war. Do you think that going to war is an adventure? 
War could be one of the most exciting adventures ever, I imagine. In fact that is exactly why so many young men rushed off to the first and second world wars - for the adventure and excitement. Of course the reality proved to be something else entirely, far worse than any of them could ever have imagined. But that's another story.

Grandpa tells great stories about what he did in the war. Are they based on true stories? Did you read a lot of war stories before you wrote the book? 
Yes, Grandpa's war stories are based on factual accounts of war experiences by real soldiers. I read quite a few such accounts before I wrote the book.

At the end of the story, Harry does not seem to be very forgiving. Do you see Harry and Grandpa ever being close again after the things that happen in the book? 
I do think that Harry will forgive his grandfather for what he did, but it will take time, possibly years. Harry's other experiences, especially with Will in the boat, but also his talk with Grandpa's mate Jock, will help him mature and in some ways understand why Grandpa did what he did. It will also help him understand that Grandpa is also suffering, even though he may not show it on the surface. And finally, Harry might come to realise that he is quite like Grandpa himself in many ways.

You have written books with boys and girls as main characters. What do you admire in your characters? 
I'm not sure that ‘admire’ is quite the right word for how I feel about my characters. In some cases, yes, I do admire them - such as Rachael in Rachael's Forest for her courage and strength of characters, and Luke in Where There's Smoke for his loyalty and courage. But mostly it is empathy I feel for them, and an urge to go with them on their journeys through life. I feel that in some ways I am Marty in Marty's Shadow, struggling to understand the chaos of his life. Or I am Matt in A Horse Called Elvis, feeling that overwhelming love of a beautiful animal. And in Harry's War, I especially feel for Harry in the trust he places in his grandfather, and the great yearning he has to find out the truth about his father.

In Harry's War and in your last book, Where There's Smoke, you show families in very difficult situations. Do you think that people need to be in a crisis before they can show their best qualities? 
Not necessarily. Some people are able to show their strengths without being put under any strain. But most of my characters are quite ordinary people, often with flaws. They're not automatic heroes, that's for sure, just people. And yet they are capable of great acts of courage when put to the test. And I think that is true of many people in real life; they need to be tested to really show their strengths.

You live on a farm, and your books are often set in the country. Are country people different from city people? 
I actually do believe that country people are different from city people. I mean this particularly in regard to small country towns where people know each other and often care about each other. Cities are such impersonal places where anonymity is the norm and it's much harder to feel for others.

Which of your books is your favourite, and why? 
I don't have any one favourite. Most of my books are very important to me. They're sort of like my children because I've spent a lot of time creating them. Having said that, several books stand out and have a special place in my mind for various reasons. Spud was my first novel and will always be special for that reason. A Horse Called Elvis is about a very, very special animal in my life. My Dog says something I feel strongly about war and human suffering, seen through the eyes of a young boy. Marty's Shadow is possibly the most emotional book I've ever written. Where There's Smoke is an attempt to grasp human bravery. And Harry's War is very special because I've never felt quite so close to all the characters, young Harry in particular.

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