• Ally Sherrick

    Ally Sherrick


    APRIL 2018


    In a novel that vividly brings to life World War II and how it might have been experienced by a small community, we discover ancient kings, treasure and a plot to change the course of the war.

    When George is sent from London to live in in the countryside while his brother and guardian, Charlie, fights overseas, he and his new friend Kitty discover an ancient crown which the Nazis - believing it to have magical powers - are desperate to possess. Soon the children are involved in a life-threatening attempt to save the crown from Nazi invaders.

    We asked author ALLY SHERRICK to tell us more about her latest novel, THE BURIED CROWN.

    Q: Have you always loved history, and writing?

    A: If I was a stick of rock - the type you get at the seaside - the word running through the middle of me would be 'Writer'. This is because pretty much all of the jobs I've done since I left university have involved writing of some sort or another. My first 'proper' job was as an editor working for WH Smith. My favourite thing about it was being able to raid the book samples cupboard for copies of new books. Later on, I moved into public relations and marketing, where I spent a lot of my time writing.

    But it was only comparatively recently that I got the chance to take my own creative writing seriously, going back to 'school' to study for an MA in Writing for Children at the University of Winchester.

    Undeniably, the other great passion in my life has been for history. My mum and dad lit the spark for it with visits on family holidays and days out to stately homes, castles and museums up and down the country. I have many happy memories of days spent clambering over the ruins of old earthworks, monasteries and Roman forts. And I was also lucky to have some brilliant teachers who helped to fan the flames, so that in the end, history - of the medieval kind - was what I ended up studying for my first degree.

    Q: Your debut novel Black Powder focused on the Gunpowder Plot while The Buried Crown is set during WWII. What draws you to writing books set in the past?

    A: The amazing true stories you find lying buried just beneath the surface and begging to be told - with your own cast of characters and a decent pinch of imagination of course!

    Also, I think fiction is all about the reader climbing into the shoes of other people and walking around in them for a while. And what could be better than to pull on a pair of Gunpowder Plotter's boots or lace yourself up in an evacuee's scuffed school shoes to go on a journey with them, safe in the knowledge that you'll always be back in time for tea!

    Q: What for you as a writer makes a good 'hook' in terms of the period you're writing about?

    A: That's a tricky one! There's so much that hooks me into stories from the past, but I guess, in the main, it probably comes down to people and places. In the case of Black Powder, it was finding out about the complex character of Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters.

    The story spark for my new book, The Buried Crown, was an intriguing location: the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo ship burial site in Suffolk, which, on the eve of the Second World War, was the scene of the British equivalent of the Tutankhamun tomb discovery.

    Q: How much research did you need to do into the WWII period to write about it? Were there any surprises?

    A: I scoured the internet and used a number of key websites including those of the Imperial War Museum (IWM), the RAF, the BBC's WW2 People's War website and a number connected with the Holocaust and the Kindertransport experience. I also read both fiction and non-fiction books on the Second World War. I was particularly moved by a book from the IWM's archive of oral histories by Phil Robins entitled Can I Come Home Please?.

    And yes, there were plenty of surprises - some very welcome and others not so, such as when I discovered that Spitfires were not much use for flying at night. This looked set to wreck plans for my big battle scene towards the end of the book. But then, thanks to the help of the Royal Air Force Museum London, I discovered the RAF had used a night-adapted Spitfire model in the early part of the war - phew!

    Q: The Buried Crown focuses on George Penny, a child evacuee, and Kitty, who escaped Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport. Did any particular stories or research inspire their backgrounds?

    A: George is modelled on my own lovely 85-year-old dad, also called George, who was seven at the start of the war and who was evacuated from London to Pembrokeshire in Wales. I grew up listening to tales of his boyhood adventures and we spent several family holidays near the town he was sent to.

    Something else that my dad shares in common with George in the book is that he lost his mum when he was very young - though in his case she died of cancer while he was still away living down in Wales.

    As far as Kitty is concerned, I had read a lot of Holocaust literature in the past and had a pretty clear idea of the sort of character I wanted for my story. But I was also very privileged to be invited to meet some of the surviving British 'Kinder' at one of their monthly gatherings.

    Coincidentally, Bernd Koschland, the gentleman who kindly agreed to give me some help looking at the passages of my story relating to Kitty's experiences, was, like her, originally from Bavaria. And like Kitty too, he came to England on one of the Kindertransports after the dreadful events of 'Kristallnacht' and his father's arrest and imprisonment in the notorious Dachau concentration camp. But although there were some parallels between Bernd and Kitty, this was more through happenstance than design.

    Q: How did their characters develop - as you wrote them, or do you only start writing once you know your characters?

    A: While I had a pretty clear idea in my head of the sort of people George, Kitty and the bullying farmer, Bill Jarvis would be - it was only as I wrote my way into the story I really began to understand them in depth.

    To be honest, I doubt whether any writer would say that they truly know their characters until they've worked their way through the first draft at least. And even then, my experience has been that you always find out plenty more about them that you didn't know in the rewrites that follow.

    For example, I wasn't entirely sure why Bill Jarvis was so mean to George until I was deep into rewrites and it really sunk in that the war had resulted in farm-workers leaving the land to go and fight. So now, as a result, Jarvis, was struggling to make ends meet, and resentful of having to rely on 'puny' evacuees from the city to help him.

    Q: George's brother has trained to fly with the RAF; this year is their centenary. What would you like children to be taught about the RAF at school?

    A: I think focusing on the bravery of the first pilots - the ones who went up in those very fragile early flying machines - would be a key thing. Without them, we wouldn't have been able to develop the fighter planes - like the Spitfire and the Hurricane - which helped to hold the Germans at bay in 1940 and eventually to win the war.

    And of course, the bravery and courage of the young pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain is something that we should never forget, as recognised and honoured by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill in his famous speech from that time: 'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.'

    Q: You also introduce a magical element to this story, drawn through an ancient Anglo Saxon crown. Was this inspired by a particular legend or ancient site?

    A: It was a combination of site and story. The site, as mentioned earlier, is the Sutton Hoo ship burial monument. I studied the Sutton Hoo treasures - now in the British Museum - at university and remember being amazed by their beauty and intricacy. My husband and I visited the site where the treasures, and the huge wooden ship they'd been buried in back in the early 7th century, had been discovered in 1939.

    Anglo-Saxon art and poetry is full of references to dragons and the so-called 'beasts of battle' - the raven, the eagle and the wolf. And I also found it intriguing that though archaeologists believe the ship was the tomb for an Anglo-Saxon king - most likely King Redwald who died c. 624 - no trace of a body was ever found.

    These, combined with a story I remembered reading some years before by ghost-story writer M.R. James about the discovery of a mysterious Anglo-Saxon crown, were the springboard for the magic in my own story.

    Q: How difficult is it to introduce real historical characters, such as Hitler, into your writing?

    A: It's definitely a challenge when so much is known and minutely documented about a real-life individual. My publisher suggested I open the story with Hitler to provide the context for what is to come with the crown. I wanted to include Churchill, by way of a counterbalance at the end of the book, as the embodiment of hope and the resolve to carry on fighting. Also for the more personal reason that my dad remembers seeing the great man in the flesh as a boy down in Wales.

    As both have only what you'd call walk-on parts, I've worked to try and capture the essence of them, rather than create a full-blown portrayal of all their strengths and weaknesses.

    I had more leeway in Black Powder with the creation of my version of Guy Fawkes, since - spoiler alert - his character features in a significant chunk of the action in the book. And of course, much less is known about him, so I felt I had a certain freedom to exploit that while trying to stay true to what we do know about what motivated him to join the Gunpowder Plot.

    Q: What for you is the most intriguing or significant place of historical interest in the UK?

    A: Gosh, that's a difficult one! I can think of many examples, but if you pressed me, then I'd probably have to go for the Tomb of the Eagles on Orkney. It's a Neolithic chambered cairn perched on the edge of the wild and windswept cliffs of South Ronaldsay. It was discovered by chance in the 1950s by a local farmer and excavations at the site have produced 16,000 human bones and over 700 bones from eagles, all placed there around 5,000 years ago.

    To access the tomb you have to lie down flat on a wheeled trolley in front of the entrance and pull yourself inside by a rope before you get to stand inside the pitch-black tomb itself. Besides being one of the most spookily atmospheric places I've ever visited, it also raises intriguing questions about the relationship between the people who constructed the tomb and the magnificent birds of prey they chose to bury alongside their dead ancestors. There's a story in there somewhere just waiting to be unearthed ...

    Q: If you could travel to any time in history, where/when would you visit and why?

    A: Another tricky question! Continuing the underground theme, I think maybe being there with Howard Carter at the time of the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, just as he breaks through the wall into the treasure-filled antechamber.

    I loved studying the Ancient Egyptians at primary school and when in 1972 the treasures came over to the UK and went on display at the British Museum, like many others, I was gripped by King Tut fever! So yes, the Valley of the Kings, 26 November 1922 would definitely be worth setting the dial on my time machine for.

    But I'd have to make a return visit on 16 February the following year. That was the day Carter made the further discovery of the boy-king's golden sarcophagus. I wouldn't want to miss it for the world!

    Q: How can schools and librarians inspire more children to enjoy history?

    A: I'm no expert, but for me history isn't about dry-as-dust lists of dates and kings and queens, it's about the experiences of everyday real people. People like us - and yet not like us because of the extraordinary times they lived in and through. I think it's about helping to make that connection for young people - getting them to step into the shoes of those people and to imagine how it might feel to live their lives.

    Stories set in the past featuring rounded, flesh-and-blood characters with the courage to change things are a key tool to help with this. And if there's a local history angle that you can hook in to and explore in parallel, then so much the better!

    Q: What are your top tips for setting a story in the past?

    - Have a passion for the time and place your story is set in
    - Research it well, but not so that you never get around to writing your own story!
    - Have fun exploiting the gaps in historical knowledge to make your story as compelling as it can be.

    Q: What are you working on now and what is your favourite escape from writing?

    I'm in the early stages of researching a new historical story, this time set at the court of King Henry VIII. I'll say no more about it now, as it's still only the fragile seed of an idea at the moment.

    I work in the back bedroom of our house which we've had converted into a study, with a large desk and plenty of bookshelves, jammed full of books. There's a view out on to the garden and other gardens beyond, but I very rarely look out of it, unless the magpies or blackbirds are squabbling with one another.

    When I'm not writing, I love going for long walks in the countryside, reading (of course!) and watching films. And if the words aren't flowing or I'm going a bit cross-eyed at the screen, I find either a walk round the block or a cup of tea and a buttered crumpet are the best medicine!