T.S. Learner's ability to blend intricate storylines and complex characters with key historical events has won her critical acclaim and a devoted readership. Learner's latest novel, The Map, explores life in post-war Europe following the Spanish Civil War. August Winthrop, an American who fought with the International Brigade in 1937, is talked into returning a 17th century chronicle containing a great mystical secret. To return the book to the Basque family, who have been safeguarding it for centuries, August will have to risk possible arrest and his life.
'The Map covers a fascinating aspect of the Spanish Civil War - post-war Britain/Europe/Spain - the Basque movement and its involvement with the Spanish civil war, Basque mythology and rites, Sephardic Jewish history, the International Brigade and more', says Learner. 'Ultimately it is a rollicking page-turning historical thriller that is also emotionally moving as well as gripping,' she says.
As August himself is swept up in solving the secret of the chronicle - the key to a great mystical treasure - and is led towards a psychological, political and spiritual revelation, the conclusion will prove to be earth shattering for August and the reader.
T.S. Learner was born and raised in England and has lived in both Australia and the USA. She is well known in Australia as a playwright. Her first collection of short stories, Quiver, written as Tobsha Learner, has sold over 150 000 copies internationally. Her third book - the bestselling The Witch of Cologne - was her first work of historical fiction and was followed by another collection of short stories, Tremble, and two more novels, Soul and Sphinx. T.S. Learner divides her time between London, Sydney and California.
Harper Collins Australia
Author: T.S. Learner
Question: What inspired you to write a book, set in post-war Europe following the Spanish Civil War?
Tobsha Learner: I was interested in the moral torpidity that followed the exhilaration of the ending of World War Two. In 1953 there was unemployment, rationing, Britain was drab desperate place swash with ex-servicemen looking for work, a lack of political direction and the western world was about to be launched into the Cold war. I then placed an idealist, a charismatic charmer who fought both in the Spanish Civil War and who operated clandestinely smuggling stranded Allied pilots from occupied France through the Pyrenees and then back to the UK through San Sebastian, against this bleak backdrop. At the beginning of the story August, my hero, is ripe for adventure, he is also a habitual womaniser and, as an ex-soldier, is suffering from PSTD. He asked to make a dangerous journey back into Basque country in Franco's Spain, which forces him to confront old ghosts and the fascist political regime. As I always have a strong strand of mysticism in my political thrillers, I became (through a Basque friend) fascinated by some of the ancient Basque pagan beliefs and also their own battle with Franco. I also came across the strange fact that the US government briefly trained Basque freedom fighters with the idea that they might help overthrow Franco (Spain was the only Axis nation left standing after the war) until the Americans then decided Stalin was the new enemy. Several of these elements triggered my inspiration.
Question: Can you talk about the research that went into The Map?
Tobsha Learner: I made several visits to Basque country with my close friend Ana Aguirregabiria who introduced me to a host of Basque specialist (both in local pagan beliefs and in the ancient caves and churches of the region). We also interviewed Basques who lived under the tyranny of Franco and had been politically active during those intensely difficult times. I even interviewed an old farmer who had witnessed the bombing of Gernika from his tiny hamlet set further up the valley. It was an extraordinary experience and I feel very honoured to have been allowed to share some of the memories. Much of the locations described in The Map are based on actual places we visited, although the actual village in fictional. I also visited Hamburg with my German researcher and interviewed a group of elderly Germans who gave us detailed accounts of their experiences of living under British in 1953 (post-War Hamburg was governed by the British army). We also visited the Erich Thaelman centre (Erich Thaelman was the name of the German brigade who very bravely fought Franco and Hitler in the Spanish Civil war - this was almost a suicide mission) and researched the fate of those guys who returned to Nazis Germany (and interment) after the Spanish Civil War was lost by the Left. Other research covering the parallel storyline in The Map the 17th century Jewish alchemist involved interviewing the head of the cabbala movement in the UK on The Tree of Life, going to Seville and Cordova to the old Jewish centre there, visiting Paris (although I know it quite well) and Avignon. I did also read a number of books, including a great near autobiography by an American who fought with the Abraham Lincoln brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
Question: What do you enjoy most about writing stories set during key historical events?
Tobsha Learner: I most enjoy having the wisdom of distance, there is a delicious near-irony and self-awareness of relating actual events with the hindsight of what happened next (for the next five decades!). It allows the reader to join the dots, for example I had a better understanding of why the cold war begun knowing that initially the US feared the remnants of Fascism until they gleaned Stalin's real intentions at Potsdam. But actually I like to write about the aftermath of key historical events - The Map is post 2nd war world and the very beginning of the Cold War, August (my hero) is still emotionally suffering from the effects of being in two wars prior and in the parallel storyline the 17th century Spanish Jewish Alchemist is fleeing the tail end of the Inquisition.
Question: What is the best thing about creating a character like August Winthrop?
Tobsha Learner: Apart from making him as sexy as I could? Probably developing the complexity of his psychology. I wanted him to embody that generation of men who came through Oxbridge system in the 1920's when the political world was clearly dividing into communism versus fascism, when communism was far more a romantic and enlightened belief than now (think Arab Spring). I also wanted him to have an entitled background (Bostonian, old US money) so the arc of both his life and emotions were extreme. I also returned to an old theme of mine (seen in both my plays and erotic short stories) of the loveable, vulnerable womaniser. He does falls in love and gets over his fear of commitment; he does finally come to terms with the death of his closest friend in the Spanish Civil war - both with very poignant results.
Question: How much of your inspiration comes from real life and real people?
Tobsha Learner: A great deal - not specific people - more psychological traits, or life experiences that have formed character. I'm fortunate enough in my widely travelled life to have met some extraordinary people and some wonderfully ordinary people. Everyone has a tale.
Interview by Brooke Hunter