Welcome to this virtual landscape where debut authors get to take us along ancient streets, deserted beaches and dark forests, showing us what inspired them, pointing out the crossroads and obstacles and describing the next steps for their writing careers. This month Helen Victoria is stepping out with author Sue Klauber, whose debut, Zinc, is out on 9th November.


Let’s begin our journey.


There’s nothing like a good walk to fuel creative ideas and give us inspiration in our writing. Where are you taking us on our walk today?


I’m going to take you back in time to meet my family in World War Two where I hope to show new things and present different perspectives to our children. I want to inspire them to be curious about their own family histories as you never know what they will uncover! It’s what makes us, us.


What about the landscape you have created in your novel? How important is the setting to your plot and themes?


Zinc takes place between 1939 and 1941 in a variety of settings: London, Bletchley Park, Scotland, and Slovakia. The war time activities of my Hungarian-British-Jewish father, John, his brother, George, and their sister, Eva, were shrouded in secrecy when I was a child because they had signed the Official Secrets Act, which swore them not to tell anyone anything for the rest of their lives. All I knew was that my dad was a code-breaker, George was a secret agent for Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Eva had married a Hungarian man before the war and was stranded there with Nazis all around, an impossibly perilous position for a Jewish woman.


To write Zinc I had to visit Bletchley Park, where John learns to break into Nazi coded messages; Arisaig, where George undertakes his training; and Bratislava, which George parachutes into and where he lives in disguise. I also found Eva’s house in Hungary where she is marooned.


Don’t worry, there are children in Zinc! Memories of the games that they played when they were much younger on holiday in Hungary echo throughout the plot, and in particular a daring game that went too far. It left them all with unresolved feelings, which are the underpinning of their personal journeys in the story.


A key re-occuring setting in the natural landscape is the forest, which features both in their games and in World War Two when George is being hunted by the Nazis. The reassuring cover provided by trees is coupled with a sense of disorientation so, although the setting is crucial for his survival, it also brings out his fear at the enormity of the game and later his war-time mission.


As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand steps starts with one. Tell us about your inspiration for your novel.


My inspiration was a big old wooden chest that lived in my grandma’s flat when I was a child, which I have in my house now. It is over 100 years old and if chest’s could talk it would tell me everything I have ever wanted to know about generations of my family. After grandma died when I was aged seven, it came to my home and that’s when my fascination began because it contained all the photographs, letters, and documents from way back. It felt like a treasure chest as I delved around and found intriguing clues. John, George and Eva all died when I was young so the chest provided a precious connection. I saw them grow up through the photos and got hints as to their bravery in World War Two, which became the subject of Zinc.


Now we have got into our stride, can you tell us what you loved most about writing this book?


I was gifted with a remarkable family history that was just waiting to be discovered. But however much I researched the actual war time experiences of John, George and Eva, much of it remained hidden and inaccessible. The National Archives at Kew do not reveal every mystery, so I had to make up part of their adventures in Zinc based on the exploits of similar code-breakers and secret agents.


I enjoyed the plotting of the novel which, as you have probably gathered, is complex! It’s definitely for years six and up. I worked it all out in advance like a puzzle and cannot imagine free-wheeling!


When I needed extra inspiration I would look in the chest to find another photograph – which I now have stored in museum grade boxes to preserve them, as I hope that they will remain an intriguing legacy for future generations of my family.


We seem to be lost in the woods now. Can you describe your most difficult moments when you were writing … and how you got back onto the right path?


Writing historical fiction poses a particular challenge. Deciding on the border between fact and fiction was tricky as I tried to stick to external historical events as much as possible while creating the internal family story.


A film director’s quote stays with me when he said, “You don’t finish an edit, you just walk away.” I could have carried on improving or possibly ruining Zinc for the rest of my life, but there was a point when I had to say “That’s it.”


When I got rejections from agents, I shrugged them off, knowing that almost every author has scores of them.


I realised that my editor saw Zinc as a series of movable pieces like lego, whereas to me they had gradually become glued in place and I found it harder to take them apart.


I was fortunate to meet an editor who loved Zinc and shared my excitement about telling the stories of the siblings. Her suggestions were always sensitive and she had the overview of the publishing industry that I lacked. I am very fortunate to have worked with her.


As we reach the summit, can you tell us how it feels to be a first time author?


I feel so, so lucky to have found Troika Books. At the time of writing I am looking forward to, and am very nervous about, my launch in The Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, London. I won’t feel like a real author until after that!


I rejoiced in how beautiful the book is, I love the cover and print. It was also weird! It suddenly felt like someone else’s book, a proper author’s, which gave me an interesting new perspective.


Martin at Troika has been so supportive and I want to thank him massively as well as my editor, Melissa Balfour, who was wonderful, and everyone who read it or who advised on the historical authenticity. I have dedicated Zinc to my mother who, currently aged 98, has always backed my slightly strange project of fictionalising the lives of the Klauber side of the family; to my husband, who has put up with my anxiety through Zinc’s 10-year incubation (yes, you read that right!) and, first and foremost, to my son, to whom I want to pass on the legacy of his extraordinary family.


We’ve finished our walk now so I think we deserve to celebrate with tea in a cosy inn. As we warm our feet by the blazing fire, tell me where you think your writing will take you in the future?


A sequel to Zinc of course!


Finally, I have really enjoyed walking and talking with you today. Can you give us one take away tip for yet-to-be-published writers?


Do it for the joy of telling your story, and to give to your loved ones. I have been extraordinarily lucky, but don’t depend on the industry discovering you!





Twitter: @sue_klauber Instagram: @sueklauber

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