Today’s guest blog is by author Sam Bourne who is the literary pseudonym of Jonathan Freedland an award winning journalist and broadcaster. He is also a weekly columnist for the Guardian. Pantheon his fifth book is published today.
Before I’d written a word of it, one thing about Pantheon, the new novel written under my pseudonym Sam Bourne, scared me. Where the four previous Bourne books had been contemporary stories, rooted in the here and now, Pantheon would be set in 1940. It had to be: the real-life events which underpin the novel happened in that first year of the Second World War. Whether I liked it or not, this book would have to be both a thriller and a historical novel.
That had an immediate consequence. Every action by any character, no matter how minor, would have to be extensively researched. Let’s say the protagonist is hungry. In a contemporary story that would pose no problem: I would know instinctively what and where he would eat. But in the Oxford of 1940? What did people like to eat then? More important, what was available in the age of rationing? (Not much it turned out: the speciality at one restaurant, The Racket, was baked beans on toast.)
I knew I had to get such things right. One lesson I have learned in my relatively short career as a thriller-writer is that readers will accept the most outlandish plot twists, just so long as the apparently mundane nuts and bolts are in the right place. Hitler won the war? (See Robert Harris’s Fatherland) No problem. But a character who takes the 106 bus to Piccadilly? That’s not on. Factual errors break the spell of a novel – and the scope for factual errors when writing fiction set not in the period one knows best, the present, but in a past outside one’s own experience, is immense.
The result was that the research stage of Pantheon took longer than for any novel I had written before. My aim was to evoke a 1940 world that would convince the reader, one that included both Oxford and Yale, where the bulk of the book’s action takes place.
That entailed multiple trips around Oxford, guided by an able local historian. I had to forget the city I had known as a student in the 1980s and imagine instead wartime Oxford, where the college windows were painted over and the traffic lights wore monk-like hoods to observe the blackout. This 1940 Oxford was a remarkable place: a kind of Whitehall-in-exile, where several government departments relocated in order to avoid the bombs targeted at London. Merton housed parts of the Department of Transport, Queen’s had the Ministry of Home Security and Balliol welcomed a section of the Foreign Office. (Word was that the section in question was the intelligence operation.) A further rumour insisted that an unnamed college was being kept empty, ready to house the royal family should the King flee London.
Rumours were forever attaching themselves to the city. One, which persists to this day, suggested that the Luftwaffe avoided pounding Oxford with bombs because Hitler planned to make the city the capital of Nazi-occupied Britain. But, at the time, few could be confident that Oxford would be spared – an anxiety on which a key aspect of Pantheon’s plot turns.
Evoking the Yale of 1940 was a challenge of a different order, if only because I couldn’t hop on the train whenever I needed to check an elusive fact. I spent several packed days in New Haven, Connecticut, walking the streets of the Yale campus, a university official pointing out what I would have seen had I visited seventy-odd years earlier. I tried to imagine how this place would have looked to the hero of my novel, Dr James Zennor, an Oxford man who had never crossed the Atlantic before. He had left behind a shabby, grey ration-book Britain fighting for its life; he would have marvelled at the plenty of an America at peace, a land of Coca-Cola and stationwagons where everything was big and in generous supply. I made sure to eat at Frank Pepe’s pizzeria on Wooster St, established in 1925 and one of the very first in America, whose roaring, open oven would have struck James Zennor as an extraordinary novelty.
Still, the highlight of my trip was an interview with Professor Gaddis Smith, longtime chair of Yale’s department of history and author of an upcoming history of the university. Rather than dismiss the hunch that had set me on the road to Pantheon, he confirmed it.
I don’t dare say any more, lest I give away the story. Suffice it to say, at the heart of Pantheon is an idea, one that strikes 21st century eyes as sinister if not horrific. Yet this idea was mainstream in the pre-war era on both sides of the Atlantic. And, Smith told me, it was not merely mainstream at Yale – it was “red hot.” The documentary evidence he was gracious enough to show me made my jaw drop.
And that was how it was for much of the year or more I spent researching Pantheon before writing it. The previous Bourne novels had all required me to use my reporter’s notebook, but this was different – as indeed Pantheon itself is different. I hope those who have enjoyed the previous books will devour this one too. But I also hope it appeals to others, those who look for a novel to be a cracking yarn but to do something else too – to shed light on an intense, dramatic and perhaps forgotten part of our own history.
A Shots Ezine review of Pantheon by L J Hurst can be read here.