Author Helena P. Schrader chatted with Digital Journal’s Markos Papadatos about her novel “Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel.”
The synopsis of the book is as follows: Summer 1940: The Battle of France is over; the Battle of Britain is about to begin. If the swastika is not to fly over Buckingham Palace, the RAF must prevent the Luftwaffe from gaining air superiority over Great Britain. Standing on the front line is No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron.
As the casualties mount, new pilots find a cold reception from the clique of experienced pilots, who resent them taking the place of their dead friends. Meanwhile, despite credible service in France, former RAF aerobatics pilot Robin Priestman finds himself stuck in Training Command — and falling for a girl from the Salvation Army. On the other side of the Channel, the Luftwaffe is recruiting women as communications specialists — and naïve Klaudia is about to grow up.
Her book is “one of the best historical accounts of passion, drive and all-out courage that one has had an opportunity to better understand and experience.”
Schrader Helena earned a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg with a ground-breaking biography of a leading member of the German Resistance to Hitler. She served in the financial service industry before joining the U.S. diplomatic corps, where she served in a variety of posts in Africa and Europe. She retired in 2018. She has since published numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, several of which have won one or more literary awards.
She was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the daughter of a professor, and travelled abroad for the first time at the age of two, when her father went to teach at the University of Wasada in Tokyo, Japan. Later the family lived in Brazil, England and Kentucky, but home was always the coast of Maine. There, her father’s family had roots, and an old, white clapboard house perched above the boatyard in East Blue Hill.
It was the frequent travel and exposure to different cultures, peoples and heritage that inspired Helena to start writing creatively and to focus on historical fiction. She wrote her first novel in second grade, but later made a conscious decision not to try to earn a living from writing. She never wanted to be forced to write what was popular, rather than what was in her heart.
She graduated with honors in History from the University of Michigan, added a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy and International Commerce from Patterson School, University of Kentucky, and rounded off her education with a PhD in History cum Laude from the University of Hamburg, awarded for a ground-breaking dissertation on a leading member of the German Resistance to Hitler. She worked in the private sector as a research analyst, and an investor relations manager in both the U.S. and Germany before joining the U.S. diplomatic corps.
She published her first book in 1993, when her dissertation was released by a leading academic publisher in Germany; a second edition followed after excellent reviews in major newspapers. Since then she has published three additional non-fiction books, starting with Sisters in Arms about women pilots in WWII, The Blockade Breakers about the Berlin Airlift, and Codename Valkyrie, a biography of General Olbricht, based on her dissertation. This year, her history and description of the crusader states, which pulls together recent, scholarly research into a single volume aimed at non-academics interested in the crusades and the Middle East will be released by Pen & Sword. (See more at:Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations)
Helena has published historical novels set in World War Two, Ancient Sparta and the Crusades. Her Jerusalem Trilogy, a biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin in three parts, won eleven literary accolades including Best Biography 2017 from Book Excellence Awards, Best Religious/Spiritual Fiction 2017 from Feathered Quill Literary Awards, Best Biographical Fiction from Pinnacle Book Awards, and Best Christian Historical Fiction from Readers Favorites. For more details on Helena’s awards see: Awards.
In June 2010 she was awarded the “Dr. Bernard LaFayette Lifetime Achievement Award for Promoting the Institutionalization of Nonviolence Ideals in Nigeria” by the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria.
She grew up sailing on the Maine coast and served as a petty officer on the sail-training schooners Sir Winston Churchill and Malcolm Miller. She has owned four horses over the years and remains a resolute horsewoman. She retired to her home in what was formerly Lacedaemon, where she lives with her husband Herbert and her two dogs Max and Roma.
Every book, has a story about its creation, what’s the story behind ‘Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel’?
When I was 15 years old, I moved to the UK and for two years lived near RAF Tangmere, one of the most important Sector Stations in the Battle of Britain. Visiting the museum captured my imagination — indeed, most of my novels have been inspired by a visit to some historical venue.
I started reading everything I could get my hands on about the Battle of Britain, devouring particularly the autobiographical accounts of pilots from Richard Hillary and Paul Richey (who both wrote during the war) to Geoffrey Wellum and other pilots, who wrote later in life with the wisdom of age and hindsight.
I made a first attempt to write a novel about the Battle of Britain when I was at university, but I soon abandoned the project. While working on my PhD about the German Resistance to Hitler some years later, my research yielded significant insight into the German military mentality and culture in WWII, which awakened the ambition to include a German storyline, characters and perspective to a future novel about the Battle of Britain.
It wasn’t until I researched my book on women pilots in WWII, however, that my Battle of Britain novel finally took wing. My research for Sisters in Arms: The Women who Flew in WWII had immersed me in the culture and atmosphere of wartime Britain. I’d interviewed many ATA and RAF personnel for that book, and ideas for characters and plotlines in a Battle of Britain novel started to bubble up like champagne. After that, it was just a matter of going back to my library of history books and applying a framework of historical fact to the stories in my mind.
In short, I put the fictional inspiration into historical context and rigorously ensured accuracy with respect to historical events and developments, while allowing the fictional flesh on the historical skeleton full rein for maximum emotional impact. I’ve rarely enjoyed a project so much.
I know this may well be a hard question to answer but I have to ask – do you have a favorite character in ’Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel’? And if so why does this particular character resonate so much with you?
Without doubt, Robin Priestman. I think it’s because of all my characters he is the one least like me, and so capable of surprising me. He’s self-assured, successful socially and professionally, irreverent towards authority yet profoundly dedicated to his job and his men. He’s complex, flawed, makes mistakes, and has the capacity to make me (and readers) laugh out loud. I’m not alone in my partiality for Priestman. Two readers from totally different backgrounds told me that they were “addicted” to Robin Priestman and ask when was I going to write more about him.
You’re a renowned author in literary circles. What is the most interesting feedback or question you have received from a reader?
In August 2007, I had just released the first edition of Where Eagles Never Flew under the title Chasing the Wind and sent review copies to a number of UK bookstores. Surprisingly, one of the bookstore owners contacted me to say that Wing Commander Bob Doe, a Battle of Britain ace, had dropped by, seen the review copy, and asked to read it. “You don’t say ‘no’ to Bob Doe,” he wrote me. I could see his point, but I was terrified of what this veteran of the Battle of Britain would think and say about my book. To my amazement, a few weeks later I received a hand-written letter from him in which he wrote the my book was “the best” he had ever seen about the Battle of Britain. He added: “Refreshingly, it got it smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots.”
Literally nothing could have elated, excited and moved me more. To this day, I feel that getting it right IS more important than being a bestseller.
On the other hand, having got it right, I also feel an obligation to attract readers. Since a survivor of the Battle endorsed this book, people interested in the Battle of Britain should — out of respect to those who lived through the Battle — read it rather than one of the books, for example, that survivors of the Battle found so offensive that they wanted to sue the author. It is because of Bob Doe’s endorsement that I decided I owed it to the Few to re-issue the book in a new edition with photos and additional editing that, I believe, polished and improved the literary value without altering the historical authenticity that Doe praised.
While writing this book did you learn anything new about yourself?
That’s a difficult question. When writing, I always become fully wrapped up in my characters and plot, and I usually identify strongly with my heroes. In this book, however, I had heroes on both sides of the conflict, and I very consciously shift point-of-view.
I know that has become anathema to many literary critics and readers nowadays. No doubt a number of readers have just decided that they won’t read this “piece of rubbish” because I’m one of those writers who “head-hops.”
Yet, I believe that seeing the world from different points of view and being able to judge and understand people and events from different perspectives is vital to social and political relations. Furthermore, one of the unique aspects of this book is that it doesn’t focus on a single character and show everything from one point-of-view, but rather provides a more holistic depiction of the Battle by showing it through the eyes of both men and women, British and Germans, pilots and ground crew etc.
Therefore, when re-working the book, I decided not to bow to literary fashion but rather to keep the book as it was: a book following a complex cast of characters and showing dramatic historical events through the eyes of several characters.
So, I suppose you could say I discovered how stubborn I am when committed to a manuscript!
Do you have a new book you are working on that you can tell us a bit about it?
Oh, yes! Thank you for asking! I’ve just released Grounded Eagles: Three Tales of the RAF in WWII, which is a trilogy of novellas, two of which take secondary characters from Where Eagles Never Flew and explore aspects of their life beyond the Battle of Britain, while the third introduces one of the main characters of my next book, Lancaster Skipper.
The Grounded Eagles Trilogy is composed of 1) A Stranger in the Mirror, 2) A Rose in November and 3) Lack of Moral Fibre. Here’s a summary of each.
A Stranger in the Mirror: Shot down in combat in September 1940, David Goldman awakes to find that his face burned beyond recognition and he is told he will also never fly again. While the plastic surgeon recreates his face and hands one painful operation at a time, the 22-year-old pilot must decide who he really is.
A Rose in November: Rhys Jenkins, a widower with two teenage children, has finally obtained his dream: Ground Chief of a Spitfire squadron. But an unexpected attraction for an upper-class woman threatens to upend his life.
Lack of Moral Fibre: In late November 1943, Flight Engineer Kit Moran refuses to participate in a raid on Berlin, his 37th ‘op.’ He is posted off his squadron for “Lack of Moral Fibre” and sent to a mysterious DYDN centre. Here, psychiatrist Wing Commander Grace must determine if he needs psychiatric treatment – or disciplinary action for cowardice.
Her book is available on Amazon by clicking here.