I didn’t set out to be an historical novelist. The plan was to write bleak, contemporary psychological thrillers that would propel me into the top tax bracket and a life of book tours and thoughtful interviews on Radio 4. Things got off to a promising start, with a few well-received bleak, contemporary short stories, but then one historical event got its claws into me, and the whole plan went off the rails.
The German city of Magdeburg was almost completely destroyed in May 1631, right in the middle of the Thirty Years War. Around 24000 citizens died in one day when the besieging army of the Holy Roman Emperor breached the walls and ran amok. The destruction of the city sent shockwaves across Protestant northern Europe – indeed, historians have compared its impact to that of 9/11 in our time. The story intrigued me. What led the soldiers to treat the citizens with such savagery? How did the few survivors manage to rebuild their lives? I could see parallels with the history of my own country, Northern Ireland. The fall of Magdeburg happened less than sixty years before the Siege of Derry, which is an iconic symbol of Protestant resistance and stubbornness. In writing my novel, Magdeburg, I found a way of exploring universal issues – belief, family, belonging and war – while drawing on my own experience of religiously motivated conflict.
The experience of writing Magdeburg has influenced the guidance I now give my creative writing students. I encourage them to be alert to themes and issues that matter to them – and that may have become so ingrained in their psyche that they scarcely know they’re there. Most importantly, I advise them that the old creative writing precept to ‘write what you know’ should not be interpreted as a limitation, but rather an invitation to make connections with a whole world of stories and experiences.
Read more about Magdeburg at http://tinyurl.com/2upw6y9