I’m delighted to welcome back Katharine Johnson, whose historical mysteries make engrossing reading. She’s already told us a little about her latest novel, The Secret, when it was a work in progress. Now, publication day is approaching on 1st June, and I’m looking forward to The Secret popping onto my Kindle that day. The book blurb tells you more about it below. In the meantime, Katy whets our appetite with some insights into the inspiration behind the book and the history on which it’s based.
Vanessa: Tell us in a couple of sentences about The Secret.
Katharine: The Secret is about two girls growing up in wartime Italy and a decision that led to devastating consequences for the whole village. Why did Martina make the choice she did and why didn’t her best friend stop her? While Irena’s son is determined to get to the truth about the past, Martina’s daughter’s desperate to keep it hidden.
Like The Silence, The Secret takes place in and around the Villa Leonida in the fictional village of Santa Zita in Tuscany. What drew you to write about Italy and particularly the wartime period?
I love stories about houses with secrets from different eras and felt that Tuscany would lend itself especially well to this. Villa Leonida absorbs stories from the Grand Tour glitterati to modern holiday home rental guests. The story in The Silence dates back to 1992 when the house was almost a wreck whereas in The Secret when the girls are growing up it’s in its heyday.
Italy’s situation in the Second World War has always intrigued me as my great uncle died fighting in the Italian Campaign. I like history and read a lot about the war in Italy when I was researching for my first book Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings as there are a few scenes where Jack the main character is fighting in Italy. But I also wanted to know what it was like from a civilian’s point of view.
What sort of research did you need to do about wartime Italy – and where did you find the answers?
I read books, watched old newsreels and films, talked to people and visited exhibitions and did a lot of online research. My home in Tuscany is close to the old Gothic Line fortifications and a village up the road was a partisan base. I also visited the museum at Sant’ Anna di Stazzema, a village where one of the worst war atrocities took place.
Living in SW France, I find that some French people who lived through World War II are reluctant to talk about the experience of being occupied. How do Italians view that period of their history?
Very similar. I think it’s difficult for a variety of reasons – some people want to forget because they want to concentrate on happier things. Others don’t want their village to be tainted with bad memories. Some fear it’s bad for business. The guidebooks tend not to mention the connections with the war. People want to forget the divisions that formed during that period and move on together. Sometimes they aren’t deliberately keeping it quiet but don’t think it’s something people from outside want to know about or will understand, and they don’t want to make German visitors feel unwelcome. It isn’t what most people come to Tuscany for.
All these are things that the characters in my story have to think about, especially Carlo who runs the village restaurant and is trying to revive its fortunes.
On the other hand, I met a man at a station who told me about his experiences without being asked and obviously felt it was important people knew.
What are you working on now?
I’m halfway through a Shallow Grave-meets-The Secret-History type story about a group of housemates that discover a body after a party, and am also writing a detective series set in Windsor.
What’s the funniest/strangest/nicest thing that’s happened to you as an author?
It was lovely and so unexpected to get a note via my mum from my primary school reception class teacher who I haven’t seen since I was six to say she’d read The Silence and loved it.
What’s your favourite Italian dish?
Oh that’s a hard one! Linguine with courgette flower sauce. [Vanessa: sounds delicious. I’ve eaten Provençal stuffed courgette flowers, but have never had them with pasta.]
Finally, tell us something about yourself that isn’t related to writing
I eat a lot of cheese. [Ha, ha. So do I, but I have to watch the cholesterol…]
The Secret is released this Friday 1st June. Here’s the book description.
Love, lies and betrayal in wartime Italy. Two girls growing up in Mussolini’s Italy share a secret that has devastating consequences. Against a backdrop of fear, poverty and confusion during the Second World War friendship is tested and loyalties divided. But a chance encounter changes everything. The girls’ lives diverge when beautiful, daring Martina marries and moves into Villa Leonida, the most prestigious house I their Tuscan village while plain, studious Irena trains to be a teacher.
But neither marriage, nor life at Villa Leonida are as Martina imagined. And as other people’s lives take on a new purpose, Irena finds herself left behind.
Decades later a tragedy at the villa coincides with the discovery of an abandoned baby whose identity threatens to re-open old wounds. While Irena’s son is determined to get to the truth, Martina’s daughter is desperate to keep the past hidden.
The Secret is published by Crooked Cat Books and is available in paperback £6.99 and kindle £1.99.
Find out more at the Online launch on 1-2 June.
More about Katharine
Katharine Johnson likes writing about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. She’s passionate about old houses and the stories they have to tell. She grew up in Bristol and has lived in Italy. She currently lives in Berkshire but spends as much time as she can in the Lucca area of Tuscany. When not writing you’ll find her exploring cities, drinking coffee, playing netball badly and walking her madcap spaniel.
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Copyright © 2018 Vanessa Couchman, Katharine Johnson. All rights reserved.