What would you do on discovering that your recently deceased partner who you loved dearly had, in fact, been having an affair? This is the distressing situation in which journalist Michael Keats finds himself in Glasgow-born writer, Gordon Kerr’s debut fiction thriller, The Partisan Heart, before deciding to channel his grief into discovering the truth.
This quest will take him away from the fast-paced London Evening Post newsroom in bustling High Street Kensington to Northern Italy, in order to track down the owner of an expensive jacket left in a hotel room his late wife, Rosa, had booked with her credit card. Michael’s editor, keen to keep his talented writer at the newspaper, hands him an italian kidnapping assignment that has the world media gripped and asks him to ‘dig (it) up’. That digging goes deeper than Michael imagined, as we learn of secret acts of love, betrayal and violence amongst the Partisans during the Second World War whose consequences permeate the present, 1999.
Kerr’s extensive historical insight from penning numerous non-fiction titles enables him to depict a clear picture of what the partisan movement would have been like in 1944. Combined with a natural flair for storytelling, Kerr balances the tricky task of juggling grief and betrayal with adventure, stoicism and even occasional wit, where the search for truth – and where the search for truth needs to find a suitable conclusion – is at the heart of this story. I caught up with Gordon to ask him more.
Congratulations on your crime fiction debut, Gordon. How did the original idea for the story come about?
Thank you very much. The story of The Partisan Heart grew out of many visits to the Valtellina, a beautiful valley in Lombardy in northern Italy, situated to the east of Lake Como. My sister-in-law married a man from the valley and my wife and I travel there once or twice a year to see them. There were older members of my brother-in-law’s family who had fought in the war as partisans or, if they had been particularly unlucky, had been transported to Germany to work.
My brother-in-law’s father, for instance, was one of these – a ‘gastarbeiter’, as the Nazis euphemistically termed it. These men were generally silent, appearing like ghosts at family celebrations and saying little. Gradually, although they never spoke of the war, I picked up a few stories and the idea for the book took shape in my mind. I have to say, too, that the Valtellina is so beautiful I felt I had to write about it.
Your crime fiction debut follows widower Michael Keats on a personal journey that takes him from London to the Italian Alps – via Scotland – and spans five decades. How do you approach structuring such an intricate, complex plot?
I’ve said before – and I know it’s probably hard to believe – the story almost came to me fully formed. George Harrison, when asked about how he wrote songs, once said that he didn’t write them, the songs found him. I know it’s pretty fanciful, but I feel as if this story found me, arrived in my head almost complete. There were many things to work out, of course. As you say, the plot is pretty complex, and in the editing process I was still finessing it right up to the end. But the basics of it were there very early on. One of the most important elements was getting the timelines exactly right in both strands of the story. I did this by creating a kind of bullet-point timeline for each, down to hours of the day for the modern strand featuring Michael. I drove my publisher mad, but it was worth it in the end.
And how long did it take you to complete the novel?
The idea was stewing in my head for a long time before I actually began to commit words to paper. It’s hard to say how long it took because of that. Because of my day job, writing non-fiction, I stopped writing it for quite long periods. But even then I never stopped thinking about it and working out the twists and turns of the plot. I would say it probably took five years, in the end. I hope a follow-up can be written much faster than that which is why this autumn and winter the world of non-fiction is going to have to get along without me.
Having written several historical non-fiction titles over the years, how enjoyable, or challenging, was the process of writing fiction?
Writing fiction is way more enjoyable! And I have been very struck by the reaction of people on hearing I’ve had a novel published. I’ve written quite a lot of non-fiction books in a variety of genres but people seem to view the creation of a work of fiction as a much greater achievement, for some reason. In fact, a lot of people seem to be a little in awe of it. Writing about history or art, as I have done, is challenging because it has to be right. It’s facts, sometimes, of course, with an element of interpretation, but it happened as it happened and you mustn’t get that wrong. Fiction, on the other hand, is make-believe. You create worlds, people, situations, some of it quite fanciful. And it’s great fun. I used to look forward to going to bed at night because that’s where I did a great deal of my thinking about the plot and the characters.
Can you tell us more about the ‘ruggedly beautiful’’ Italian valley, Valtellina.
The Valtellina today is like most other places, with supermarkets, shopping malls and a motorway slicing through the middle. But when we first visited, at the end of the nineteen-seventies, it was still quite backward. Supermarkets were rare and the people more or less lived as they had for hundreds of years, growing their own food, making their own wine and rarely venturing outside the valley. The houses in the village near where my family lived were ancient and crumbling back then. Now they have been bought and renovated, often used as weekend escapes by people from Milan. For a boy from East Kilbride and Glasgow, back then it was an exotic and atmospheric world and I was getting a close view of it through the lives of my family there.
Were there any challenges in writing violent war scenes between the partisans and the Nazis?
As a life-long vegetarian pacifist, it was, of course, difficult to write such scenes. But this was a brutal time in Italian history. There was a huge amount at stake and there was a great deal of pent-up anger and hatred. Ordinary people did extraordinary things, as they always do in war and I felt I had to express that in some way. There are a couple of violent scenes but, although these events do colour everything, I hope they don’t overwhelm the story.
Your sister-in-law and her family live in the Valtellina, with some of her family fighting as partisans. How was your novel received by them?
Sadly, there’s not yet an Italian version of the book, which means that not many over there have read it, but they’re very proud that their valley features. Unfortunately, those family members who fought in the war are now no longer with us but I’m not entirely sure how they would have reacted to the book. Their brooding silence about the war when they were alive makes me suspect they might feel that some things are better left unsaid.
Some of your story is also set in Scotland. Is this a hat tip to where you are from?
I guess I could have located that part of the story anywhere – the north of England or Wales, for example – but, yes, I suspect that somewhere in my subconscious I wanted it to have a Scottish element, no matter how brief, because of my roots. I was also very pleased, however, to allow that part of the story to give me the opportunity to introduce a Scottish character in Helen Matthieson. Helen is a strong-willed, independent young woman and the fact that she is also Scottish made her very appealing to me as a lead character.
Helen is decisive, loyal, kind, fearless; frankly she is formidable. How did that character form in your mind?
I know a number of women like that. Helen developed with the plot and to do what she does in the book, those qualities were essential. She’s also funny and very human, I think. Most importantly, I feel, she grounds Michael who loses it and shows his frailties a few times, understandably, I guess, given what’s happening to him. She’s absolutely vital to the plot of the book, drives it along and comes up with some good ideas for helping Michael.
What do you look forward to when coming back to Scotland?
I come to Scotland several times a year. I am in a band – Elsie at the Piano – of whom one member lives in Dublin, one in Blantyre and I live in Dorset. We use the internet to compose but meet up in Glasgow quite regularly. We’ve written a song called The Partisan Heart that can be found on YouTube and Facebook. Regarding Glasgow, to be honest, I am astonished by the vibrant city it has become. The range of restaurants and bars is amazing and I love my visits there. I enjoy wandering the streets of the city centre and looking up at the amazing architecture. There’s a tip to the people of Glasgow – look up as you’re walking!
What’s your next literary project?
At the moment, I’m writing a Short History of the Korean War, part of a series of short histories I’ve written. When I finish that at the end of September, it’ll be time to start work on that difficult second novel which I’m almost certain will again be set in the beautiful Valtellina.