In this week’s issue of My Weekly all our fiction stories are written by some of this year’s best and most inspiring debut authors. Here, author Mara Timon, talks to us about her debut novel’s SOE heroine, Cecile, “happy dancing” in the office and her historical research…
Don’t miss fabulous wartime espionage thriller short story, From Budapest With Love, in My Weekly (on sale June 23-29).
When did you first start writing fiction?
I started writing short stories as a teenager – mostly for myself and a few close friends – and probably drove my parents and brother mad, banging away on an old Selectric typewriter long past any reasonable bedtime (although I don’t remember them ever really complaining).
I moved from short stories to novels about ten years ago after watching a WW2 documentary on BBC2 and following one “what if” after another for about 95,000 words.
Tell me a bit about your journey to getting your first novel published?
Bumpy, and with a false start or two! For starters, City of Spies isn’t the first story I wrote, but it is the strongest (so far). I’ve learnt a lot along the way and am really lucky to be guided by my agent, James Wills, and my editor, Katherine Armstrong, who understand my book, understand me (as scary as that may be), and have helped make City of Spies a much better novel!
What inspired the idea for your first novel? Tell me a bit about what you hope readers will love about it…
Usually I find a bit of history that intrigues me and create a story around it. City of Spies was inspired by a Portuguese friend of mine who suggested I look into Lisbon’s history during the war. I didn’t know much about what was happening in Portugal at the time, and the more I researched the period, the more it intrigued me; spies rubbing shoulders with exiled royalty, diplomats, businessmen and refugees. Espionage rings operated out of the port, tungsten was smuggled from Portugal, and Salazar walked a fine line of neutrality. I figured I could work with that.
What do I hope readers love?
The story itself: Cecile is a Special Operations Executive agent who is forced to flee France. She makes her way to Lisbon hounded by the Gestapo, and just bad luck. In the “City of Spies” she works to break a German intelligence ring targeting Allied shipping, while her every move is watched by a German Intelligence officer. I love Cecile. She’s strong, she’s fun, she’s one of those people you definitely don’t want to bet against – and she’s managed to surprise even me every step of the way!
Tell me about authors who inspire you and books which have made a particular impression on you…
My dad introduced me to the early Jack Higgins books when I was a teenager: Cold Harbour, The Eagle Has Landed, The Eagle Has Flown… I loved the way Higgins’ baddies weren’t bad (because as an author, that’s too easy), they were good men, sympathetic men, fighting for their country, even though that country was on “the wrong side”. That sparked my interest in WW2 history, and taught me that having “good” and “bad” people on both sides of the conflict makes for a much more interesting read. I was a bit older when I learnt about SOE, and quickly became inspired by their female agents – extraordinary women whose biographies and autobiographies read like thrillers.
How did you feel when you heard the news that your first novel had been accepted for publication?
You mean, how did I react when I found out that a dream I held since I was a teenager was about to come true? There was a bit of screaming, a happy dance in the middle of the office, and I might have hugged a colleague or two before bolting from Westminster (where I was working) to my agent’s office in Islington to see the offer (and the box that Katherine had prepared for me) with my own eyes. My hands were shaking and I probably wasn’t terribly coherent…
What tips would you give to aspiring novelists?
Write the book that you’d like to read, and don’t give up. The publishing process is hard to break into, and takes longer than you think but it’s worth it.
Also, listen to your agent (if you have one) and editor (you should have one, even if you self-publish) – their suggestions will make your manuscript a stronger story.
Where do you find your writing inspiration?
History, usually. And the sort of people who will navigate it on their own terms.
What’s next? Are you working on another book?
I’m always working on another book! The story – and the title – are still in the works, but it’ll follow an all-female special operations team, operating in Normandy during the war.