Shadowboxing by Anne Barwell
I’m honored to host Anne Barwell to discuss her new release, Shadowboxing, a tense and thoughtful novel featuring espionage during World War II. Rather than presenting a simple story about good versus bad, Anne Barwell shows us brave men and women shadowboxing with “different shades of neutral.” She delves into the consciences and hearts of four main characters and the men and women who work with them. The couples just begin to recognize their love for each other amidst of the horrors of war. The blurb:
An encounter with an old friend leaves German physicist Dr. Kristopher Lehrer with doubts about his work. But when he confronts his superior, everything goes horribly wrong. Suddenly Kristopher and Michel, a member of the Resistance, are on the run, hunted for treason and a murder they did not commit. If they’re caught, Kristopher’s knowledge could be used to build a terrible weapon that could win the war.
For the team sent by the Allies—led by Captain Bryant, Sergeant Lowe, and Dr. Zhou—a simple mission escalates into a deadly game against the Gestapo, with Dr. Lehrer as the ultimate prize. But in enemy territory, surviving and completing their mission will test their strengths and loyalties and prove more complex than they ever imagined.
LM: Thank you for being here, Anne. I highlighted a great deal of text in your novel and prepared pages of notes for this interview, most of which I can’t use without risking spoilers. So I’ll jump into my questions: In addition to entertaining us with a great story, are you reaching for a specific goal with Shadowboxing?
AB: Thanks for hosting me today, Lucy. I’m delighted to be here.
One of the reasons I started writing Shadowboxing fifteen years ago is that I wanted to read an action/drama story set during WWII featuring homosexual—the word ‘gay’ wasn’t used at the time—protagonists and couldn’t find any. There are a lot more books out there now, which is great. I love reading—and writing—about the time period, and in particular stories set in the years before, during and after both World Wars. Wars bring out the best and worst in people, and I also wanted to explore the concept of what is considered ‘other’. Kristopher’s father has very definite ideas about the Jews, and Kristopher soon realizes that because he accepts himself as homosexual, in his father’s eyes he too is ‘other’. Sadly, people fear others who are different from themselves and this often results in distrust and violence.
LM: I’m struck by the time you take to develop complicated characters and their relationships. You take the same amount of time in your fantasy series that starts with “Cat’s Quill.” Do you prefer creating “real life” characters?
AB: I prefer writing realistic characters, as it’s more interesting for me as a writer. Some of the characters I write are pretty much ‘you get what you see’ like Ben in The Sleepless City series, but most have their own internal struggles they are still working through. As in real life, what people show on the surface is not always a true reflection of what is underneath. It’s only when someone grows close enough to another to trust them, that they are ready to share that side of themselves they’ve often hidden for a long time. Finding themselves in situations completely out of their comfort zones also tends to make people reassess who they are and what they are capable of—good and bad. I love exploring characters by dropping them into situations and watching them ‘sink or swim’.
LM: You open Shadowboxing with scientist Kristopher (“Kit.”) He is naïve, lost in his equations without recognizing the consequences of his work. His sister Clara is wiser, and he dreams about his mother giving him advice. Was it your intention to have women represent wisdom and conscience before this man developed his own?
AB: I hadn’t actually approached it from that angle—it’s an interesting one. When I wrote the story, I wanted to include strong women characters who make a difference to not just Kristopher’s life, but to others in the story too. The world is made up of both genders and I wanted to show that balance, and not write a story about just a group of men. Kristopher’s mother has a strong influence on his life although he has never met her, and Clara has been a substitute mother to him while he was growing up. Upbringing and our formative years play a huge part in who we are, and either can push us in one direction or another, as we agree or disagree with how we’ve been brought up. Both these women have shaped him, and play a part in helping him to find the courage to be who he is supposed to be.
LM: Kit dreams of an old Jewish friend he’d never had the courage to admit he loved, and now this friend has gone missing. In several instances throughout your novel, comments made about Jews could come from today’s headlines in reference to other people. Were you aiming to demonstrate the timelessness of bigotry?
AB: Bigotry has been around a very long time, and I doubt it will ever completely disappear. Laws change but it’s difficult to change people’s reactions and the way they think especially if it’s an attitude that has been handed down to them over several generations. It’s sad to see those comments repeating today, and sometimes I wonder if people will ever learn the mistakes made throughout history. Those seen as ‘other’ are feared and persecuted, and if it’s not one group of people, it’s another.
In order for things to change, people need to find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking themselves. I’m reminded of a poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller called They Came For Me, in which someone turns a blind eye to the injustice around them and then when someone comes for them there is no on left to save them. I’m also reminded of a quote from Edmund Burke, which I referenced in Shadowboxing—“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Unfortunately, it is not always just themselves these good men are risking, but those they care about. It’s often easier to put yourself in the line of fire in order to stand up for what you believe, but threatening loved ones makes a person think twice about doing so.
LM: While undercover, Michel falls for sweet-minded Kit, who had only been trying to make the world a better place with his science. Michel helps Kit escape his Nazi workplace. Michel’s accepting, deceased brother had helped him make peace with his own orientation, and in turn, Michel helps Kit develop self-acceptance. Did you plan these complex layers of characterization, or did they occur naturally as you wrote?
AB: I planned for some of them but others occurred as I wrote. I usually have a rough idea of characters before I write, but I really get to know them as the story progresses. I had no idea that Michel had a brother who had died until he told Kit. Of all the characters, Kit and Matt were the ones I knew the most about, and even they didn’t always act the way I anticipated. The other characters have developed as I’ve written, and all of them still surprise me, even as I’m writing book 3 of the series, with some of the comments they make, or the revelations about their background.
LM: Ken and Matt form the other main couple in the novel. Ken’s mother is Japanese and installed in an internment camp. Are you emphasizing the tragedy of families divided by war?
AB: War is rough on families. All of these men have lost family, for one reason or another. As the story progresses they grow closer to each other and form a type of family themselves. Their original mission was supposed to be a simple one, but it isn’t long before it becomes personal in many ways.
One of the reasons I wrote about a multi-national team is that the war was won due to the efforts of many people from different backgrounds and I wanted to reflect that. There is also a real danger when dealing with someone from another culture to clump everyone from that country or culture into a single unit and presume everyone is the same. In every culture there are good and bad individuals. War is also not black and white, but shades of grey. Ken is fighting for his country, but his country has passed a law that allowed his mother to be interned in a camp because of her heritage although she was born in America. Situations like this blur those lines of right and wrong, and force people to look at their own misconceptions.
LM: Matt endangers himself to grieve over the body of a former lover, a woman. Did you want to show the elasticity of his sexuality and the depth of his heart?
AB: Yes, and that there are different kinds of love.
I’ve been asked why there are two homosexual couples in a book set during this time period. All of these men approach their sexuality very differently.
Matt loved his former lover, but after much soul searching, he realized he wasn’t in love with her. As with many men of that time, he tried to conform to societal expectations but in the finish could not live a lie. Not only wouldn’t he have been true to himself, but it wouldn’t have been fair to her. Friendship is a different kind of love.
Ken, on the other hand, has never given his sexuality much thought. He hadn’t the need to until he met Matt. To him the concept of love is much simpler. He wants to be with Matt, and will do whatever it takes to protect him, and has never felt that way about anyone else before.
Michel, out of all of them, has accepted himself for who he is. His brother Corin’s acceptance helped with that, and Michel knew early on that he wasn’t attracted to women.
Kristopher has been in denial—and not just about his sexuality—for a long time, and a lot has to happen to make him accept himself for who he is and get him to the point where he can’t go on pretending.
However, given when the story is set, sadly none of these men will ever be able to publically admit their love. The most they can hope for is to survive the war and live together as ‘confirmed bachelors’ or ‘war buddies’ and hope like hell no one works out the truth about their relationship.
LM: I’m particularly fascinated by your details about WWII-level technology. In comparison to today’s sophisticated powers of devastation, WWII seems almost simple. They treat wounds with sulfa. Cloud cover actually prevents accurate bombing. One of the men builds crystal radios, and another man recognizes a passing airplane by the sound of its engine. Did you enjoy researching for this novel?
AB: I love researching. With every book I write I learn something new. The Echoes Rising series is more of a challenge because it is set seventy years ago and a lot of things we take for granted today didn’t exist then. Although I always try to use a combination of books and the internet when I research rather than just relying on the internet, it’s the little pieces of information that are often the most difficult to find. For example while writing Shadowboxing I had to find out about telephone jacks in Germany in the 1940s and how they were attached to the wall. The only information I could find was about countries other than the one I needed. Luckily, one of my beta readers is German and she was able to find the information for me. While it is impossible to get everything exactly right, I want the backdrop of my story to be as accurate as I can make it.
LM: You use an interesting method for Kit and Michel to encode messages. Did this method in fact exist during World War II?
AB: I based all types of codes used in the series on what existed and was used at the time, although I had some fun choosing the specifics. The Resistance used a variety of ways to leave each other coded messages—including advertisements in newspapers, and in cigarettes which they’d smoke afterwards! Being a musician myself I couldn’t resist using code in music, something which came into use long before the war, and was also documented as being used at Bletchley Park, which was the site used by Britain’s codebreakers at the time.
Code phrases were also used when meeting others. In Shadowboxing some of those names and phrases came from “The Wizard of Oz”. The movie came out in the US in 1939 so would have been well known there, but not in Germany. I love that movie.
LM: One of my favorite aspects of Shadowboxing is the tug of consciences. Even while in direct conflict with the Germans, the men are devastated when the Allies’ bombs kill innocent women and children. They question their own culpability as soldiers. The Gestapo members believe themselves to be men of honor. Do you wish more people could see the broader perspective of war that you present here?
AB: That’s one of my favourite aspects of the story too. It’s difficult trying to justify killing when you’re fighting a war, especially when innocents pay the price of the battle. I didn’t want to write a story in which all one side are good guys who never make mistakes and believe entirely in what they are doing and the other side consists of men who are truly evil. While some characters fall into the bad guy category and enjoy hurting people, they’re a minority in this story. I think that opponents who are also fighting for their own beliefs are much more interesting characters to write, and harder to defeat. That tug of conscience that Kristopher feels about the weapon he has helped to develop is going to be a big part of the story as the series continues. Should a weapon capable of that much destruction fall into the hands of either side, and what is to stop the so called good guys from justifying their use of it? From our perspective, we know about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but these men don’t. Those bombings were also one of the reasons I made Ken a Japanese American.
LM: You’ve created another layer of sophistication between the characters and their families: a person can love his or her country, and disagreeing with its policies doesn’t make that person a traitor. Are you making another point that applies to today’s world?
AB: You caught me there. It ties into your earlier question about families divided by war. In one of the early scenes of the story, Kit and his father are arguing. His father agrees with the ideals of the Nazi party, while Kit does not. However, that disagreement does make Kit a traitor to his country. He loves Germany and does what he can to fight for it and its people, and wants the war to end, but not at the expense of his own beliefs. Just because some people in a country believe and act a certain way does not mean that everyone does. It is foolish to judge a whole country on the actions of a few. This is something that will come up again in the series, and not just about Germany.
LM: You create a great deal of tension when the men are caught, escape, evade capture and are caught again. The Gestapo does not treat them well. Your depiction of PTSD seems very detailed. Did you research this condition as well?
AB: Thank you. I felt really bad about what I did to some of the characters during this story, and later in the series. While I haven’t done a lot of detailed research about PTSD, I’ve read and watched a lot of stories and movies etc about characters who have gone through it. It’s not something that is easily forgotten, and during WWI and before that there are documented stories of men suffering from it who were shot for desertion because it wasn’t understood what it was. With everything the characters in my story go through, I wanted to make sure there are consequences, and that their experiences impact their actions later on. It wouldn’t be realistic if they didn’t.
LM: Your love scenes are delicate and emotional. Do you prefer the romance of emotion rather than more physical descriptions?
AB: Thank you again. Yes, I do prefer to focus on the emotional rather than the physical. There are only so many ways to describe a sexual act, and I’m one of those readers who tends to skim when there’s x amount of those scenes in a book. Sorry! I’m more interested in how these men react to being with each other. Giving themselves to each other is also an act fraught with danger because of the penalty if they are caught, so making love is going to be kept for when they are both very emotional. I was also careful to keep the love scenes at a minimum because of the time period—having too many of them wouldn’t work for the story.
LM: With your skillful writing, I felt the couples’ most desperate wish: to be free of war and somehow make their lives together. They each grow in maturity, self-knowledge, and courage. But you leave us with a mystery involving a German woman who seems to have a secret level of power and members of the Gestapo who will not give up the hunt. Our guys have not yet escaped Germany. What can you tell us about what comes next?
AB: Our guys still have a few hurdles in front of them, even as I’m writing book 3 in the Echoes Rising series. The 2nd edition of book 2—Winter Duet—will be released December this year from DSP Publications. Here’s the blurb:
Hunted for treason and the information Kristopher carries, he and Michel leave the security of their safe house to journey across Germany toward Switzerland. Caught in a series of Allied bombings, they stop to help civilians and narrowly escape capture by German forces.
While investigating a downed aircraft in the Black Forest, the two men discover an injured RAF pilot. After they are separated, Kristopher and the pilot are discovered by a German officer who claims he is not who he appears to be. Determined to find Michel again, Kristopher has to trust the stranger and hope he is not connected to those searching for him and the information he carries. Meanwhile Michel is intercepted by one of the Allied soldiers he met in Berlin. His help is needed to save one of their own.
Time quickly runs out. Loyalties are tested and betrayed as the Gestapo closes in. Michel can only hope that they can reach safety before information is revealed that could compromise not only his and Kristopher’s lives, but those of the remaining members of their team—if it is not already too late.
LM: Thank you for allowing me to pick your brain about Shadowboxing. Best wishes for a successful release of this novel!
AB: Thanks, Lucy. It’s been a pleasure, and your questions made me think, especially from the perspective of now writing the 3rd and final book of the series Comes a Horseman. I’ll leave your readers with an excerpt from Shadowboxing as a further teaser for the book:
The light on top of the confessional blinked off, and an old man walked out, a dazed expression on his face. He muttered something under his breath too low for Michel to hear, glanced behind him, rapidly made the sign of the cross, and then repeated it. He then, to Michel’s surprise, prostrated himself in front of the altar and called out in a loud voice, “God, I beg your forgiveness for leading such a boring life.”
Someone snorted. Michel turned in time to see the brunet he’d observed earlier roll his eyes. Whoever was in the confessional masquerading as the local parish priest had an interesting sense of humor. He wondered idly who was in charge of this mission. The brunet certainly didn’t seem surprised by what had just happened.
Michel tentatively opened the now-empty confessional and entered, wondering what he was getting himself into. Whatever the priest had said to the old man, it was definitely atypical of the penance Michel remembered receiving in the past, courtesy of the clergy of the Catholic Church. Surely they couldn’t be condoning this behavior, although he was sure Father Johannes would have agreed for someone to temporarily use the confessional as a meeting place. He’d helped the Berlin Resistance on more than one occasion.
Playing the part of a priest would be the safest way of doing this for the person on the other end of the confessional, especially if he were caught. Father Johannes too, despite his protestations, knew to deny knowledge of anything or anyone if that happened. He would do his people more good here than in a Gestapo cell or a camp.
Michel knelt as the priest opened the small mesh window dividing the two compartments. Searching his memory for the correct phrasing, Michel spoke the precursory words for the sacrament. Confession might be good for the soul, but in his occupation, some things were better left unsaid, even to a priest.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” he began. “It’s been two years since my last confession and—”
A bored-sounding voice interrupted him. “Just get on with it, will you? I hope your sins are more interesting than the last person’s. I damn well hit my head when I started to drift off….”
The priest paused to catch his breath, and Michel spoke quickly, before the man could continue his tale of woe. “I’m homesick, and I’m often tempted to click my heels together and say ‘there’s no place like home.’”
There was a moment’s silence, followed by what sounded suspiciously like a very loud sigh of relief. “The answer to your problem is to follow the yellow brick road.”
Michel arched an eyebrow in the half darkness. Was this his contact? “Toto?” he asked.
“In the flesh. What took you so long? You’ve no idea what I’ve been through in here.” There was another moment of silence. “How can I help you, my child?” The man snickered. “Sorry, I’ve always wanted to say that.”
A loud creak was followed by the sun streaming through the now open confessional door. Michel blinked rapidly at the sudden change in light. The “priest” standing in front of him proffered his hand in greeting, although he was careful to keep his voice low so they couldn’t be overheard. “Matthew Bryant. Matt.”
“Gabriel.” Michel considered giving his name rather than his codename, but he didn’t trust this man or his team that far as yet.
Bio: Anne Barwell
Anne Barwell lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She shares her home with two cats who are convinced that the house is run to suit them; this is an ongoing “discussion,” and to date it appears as though the cats may be winning.
In 2008 she completed her conjoint BA in English Literature and Music/Bachelor of Teaching. She has worked as a music teacher, a primary school teacher, and now works in a library. She is a member of the Upper Hutt Science Fiction Club and plays violin for Hutt Valley Orchestra.
She is an avid reader across a wide range of genres and a watcher of far too many TV series and movies, although it can be argued that there is no such thing as “too many.” These, of course, are best enjoyed with a decent cup of tea and further the continuing argument that the concept of “spare time” is really just a myth.
Anne’s books have received honorable mentions four times and reached the finals three times in the Rainbow Awards. She has also been nominated twice in the Goodreads M/M Romance Reader’s Choice Awards—once for Best Fantasy and once for Best Historical.
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