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Interview: September 8, 2016

Bestselling mother-son writing team Charles Todd is back with an exciting new addition to the Bess Crawford mystery series. In THE SHATTERED TREE, the World War I battlefield nurse goes to dangerous lengths to investigate a wounded soldier’s background…and uncover his true loyalties. Here, the prolific duo talks with The Book Report Network’s Ray Palen about some of the interesting choices they made in order to keep a beloved, long-running series fresh, including adding a French perspective to Bess’ ever-evolving world, and pushing Bess out of her comfort zone and making her --- of all things --- a patient.

The Book Report Network: What made you use the historical context of the Franco-Prussian War in THE SHATTERED TREE? In your research, what conflicts that arose from this were still present between opposing countries during World War I?

Charles Todd: Loss of these provinces mattered to France, and they wanted them back very badly. But there was almost a feeling of suspicion about where the loyalties of the provinces now lay. After all, more than a generation had passed, and the people who were forced to forget their French heritage and become almost more German than the Germans might have new ties to their conquerors. You couldn’t write about France in this period without addressing two issues --- the provinces and the Alfred Dreyfus affair. As it happened, he was also from Alsace. Just a perfect backdrop for this Bess! And a side note --- the famous French general in the Second World War, Charles de Gaulle, was from Lorraine.

TBRN: How would you describe the symbolism of the shattered tree and the fact that it was located in No Man's Land?

CT: We felt that as the war is drawing to its close, the shattered tree in some fashion stood for the devastation of four years of fierce fighting in the trenches flung across northern France and into Belgium. The opening scene really sets the stage for the rest of the book, as it does in all our novels. And it also gives the reader a sense of No Man’s Land, that bloody, torn and muddy tract of space between the Allies and the Germans that was fought over and died for by ordinary men who didn’t come home to parades and medals, to write their memoirs. These were men Bess would have known and tried to save, and these were the men whose hands she held as they lay dying. Nursing wasn’t glamorous and pretty; it was often heartbreaking and painful to those who volunteered to do it.    

TBRN: Do you believe that the British medical services deployed during WWI treated patients from other countries differently? If so, what message are you making about this in the Bess Crawford series?

CT: Florence Nightingale awakened the British to the fact that wounded men could live to fight again if given proper care. This was 60 years before the Great War, and the Americans weren’t slow to follow her example, set by Clara Barton during the Civil War here. The wounded had traditionally been left on the battlefield until the battle was over, then tended by camp followers who went out to find them. Some of these women were good at nursing, but conditions were atrocious. By the Great War, a whole nation rallied to save its wounded. In France, the wounded were often left to the care of nurses in whatever cellar or barn or railway station they could find. The Germans, however, often had hospital units in their trenches, where there were several levels rather than just the familiar fighting area. The message is, perhaps, that the wounded aren’t just the detritus, the leftovers of war. They’ve given so much already, and a nation owes them a debt that often isn’t paid.  

TBRN: Why did you choose to make Bess Crawford a patient in THE SHATTERED TREE? What did you want her to learn from this experience?

CT: Bess had been struck down by the Spanish Flu, but we thought it might be interesting to let her feel first-hand what her patients went through, from wounding to recovery. And it was a very interesting way to get her to Paris rather than to London. A fresh backdrop, a set of new characters and a spy story --- what could be more intriguing to write about? We try to fit plots and characters together seamlessly, so that they seem real to readers. And this was an example of blending plot and opportunity.

TBRN: Simon is one of the most interesting characters in this series and somewhat of a mystery. What role does he serve, and will his relationship with Bess change once the war ends?

CT: Ah, great question! Truth is, we don’t know what lies ahead. But we do know there’s a mystery surrounding Simon, not just his background but what happened to him in India. The Crawfords accept him as he is, but the reader still has a lot to learn about Simon Brandon. And whether that will bring Bess and Simon closer --- or drive them apart --- you’ll have to stay tuned to find out. We’re looking forward to that ourselves, because while we have an inkling, we don’t know the whole story either! And we are eager to find out.

TBRN: What was the impetus for setting the action in Paris and the plotline regarding the French soldiers?

CT: The French were allies of Britain in the Great War, and yet it was only a hundred years after Napoleon had fought the British on land and sea! In the Bess books, we’d brought in an Australian character, representing Commonwealth soldiers who fought for King and Country, and we’d had an American character, too. Even a German officer in a Rutledge mystery. We hadn’t done much with the French side of the war, except for our Christmas novella, THE WALNUT TREE, and we thought it was time to do that with Bess. Go anywhere in France and you’ll see the memorials to Verdun, their great battle, like the Somme for the British. We wanted to say something about what we’d learned during our research, and we wanted it to be realistic and typical of the war years. And Bess was the right character to tell that story, to show it through her eyes. 

TBRN: Why did you choose French nuns as pivotal characters for this story? Were you making a comparison based on the fact that the British nurses answered to the title "Sister"?

CT: No, nothing to do with Sister. Actually, French nuns had for centuries treated the wounded and the sick and the maimed. Convents had taken in widows and orphans, and the tradition to nurse had been strong. And yet the French Army, secular to the core, wanted no part of this service, and the character we drew showed the way many French nuns went about their work almost incognito. Even some British generals thought women doing the nursing was foolishness. It was a waste, and so out of that “waste” came characters who jumped off the page. Even Sister Claire, who plays a minor role, has a lot going for her.

TBRN: How does the treatment of Allied deserters play into the motivation and actions of some of the characters here?

CT: Even today, deserters are bad for morale. And to make it clear that desertion wouldn’t be tolerated, armies shot those they caught. There were a good many reasons for desertion in the Great War. Cowardice, of course. Knowing that those at home desperately needed their man was another. And sometimes it was just plain inability to cope any longer with the battlefield. We wanted to talk about the British sweeps of the brothels and bars of Paris, looking for men who had not gone back to their regiments, and also how desertion could be used to insert a spy in the enemy’s camp. That’s one of the chief benefits of writing about war, there are so many stories that can come out of real events. And we use desertion in three different ways in the book, because it adds to the suspense.  

TBRN: Bess has grown with each installment of the series. How did the action in THE SHATTERED TREE change her?

CT: We felt that being wounded would show her how her patients dealt with pain and the infection and a slow recovery, but we also wanted to take Bess out of her element. Simon isn’t in Paris to offer his help, nor is her father. She’s not really sure where Captain Barkley’s loyalties lie, and he has some very sticky views on the place of women, very Victorian. Even Sergeant Lassiter couldn’t get to Paris to step in. And so she had to develop an entirely new set of sources and resources. She was totally on her own now. Could she cope? And how would Bess Crawford go about it? It was fun to find out.

TBRN: THE SHATTERED TREE is set one month prior to the end of World War I. What do you see next for Bess Crawford? Will there be additional novels set post-WWI?

CT: There’s a great deal in store for Bess. The next book takes us to the end of the war, but the wounded don’t get up and go home when the Armistice is signed. They still need treatment and care, and they still have stories to tell. And there are some interesting sidelights to Bess’ life that we want to explore. Not to mention finding out more about Simon. She’s not going home to Somerset, hang up her uniform, and take up knitting. Not our Bess. Exciting times are ahead for her.