Thursday, September 3, 2015

Interview with A.L. Sowards, author of The Rules in Rome

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author A.L. Sowards to Flashlight Commentary to discuss The Rules in Rome.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Rules in Rome.
Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of your blog!

The Rules in Rome is a WWII thriller about two American spies in Rome in the months leading up to the city’s liberation in June 1944. Bastien Ley is pretending to be a German officer, Hauptmann Adalard Dietrich. Gracie Begni is the OSS radio operator transmitting his reports. As they gather intelligence for the US Army, they have to stay a few steps ahead of the Gestapo—and avoid unnecessary complications like falling in love. The novel is a mix of action, history, and romance. I like to keep my books clean enough that my nephews can read them, so the romance and language are appropriate for most readers, even young ones.

Where did this story begin? What inspired you to write a story set in Rome during WWII? 
Normally my ideas are a little more original, but this one was inspired by another novel, Night of the Fox, by Jack Higgins. In Night of the Fox, an experienced male agent is paired with a young female agent and they’re sent on a mission to the Channel Islands. They fall in love (and lust) immediately. It got me thinking—what would happen if a pair of agents fell in love, but pretended they hadn’t? Or started off hating each other and then gradually fell in love? Rome seemed like a good location, so with the Higgins-inspired premise, I began the book.

How would you describe Gracie Begni? What kind of woman is she? 
Gracie has given up on pleasing her mother. She’ll never be thin enough or pretty enough. But Gracie thinks being smart is better than being beautiful. She jumps at the chance to join OSS for several reasons: she wants to help with the war effort and prove that she can do hard things, and she also wants to get away from her mother and a set of bad memories. She’s had a few cherished relationships in the past that have ended for one reason or another, and she hungers for a close friend. She wants to be valued as a talented radio operator, but she’s a little naive about how hard it will be to operate in occupied Italy. She has a difficult time adjusting to life in the field but she has good intentions and always tries to do the right thing.

How would you characterize Bastien Ley? What makes him tick? 
Bastien is driven. His father was arrested by the Gestapo when he was a young adult, and he is determined to keep the promise he made to his dad to take care of the family. Bastien is the oldest of five children (four still living when The Rules in Rome begins). His early efforts for the family included sneaking them out of Nazi Germany. Now he’d determined to do all he can to win the war as quickly as possible, before his youngest brother, Lukas, is drawn into the conflict. 

Bastien is a talented, competent spy. He’s a good friend because he worries about others before he worries about himself, but he can appear cold sometimes because he has the ability to focus on his mission and ignore any potential distractions. He’s sometimes independent to a fault, but he’s also loyal and thoughtful.

Odette Annable, author's choice to play Gracie Begni
I loved Otavia’s role in the story and think her a particular memorable supporting character. Without giving away too much, what can you tell us about her? 
Ottavia was raised in Rome and she loves the city. She’s expecting a baby but her husband had to flee Rome so he wouldn’t be rounded up by the Nazis. Her husband joined a band of partisans and Ottavia is basically a courier, transporting information from several sympathetic Italians to the Americans via Gracie. She’s empathetic and has a naturally sunny disposition and that makes her an ideal friend for Gracie.

What sort of research went into The Rules in Rome? What sources did find most valuable? 
I read lots of nonfiction books on WWII and used the internet too. Probably the single most useful book was The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943—June 1944. I read books about OSS, books about WWII radio operators, books about the military situation, and the memoir of an American spy who was really there at the time (Peter Tompkins). I even found an old OSS training video about clandestine radios on YouTube and that was enormously helpful for writing scenes when Gracie was working with her radio.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
For most of the book I was looking forward to writing the climactic scenes near the end (chapters 44-48). It was a federal holiday and my husband took the kids out for most of the day so I had a long stretch of quiet time. I wrote about 8,000 words that day, which I think is still my record.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?  
Honestly, of the five books I’ve finished, this was probably the easiest to write. If I had to pinpoint a difficult scene, I’d say the first scene because the first scene is always hard. As an author you want to have something exciting to convince readers to keep reading, but you also want to introduce the characters and give readers a reason to care about them. It’s sometimes tricky to shift through what a reader needs to know right at the beginning and what can or should wait so you don’t bore them with background information. 

Originally, I was going to begin the book later chronologically, and have Bastien rescue an Italian partisan from prison after he’d already taken Dietrich’s identity. But I was going to have to explain how Bastien became Dietrich at some point, so I figured I might as well show the reader in a scene. 

I worked through it with lots of tweaks and some suggestions from my writers’ group.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?
In an early draft, Adalard Dietrich (the German officer Bastien is impersonating) has a fiancée that Bastien isn’t initially aware of. She’s the daughter of a well-connected Nazi, so when she doesn’t get any letters from him, she has her daddy send out an SD investigator. The plot point added a fun twist to the novel—Bastien and Gracie suddenly have to make all their meetings secret, and Bastien’s friend Heinie is disappointed in how Bastien is mistreating both is fiancée and his Rome girlfriend. But the manuscript was too long (and that affects the paperback and audiobook price), and taking that out reduced the word count. I found another reason for the SD to investigate Bastien, so that part stayed. If the book hadn’t been so long, I would have left it all in.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Rules in Rome and if so, what did you alter? 
I try to adjust my story to fit history rather than the other way around, but of course I have to balance historical accuracy with good storytelling. Most of the changes I made involved inserting fictional characters into historical events. Every single character in my book with a speaking part is fictional. I usually have them involved in things that don’t contradict history, but sometimes the specific events aren’t historical. The curfew party, for example, was fictional, but mirrored what I’ve read about the real curfew parties that were common at the time. At the time of the story, Catholic churches in Rome frequently hid Jews, escaped POWs, and others trying to avoid arrest, but the specific dates and locations involving my characters are fictional. In one scene, Zimmerman searches prison records in a way that was done by a real SS officer, Herbert Kappler. In that chapter, I give a fictional character the credit (or blame) for what a real person did. 

It was also a bit of stretch to have Heinie work in Gestapo headquarters. But I needed him there, so I invented a reason.

Damian Lewis, author's choice to play Bastien Ley
If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Probably Bastien. I’d love to pick his brain about the time period, especially about the US military during WWII. His knowledge would come in handy for the book I’m currently working on.

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of The Rules in Rome, who would you hire? 
When I started this book, I’d just finished a trilogy with a hero who had brown hair, brown eyes, and about average height and build for the time. I wanted my next hero to be different, so I gave Bastien light brown hair and blue eyes, and made him tall.

Gracie was partially inspired by an eight-year-old child I taught in church. She had a birthmark on her cheek, and I thought it was cute, but I wondered if the time would come when she wouldn’t like it. For Gracie’s appearance, I described how this little girl might look in her early twenties.

So while neither of the main characters started out looking like movie stars, this was a fun question to brainstorm.

Bastien Ley: Damian Lewis. I didn’t realize he was British until I was looking his name up for this interview. But I figure if he can sound like an American for Band of Brothers (he played Dick Winters), then he can probably manage Bastien’s accent. 
Gracie Begni: Odette Annable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in anything, but she looks a lot like the woman on the book cover, and the cover designers did a good job matching my imagination (minus Gracie’s birthmark).
Heinie Vogel: Jeremy Renner
Otavia: Lily Collins
Angelo: Adrien Brody
Otto Ostheim: Tom Felton
Kornelius Zimmerman: Daniel Craig

Finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? 
I have a World War One novel, The Spider and the Sparrow, due for release in February 2016, so I’m doing edits on it now. My other novels can be described as historical thrillers, but this one is more historical fiction. It’s still fast-paced, but it covers a longer time period, there’s more of a balance between the plot-driven and the character-driven aspects of the story, and I feel like the language is richer. It’s been challenging and rewarding to jump into a new time period.

I’ve also started a coming-of-age novel about Bastien’s younger brother, Lukas. It’s not really a sequel to The Rules in Rome, but readers will recognize a few characters.

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I felt like I was holding my breath through most of the book and couldn't turn the pages fast enough. Some parts were hard to read as the realities of war were described. - Melanie, Amazon Reviewer

A.L. Sowards does an incredible job at writing suspenseful, action packed, spy thrillers set during WWII. I am amazed at how well she writes a novel that feels like you are reading history. - Lisa F- Bookworm Lisa "Bookworm Lisa", Amazon Reviewer

Where this book really shines is in its characterizations, both for the main leads and the secondary characters. Gracie and Bastian are immediately relatable, distinct, and you just can’t help rooting for them. Both change and adapt as the story progresses, keeping the reader engaged each step of the way. - Sarah L. Gruwell, Amazon Reviewer

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A little mystery, a little history, a little romance, and a lot of action, adventure, and suspense. Primarily, I write to entertain. I also hope my books will teach readers something new about history or about life. My books are usually set during wartime, so there is some violence, but I keep the language and romance family-friendly. My goal is for my writing to be thrilling, clean, and uplifting.

I was born in Georgia but consider Moses Lake, Washington my hometown. I came to Utah to attend school (BYU) and ended up staying. Books have always been an important part of my life. I remember writing self-illustrated storybooks at my grandparent's house when I was in elementary school (none of those made it to publication for many good reasons) and attending my first writer's conference when I was in third grade.

Now I'm a busy mom with young chidren. I still love to read and I also love to write. I'm usually reading a couple books at once and working on multiple writing projects too. Other than that, my life is pretty ordinary. I'm grateful for that. I'll let the characters in my books have all the adventures.

Website ❧  Goodreads ❧  Blog ❧  Newsletter ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter

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Format: Print & eBook
Publication Date: February 3, 2015
Released by: Covenant Communications Inc.
ISBN-13: 978-1621088820
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
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