Wednesday 4 August 2021

Join me in conversation with Tom Walker, author of - Out of the Desert @Tom_Walker_RAF

Out of the Desert 
(Wings of Victory Book 1)
By Tom Walker

Publication Date: 28th June 2021
Publisher: Sharpe Books
Page Length: 190 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction / Military Fiction

Young, ambitious Royal Air Force pilot Peter Denhay is posted to an operational bomber squadron at the start of a major Italian offensive into Egypt. Joining the proud and distinguished XXI Squadron, Peter will risk everything to win the plaudits and reputation he desires.

But his navigator, Charlie Kendrick, doesn’t see it the same way, and treats his new crew as a marriage of convenience.

That is until a series of unforeseen disasters befall the squadron – after their home base is attacked and its aircraft ambushed - suspicions are raised of a double-agent operating in their midst.

Braving Italian and German fighters, deadly flak, and a conspiracy of silence, Peter and Charlie enlist the help of Margot Dacre, a gifted intelligence officer with secrets of her own, in a race to prevent further setbacks before it’s too late.

The blistering crescendo comes in an intense air battle to prevent the invasion of Greece. XXI Squadron is committed to the fight in a last, desperate struggle to hold onto the Balkans. Peter and Charlie will have to sacrifice everything, to save their friends – and to save Greece.

Mary Anne: A huge congratulations on your new release, Out of the Desert (Wings of Victory Book 1). Could you tell us a little about your series and how you came to write it?

Tom Walker: Thank you for welcoming me and taking interest in the book. I’ve always been an avid reader and love the vibrant characters and gripping stories created by authors like C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian and Bernard Cornwell. It drove a lifelong passion for the genre and I always said that everyone has a good book in them. However, I wasn’t brave enough to attempt to prove that hypothesis. Then, in January 2021, the third national lockdown happened, and I started to climb the walls. I knew I needed something to focus my energy on and decided that I’d start that book. 

I was inspired to focus on the Royal Air Force and a Second World War setting because of my career in the Service and also because I was fascinated by Roald Dahl’s experience of fighting in Greece in 1941. I read ‘Going Solo’ in my teens and I was captivated by it - it’s such an easy read too. Nobody talks about Greece really and, when you look at the history, it’s packed with desperate dog-fights, incredible characters, graphic heroism and vicious cruelty. I just knew I needed to take advantage of the setting before someone else got there.

The series follows a junior pilot, Peter Denhay, and his navigator, Charlie Kendrick, through their experiences of flying missions during WW2. Whilst there are some frenetic aerial sequences, I think what defines the novel is a set of strong, relatable male and female characters trying to find their own way through this epic global clash. So, as well as action and adventure, the reader will come across all kinds of comedy, romance, pathos, and hubris throughout the series. 

Mary Anne: When researching this novel did you come upon any unexpected historical discoveries?

Tom Walker: There were loads of amazing details that I uncovered during the research. For example, I learned about one squadron that launched an attack on the Germans on Easter Sunday in 1941 to try to slow their invasion of Greece. All six aircraft that took part in the raid were shot down within minutes of each other. You can find a map of the crash sites and they’re only about 12 miles apart. The air battle must have been horrendous for the crews involved. It made me wonder what effect that has on a squadron – to be effectively wiped out in an afternoon – and how you come back from that as a team; as a survivor even. There was also a great story I uncovered about a deception operation before the Battle of Matapan that involved Admiral Andrew Cunningham, a Golf Club, and the Japanese Ambassador. It sounds like the start of a funny joke, but I couldn’t use it in the end, it would have meant stretching the plot beyond what was feasible. 

I think most people are familiar with the Battle of Britain story, and the mythology that surrounds it, but the Mediterranean and the Balkans are much less well understood. The poor old Bristol Blenheim is also little known (and is one of the stars of the book). It was an aircraft that was probably outclassed as a day bomber by the time it operated in North Africa in 1940. It was an eclectic aircraft that made little concession to operator workload – the propeller trim controls were the same shape as the engine cut-outs and were located next to each other (behind the pilot). That meant it was possible to accidentally turn an engine off in mid-air - an error that must be as frightening as it is deadly.

Mary Anne: Do you think historical fiction authors have a responsibility to depict the past as accurately as they can?

Tom Walker: I think there’s an obligation to be true to it. Although I recognise that history is both a contested environment and constantly evolving as new information comes to light and perspectives change. But you can’t sacrifice good storytelling for the sake of it. The rules I try to stick to are that you can cherry-pick incidents for your inspiration and create dialogue for real-life characters so long as you stick to views and traits they held in reality, but you mustn’t mess about with established facts. You also have to avoid anachronisms creeping in, especially where dialogue is concerned. It’s probably more of an issue for authors writing in pre-20th Century timelines, but even so it’s a balancing act to ensure your dialogue is honest, as well as being crisp and readable. 

I think the best authors are the ones that can keep the history running in the background, so that it complements and heightens the sense of drama and adventure in the story. If you take Patrick O’Brian as an example, his plots are all loosely based on the experiences of real-life people (I believe Thomas Cochrane was a major influence) but the characters and scenes were all invented. He managed to make one year of the Napoleonic Wars stretch over about 2-3 book years and barely anyone noticed because they were gripped by the plot, which is just about the best compliment you can receive. As an author of historical fiction, I think you have a responsibility to offer a bridge to the non-fiction subject matter. So, at the end of the book I like to add a few words about what really happened and whether I’ve chosen to depart from the history. It also helps avoid angry letters from readers too.

Mary Anne: What do you think makes for a successful novel?

Tom Walker: As a debut author, I’ve got to be a bit careful here – before you can talk about success you’ve got to first be successful. But I think I can answer that just effectively from the point of view of a reader. I think there are three key ingredients to a successful novel. The first is that you must create some compelling characters that a reader will want to follow through to the end and who are ultimately flawed, but likeable (or immensely dislikeable for a villain). Then you need a plot that sucks you in by virtue of mounting tension or because it keeps offering interesting new scenes that alternately delight, frighten, sicken or tantalise you. Third and finally, it needs to be readable. In simple terms that means you need to be kind to the general reader, use sensitive mental shortcuts and strike a good balance between showing and telling. 

I would also say that sales are only one metric for judging the success of a novel. In some respects, the market is out to promote books in popular genres. The consequence of this could be an echo chamber effect whereby the moment someone reads ‘historical fiction’ in a query letter it drops off the list of considered submissions. I hope that isn’t the case, but it certainly felt like that to me when I was querying. The best gauge of whether a novel is a success has to be its effect on the reader. Ultimately, if the reader gets that feeling when they finish your book – you know the one, it’s like your best friend just moved to another town – and they want to read the sequel; you’ve nailed it.

Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?

Tom Walker: It’s a hardy perennial, but I’d advise aspiring authors to write as much as you can, as often as you can, and work to develop your voice. Creative writing courses are really useful ways to learn the craft. Also - don’t stop reading books, because it’s a great way to see what works. When you get that final version of the manuscript, the battle is only half over because then you’re querying. Querying is a bit like sparring with a larger and heavier opponent: it’s exhausting, painful, and dispiriting. You might get a response if you’re lucky, but quite often that response will be a, ‘No, thank you’. Don’t be put off, use each rejection as a sign you need to re-work the material or adjust your pitch. Keep writing, keep querying, and never give up. Everyone has a good book in them. 

They turned north-north-east off Valona, to make their final run-in towards the target. The town of Durazzo appeared at the northern end of a long, crescent-shaped bay. The mainland was still heavily beset by low cloud, and perhaps it was this which accounted for the lack of enemy fighters. Or maybe they had struck lucky and caught the enemy on the hop. Either way it was beginning to look like a cake-walk. Charlie glanced down at the map and tried to estimate how long it would be before they were back on the ground at Menidi, he needed to pack for his leave. Then the sky exploded.

Flak guns opened up from below and sent an impressive display of fire into the air, black shell bursts appeared all around them. It was a mixture of light and medium flak and their tight formation, so perfect for dealing with fighters, now worked against them. They were an enormous target for the gunners and it was only a matter of time before they scored a hit.
‘Hold on everyone.’ 

Peter’s voice rattled in his headphones. Charlie steadied himself by gripping the chart table and gritted his teeth. The flak looked thick enough to get out and walk on, an overused phrase perhaps because it was so true, he mused. This was going to be an uncomfortable ride. The harbour was edging towards the bottom of the nose window, very nearly the bomb release point. He spoke into the intercom.

‘Three minutes to target, stand-by.’

He glanced upwards at the aircraft in front again, just as a massive flak burst went off below its starboard wing. The aircraft seemed to jump in mid-flight, then the fuel in the wing tank exploded spectacularly. It sheared off the wing and sent the aircraft corkscrewing downwards with smoke and fire trailing from the stub of its ruined engine.

‘Christ Almighty,’ Charlie shouted. He was horrified at the sight of the flaming wreckage plummeting to earth, knowing that it contained three men fighting to survive. He forced himself back to the bombsight. Peter was speaking to Miller in his ears.

‘See any chutes Miller?’

‘No. Nobody got out.’ 

Over the wireless, the C.O. ordered everyone to hold their course. And then the bombs of the lead aircraft could be seen falling. Charlie squinted down the sight at the harbour below. It was packed with shipping; it would be impossible to miss. He squeezed the bomb release button.

‘Bombs gone, bombs gone.’ 

The formation wheeled south, turning away over the bay followed by the flak, which became less effective with every passing minute. Charlie stared down at the harbour. The 8,000 lbs of bombs dropped by the squadron was distributed unevenly across the target, but most of it found a home. There was a huge fire raging on the dockside and thick black smoke issued from the cargo vessel, as well as much debris in the water where lighters had been hit and sunk. He searched for the downed Blenheim and spotted what he thought was a patch of oil and wreckage offshore.

‘I think it was Wardle’s crew who bought it,’ he said into the intercom, ‘no sign of ‘chutes, nor anyone in the water.’

‘Understood,’ Peter replied. Charlie was shocked by the extraordinary image of the Blenheim spinning out of control towards the earth, which he struggled to clear from his mind. An image of Wardle, tall and handsome, laughing in the mess or joking with his crew appeared in his mind. He was one of the old boys and was firm friends with MacNeish. This was going to have an enormous impact on the squadron. He rested his head back against the fuselage for a moment, he felt desperate for a smoke. 

A few minutes later, the C.O.’s voice echoed over the intercom as he passed command of the formation over to Venner. Charlie only noticed now that he had an engine out and was slipping back from them. Another voice on the wireless warned of a pair of bandits trailing them. Miller reported that they looked like Freccias, but after a close look at the Blenheims they stayed back out of reach, following from afar.

‘Keep an eye out for the C.O.’s aircraft, Miller,’ Charlie warned, ‘Those two sharks will be delighted with an easy kill today.’

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As a child, Tom Walker wrote stories about aeroplanes in his head, but it took a global pandemic and national lockdown before he started to write them down.  An avid reader with a lifelong passion for history, Tom saw service in Iraq, Afghanistan and West Africa as a Royal Air Force officer. This provided a rich collection of experiences that he draws upon in his writing. His debut novel, 'Out of the Desert', was published by Sharpe Books in 2021 and follows junior RAF aircrew Peter Denhay and Charlie Kendrick through the battles, loves, and losses of the early Second World War. Originally from Plymouth in Devon, when not on active service, Tom divides his time between Oxfordshire and rural Wiltshire.

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx