Monday, October 30, 2017

Interview with novelist Michael G Bergen

Historical novelist Michael G Bergen joins me today to chat about his book, Storm Over South Africa, The Rutherford Chronicles Part 1.

Of the author’s many interests, history has always ranked highest. It started when he was ten years old, and an inspirational primary school teacher awakened this passion by introducing him to the Romans and their prowess in warfare. History and culture have occupied the author’s interest ever since that induction.

Born in England and raised and educated in Canada the author has been living in Europe and Africa for most of his adult life. After half a lifetime of pursuing various business interests, the author began a personal voyage of discovery. He started by fulfilling a long-standing curiosity of his ancestry and heritage. One small discovery led to another, and another, until it developed into a burning desire to write historical fiction based on his research. From this passion, a series of historical stories emerged, inspired by the lives of his twentieth-century ancestors and their more famous contemporaries. Storm over South Africa, set during the Second Anglo-Boer War, is the first book in that series. This journey continues throughout the 20th century, a tumultuous period in history, documented by him as The Rutherford Chronicles.

Welcome, Michael. Please tell us about your current release.
Storm over South Africa follows the lives and tribulations of a diverse group of characters from both sides of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War from 1899-1902 in South Africa. The reader experiences the various twists and turns of the first major British conflict of the 20th century from its beginning through to its end. It began as another glorious Victorian war. But the successes and failures, sufferings and disillusionment soon emerge. It is a tale of imperial arrogance and determination, of stubbornness, innocence, love and loss experienced in a rugged and alluring land far from the heart of the British Empire.

What inspired you to write this book?
Curiosity, my passion for history, travel and adventure; the desire to discover where my ancestors had been and how they had lived and who they had shared their lives with through tough times.

Excerpt from Storm over South Africa:
With that, the serjeant led Joe through the labyrinth of the tented camp's walkways to a large, open tent used as a field hospital. There he was received by a nurse, who led him past beds occupied by recovering wounded soldiers to a treatment centre. There, to his amazement, he was led to a nurse who he knew from home.

“Jenny? Jenny Ambler?” he exclaimed, “Is that really you?”

“Hello Joe,” she said, “Indeed! Fancy us meeting here in the middle of the desert! I see that, as usual, you are in a spot of bother. Now come here and lie down on this table where the doctor can examine you.”

The damage was soon repaired, and Joe was even given a brand new pair of trousers and socks to replace his bloodied clothing. He was also given a shot to sedate him and led to a bed where he could recover from the minor shock of being shot for the first time. Before five minutes were over, he was in a deep sleep.

When he awoke, he realised it was almost time for his next watch, so he started to rise. However, before he could, Jenny was upon him and told him he was under doctor’s orders to rest for a day before going back to his duty.

What exciting story are you working on next?
The adventure continues in Part 2 with a journey to India with the British Army under the Raj at the beginning of the 20th century. Then after starting a family back in England, the hero (actually an anti-hero) finds himself in the trenches and horrors of World War One.

The third book in the series is what I am busy working on now. It covers the painful aftermath of World War One and the so-called Interwar Years – including life in the Roaring Twenties, the collapse of the traditional British industries and the Great Depression – then the second major war of the twentieth century – World War Two – including four years in German POW camps.

The fourth and final book in the series is planned to be my autobiographical work covering the last half of the twentieth century.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I first developed an interest in writing in university. While studying, I learned the basics of researching various topics and my resulting projects and papers were well received by my professors. Those topics included history as well as economics, mainly involving India, a passion of mine at the time. At the time, I also started writing poetry and short stories and had the ambition to continue writing.

But, as often happens in life, I was then distracted by a career and raising a family. My writing was restricted to that required by my business career, and I did a lot of it. But along the way, I did extensive travelling and enjoyed an exciting life. I have lived and worked in a lot of different places on three continents. My travels began in earnest during my three years in the Canadian Navy as a young man, then continued for the rest of my life. I’ve done close to four million kilometres of travel, roughly the equivalent of flying to the moon and back five times! I have visited some fifty countries and at least three to four hundred different cities and towns.

I love the sea and mountains and am also an avid angler and naturalist. I have sailed and fished in some of the most beautiful places on the planet in roughly twenty different countries, and I have done photo safaris in most of the key nature reserves of Africa. I have made canoe trips down the Zambesi, rode horses, hiked and fished in the African bush and elsewhere. I have studied geology, palaeontology and flora and fauna in the field. I am also passionate about music, movies, reading, architecture, archaeology and astronomy. So all of these activities distracted me from my original plan to write, but I always swore that I would get back into it eventually.

Finally, a decade ago when I found enough time and motivation, I started to document my life and research my roots. From that my interest in creative writing was re-awakened. I wrote a personal collection of autobiographical records which I called Notes on my Life and Family History. It was then that I became inspired to write a series of historical fiction novels based on my grandfather’s life, which I called The Rutherford Chronicles. Storm Over South Africa is the first book of that series. That is when I became serious about writing and publishing, and it has taken over a huge part of my life. I had very little to go on at first since my ancestors rarely talked about or recorded their life experiences and times in the military. So I was compelled to do extensive research into where they may have been and the lives they may have lived. This research laid down the foundation and structure for my stories.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your workday like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I am only writing part-time since I am still working. But I do have a great deal of spare time for research and writing.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Sticking as much as possible to the idiosyncrasies of language and spelling of the time being written about.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A sailor, inspired by meeting a cousin who was in the British Navy when I was seven years old. Later I wanted to be an economist saving desperate Third World countries. I ended up as a businessman and an aspiring writer of fiction.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
My preface to the book:

Rudyard Kipling once said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” For me, the best thing about being a writer of historical fiction is recreating the past and bringing lost souls and situations back to life. The Rutherford Chronicles is a historical series that follows one otherwise nameless working-class family’s journey through some of the most dramatic events of the twentieth century. Storm over South Africa is the series’ opening episode. It is centred on the first major British conflict of the century, the Second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa from October 1899 to May 1902.

Sometimes called the “last of the gentlemen’s wars”, it began at the very end of an ambitious and relatively peaceful era of worldwide expansion of the British Empire known as the Pax Britannica, which covered most of the nineteenth century. But the Anglo-Boer War also opened the twentieth century for the British in Africa, as well as a traumatic time for the Boers and other inhabitants of that part of the world. It began as another “glorious” Victorian war, but the successes and failures, sufferings and disillusionment soon emerged. It is a tale of imperial arrogance and determination, of stubbornness, innocence, love and loss experienced in a rugged and alluring land far from the heart of the British Empire. The book reawakens that period and is based on the actual flow of the main phases and events of this conflict as an introduction to a unique period of British imperial history. It follows the exploits of the seventeen-year-old son of a Boer president; a young shipbuilding dock worker and his military nurse sweetheart from the industrial north-east of England, and a young Canadian soldier who volunteered for Canada’s first campaign outside its borders. Involved too are such illustrious British participants as War Correspondent Winston Churchill, Field Marshals Frederick Roberts and Herbert Kitchener, Generals Ian Hamilton and Robert Baden-Powell, as well as Arthur Conan Doyle among others. Boer leaders involved include Generals Christiaan de Wet, Louis Botha, Koos de la Rey and Jan Smuts. It is a story of adventure, discovery, tragedy and romance.

I am forever grateful to these great eye-witness authors and historians without whom I could never have recreated this story. I would also like to thank friends and family members who gave me useful feedback after reading early versions of the book and my editors and graphic designer for their invaluable contributions. I must also thank them for accepting my insistence that certain words are spelt as they were at the time. Hence, for example, Capetown, Karroo, Matjesfontein, waggon and Afrikander are used, rather than the modern versions of Cape Town, Karoo, Matjiesfontein, wagon and Afrikaner. Quoted passages have been left in their original form and not corrected according to modern English conventions.

To quote the prolific frontier author Louis L’ Amour, “For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.” He also claimed that “Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.”

I sincerely hope you enjoy the experience as much as I have enjoyed discovering and reawakening it!


Thanks for being here today, Michael. All the best with your writing!

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