T.J. Banks Interview first published online at Sporkette Gazette – February 21, 2010 – Volume 5, Issue 2.
…Being a prestigious “cat writer”, this new direction in writing from T.J. Banks is a pleasant surprise.
More Interview Excerpts:
SPORKETTE: What prompted you to write the fiction romance novel A Time for Shadows?
T.J. BANKS: I’d always been haunted by my grandmother’s story about Max, the brother she’d lost in WWI. Something about the way she told the story stayed with me; in fact, it doesn’t take much for me to transport myself back in time to the afternoon she told me the story while we were sitting under the big willow tree at the old farm. She had loved that older brother of hers very much – so much so that she didn’t rest easy about him till many years later, when she finally got a chance to visit the cemetery, in France, where he was buried. My aunt, who was with her, says she put her hand on the grave – much as Iris does at one point in the book – and murmured, ‘It’s dry.’ Apparently, my grandmother had nightmares for years about his having been buried in a water-logged grave because it was so close to the coast. Anyway, Max’s story led to the writing of Shadows, although that story obviously plays only a small part in the book.
SPORKETTE: Why did you choose World War I for the novel’s time period?
T.J. BANKS: I’ve always been fascinated by WWI…and not just because of my great-uncle’s tragedy. Some incredibly powerful literature came out of that war: Wilfred Owen’s and Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry; Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth; and Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All That.
And literature aside…let’s not forget that this was a war unlike a war anyone had ever seen before. None of the old rules of warfare applied anymore. It was the last war that cavalry was used and the first that saw chemical warfare, ambulances and airplanes being made use of. And it changed the psychic landscape of a generation.
I had a history professor who emphasized how all the Victorian ideas of science and progress were obliterated during the trench warfare and men were ‘reduced to living like moles in the earth.’
Last, but not least, the Second World War came out of the badly made peace of the First. Had that peace been more equitable, there might not have been a socio-economic climate for Hitler to flourish in. You cannot understand WWII fully without studying WWI.
SPORKETTE: What is your favorite fact blended into A Time For Shadows, and why?
T.J. BANKS: I’d have to say the use of Francis Derwent Wood, the British sculptor who came up with the electroplated masks for disfigured men. It was really the beginning of plastic surgery as we know it today.
The masks were, as historian Lyn Macdonald points out, ‘temporary affairs that would last a few years at most, but they helped,’ and ‘[f]rom behind one of Captain Derwent Wood’s masterpieces, a disfigured man could look the world in the face knowing that the world could look back at him without shuddering.’
I was fascinated by a mind like Derwent Wood’s…one that could come up with such a creative solution to such a seemingly unsolvable problem. So, he had to go into the book.
SPORKETTE: Why did you add a supernatural animal character to A Time For Shadows?
T.J. BANKS: I like a good ghost story. I also have an ‘office cat,’ Hawkeye, who kept me company during the writing of the book, so it seemed only natural to give him a part in it. Hawkeye’s asking for royalties now.
Seriously, though, I came across a number of WWI photos and postcards that showed enlisted men fussing with cats and kittens that had strayed into the camps and trenches – drawn by the rats, no doubt – and stayed on as mascots. I even found a postcard showing a tabby [cat], named Togo, ‘on watch’ inside one of the guns of the Dreadnought – an incredibly powerful British battleship. Togo was listed on the card as ‘the pet of the Dreadnought.’ So you might say there’s a historical basis for Hawkeye in the book.
SPORKETTE: What type friendship do you believe transpired between your characters, Dawn Kailey (unemployed journalist) and Iris MacCurdy (retired school teacher, once a WWI Red Cross nurse)?
T.J. BANKS: I think that it gradually becomes a surrogate mother-daughter relationship, with Dawn standing in for Iris’ absent daughter, Lucy. And, remember, Dawn starts out much as young Iris did, as an introspective outsider without ties to anyone. So, in a very real sense, they parallel each other.
SPORKETTE: Of your characters, whose war-time friendship do you like best in A Time For Shadows, and why?
T.J. BANKS: That’s easy…her [Iris MacCurdy] friendship with the Australian soldier, Tim Skinner. He’s based on my late husband, Tim Spooner, who died in a car accident in 1995. Tim is always there for Iris; in fact, we last see him as a funny, slightly crotchety, utterly loyal old man, who has hurried down to see his old friend because he knows she needs him. And I love that because my Tim was only 34 when he died, and in my book, he gets to live out his life…he gets to be old. And, for the record, the real Tim could do a pretty mean Australian accent.
SPORKETTE: How do you hope A Time For Shadows affects readers?
T.J. BANKS: I hope that people will be moved by it…that while reading it, they will forget that these characters are just characters…same as I did, while writing about them. I think that’s what any writer hopes for.
And I also hope that the book will inspire people to pay more attention to the First World War, which really has – to borrow a phrase – become ‘this half-buried war.’ And it’s much too important to be written off like that.
T. J. Banks is the author of A Time for Shadows, Catsong, Souleiado, and Houdini, a novel for young adults which the late writer and activist Cleveland Amory enthusiastically branded ‘a winner.’ Catsong, a collection of her best cat stories, was the winner of the 2007 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award. A Contributing Editor to laJoie, she has received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association (CWA), ByLine and The Writing Self. Her writing has been widely anthologized, and she has worked as a columnist, a stringer for the Associated Press and an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School. She is currently writing a blog called ‘Sketch People ,’ a series of interviews with interesting folks doing interesting stuff.