BackStory: Five Questions with PJ Stephenson
Author of Black Two
What inspired you to write ‘Black Two’?
I love history and have developed a special interest in the Second World War, partly stimulated by the exploits of family members: Cyril Carr, my maternal grandfather, served as RAF ground crew in the UK; Josef Jaske, my aunt’s father, was a Czech fighter pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain; Charlie Lovegrove, my father’s uncle, was a Lancaster bomb-aimer who was lost in action over Holland; and Jim Stephenson, my paternal grandfather, fought with the Durham Light Infantry in France before being evacuated at Dunkirk. I devour huge volumes of history books and, unsurprisingly, this has greatly influenced my fiction writing. In the last four years I’ve produced a collection of flash fiction and short stories set in the Battle of Britain, motivated by the bravery and personal sacrifice of the small band of “fighter boys” who saved the country from Nazi invasion. “Black Two” grew out of my efforts to get inside the heads of these young men on the front line. Many were teenagers or in their early twenties, often sent into combat with limited flying experience. If they lived long enough, they flew endless sorties, multiple times a day throughout the summer. They understandably became exhausted, often suffering from what we would now recognise as PTSD. How did such men keep going? How did they cope with the constant loss of squadron members, long-standing friends and new “sprogs”? Ingrid Jendrzejewski at FlashBack captured the essence of my story well when she said it was a “meditation on mortality, working with a lingering shadow of death”. It is impossible to understand how these men came through such adversity – but we have to be thankful that they did.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?
I have been much inspired and greatly influenced by Len Deighton; his WWII novel Goodbye Mickey Mouse is one of my favourite novels. Deighton tells a captivating wartime love story between a British woman and an American fighter pilot by building strong and credible characters using plenty of dialogue. The combat scenes are realistic and authentic and advance the story without glorifying war. I also enjoy the writing of many more contemporary authors of historical fiction who expertly convey the periods they write about so well that you don’t notice the research that must have been involved. Some of the many examples include Robert Harris (The Cicero Trilogy), William Boyd (An Ice Cream War), Pat Barker (The Regeneration Trilogy), and – a FlashBack Fiction writer – Sophie van Llewyn (Bottled Goods).
If you could have three historical figures over for dinner, who would they be?
Winston Churchill would be able to provide some huge insights into the war years but would probably be busy attending someone else’s fantasy dinner (and certainly wouldn’t appreciate my vegetarian menu). So I’d ask two key players from the Battle of Britain to understand better the tactics of both air forces: Keith Park (the commander of 11 Group – the RAF fighter squadrons which engaged most with the Luftwaffe), and Adolf Galland (a German fighter pilot with a sense of humour who befriended several RAF pilots after the war). I’d also invite my grandfather, Jim Stephenson, who is an historical figure to me. I’d ask him all the questions I wish I had asked when I had the chance, about his time in France and his evacuation at Dunkirk – which he never talked about for the rest of his life.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
This is the most recent of several short stories I’ve produced on the Battle of Britain. They have all been stimulated by reading numerous fighter pilot biographies and autobiographies from the period, as well as histories by Patrick Bishop, James Holland and many others. The title of this piece comes from research I did specifically into fighter squadron tactics and battle formations. In the Battle of Britain, most RAF squadrons were composed of an A Flight, with a Red and Yellow section, and a B Flight, with a Blue and Green section (with 3 pilots per section, 12 per squadron). However, if one or two pilots were sent up on sorties for specific tasks (such as intercepting German reconnaissance planes), they were often given different names, where the colours Black and White were also used.
What do you think is the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of writing historical flash?
Historical war stories are common but it’s hard to get the tone right. The genre shouldn’t be about glorifying violence, but about understanding, empathising and sympathising while telling a fully-crafted story. And in the Battle of Britain context, it’s also about acknowledging the huge sacrifices men and women made and the stark and distressing impact of the conflict on their lives. The reward for me is when the research, and the attempts to capture historically authentic settings and language, come together in a work that others appreciate. I am very grateful to the FlashBack team for their feedback on an earlier draft and for publishing a piece I am very proud of. My late father was my biggest fan and I dedicate this story to him.
PJ is a British writer whose fiction is inspired by history, nature and human nature. He’s lived in Switzerland for 20 years but still takes milk in his tea. You’ll find his short stories online and in various anthologies. Follow him @Tweeting_Writer.
Image of two Spitfires in flight, copyright PJ Stephenson.