Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Suzy. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about The Beauty Shop.
Hello. It’s a pleasure to be here and thank you for inviting me along today to talk about my new book, The Beauty Shop. Based on a true story, via three interlocking experiences of WW2, the novel explores the nature of good looks, social acceptance and the true meaning of skin deep.
Where did you find this story?
I was lost in the archives, researching Bomber and Fighter Command when I came across the story of Fighter pilot Geoffrey Page who was shot down during the Battle of Britain. He suffered severe burns and later became one of the founder members of the Guinea Pig Club. Straight away I was hooked, and after discovering the work of plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, I knew I had to tell the story.
Your characterization of Dr. Archibald McIndoe is easily my favorite. Can you tell us a bit about his background and his work?
Archie, as he was often called, was born and raised in New Zealand. He was a high achiever even as a boy, and a very determined, intelligent spirit. After training to become a doctor, he gained a scholarship at the Mayo Clinic in America and trained to become a gastric surgeon, operating on one of the brothers of the gangster, Al Capone on one occasion. He didn’t know that at the time, of course. A chance encounter coupled with Archie’s restless spirit would bring him to London in 1931 with his wife and small daughter. He soon joined his cousin, Harold Gillies, a plastic surgeon who had operated on many WW1 veterans, rebuilding their shattered faces. Gillies taught Archie the tools of the trade, and it soon became apparent that Archie had a natural talent for plastic surgery. Archie’s life experiences informed his practice at the beginning of the war when the first casualties began to arrive. He was determined that the young airmen before him were not ‘finished’ as they so often thought. He was determined to do whatever it took for them to live full lives, and to be accepted back into society. It was his brilliance, his humanity that captured my mind right from the start.
Ward III is a unique place. What do you hope readers take from your descriptions of McIndoe’s patients, their wounds, and their treatment?
Disfigurement and disablement as a result of burns injuries still occurs today. I hope that readers will see that people with such injuries are still the same inside – ‘beauty is more than skin-deep.’ I hope readers will gain an appreciation of what the WW2 veterans endured for us – not many know the story of the Guinea Pig Club, and so I wished to shine the light on this small and yet significant piece of history. With regards to the treatment, it was often experimental, which to me, illustrates the brilliance of McIndoe, and his indomitable pioneering spirit and work which formed the foundations of modern-day plastic surgery.
I found your dogfight scenes are flawlessly written. How did you even begin to write such vivid aerial warfare?
I’m so pleased you asked me about the action scenes. First of all, I read many books, fiction and non-fiction, which was heaven because I’m so obsessed with military aviation. I wrote the bombing mission scenes as an outline at first, rather like a sketch before studying USAAF and the Luftwaffe. Next came the films. I love Memphis Belle and just being able to see those aircraft flying in formation gave me a lot of inspiration. I also spent many hours watching old archived films of various bomber squadrons from the war. Possibly the best film I watched was Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Later releases such as Red Tails and the new official trailer for the long-awaited Mighty Eighth was also fantastic – seriously, this is going to be amazing to watch. I find I’m a very visual learner and so I feel I gained more from watching as opposed to reading and I think this is reflected in the scenes which are action-packed and have a lot of imagery to carry them through.
Alex is a supporting character, but he suffers war injuries that even McIndoe can’t treat. Why did you feel it important to illustrate battle fatigue, PTSD, and depression?
Anyone who suffers a trauma is at risk from PTSD. Back in WW1 servicemen were often labelled as showing “lack of moral fibre” and called cowards. By WW2, it wasn’t much better, but it was at least recognised by psychiatrists as a real illness. That said, there was a distinct lack of expertise in how to treat it, and it was not something that was universally accepted by the military. Many of the burned airmen suffered depression and struggled to cope with their disfigurements, and in some cases, their loss of identity. A small number committed suicide. Can you imagine being handsome one day and having your entire face burned away the next? You’ll never look the same again, and even your family may not recognise you. Not only might you suffer from the battles you’ve endured and from the action that caused your injuries, but now you’re facing a different fight altogether. It’s a highly emotive topic, and while I did not go into specific detail, I felt it important to acknowledge the condition, and for people to be aware of this. It is as relevant today as it was back then.
As a historic novelist, your stories obviously take place in eras that are very different from today. Was it easy for you to sort of step back in time to write about the war era?
Another fantastic question. As I’m so obsessed with the WW2 period and read a lot of associated fiction and non-fiction, I did find it relatively easy in a sense. It’s weird to say this, but it was a little like coming home. Of course, I still had to rely on the research to ensure the historical facts were accurate. The most difficult issue I had was trying to depict the real character, Archibald McIndoe – he took a lot of time to develop.
What sort of research went into The Beauty Shop and what resources did find most valuable?
The research was all-consuming. Firstly, it was the usual factual research that is relevant to any historical period – dress, food, transport, etc. Secondly, I had to study the medical treatment available during WW2, more specifically, the treatment for burns. There was also a lot of research to do to flesh out Archibald McIndoe. My resources included biographies, historical accounts, old newsreels, radio broadcasts, films, newspapers and veteran’s personal accounts. I was also very fortunate in being able to speak with a few people who worked with and knew McIndoe, and also one of the guinea pigs, a veteran from WW2.
Do you have a favorite scene in The Beauty Shop?
Deciding on a favourite scene is tough as I have several. I love Mac’s final bombing mission, but I think I’ll go with chapter three, the dance at Bassingbourn where Mac finally gets to meet Stella. It’s so romantic.
What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author and why was it difficult to write?
It was chapter two, the first bombing mission. From a creative perspective, it was very difficult to get the detail precise, historically accurate and to bring everything together in that scene. Once I’d completed it, that made later bombing scenes more straightforward to write. Considering I’ve not had an opportunity to get inside a B-17, I managed to get a feel for the aircraft and an appreciation of what the men endured during those dark times by other means – thank you, internet!
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 writing about?
I’d have liked to have spent more time writing about the Guinea Pig Club, but as a writer, you have to balance everything in the story, and so it was that several scenes were cut. This would also have enabled me to focus more upon PTSD and on McIndoe.
Historical novelists frequently have to adjust for the sake of the story. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Beauty Shop and if so, what did you alter?
Dare I say I took small liberties. My male protagonist, Mac, is treated by Archie in the story, but in reality, I doubt this would have happened. USAAF took care of their own casualties. However, the Guinea Pig Club did have American fighter pilots – men who joined the RAF to fight the war before the US became involved. So, in a sense, I justified using Mac because he represented the American ‘guinea pigs.’ The reason he’s there is simple – he came through perfectly formed, a full character with a back story and more importantly, a face and a persona, whereas the first candidate, a British Bomber Command pilot, did not – blame it on the author’s whacky imagination. What can I say – sometimes the muse guides you in a different direction.
If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you invite out and why?
It would have to be Archie, but I’m very tempted by Richard Hillary and Mac (sighs). No, it would be Archie, absolutely. He was an amazing man, and after everything I discovered about him, I’m still on a quest to uncover more.
Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of The Beauty Shop, who would you hire?
That’s a tough question, but after a lot of thought, I decided that Colin Firth would be great as Archie, although I have Tom Hanks in reserve – I wonder what everyone else thinks? After several auditions, I offered Saorise Ronan the role of Stella and Henry Cavill the role of Mac. Alex proved difficult, but I thought perhaps James McAvoy would do the role justice. I’d love to know the readers’ thoughts on this one. I have a feeling I’d be a useless casting director!
Finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works?
My next book is almost written and then it’s back to the edits and re-writes, but I’m hoping to be able to release it by July 2017. It’s set during WW2 and focusses on a real woman who joined SOE (Special Operations Executive). In the words of Churchill, “Set Europe ablaze.” SOE has been written about over and over, but I have someone in the book with a determined voice, and this is her story, and it’s quite remarkable and tragic. This is her perspective, her war, and I’m merely the guide.