Erika Robuck’s heart-stopping new World War II drama, Sisters of Night and Fog, was named a Most Anticipated Book of 2022 by BuzzFeed, BookBub, Book Trib and more! It tells the story of two very different women with a common cause.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and on Binge Reading today, international bestselling author Erika Robuck talks about her spell binding historical fiction, based on the extraordinary true stories of an American socialite and a British secret agent whose stunning acts of courage collide in the darkest hours of World War II.
We’ve got free books to give away, this week Mary Crawford’s Until The Stars Fall From the Sky – a clean and wholesome romance with a fiery heroine and an unlikely hero that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Books and an E reader to be won
Plus win a bundle of Cozy Mysteries 50+ books (including Poisoned Legacy, #1 in the Of Gold & Blood series) and a brand new E-Reader – Total Value $550
And don’t forget, for the cost of less than a cup of coffee a month you can get exclusive bonus content – like hearing Erika’s answers to the Five Quickfire Questions – by becoming a Binge Reading on Patreon supporter.
We’ve got a new feature starting on Patreon this month – Encore – shorter interviews with favorite authors, people who have already been on the podcast talking about their latest book. Encore will be previewed for Patreon supporters and then released on the free to air broadcast feed two weeks later. We will do these monthly and see how we go.
First up is Kiwi bestselling historical fiction author Deborah Challinor who talks about her new book The Leonard Girls, a story about two sisters and the Vietnam war years of the late sixties. Nurse Rowie Leonard is pro war. Her younger sister Jo is a protestor and they’re both in Vietnam. As the sisters grapple with love, loss and the stresses and sorrows of war, each will be forced to confront and question everything they’ve believed in.
As usual all the links to things mentioned in the podcast are available in the show notes for this episode on the website www.thejoysofbingereading.com.
Links for this episode
Nacht Und Nebel: https://wordhistories.net/2020/12/09/nacht-und-nebel/
Virginia d’Albert Lake: https://francetoday.com/culture/remembrance/an-american-heroine/
Erika Robuck book links:
Hemingway’s Girl: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/13485500-hemingway-s-girl
The Invisible Woman: http://www.erikarobuck.com/The-Invisible-Woman.html
Carve Her Name with Pride (1958 movie about Violet Szabo)
Special Operations Executive (SOE): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Operations_Executive
Paula McLain: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/290189.Paula_McLain
What Erika’s Reading:
The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/55711683-the-forest-of-vanishing-stars
The Last Checkmate by Gabriella Saab https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/56922702-the-last-checkmate
That Summer in Berlin by Lecia Cornwall:
A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen:
Where to find Erika
You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/user/erobuck
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to the show notes in The Joys of Binge Reading.com for important mentions.
But now, here’s Erika.
Introducing author Erika Robuck
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there Erika, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Erika Robuck: I’m so happy to be here.
Jenny Wheeler: You have made a career out of writing historical fiction about real-life people, but your latest two books are spy stories set in World War II and we are particularly focusing on the most recent one today, Sisters of Night and Fog. In German, that phrase has a particular resonance. Tell us a bit about the title and how it relates to the story.
Erika Robuck: For the longest time, the book was called A Woman’s War, but we got some feedback internally that because that title was so broad, it could fit any book. They wanted something very specific.
It was my editor who was speaking to me about the Night and Fog program, which was Hitler’s repulsive decree to make resisters of Germany disappear. That ultimately rose to the top because that’s exactly what happened at Ravensbruck concentration camp. He made the women resisters disappear.
Jenny Wheeler: It was a specific Nazi program, wasn’t it?
Erika Robuck: Yes, absolutely. It encompassed many areas, but specifically for this book, that’s what it did.
Jenny Wheeler: You have joined two real life stories together – American socialite Virginia d’Albert-Lake and British agent Violette Szabo. They were both behind enemy lines, but in rather different circumstances, and they had very different personalities. Their lives did cross later in their careers, but one of them was determined from the start to fight the Nazis. The other one at the beginning was just hoping to have a quiet war and stay out of trouble. Tell us a bit about your two main characters.
American woman who was an allied spy
Erika Robuck: I discovered them when I was researching my previous spy novel, The Invisible Woman, which was about American Virginia Hall who was an Allied spy. Many women came on my radar, but I was drawn to Virginia Roush d’Albert-Lake because she was also an American named Virginia, but also because she was a teacher.
She grew up in Florida and I have family in Florida and I was a teacher. I still teach in some capacity, and so I felt she was very relatable. She was an everyday person and she wanted to keep her head down and stay safe, but gradually was drawn into something much bigger than she was, and she rose to the occasion.
I thought I had this wonderful novel that I would write about Virginia d’Albert-Lake. I started moving along and as I was doing so this other woman appeared, Violette Szabo, the polar opposite of Virginia. She was very young, impetuous, feisty, quite a rebel. She had five brothers she was always beating up, and fighting and learning how to shoot, what we would have called a tomboy when I was growing up, but also with a real side of glamour.
Dreaming the story
She wanted to enter the war later because her husband died in a battle in North Africa and she wanted vengeance. A lot of her story, I did not find relatable and so I kept putting her to the side. But I ended up having many, many dreams about her, and over the course of the dreams I felt like she was urging me to put her in the story. Then I realized that her path physically crossed with Virginia d’Albert-Lake’s in Ravensbruck concentration camp.
Virginia was describing a young woman who was a leader in their group who helped keep morale up, who distracted guards so they wouldn’t hurt people. It was Violette, and so I knew I had to do it. Then I had one final dream that told me I had to do it. So I did.
Jenny Wheeler: Amazing. Can you tell us a little bit more about those dreams? How did they come to you?
Erika Robuck: Writing for me is very much practical in one sense and research oriented, but on the other side it’s mystical. I have these impulses. I’ll go on a historic house tour, visit a place, do an interview, and I start to get these feelings.
It’s almost like falling in love, where you’re drawn to something and you want to read about it and write about it. When that starts to happen, I really pay attention to the things that cross my path, and that’s very often when I start having dreams. It helps me choose my subject matter quite a bit, actually. I do try to balance it with a more practical side, but those pieces are very affirming along the way.
Most Anticipated Book of 2022
Jenny Wheeler: Has it happened with other books?
Erika Robuck: It has, yes. Most notably with Hemingway’s Girl. Hemingway came to me and said I had to write a book about him in Key West because he’d become irrelevant.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, that’s wonderful. We’ll talk about that later. You have got so many fabulous books that we won’t have time to go into all of them in detail, but Hemingway is one I am very interested in because I’ve done interviews with people who have done stories about the other two wives as well.
Erika Robuck: He has a lot of material to work with.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. Paula McLain’s Pauline comes out rather unsympathetically in that story because she really does the dirty on Hadley, the first wife. That’s how it comes out of that story, I’m not sure if that’s what really happened.
Getting back to Night and Fog, it was named the Most Anticipated Book of 2022 by quite a number of significant websites, including BookBub. It has already got starred reviews from places like Publishers Weekly. It’s set to be another bestselling book. Does it put a bit of extra pressure on you when that happens, when you are writing The Most Anticipated book?
The difficulty of maintaining spy security
Erika Robuck: It does in the sense that when I’m looking for new material, I want something that’s going to interest the readership I’ve built, but also take everyone in a new direction so I can stay engaged, so the reader can stay engaged. That’s where I find the biggest challenge – marrying all the different kinds of things, all of my passions I’ve been writing about, into the next book.
With this one, I’ve written two books during World War II and emotionally, it puts the writer through the wringer, puts the reader through the wringer. I’d like to move in a different direction but at the same time, I have so much depth of research in that time now. That’s where the struggle is for me.
Jenny Wheeler: The underground networks in France had a lot of trouble with infiltration, and in both of your World War II books that becomes relevant to the story. They were desperately trying to maintain the security of the networks.
Virginia’s got a French husband who she’s committed to staying with so she doesn’t fly back to the USA and find a peaceful haven. She stays there at his side. But when you’re in that circumstance of having a village and they’re quietly trying to help resisters, or in their case Allied pilots, get back to fight via Spain, they’ve got to look at everybody around them as being potential betrayers or traitors.
Violette did try and tell her headquarters in London about the fact that she was in Ravensbruck with other agents. It is not entirely clear if that message ever got through or whether they just couldn’t do anything about it.
Many things still unknown
Erika Robuck: Yes, there are conflicting stories about it. I don’t know that it got through in time. Everything was happening very quickly at the end so I don’t think that was able to be acted upon, unfortunately, not until some of the men were released from Buchenwald and different places that it really got back there. There were still a lot of unknowns. It was behind curtains quite a bit, so it didn’t get there in time.
Jenny Wheeler: You just love the thought that we were going to have some sort of rescue mission there, rewrite the story.
Erika Robuck: I know. And the hope the women had, particularly with Violette, she was convinced that there would be SOE agents parachuting from the sky to whisk them away and defeat the bad guys. Her capacity for hope, the wish to constantly fight to be well, to be free – it was very inspiring. Also somewhat sad sometimes, but very inspiring.
Betrayal at the heart of the organisation
Jenny Wheeler: On that topic of betrayal, she was the one who was convinced that there was a traitor at SOE headquarters, and it seems as if that was the case.
Erika Robuck: Yes, Violette started to become paranoid about that. In some of her interrogations, the Nazis indicated that they were getting information from a source there. A lot of the files from the SOE were burned very shortly after the war. It was supposedly a random fire, but it was probably arson.
There were a couple of suspects that I outline in the back of the book. I usually try to include an author’s note with any further reading or anything I chose to fictionalize, outside of history, for whatever reason. I do try to put in a pretty healthy author’s note because there are so many questions at the end about the real people.
Jenny Wheeler: It struck me when I read that author’s note that one of those names was also the person who enlisted Virginia Lake in The Invisible Woman, wasn’t he? There is quite a weird and almost creepy link there.
Erika Robuck: Yes. There were so many links and intersections that I didn’t even know about. One of the trains that was taking the agents out had some of the agents from the previous novel, from Virginia Hall’s work. One of Violette’s partners, Clement, was one of the men that Virginia Hall was able to get out of jail in Lyons, so there were all these intersecting stories.
Threading fact and fiction
Jenny Wheeler: With historical fiction – we move on to that question about the intersection of real life and fiction. Obviously there are some areas where you must fictionalize. These aren’t non-fiction biographies, but how do you find your way through that maze of real life and fiction?
Erika Robuck: As you said, I’m not a biographer, so I have to look for the story elements that are going to lead to a character with a strong character arc, a climax, rising action, falling action, and I try to pinpoint an event or series of events that are really compelling in the life of these women and men.
What I basically do is read every little thing I can get my hands on. Throughout the process the pivotal event rises up and then I’m able to build the story around that. Then I make a timeline of everything that happened truly in history, and I start character lists. In these cases so many of the characters were operating in clandestine roles as spies, as resisters, so it was very difficult to nail them. But once I would find someone and realize, this code name is this real person, and make those connections, I knew I had a fully fleshed out character. The characters that rise to the top are the ones I know the most about.
There are so many characters in a network. It would be taxing for the reader to go from safe house to safe house, family to family, so whenever I do combine, merge, or choose one if there might be three, I make a note of that. I do try to remain as faithful to the true history as possible.
Meeting living relatives to flesh out story
Of course, I can’t know what they say so the dialogue is fictionalized. But I have read so much and I’ve done so much research that I think I have a pretty good idea of what they might have said to each other.
Jenny Wheeler: You mentioned in interviews around The Invisible Women that you got to meet one of Virginia’s nieces and that helped to flesh out for you what Virginia might have been like. I guess one of the things you’re doing is giving them an emotional narrative. You’re imagining what they would be feeling at various times. Finding someone like a niece probably helped with that a lot. Tell us about that meeting.
Erika Robuck: For Virginia Hall, which was for The Invisible Woman, her niece lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and I live very nearby so I was able to go to a series of lunches with her. The first time I visited her house, she brought out an enormous box of photographs of her aunt Virginia Hall from childhood until she was an old woman.
These are pictures that weren’t anywhere. They weren’t in any biography I’d seen so having access to those started to color in the pencil sketches that I had come with. How she spoke about her aunt, the things she would say, her pet name, she called her Dindy which is funny because Virginia Hall was a woman of steel. It is amusing that someone had a pet name for her. She was a little bit harder for me to connect with, so that was what really did it for me.
Virginia Hall beat the odds with her life
The other women, Virginia Lake and Violette Szabo in Sisters of Night and Fog, were far more warm, relatable, and open, so a lot of the interviews did reveal quite a bit. In that case, I was able to do phone interviews with one of the children of one of the women, and that again brought her to life for me. It was a real blessing to be able to speak to that child.
Jenny Wheeler: Are you able to say whose child that was?
Erika Robuck: If I do, it’s a little bit of a spoiler.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes of course. I understand. The Invisible Woman, Virginia Hall, also had an amazing story. She was the least likely person to be able to carry out the things she did because she had a serious injury. Tell us about where she started from.
Erika Robuck: Virginia Hall grew up in Maryland. Her family lived in the city of Baltimore, but in the summers they had a country house where she learned to do her hiking, canoeing and shooting. She had her father’s shotgun when she was stationed in Turkey, in Izmir at the time. She was out hunting with friends and just wasn’t careful. She hopped over a fence while her gun was locked and loaded and accidentally shot off her foot, which resulted in her ending up with a partial amputation and then eventually a prosthetic leg that she named Cuthbert.
A dire accident that threatened the future
When she was in the hospital in Turkey she was going to kill herself because Virginia Hall was the captain of every team, the editor of every paper, the lead of every play. She did whatever she wanted. She went wherever she wanted, and her athleticism was a huge part of who she was.
She thought her life was over when that happened. But she had a mystical vision of her dad, some kind of dream or vision. Her father had died a few years earlier and he told her that was not who she was. It was not what she was made for and that she needed to press on. So she did. I really believe, in hindsight, that everything she endured and the stubbornness and the will to learn how to use a very clunky prosthetic so well that many people didn’t even know she had it after a certain amount of time – gave her the determination she needed to go on to fight Nazis and quite literally scale mountains.
Jenny Wheeler: She became Marie of Lyon and she was the bane of the Nazi’s existence, wasn’t she? She’s operating behind enemy lines. She’s got this prosthetic foot. It’s unbelievable when you try and grasp it. I know I would consider it definitely an excuse to not have to get so engaged.
Erika Robuck: Same. The courage of all these women. For me, I feel like if I see the ball of fire, I’m going to run in the other direction. So many of these women are wired to run toward it, to see what they can do to help. It’s a fascinating study to me.
Hemingway’s Girl and other literary wives
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. Perhaps we could move on to talk a little about some of your other books. The thing that distinguishes them from these books – and you have made that point – is that these women were very much the agents of their own lives. Some of the previous woman you’ve written about were famous because they were married to famous men.
A lot of those were literary men. People like Ernest Hemingway’s second wife Pauline, that’s Hemingway’s Girl. You also have done books on Zelda Fitzgerald, Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife. Tell us a bit about these women who lived in the shades of their very famous husbands. What was it like writing about them?
Erika Robuck: It all started with a tour through the house in Key West, Florida of Hemingway’s home and grounds. We were visiting my husband’s cousin in the Coast Guard down there, and I just happened to do the side trip because I’ve loved the work of Ernest Hemingway for a long time.
I took a class in college and I fell in love. I think you either love him or you hate him in real life or in literature, and I love him, against my better judgment. We went on that house tour. I could so vividly see everything happening in the 1930s. It was like a movie playing before my eyes, and that’s when I came home and had the dream about him.
Stories of women lost in the shadows
I was writing about a time and a place that was a place of great fascination to me, and a person. It went from there. As I’m researching the Hemingways I came across a lot about the Fitzgeralds. The Fitzgeralds were in Baltimore for a time and as I mentioned, I live near Baltimore, so then I moved to that part of their lives, and one thing led to the other.
I was writing about women in the shadows of men for quite a while. I started to write another one of those books. I was writing about Bram Stoker – who wrote Dracula – his wife Florence, and there was a bit of a love triangle with Oscar Wilde, interestingly enough. It wasn’t getting picked up. Nobody wanted it. An editor finally pulled me aside and said, the market does not want any more Mrs. Books at the moment. We want a book about a woman who’s strong in her own right. I thought that was really interesting and valuable advice.
That was around the time I started to shift my focus to these other women from history who did things besides being the wife of a famous writer and even inspiring them or inspiring the work. That is when I found Virginia Hall and finding her led to these other women so it opened up a whole new direction for me. I’m still exploring those shadows of history, but in a different way.
The magic way the creative mind works
Jenny Wheeler: I’m interested in your dream. Why did Hemingway particularly seem to want you to do the book?
Erika Robuck: I was working on a follow up to a book I’d self-published, but I kept reading things about Key West in the 30s, so I was having an internal struggle. Do I continue writing the sequel to a book that nobody cares about or do I shift focus to something that’s more commercial?
That’s when I had the dream. I don’t think Ernest Hemingway picked me out of all the millions of writers, but I was personally trying to decide between two books and I had a dream and he helped me decide in the dream.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. Why do you think World War II fiction is so incredibly popular at the moment and has it got some resonance with us as 21st century readers?
Erika Robuck: Over the past two months, my answer to this has changed dramatically, but it’s always going to be relevant because the stakes are high. It was a world war, so in every single corner of the world you turn to, there was a different battle being fought in a different way. And because it’s been more than 75 years, files are being declassified.
Why WWII fiction resonates today
We’re learning so much about these women and men. Many of them have died or are dying, and so their children now can talk about their stories where before a lot of people didn’t want to talk about it. That’s going on on one side. Also I think until recently it was the last cut and dried, clear cut good guys/bad guys kind of thing, so everybody of good faith was certainly rooting against Nazis and trying to fight that.
I think that’s why it makes such compelling and interesting fiction. Readers want to say, what would I do? It puts that in there, amid stories of great heroism. Then of course, over the last two months we see that it’s sadly relevant because of what’s going on in Ukraine.
Since the Dawn of time we are on this wheel and we can’t get off it, so there are always going to be these stories of war, but where there are stories of war, then there are stories of courage. They inspire us.
Erika Robuck as reader – her favs now
Jenny Wheeler: We are coming to the end of our time together, so turning to Erika as reader. We always like to ask our authors about their own reading because the Binge Reading podcast is a little bit about books we might like to take on after the show.
I often like, as with you, to have multi-published authors so that if they discover one they like, they can go back and read the whole back list. I imagine you’ve been a passionate reader your whole life from the way you talk. Tell us about your own reading tastes and what you’d recommend right now.
Erika Robuck: I’m an avid reader. I’m usually reading about a dozen books on an obscure topic that I’m researching at one time. I’m always reading a spiritual book and I’m reading for fun, for fiction, and then I’m reading blurbs. I am reading constantly. I have my list ready to go.
I just finished The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel, which is a World War II novel. It’s almost like a Hunger Games a survival story set in the wilds of Poland and Germany. It is such an interesting, almost mystical take on a young woman in World War II. Absolutely astonishing story.
And more favorite books from Erika
Another World War II is The Last Checkmate by Gabriella Saab, which is set in Auschwitz where a young woman is forced to play chess with a Nazi. It’s powerful and moving. Even though it’s set in a concentration camp, I don’t want readers to say, oh, I don’t want to read that. There’s so much courage and hope within this setting that it’s not ever too much. It’s true and it’s hard to read, but it’s really inspiring. That is one I would absolutely recommend.
There are a few coming out very soon. One is That Summer in Berlin by Lecia Cornwall about a young woman who spies for the Allies while she’s at the Olympic Games in Berlin. It’s terrifying. You don’t breathe the whole time you read it, and it is so phenomenally good.
Then back in time a little bit, A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen is about Lady Duff-Gordon, who was really the woman who invented fashion as we know it – fashion with runways and seasons and things like that. She was a single mother at the turn of the century. She ended up marrying another man. She ended up on the Titanic, so hers is a story that touches all of these interesting places in history. She is so plucky and spunky, you just want to go wherever she does.
Jenny Wheeler: They all sound fabulous.
Looking back down the tunnel of time…
This is also a question I always like to ask because it’s so interesting to hear the answers. Looking back down the tunnel of time, if you were having your creative career over again, if you were starting it out, is there anything you would change as you look back older and wiser?
Erika Robuck: One thing I wish could be different is that I can’t always write exactly what I want because the market doesn’t always want what I have on my plate. I do wish that there were a few more hours in the day so that I could also be writing something I completely want to write, to be honest with you.
For example, one of the books nobody wanted – and all writers, whether they admit it or not, have lots of these books in the drawer – was a book I was working on about the legends of Mary Magdalene. I am so fascinated by biblical historical women, and I keep getting told that people are not interested in that. I don’t actually believe it, but what I do think is it’s not for now, but later I want to get into it.
So I wish, if there was ever any time I could have siphoned, that I would have kept working on the biblical story of historical women, so that I had it ready to go whenever the market is ready.
Jenny Wheeler: That sounds wonderful. Someone like Francine Rivers has managed to make a huge career out of that, but I guess it is a slightly more niche market, isn’t it?
Balancing trad and indie publishing
Erika Robuck: It is. Yes.
Jenny Wheeler: You could always look at self-publishing those.
Erika Robuck: I have self-published two novels, so yes. I just need to find that extra time in the day to have these things running concurrently.
Jenny Wheeler: What is next for Erika the author over the next 12 months?
Erika Robuck: I have found two remarkable women in history whose stories collide in a new and interesting way in a different time period from World War II. I am so fired up about it, but I can’t talk about it yet.
Jenny Wheeler: Is your publisher considering it marketable?
What Erika Robuck is working on now
Erika Robuck: I haven’t formally proposed it yet. I have to write three chapters or 50 pages with a synopsis to get it going. Right now I’m in the research phase. I have fallen in love. I’m working on my timelines. That’s where I am.
Jenny Wheeler: How long does it take you to write a book once you’ve got yourself set up?
Erika Robuck: About a year for my first draft. There is a lot of research that leads up to it and then ongoing, but usually that first draft is about a year. Once I have a good chunk of the story, so if I get 50 pages and a synopsis, then I know whether I’m off to the races or not. Usually you can find out within that time if what you’re trying to make work is going to work or not.
Jenny Wheeler: You do a lot of work before you even get the tick from the publisher.
Erika Robuck: Oh yes, absolutely.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you enjoy interacting with your readers and where can they find you online?
Erika Robuck: I do. I’m mostly online on Facebook and Instagram. Instagram it’s ERobuck Author and Facebook it’s Erika Robuck. I have an author page there. When I’m in person or I have virtual events, I post those on my websites, on my social media accounts.
I just wrapped up an in-person book tour, which is obviously the first time I’ve been able to do that in years. It was such a joy to be able to interact with readers in person again, and booksellers. It was very special. Something I will not take for granted ever again.
What’s next on Binge Reading
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful, Erika. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been fantastic talking.
Erika Robuck: Thank you, Jenny.
If you enjoyed Erika you might also enjoy Meg Waite Clayton’s The Postmistress of Paris..
Next Week on Binge Reading
New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe teams with and journalist and author Anderson Cooper to chronicle the rise and fall of a legendary American dynasty—Anderson’s family, the Vanderbilts.
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