To mark the publication of The Lands of de Gressier, the first novel in an epic multi-generational family saga and one of 2021’s ‘must-reads’, we ask author C. S. Bunker to share 10 facts that readers should know about him.
1. I wrote because I had a story to tell.
In 1992 I went to Moldova to carry out a feasibility study on the privatisation of the Moldovan wine industry. Moldova then produced more wine than France and Italy put together. The Berlin Wall had come down, and the country was coming out from underneath the yoke of communism. Gangsterism and corruption were rife. The same year I was in Bordeaux, France on holiday visiting vineyards when, by chance, I learned how the Nazis, and their sympathisers within the French police force, had dealt with those that opposed them during the Occupation. This led me to think about the harm caused by corruption, its different forms and the similarities between Bordeaux in 1942 and Moldova in 1992. It set the tenet for the story I wanted to tell and the message I wanted to convey. It was when my son wrote a song called ‘Hero’, which told of a pilot wishing to be a hero for the woman he loved, that I found the mechanism to link the history of these two countries through a series of intertwined love stories.
2. It took me over twenty years to write my family saga.
When I set out to write, I had a four-book multigenerational family saga in my mind. I originally started writing The Lands of de Gressier with a prologue which was going to be similar to the last chapter in the final book in the series. This was because I knew how the story was going to end before I knew how it would start. It meant I could not think about publishing The Lands of de Gressier until the whole series was finished. I needed to make sure that there were no missing or loose connections. I was subsequently persuaded that the prologue was a bad idea, so it got abandoned. Perhaps, I need not have waited until I had finished all books before I thought about publishing the first.
3. I found the task of writing a multigenerational family saga similar to creating an intricate crossword – at the same time as playing snakes and ladders on a family tree.
Beta readers of my four books have kindly described them as “very clever”, “well crafted”, with “interesting plots and subplots” and “beautifully intermingled stories” – to quote but a few. To garner such feedback took an Excel spreadsheet with over 55 columns and 169 rows to control more than 100 years of relationships between the main characters and tie them into events of history. It is because of the complexities of the family relationships, and the revelations which come later in the series, that I decided to include a family tree at the front of each book. Each family tree builds on the family tree in the previous book as the story is told.
4. I am badly dyslexic.
At school, I sat at the bottom of the bottom form and only managed to get three GCSEs in 33 attempts. I was criticised repeatedly for being both stupid and careless. At the age of 55, I discovered I was badly dyslexic. It was a diagnosis which was to throw light on a lifetime of problems. In my case, words skip around on the line when I try to read them, especially when reading out loud. I read what I think should be on the page and not always what is there, and spelling is a nightmare.
Luckily, I was supported throughout my professional career with a series of wonderful assistants, and they helped me in the early stages of writing my books. In the latter years, technology came to my aid with software like Grammarly and the spellchecker facility on Microsoft Word. Also, I used the read-out-loud facility on Word to playback what I had actually written, and not what I thought I had written. It meant I could hear my mistakes.
All high-performing dyslexics have to create their own coping mechanisms which often makes them out-of-the-box thinkers and good problem-solvers. Perhaps, it is my dyslexia which enabled me to create such a complex and engaging series of stories.
5. I was arrested for attempted skyjacking in Moldova.
It was dangerous for western European business people to be out and about by themselves in Moldova in the early 1990s. If you took a taxi ride, you could find yourself dumped at the edge of the city dispossessed of your money and personal objects. For this reason, when I saw a pepper spray for sale in a petrol station in the USA I thought it was a wise purchase to protect me against such possible attack the next time I was in Moldova. The pepper spray travelled in my suitcase through numerous airport checks in the USA and Europe without incident. When I came to leave Moldova, with my pepper spray lying innocently in my briefcase, it was discovered. I was arrested at gunpoint for ‘attempted skyjacking’. Given my treatment, it seemed reasonable to expect a long term of imprisonment in a Moldovan jail; not the best of outlooks. Luckily, the officer in charge offered me the chance to buy an export licence for the pepper spray. Even luckier, the purchase price for the export license was the equivalent to all the money I had in my possession, in all currencies, less ten dollars which I was allowed to keep. Needless to say, the returned pepper spray quickly found its way into the nearest airport wastepaper bin.
6. My grandfather won the Military Medal in 1918, and this was a strong influence in my story.
My grandfather won the Military Medal in March 1918. Luckily, I have both the medal and the citation which recorded his bravery. It was won at the time of the Spring Offensive when the Germans launched a massive attack on Allied lines. He was part of a Lewis machine gun team when his sergeant was hit. He took control of the gun, doing significant damage to the enemy, until he was ordered to retreat. His citation aroused my interest in the history of World War 1. It enabled me to do the research necessary to visit his battlefield and follow his war. The Battle of Célieux Ridge, referred to in The Lands of De Gressier, takes place in the same area of France where he fought.
7. I am the proprietor of the famous Orchard Tea Rooms in Grantchester.
I am the proprietor of The Orchard Tea Rooms in Grantchester which is a short walk, or punt trip, away from the bustle of Cambridge, where it has been an essential part of the city's life for over 120 years. The Orchard is renowned for the large number of famous people who have relaxed there over morning coffee, a light lunch, or afternoon tea. These include many literary names such as Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, A.E. Housman, Ted Hughes, D.H. Lawrence, and Sir John Betjeman. Other well-known alumni include Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and Prince Charles, to name but a few. Our next-door neighbour is the best-selling novelist Jeffrey Archer. Of course, with such a connection, the Orchard had to be included in my novel. So, at an early stage in The Lands of de Gressier, my heroine takes a long contemplative walk from Girton College to the Tea Rooms as she considers her future.
8. My grandmother's cousin was Alfred Hitchcock.
My writing style is to write in fairly short descriptive chapters as though it were a scene in a movie. Perhaps it is because my grandmother's cousin was celebrated film director Alfred Hitchcock, and thus it is in my gene pool, that my writing has been described as “filmic”. However, it is more likely to be because, when I first started to write, I was heavily into my career as a corporate financier. I used the spare time I had on long plane journeys, waiting in airport lounges, or when wide awake in a hotel bedroom unable to sleep because of jet lag, to write. These made me write in distinct, often disjointed scenes. It was only later that these separate scenes were grafted together to make the book, very much in the same way a film is made.
9. I have visited everywhere I have written about.
I have tried to be quite meticulous in my research. I have visited almost everywhere, and in some instances, I have got to know quite well the places I have written about. When I wrote of the Battle of Verdun, and the Voie Sacrée (“Sacred Way”) in France, I did so with veracity because I had travelled that road. When I wrote of launching a canoe into the Garonne, I was able to capture the essence of what was happening because I had stood at its edge. When I wrote of passers helping downed English airmen get across Ligné from occupied France into Vichy France during World War 2, I did so in the knowledge of visiting many of the crossing points. I did all of this to give my books an authenticity which can easily be lacking from a novel.
10. I wouldn't have started publishing if I had known how hard it would be to get published.
In my opinion, the traditional publishing industry has become myopic. It has no interest in a trilogy, let alone a quartet of books, and certainly not books of four or five hundred pages. They want the first book to be of 80,000 to 100,000 words, and only after the first book is a success would they contemplate publishing an author's second book. Further, they are not looking for 'stories' but 'voices': the voice of a victim, a survivor, or celebrity. Access to publishers is primarily through agents who, because of the income stream derived from their back catalogue, have little incentive to find new writers. In fact, because of this lucrative annuity income stream, many agents' businesses have, over the last few years, been acquired and consolidated into fewer, bigger players. This has reduced the chances of a new author finding an agent and thus a publisher. It is only when you discover that the script you have slaved over and submitted to an agent is thrown into their slush pile, mostly without acknowledgement, do you begin to realise how little regard the traditional publishing industry has for possible new talent. Thankfully, self-publishing, and the new print-on-demand technologies, means that determined authors now have a mechanism for circumventing the publishing luddites and finding their readership. Something which was not available when I first put pen to paper 20 years ago.