Everyone welcome Anthony Hill, Australian author of Young Digger, a young adult novel set in 1918 at the end of First World War. Young Digger is the fictionalized story of a small orphan boy, Digger, who wandered into the Australian airmen’s camp in Germany on Christmas Day. The novel tells the story of how Digger became the airmen’s mascot and of his journey home with them to Australia.
1. Hello Anthony. Welcome, and thank you for taking the time (all the way from Australia!) to stop by Damsels in Regress to talk with us. I was fascinated with this story. I’d never heard of anything like it. I know most of this novel is based on factual information you gathered. How long did it take you to do the research before you could start writing Digger’s story?
It took about a year to complete the initial research before starting to write Digger’s story, including interviews with his two surviving adoptive sisters, Nancy and Edie. I also visited England and Europe, where I traced the route home from Cologne in Germany, through Belgium, to Le Havre in France where the troops smuggled Digger on board the ship for England in 1919. It is important for me to see the landscapes I am writing about – to get the sense of smell, touch and sounds of place – in order to bring my story alive for the reader. It was another year to write the book, during which the research continues on particular facts and issues as they arise during the composition.
2. I know you interviewed many people, including Tim Trovell (one of the main characters in the book). Was there any one interview that really stood out to you?
The interviews I did with Tim’s eldest daughter Nancy have stayed in my mind. She was 13 when Tim arrived home with the war orphan boy. She could remember what he looked like, what he sounded like, his mannerisms and nature. No one else could do that. For Edie, Digger was always her big brother, but she was only three or four when he left for Melbourne, and thus has only faint memories of the person … although his presence is very strong. Our interview was very emotional. She is deeply attached to the memory of both Digger and her father. Tim Tovell died in 1966.
3. Most historical authors aren’t so lucky as to be able to interview someone who was actually a part of their story. What was it like hearing the stories of Digger from a firsthand account?
Talking to Edie and Nancy brought Digger very much alive for me, and I hope I was able to convey something of that to the reader. For instance, Nancy said that Digger didn’t speak with a French accent. He sounded much like everyone else – the result of being with British soldiers and then the Australian airmen, from a young age. The only times Nancy knew he was different, for example, was if he accidentally hit his thumb with a hammer. Then all these French swear words would suddenly come tumbling out … and she had no idea what they meant, or indeed where they came from! Nancy died several years ago, but Edie is still alive. She spoke wonderfully when they dedicated Digger’s new grave in Melbourne in 2009.
4. I loved the photos you were able to include in the book. They made the story that much more real and I must have gone back multiple times and looked over the pictures as I was reading. Did you always plan to include them in the novel? Were there any you couldn’t include (for copyright or other reasons) that you wanted to?
Members of the Tovell family from the beginning were most generous in making copies of Tim’s photographs, letters, notebooks etc available to me. The Australian War Memorial in Canberra, where I live, has a wonderful collection of photographs and material which authors are able to use for a modest reproduction and publication fee. We’d always planned to use these photos – they help bring the story alive for the reader. The only pity was that we couldn’t use more.
5. The details in the novel were wonderful. It was the little things like the men stopping in Mons because they couldn’t travel on Sunday and Digger attending church there that really added to story and made me feel like I was in 1918 with the airmen. Did you have to invent most of these, or were you able to take them from information you’d found in your research and interviews?
As far as possible the external facts of my books are as accurate as I can make them. I never alter the facts to suit my story. It’s always the other way round. But of course there are gaps in the record that I can only fill by making assumptions. The squadron war diary tells us they did stop at Mons because travel on Sunday was not permitted. As an author I thought this would be a good place in the book to pause and to tell Digger’s backstory, before continuing with the tale. The cemetery at Mons is as lovely and moving as I wrote, and having visited the city I wanted to included the story of the Angel of Mons. Thus the visit to the cemetery, Digger’s emotional breakdown (although he did have flashbacks), and the restaurant meal are imagined as literary devices, as made clear in the Endnotes.
6. I recently wrote a novel based on real events, and I found that I had to alter the story. I know that your novel is largely a true recount of Digger’s story, but you did have to add fictional elements. Was it hard for you to fictionalize the story? Did you resist at first, or where you always open to it?
As mentioned, I never alter the external facts of my story where they are known. I have to alter my story to suit the facts. The internals, of course, such as thought, speech and emotion can only come from myself, and that has always been so. There are several versions of Digger’s story; and where there were discrepancies I usually adopted the version told by Tim Tovell, as he was closest to the boy and knew his story by far the best. Official documents held in the archives also provide invaluable sources of information and confirmation of known facts. Where I do have to make assumptions or use imagined literary devices, I always say so. It’s why the References and Endnotes are so important to let the reader know the distinction in my historical books between fact and fiction.
7. I know I get attached to certain scenes in my novels that end up getting cut. Was there any one particular scene that you especially loved but didn’t make it into the final novel?
Yes, sometimes things have to be changed that one later regrets. Not so with Young Digger. Of all my books it is the one that has stayed longest in my mind. It’s the father in me: I want to see the boy safe … I want to get him home. There were some changes for the better during the editing. I always wanted to start the book with Digger approaching the airmen on Christmas Day; but my editor, who is a very wise woman, thought it should begin closer to home. After some resistance and two false attempts, I began with the troops arriving at Fremantle in Australia. It enabled me to play out the whole game of taking Digger ashore, buying his civilian suit, pretending he was the Premier’s son to get him back on board, and elaborate on the problem of how to let the boy stay in Australia. It recurs as a long sequence throughout the book. In the first version such matters were treated pretty cursorily. Now I think the novel has much greater depth and enrichment. A circular structure, where one ends roughly where one begins, is by far the most satisfying for both the writer and reader.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with the Damsels today! We really appreciate it! Take a month to go check out Anthony’s webpage. It’s full of facts, pictures and much more about Digger’s story!