We caught up with Simon to hear more about his new book and what it was like to write about a war that differed so drastically to what he has previously written.
Can you tell us a little about where Hearts of Stone is primarily set?
The main setting of Hearts of Stone is the Greek island of Lefkas. I actually didn’t have any intention of writing this novel until I went to Lefkas on a research trip for a totally different book. It was while I was on a boat trip to Ithaca that I came across a plaque on a cliff above the small bay of this port on this Greek island, which said something like ‘In August 1942 the Royal Hellenic navy attacked a German U-boat in this bay’. And it was a very weird feeling, as this was the most peaceful, serene setting you could imagine, and yet there was this shadow of the Second World War, and one of the tiny ripples of this global conflict happened in this particular bay.
Over the course of this research trip I came across other stories of what had happened on the island during the Second World War, and I began to put the pieces together. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the Ionian Islands – they are a fabulous setting, and it is so hard to imagine them as a war zone; that is how my interest in the story began. It was simply that clash between the peaceful aspect of the present and what would have been pretty horrific events in the past. As we know from the history books, Greece was badly affected by the Second World War. We are talking about a country where a quarter of a million people starved to death under the German occupation, so there were some fairly horrific stories to learn about, and it was an opportunity to remind people of that history. We often wander through this world without much awareness about what happened before we were there, and Hearts of Stone is an opportunity to allow the past to ‘live’ in the present.
This is a very different book to your Roman novels – how different was the writing experience?
It is a very different novel to the Roman ones I’m usually associated with because it’s dealing with a different time period. I’m used to writing about great big hairy blokes with swords and all of a sudden I was writing about female as well as male partisans armed with knives and guns. Hearts of Stone has a progressive closing-in of the action. We start off with Andreas as a navy officer on a submarine, firing torpedoes at ships from a distance, and then he gets in to his first fire fight, shooting actual people, and then eventually there is hand-to-hand combat.
What I’m trying to show is that, however sophisticated war may seem to have become, ultimately it’s the same drive as throughout history that people need in order to survive. Yes, in the Second World War there was a greater breadth of weaponry available, but the same human concerns, when it comes to conflict, were at the heart of the fighting as in the Roman books.