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English teacher Paul Nolan left the classroom behind to write historical fiction. He lives near Winchester with his wife and two sons.
Paul says: “Whilst researching a history lesson on the Dunkirk evacuations, I stumbled upon the amazing story of Charles Lightoller, the most senior surviving crewmember of the Titanic. Many had labeled him as a coward, and over the years that followed he was racked by guilt. This story of redemption really resonated with the children I was teaching. It inspired the idea of a WW 1 Conscientious Objector, restoring his reputation by assisting in the Dunkirk evacuation. I wanted the story to be told through the eyes of a child and that’s where Charlie Jones (the central character in of Demons of Dunkirk) comes in."
A Q&A with Paul Nolan
What inspired you to become a writer?
Once upon a time, my parents gave me a magical card that allowed me to walk out of a building carrying a bundle of books. Those library books took me to faraway places and on some of my greatest adventures. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to write stories so that other children can feel as once did (and still do).
How did you go from teacher to writer?
That’s a question I’m often asked! Usually by teachers! I’ve read some great books to my classes over the years but I’ve also read some poor ones. I found myself changing the words and even the story on occasions. I was found out once when a pupil read the book himself. It was ok though – he said he much preferred my version! Also, I have sat in school halls and been inspired by author’s life stories. I vowed that one day I’d be doing the same! I’m still teaching to this day but my metamorphosis from teacher to author is almost complete.
What’s your favourite children’s book?
There are many. I discovered the Narnia stories when I was about 8 and they, more than any other, hooked me onto books. The first book I read as a teacher was ‘The Butterfly Lion’ by Michael Morpurgo. I remember struggling to read the climax as a lump the size of a tennis ball was wedged in my throat and tears were welling in my eyes. Hayfever – I told my class. In October! Books that stir the emotions like that one, you never forget.
In my first year of teaching, the Head teacher gathered all the children in the hall at Christmas and read ‘Fairs Fair’ by Leon Garfield. I sat there amused, as he put on his cockney accent. But the children weren’t amused – they were transfixed. Every year since, I have read the book to large groups of children. It’s brilliant – it sums up Christmas perfectly. It also allows me to put my North London accent to good use.
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
I love the idea of someone reading my words. To know that someone is choosing to use his or her time to read your story is very gratifying.
You write historical fiction. Why’s that?
I love History – it’s almost as simple as that. I think we have a duty to pass on the events of the past to future generations. In my books, I research the specific time and events for months and then build a story around them. Hopefully, my readers will enjoy the story and be informed of real-life events at the same time!
What made you write your new book?
I had a burning desire to make sure that more people (adults and children) knew about the Dunkirk heroes. When I introduced the evacuation to the Year 6 children, so few of them even knew of it. I thought that was tragic and I wanted to put that right. We listened to a radio interview of a man who skippered one of the ‘Little Ships’. At the end a pin fell off my desk and I heard it! His story had everything. It gave me the inspiration to write ‘Demons of Dunkirk’. It’s the 75th anniversary this summer and I thought it the perfect time to write the book.
Where’s your favourite place in the world?
My ideal day is to explore on foot, a city steeped in history, sticking my nose into museums and buildings. I love turning a corner to face an amazing building or ancient ruins. London takes some beating; Rome comes a close second! Standing on the beaches of Normandy and Dunkirk is surreal. To see children building sandcastles on the very spot where troops fought and fell is quite emotional.
What’s your ambition?
To write more books! I have so many ideas for more stories, I just wish I could pause time so I can write them before someone else does! I can only write one book at a time. I’m the same with T.V. programmes: I have to wait until the end of a series and then watch all the episodes back-to-back and not get distracted by other series! Silly – I know!
This is an unputdownable adventure story woven around the evacuation at Dunkirk and then the D-Day landings but from a different angle in that the boy in the story is a conscientious objector but can the help he brings to Dunkirk lay his demons to rest? Packed with historical facts but written as fiction this is a great aid to pupils studying WW2 but also a thrilling read and a crucial reminder to children today of what their ancestors did in preventing what would have resulted in an entirely different country had the UK been invaded by the Nazis. A message from the author, primary school teacher Paul Nolan : “Whilst researching a history lesson on the Dunkirk evacuations, I stumbled upon the amazing story of Charles Lightoller, the most senior surviving crew member of the Titanic. Many had labeled him as a coward, and over the years that followed he was racked by guilt. This story of redemption really resonated with the children I was teaching. It inspired the idea of a WW 1 Conscientious Objector, restoring his reputation by assisting in the Dunkirk evacuation. I wanted the story to be told through the eyes of a child and that’s where Charlie Jones (the central character in Demons of Dunkirk) comes in.'