About the author:
Catherine Law was born in Harrow, Middlesex in 1965 and has been a journalist for twenty-two years, having trained first as a secretary at the BBC and then attending the London
College of Printing. She now works on a glossy interiors magazine and lives in Buckinghamshire.
The story behind the story
My first published novel A Season of Leaves (to be re-issued on 6 October 2016 as an e-book with the new title The Secret Letters) is based on the adventures of my great-auntie Ginge during and after the
Second World War. I first heard her story when I was a child but it wasn’t until years later, after a decade of trying to get a novel published, that I decided to write a book inspired by it. But, as incredible as Ginge’s story is, I felt that
I had to embroider the truth, add characters and change locations to create a better story arc. And I learnt many lessons about novel writing along the way.
Ginge was something of a legend in my family. During the war, while working as a Land Girl,
she met and married Czech soldier Jan Chlebek, who was based nearby. After his enforced return to his homeland once peace was declared, she left on one of the first trains to travel across Europe to be reunited with him in Prague. However, as a captain in
the Czech army and a supposed enemy of Socialism, Jan soon became a target for the new Communist government and it became imperative for them to return to England. Ginge packed a suitcase as if she was going on holiday so as not to arouse suspicion, taking
her two young sons with her. Jan, meanwhile, escaped via a different route and threw himself off a moving train to make it to a refugee camp in Vienna. They were reunited in England months later.
For A Season of Leaves, my main character is
Rose Pepper, (who, like my great-auntie, has lovely red hair) and I cheekily gave her the nickname ‘Ginge’. Rose, like Ginge before her, is a Land Girl, and she meets her own Czech soldier, Krystof, at a village hall dance. But, my Rose is already
engaged to the completely fictitious and quite menacing Will Bowman, who, as the book’s villain builds up the tension and drama.
For my novel, I singled out critical events in the true story: Ginge’s journey to Prague across war-ravaged
Europe, the hardships and tensions of post-war Czechoslovakia, and Jan hiding his gun in his coat pocket and calmly handing it over to Ginge while he is being arrested at Prague station. For me, these episodes were the most thrilling and most emotional to
The real Ginge and Jan met in the countryside near Northampton. However, as sentimental and fond as I feel about this Midlands town (it is where both my parents grew up), I relocated Rose and Krystof’s story to Cornwall - another place
I know and love. The windswept cliffs, crashing waves and pretty fishing villages seemed to lend themselves far better to a sweeping romantic novel.
Once Ginge and Jan settled back in England, Jan anglicised his name to John Charlton but sadly died
in 1965. Ginge (Gertrude Elizabeth Charlton nee Robinson) passed away in November 2007 at the age of 94, knowing that she and Jan were the inspiration behind my novel. The sentiment and the romance of A Season of Leaves/The Secret Letters belongs
to the spirited and no-nonsense Ginge who, in the face of dreadful danger and uncertainty, followed her dream.