Interview: WW2 podcast writer Anna Priestland
Anna Priestland is an Australian writer and producer of mostly crime and history non-fiction podcasts, including Letters of Love in WW2 and Crime+Investigation’s Murdertown. Having started as a passion, Anna soon found herself switching from a career in fashion design to working solely in writing. Anna now creates stories with the view to producing them in different ways across other mediums.
The correspondence that Letters of Love in WW2 is based on was originally a bundle of over 1000 pieces of correspondence between newlyweds Cyril and Olga Mowforth, written over six years during the Second World War. After they both passed away, the letters were found by their daughter Sue, who had them typed and printed as a book for the Mowforth family.
How did you first hear about the family’s letters?
I began working on the letters two years ago. I had been writing intensely about very heavy crimes for some time — murders mostly, and I was looking to use my skill for unravelling a mystery in a lighter way. Personally, I had been researching and writing about my own family history for years, piecing together journals, ship logs and diaries from my convict ancestors. I really love that method of piecing a story together so I went searching for a real person who had found lost letters that went on to change their life in some way. I found that Olga & Cyril's children; Sue and Pete had given a talk on finding their parent's letters at their local library, and so I reached out to them. We have been friends ever since.
What is it about the letters that made them jump out at you as special?
I had researched a few different stories around the world, but this one struck a chord with me because of the love story and knowing they went on to have children and how powerful this find must have been for the family. There was also the huge number of letters found, I could tell there would be threads I could isolate into something really powerful. When I went to England and met with Sue and Pete, they welcomed me into their family story in such a way it just felt right.
It's amazing to know that because of these hidden letters, Cyril & Olga's children and grandchildren were able to learn so much more about them, what they had gone through and the strength of their love for each other. Not only that, it also became a way they were able to understand themselves better and where they had come from — that is just so touching to me.
What’s your favourite letter, passage or quote?
One of my favourite things to evolve throughout the letters is Olga's strength. She was always assertive, but her sense of strength really grew with her over these years. Remembering that when they were first separated, she was only twenty-two years old, she lived her war while in a sense growing into adulthood. There are these 'coming of age' moments for Olga that ran alongside her as she faced her own troubles with the war.
Airmail Letter 231. 11 January 1944
What do you mean by saying – if there’s anything worth coming home to? It depends of course on what you’re looking for. If a wife, who still thinks you’re the world’s best guy and a nice home and all the things that go with it are what you’re looking for – then you have everything to come home to.
But naturally you will not find everything in England just as you left it. Four years of war changes people and things, even I, who have seen it daily, can see some of the changes but to you it may seem very different. Why, even I have changed in many ways – I’m conscious of that too, some of my interests have changed – for instance lately interest in music seems to override my active interest in politics; I still keep well ahead of affairs but music does seem to give a comfort that I’ve missed in other forms and in this comfort, I’ve developed a knowledge and love for it I never thought I could possess – but then I suppose I shall find you different in many ways too. I’m quite prepared for that because in spite of any changes I suppose we’ll still be Cyril and Olga.
Cheerio ducks xxx
What can you expect to learn from listening to the podcast?
I think you learn to appreciate life and I personally learned a lot about not sweating the small stuff. There is also a lesson in here about love transcending time and place. The crux of their love story is so relatable, even 75+ years on.an you expect to learn from listening to the podcast?
What’s your favourite thing you’ve learned about WW2 history while piecing the podcast together?
It was so interesting to learn how the war was not all action, it wasn't all battlefields and gunfire. I never really knew about the months and months of idleness and loss of hope, how so many where there questioning what it was all for. One of the things I was stunned to learn about Cyril — a moment I really had to sit with for a long time, was learning that he was with one of the first set of troops to liberate the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, something he barely mentions in the letters. Knowing what we now know about this event, it's clear that would have been something Cyril likely never got over. That is one of the parts of the Podcast series that shows that something virtually unsaid, carries so much weight.
Has working on Letters of Love in WW2 inspired you to look up your family’s involvement in the Second World War?
Absolutely. My grandfather on one side was in the Australian Air Force. My grandfather on the other side had left Italy for Australia before the war, only to be put into an internment camp with his father and other Italian's he had immigrated with.
What other podcasts have you worked on previously?
I started out in podcasting writing for Casefile: True Crime, since then I have written the podcast series Murdertown, to accompany the Crime+Investigation TV series, as well as continue my writing on They Walk Among Us (UK), The Vanished (USA), Canadian True Crime (CAN) and Court Junkie (USA). I also have quite a few new podcasts in my pipeline including writing my first fiction.
What’s the best thing about making podcasts?
Immersing people in a story. It is a really rich feeling to know that wherever your listeners are, you are able to take them to another place and time using only their ears. I love the fact that with Letters of Love in WW2, we were able to experiment and although it is non-fiction, we used actors (Amy Nuttall and Johny Pitts) in a really moving manner and without any narration at all. They portrayed Cyril and Olga in a way that a narrator would have never captured.
What’s next for you?
I've just begun writing the second season of Murdertown which was so much fun last year, working with Benjamin Fitton from They Walk Among Us and the A+E Networks UK team. I am also starting some TV projects which is really exciting too and I have lots of new podcast work that I am looking to find the right homes for. It's an exciting time to be in podcasting!