War & the Writer Part 4

In our final Remembrance feature, novelist Rebecca Mascull explains how an English lesson at school ignited her interest in war and literature…


In my three published novels, I’ve written about war in every one: the Boer War in The Visitors, the Seven Years War in Song of the Sea Maid and the Great War in my new book The Wild Air. I’m wondering why this is, what it is about war that keeps drawing me back. Sure, it has natural conflict, perfect for a novelist. It can inject pure drama into narrative, in which the costs are high and what is at stake is not only the lives of the characters, but in the case of the Great War for example, a feeling in this country particularly that all their futures are also hanging in the balance. 61rzpy9wtel-_sx323_bo1204203200_Beyond that, it’s about my fascination with the condition of war. As a fourteen-year-old English student, sitting in my classroom listening to ‘Brothers in Arms’ by Dire Straits, played by a particularly sensitive English teacher as we covered the great war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – I actually cried in that classroom, in front of my friends, and I didn’t care about embarrassing myself. I was so moved, so haunted by the futility of it all. I couldn’t bear the fact that Owen didn’t make it through the war.

Before The Visitors was published, I wrote a novel about the Holocaust (and I still hope it sees the light of day, one day). The seeds for that story went back to another seminal experience aged 15, when I saw a TV movie called Escape from Sobibor, about a real-life escape from a Nazi death camp. The worst part of the story for me was finding out what happened next, in those subtitles they sometimes put at the end of films. One of the main characters (played by lovely Alan Arkin) had been through hell in the camp and successfully managed to escape and run into the woods . The subtitles told me that this character in real life went back to his Polish village where he’d lived all his life, and just after the war ended was murdered by anti-semitic Poles in his own village. I was horrified. To have gone through all that, to have beaten the ultimate enemy – the Nazis – and survived to tell the tale, yet only months later, to have been killed by his own countrymen. It taught me a harsh and valuable lesson: that the end of war never means the end of war, that the aftermath is long-reaching and in some ways, for some countries and some individuals, it never ends. There are few aspects of the human experience that are so all-consuming, so dramatic and complex, so pitiful and heroic, as war. I can’t see myself tiring of writing about it any time soon.

The Wild Air is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 6 April 2017




Pull on Your Big Girl’s Plotting Pants!

Sarah Jasmon continues our series on Finding the Plot.

My agent asked me about book 2 some months before book 1 came out. I gave her an idea of what I wanted to write (based on one of the ideas I submitted when book 1 was commissioned). It was a kind of reworking of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying unfolding in pUnknown.jpegresent day Ireland as an elderly woman is driven from North to South in her coffin, to be buried in her birthplace. I still think it sounds brilliant, and one day I’ll write it. My agent, however, said that maybe I needed a bit more suspense.

So I went away and tried to add more suspense. The action moved to Derbyshire, and involved a marriage breakdown, an abandoned child and a dead grandmother in a freezer. My agent said, ‘too depressing’.

I went back to those submission ideas, and had a go at the second one. I very clearly recall a meeting with my agent and editor where they asked me what the plot was, I told them, and they said, ‘no, that’s a theme. What’s the plot?’ Again and again and again. I wanted to cry. I’d spent at least a month reading different books about plot, had followed the guidelines and filled in the boxes, and I still only had a theme! What more was I supposed to do?

It took another couple of months, a synopsis to which my editor replied, ‘I think you’re more of an organic writer, so maybe now you just need to start writing…’, a writing retreat during which the group loved the opening chapters but the reading of the third one led to a three quarter hour session of them telling me why it didn’t work anymore, and a week-long sulk in which I vowed never to write a-bloody-gain.

Then I pulled on my big girl pants, talked it all over with Graeme Shimmin (who knows plot) and came up with a plan. Which is still holding together. I’m off to meet the retreat writing group again at the end of November. I’m a little nervous, have to say,

Photo credit: Marc Melander

Photo credit: Marc Melander

but with any luck, they’ll think it’s turned out ok…

(Sarah Jasmon, Author of THE SUMMER OF SECRETS (Aug 2015, Black Swan)



War & the Writer Part 3

Why choose war as the backdrop for your novel? Prime Writers Kerry Drewery, Sarah Vaughan and Juliet West explain what drew them to write about conflict, and the impact of war on ‘ordinary’ lives…unknown


Kerry Drewery: “A Brighter Fear is set in Baghdad at the time of the 2003 invasion and follows teenager, Lina, as she struggles to survive, as her future is thrown into turmoil, and as she tries to find out what happened to her mother, who was taken by Saddam’s secret police. 51xpn4a-7wl-_ac_us160_The idea for the book came from the smallest thing: trying to come to terms with my own feelings about the UK going to war, and whether or not I agreed with it and the reasons we were being given. I spent a great deal of time looking into it and reading around it, and came to the conclusion that although what everyone thinks is important, what mattered most was what the people living it, those on the ground in Iraq, actually thought. But of course, that was incredibly varied! My own children were teenagers at the time, and I also started thinking about what it would be like to be at that stage of your life, with all your hopes and dreams for the future as you leave school, think of college, university, jobs, careers, etc, but to suddenly have it all taken away from you – and that was how my main character, Lina, came into being. This gave me the opportunity of really exploring what was happening, and really thinking about how the Iraqi people’s lives were changed. I was particularly careful never to take sides, never to show my opinion, but instead present it how I believed my character and her family would be experiencing it. I hope I got that right.”

Sarah Vaughan: “My latest novel, The Farm at the Edge of the World, features a time-slip story set in 1943-4. The Second World War fascinates me because those who lived through it were the last generation as a whole to have been truly brave. It’s also just within touching distance.

27Jan_FarmOnTheEdgeOfTheWorld-2I can remember my grandfather – a prisoner-of-war captured on Kos in 1941 – telling me briefly about his experience, and in researching this novel I was lucky enough to plunder the memories of nonagenarian and octogenarian farmers – all wartime farm boys in their teens.

Although my action occurs in Britain, and in rural Cornwall, the war is ever-present: felt, not just through the bombers that fly from the north Cornwall coast, or the uneasy awareness that those conscripted may never return, but more dramatically. The war allowed me to throw characters together who wouldn’t otherwise have met; to intensify emotions and to heighten the need for decisions at a time when the future was fraught with uncertainty. When the novel shifts briefly to London, in 1944, I used a real wartime event to devastating effect.

I started writing this novel soon after the deaths, at 95, of my elderly neighbour, an officer in the D-Day landings, and my grandmother, who worked in a munitions factory. Neither dwelt on the war but there would be casual references that made me realise I hadn’t a clue what they had experienced. This novel was written as a sort of apology to them, and an expression of my gratitude. None of us can know their quiet bravery but this is my attempt to imagine it.”

Juliet West: “Wars may be conceived and plotted in the corridors of power but it’s only by studying the impact on the ground – on the home front as well as on the battlefield – that I’m able to understand the true cost of conflict. I was drawn to write Before the Fall after coming across a dossier of archived documents relating to Annie Baker, a young soldier’s wife who fell in love with another man while her husband was away fighting during the First World War. before-the-fall-paperbackThe affair led to a murder trial and the tragic events that unfolded are still shocking to me. Annie’s name is not inscribed on any memorial; in 1918 and beyond, her name would have been remembered with a sense of shame, if at all. As we pause to honour the bravery of servicemen and women today, I’ll also be remembering Annie Baker and countless like her: the unspoken casualties of conflicts around the world.”



War & the Writer Part 2

As we commemorate Armistice Day, novelist Vanessa Lafaye looks back on the devastating fallout of the First World War – and the unseen enemy waiting in the wings…

With the cruelest of ironies, even as the Armistice bells were ringing in every town and village, another attack was under way. The enemy wore no uniform, was invisible to the eye, and was carried on the very air the troops breathed. It recognised no national allegiances, striking with deadly force at combatants from all nations, and civilians alike. Its victims—mostly the fit and the young—died in agony as their lungs dissolved, the only mercy the swiftness of their demise. The few, the lucky survivors of the combat, which had killed so many of their comrades, could feel well at breakfast time, and be dead by the evening. More American soldiers died of this than died in the fighting. Continue reading

War & the Writer, Part 1

second-world-war-refugees-001As Remembrance Sunday approaches, we’re asking why war and its aftermath continues to inspire novelists. In Part 1 of our ‘War & the Writer’ series, Prime Writers Katherine Clements, Jason Hewitt and Alison Layland share their insights, and discuss why the backdrop of war can make for compelling fiction.

“I ended up writing about the English Civil Wars by accident,” says Katherine Clements. “It was the extraordinary characters of the 17th century that first drew me to the history – Oliver Cromwell, Charles II and Matthew Hopkins, to name a few  – and then, in turn, to the politics. The more I read, the more fascinated I became by a period of British history that I knew very little about. At school we skipped from the Tudors to the Victorians, bypassing the fact that England had a revolution, and no one even talks about it!

The mid-17th century is a recognisably modern world but one where religion and superstition still held sway. I became utterly fascinated by the radical and revolutionary ideas that fuelled, and were a result of, years of turmoil in the 1640s; by the rapid expansion of an uncensored press; by early campaigners for women’s rights and the factions that tried to suppress them. It was a bloody war too, with repercussions that were felt for decades. I wanted to get all this, and more, into my first novel, The Crimson Ribbon, but had no idea what I was taking on.Crimson Ribbon HB.indd

Of course, periods of conflict and change are a natural draw for novelists; war gives us high stakes drama. From a historical point of view, they tell the stories of how nations were built, how our world was made. The years of the English Civil Wars and their aftermath gave us the roots of Parliamentary Democracy (topical right now, after the High Court ruling on Brexit), the beginnings of a free press, and a melting pot of radical political ideals, some of which still seems progressive today.”

“Novelists are ultimately drawn to personal stories,” writes Jason Hewitt, “the stories of the ‘individual’ placed against the backdrop of larger events. What initially lured me as a novelist to the Second World War was its sheer immensity: the fact that everyone living at the time was irrevocably changed by it. And ‘change’ provides a character arc for any story. The war, in its scale, also provides an endless source of material from which to create our stories. These combined with our endless quest to try to make sense of what happened – the factors that made ordinary humans like you and me carry out such atrocities – means that there is a seemingly insatiable thirst for stories about the period, and I can’t see any sign of that fading.51zn235rybl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

The difficulty comes in trying to find a fresh angle within the fictional landscape. With my debut The Dynamite Room one of my plot lines focused on the Norwegian campaign of April 1940, an arena of the war that I had previously known nothing about. With Devastation Road I again looked for a gap in my knowledge – the idea being that if I could find something about the war that was new to me then there was a fairly good chance that it would be new and interesting to readers too. This time I chose the days surrounding peace being declared in Europe. Not the VE Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square or any of the other traditional images we usually associate with the end of the war, but what was happening in the European heartlands, the fields and roads where the fighting had been taking place. Here any celebrations were muted. Instead there was confusion, bewilderment and chaos as aid workers and the military tried to deal with the ensuing humanitarian crisis. By the end of the war there were 11.5 million displaced people in Europe. Devastation Road is about three of them.”

Alison Layland says: “As I began to write Someone Else’s Conflict two things came together: a protagonist with a dark past, and a travel book I had recently translated on Croatia, with references that inspired me to find out more about the conflicts that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The Croatian war of independence became my character’s backstory and I set about thoroughly researching events which I remembered seeing on the news, but which I only superficially understood. Because I wasec-a-laylands writing about a conflict that, at the time of writing, had come to an end less than twenty years ago, I wanted to approach it sensitively and made sure the precise location and events I depicted were entirely fictional, though I believe true to what could have happened. I was also keen to examine the effects on ordinary people, and how the legacy of a conflict can be felt, directly and indirectly, down years and generations. Both at the time and since, the shocking events in neighbouring Bosnia-Hercegovina came to overshadow the war in Croatia. Although I wanted to draw attention to it, I did wonder at times whether I should be dragging up aspects of the recent past of a modern EU state that is very much looking to the future – a country I have grown to love. But history needs to be understood if it is to provide lessons for the present (although current events beg the question of how much we are actually capable of learning from the past), and the tragedy of the 1990s Balkan conflicts, the worst to be fought on European soil since the World Wars, should surely not be forgotten.”





The Last Days of Leda Grey, Essie Fox’s Fourth Novel Out Today from Orion Books

A junkshop photograph of a silent film star sends a 1970s hack journalist on a sinister and haunting jouUnknown.jpegrney back in time… The Last Days of Leda Grey, Essie Fox’s fourth novel, is out today from Orion Books.

Essie FoUnknown-1.jpegx’s three gothic Victorian novels – The Somnambulist, Elijah’s Mermaid, and The Goddess and the Thief – are rich, sensual, and dark tales of spiritualism, obsession, and madness. In The Last Days of Leda Grey, Essie Fox turns to the world of silent cinema in a novel The Times describes as “luminous … with a sensuousness to the prose … Leda Grey’s world is utterly beguiling,” and recently selected as the newspaper’s October Book of the Month. To read the rst chapter, visit Essie Fox’s website.  An interview with Essie Fox is coming soon!

Plot. What Does it Mean?

How about this for a confession: I never realised the real importance of plot until my agent pointed out that the second novel I’d sent him lacked ‘narrative drive’. It was a bit like being back in secondary school, and being told by a teacher to go back and do it again. It reminded me of the time my English teacher did, in fact, tear out some pages from my exercise book and chuck them in the bin, saying, as I remember, ‘Piffle.’ In both cases, then and now, I felt like I’d been shot in the head with a reality-check dart. What exactly had I been thinking? I was struggling to get it. What was I relying on? Style? Sophisticated language techniques? A quirky personality? Good taste in footwear? Well, sorry, but, no. Not entirely, anyway. So I did a lot of thinking. People will tell you that writers write novels because they have something to say. I’ve never been altogether sure about that, actually. Some writers are prolific. I mean, who has that much to say? Not me. Now, let me make it clear that I (ahem) have an MA in Creative Writing. I know all about narrative arcs and Freytag’s Pyramid. But, come on. Freytag was a nineteenth century novelist who analysed trends in plots. This, I thought, is the twenty-first century. I wanted to do something a bit more…edgy.Unknown.jpeg

So, I took to Google. Because Google never lies, right? Go on then, Google this ‘narrative drive’ my agent spoke of. Actually, don’t bother, you come up with…nothing…or rather a pile of links to forums where everyone is asking what it means. That, and links to narrative-driven computer games. Interesting, but…Okay, I thought, who do I like to read? Paul Auster. (Definitely Google him.) But he said this: ‘When I write, the story is always uppermost in my mind, and I feel that everything must be sacrificed to it. All elegant passages, all the curious details, all the so-called beautiful writing – if they are not truly relevant to w9781784630348.jpeghat I am trying to say, then they have to go.’

And despite myself and all the fancy sentences and curious details I had in my head, I only realised then that you do have to have a story – a plot – of course, but it has to be and has to remain the most important thing, otherwise, what are you saying? Freytag, I guess, would call it my moment of release. And honestly? It’s made it all better – this second novel, I mean, and I think I know what narrative drive really is. Paul Auster, though, puts it better than me: ‘The story is not in the words; it’s in the struggle.’ Paul, I hear you. (Kerry Hadley-Pryce wrote The Black Country in 2015. She is working on her second novel, Broken Dolls, now.)