Questions & Answers
You were previously an editor. What was it liking stepping over to the other side of the table?
I loved being a non-fiction book editor; it’s a wonderfully analytical and intellectual job, as well as being hugely organisational and business-orientated. Yet I always craved the idea of working on my own novel, having something that I created rather than moulded. Becoming an author means that instead of working on ten or twenty titles at a time, I’m focussing on one over a long stretch of time – The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir took three years to write and another year in the editorial and publishing process. It’s a long, solitary task. I can imagine the flurry of activity in the editorial office, and yet I’m now outside of that, quietly sitting behind a laptop at home.
I have found, however, that by far the hardest part of being an author is having to speak about the book in front of a large audience. I’ve always been a behind-a-laptop kind of person, and it really takes a lot of bravery to step onto a stage. I have a habit of grinding to a halt in the middle of speaking, losing the point of what I’m saying. Last month I was speaking in a conference in the US and found I’d gone off on a tangent and was suddenly talking about the First World War and not the Second (which is when the book is set). I stopped mid-sentence and had to shuffle about my papers and then simply started talking about something completely different. It was horrific.
What came first, the desire to write a novel or your grandmother’s stories crying out for a wider audience?
It was a little of both. I’d been editing a book about the war in Afghanistan and, as we followed a young wife opening the door to two military personnel, realizing with horror that they had come to give her news of her husband’s death in Helmand Province, I was struck by the fact that she had no power over the war or her husband’s life. Her role was to sit at home and wait, a constant bystander. It was so moving, and I knew instantly that I had to tell her story, and the ones of all the other wives and mothers on the home front.
As soon as I decided to write about them, I knew it had to be the Second World War and based on the stories of my grandmother. They’d led me to read a lot about the era, especially the memoirs, diaries and letters of women on the home front. It was as if it came together simultaneously.
Why did you decide to tell the story through diaries and letters rather than as a conventional narrative?
There was a movement begun just before the war called Mass-Observation, encouraging people to write diaries and send them into a central office, who would publish some of them every month in a newsletter. The government used the diaries to assess home-front morale, especially with rationing and propaganda. At the beginning of the war, around 500 people signed up. Many are now published, and reading these and letters from the era made me come to love the vernacular of the time, the way people spoke and communicated, or hid their feelings. I wanted to mimic these voices in the book as I felt that it would give readers more of a feeling for the age, transport them back in time.
Is there any one character for whom you have particular affection? I’m guessing Mrs B was actually great fun to write as long as one didn’t have to live with her in reality!
I love them all, but for different reasons. Mrs Tilling is the backbone of the book, and creating her careful world of caring for broken and injured creatures came so easily. Venetia, the village beauty, has a wonderfully scintillating plotline, and her raciness made her into such a terrific character to write. I especially enjoyed her dialogues.
What can I say about Kitty, the precocious 13-year-old? I adore the way she leaps from subject to subject, and makes lists of everything. Someone once said that 'you never know what she’s going to say next.' Don’t you just love that?
Miss Paltry was probably my favourite voice to write, as I’m a great fan of good villains. She’s simply so comedic with her cockney accent and flair for metaphor: 'the day was as cold as a slap round the face with a fresh-caught cod.' And she’s so nasty about everyone else. I love it when she says of Mrs Tilling, 'she is so excruciatingly well-meaning, it makes me want to plunge her face into a barrel of ale to perk her up a bit.'
Do you agree with Venetia that adult life is about ‘learning to pick from a lot of bad choices and do the best you can with that dreadful compromise’?
Sadly, I do. I think the world of a child is a wondrous place where everything’s possible. Adulthood comes with an array of complicated options and compromises, and we have to do the best that we can.
As the country contemplated the possible loss of its liberty, after a wobbly start the village ladies find themselves increasingly liberated. Was this very much true of your grandmother’s experience of the war?
Yes, it very much was. I think there’s a link: the more the country was in peril, the more the women were able to step outside of their usual constraints, especially their own mindsets of what was acceptable behaviour for a woman. My grandmother was married early in the war, and with her husband away, and this meant that she had more time for volunteering and keeping up flagging spirits, which often involved organising, singing, making and drinking tea and partying in general. Her tyrannical father, who lived close by, couldn’t say a word about it, as she was married and it was all for the war effort. She also told me that she could stand up to him because she didn’t have anything to lose. The country was on the verge of invasion and everyone was doing everything they could to keep afloat, even if it meant breaking the old rules.
Rather shockingly, as I interviewed old ladies about their experiences through the war, many told me that it was the best time of their lives. They were young women at the time, and the sense of freedom combined with the job opportunities (one of them became an engineer and another a doctor) and relaxed morals – why save yourself if you might be dead tomorrow – created a kind of live-for-the-day mentality. Some even admitted guiltily that they were sorry that the war came to an end.
Is the part played in the war by the Home Front is even now sufficiently acknowledged? Do you think the British people would still band together in quite the same way in a time of similar crisis?
To the beginning part of the question, no, I think it hasn’t been acknowledged enough, especially from the women’s point of view, both during the Second World War and today in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one watches the people behind the scenes, which are still women to a large part, even though more women are serving in the military now. I’d like to say that it is a litmus test of the measure of a woman’s value in society, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
To the last part of the question, emphatically yes, I think we would band together straightaway at a time of crisis. It’s a very British habit, apart from anything else. What other nation could conjure a major military catastrophe into the heart-warming ethos of the Dunkirk Spirit? Having lived abroad for long stretches of time, I’ve come to realise that the British are, in reality, a rather cohesive bunch.
You were careful to include the harsher realities of war, with the women facing the loss of their loved ones and bombs damaging both lives and homes. How hard was it to get the balance right between humour and tragedy?
My grandmother’s stories tended to highlight the parties and the village humour and the salacious dealings of her beautiful friend Letty (who initially formed the basis for Venetia), and through these I intertwined the more serious plot elements. These in many ways form the basis for the book. Since I’m an editor, I wrote the book quite quickly and then spent years editing it, and I remember that the placement of the funny stories was key, as they could sound very heartless and flop horridly if they came directly after a scene of devastating loss. It was a case of rejigging and just reading it through to see if it felt right. A lot of writing is a bit like that.
Do you have another novel in mind and would it also be historical?
Yes, I’m working on a new novel, and yes, it is historical. I’m reluctant to say too much about it, as it’s in the early stages and I need to find out how it’ll work, but I’m very enthusiastic about it already. The characters are the most crucial part for me, and when I feel that I fully know who I’m dealing with, the rest seems a lot more straightforward.
The historical genre is a favourite of mine, as a reader as well as a writer, as it offers so much potential for the analysis of big-picture stuff, such as the liberation of women and other social evolutions. I also like the way that a reader already knows how history plays out and the irony that knowledge can bring. To give a rather chilling example, Silvie, the 10-year-old Jewish evacuee from Prague is worried about when she’ll see her family again, and we, the readers, sadly know that they probably won’t make it through the war.
Wars are another big arena for fiction. They are times of great upheaval, which can pull apart the seams of society and become an eruption of change. They can also house the greatest acts of bravery from the everyday individual.