On the 20th August 2014 Helen Dunmore the author of ‘The Lie’ and the 1996 winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction) ‘The Spell of Winter’ entertained an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Below is my edited transcription of the talk. Enjoy.
Supported by the Hawthornden Literary Retreat
Read my review of A Spell of Winter here.
A review of Helen Dunmore’s latest book The Lie is coming soon.
Chaired by Mark Watson
MW – I’ll start with, I suppose, with an obvious thing. Was there any particular event, something you read that stimulated you to writing the book in the first place?
HD – The Lie was probably a book that began with the characters. The central character is a young man called Daniel Bramwell, who came through to me very, very strongly. It was almost as if he were standing there in from of me demanding to be written about. But I also think I’m part of that generation were everybody’s father was in the Second World War and everybody’s grandfather was in the First World War. I do remember conversations between my grandfather and uncles, very few of them, being elliptical, going over my head when I was a little girl. There was one particular conversation, a very short conversation, between my grandfather and my great uncle who was gassed during the First World War. He made a few wry little comments that he had done pretty well out of his pension because he had lived a lot longer than he was expected to live. That was about the level they discussed it on. I had the feeling that there was a lot of silence, a lot of things that were not being said.
MW – The book is set principally after the First World War, there are flashbacks about their time in the trenches and so on. One of the things you appeared to be looking at was the repercussions in both the immediate term and the longer term.
HD – Absolutely. The novel begins with the childhood of the three main characters. They are part of that generation that came of age during the war. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘lost generation’. The novel follows through to after the war and before in those formative months in France in the trenches in particular the two boys that made them what they were.
It’s an extraordinary period to write about but there was something about the aftermath that interested me. It was the disparity that the returning service men came home to because Lloyd George said that there would be a country fit for heroes to live in, said in a speech in 1918. What they found was very often it was not. They found unemployment, they found homelessness and they found an inability to deal with the physical and psychological wounds that they had received. You have to remember that there was something like 2.1 million incidents of injury and wounding among the men from the British Isles and let alone some 700,000 who were killed. So we are talking about an enormous generational trauma and a medical service that offered some very innovatory plastic surgery that really began to develop very, very fast. But the treatment of psychological injuries were still rudimentary and Pat Barker dealt with that a great deal in her novels.
Then I was interested in, as well as the immediate aftermath, the long nightmare that passes down to us now as we begin to commemorate the 100 years since the beginning of that war. We are now thinking about it, not just what happened to those people but as a consequence what happened to those people and their role in our society. In what way could we be children and grandchildren of that war and how does it still shape our society. So all those things I find utterly fascinating.
MW – It’s fantastically clever how you have the image of the boys in a shelter that you relate to later in the trenches.
HD – I realised when I was writing it or perhaps a little bit later that one of the very strong themes in the novel is shelter. About whether a shelter is real shelter or not. The Dennis house and in particular to Daniel’s eyes is very grand and very luxurious compared to where he lives. However, he realises as he spends more time there that it was unpredictable, it was unsafe. It shelters very well it’s warm but it’s not a comfort in that enormous space.
When they go out to France they are very aware of the outdoorness of its exposure and of the men there. Edward Thomas writes about very brilliantly about it in his poem The Owl. He ends it with the soldiers recalling being unable to rejoice and he’s thinking of those men just across the channel in France, outdoors, exposed in the rain, trying to keep warm, trying to feed themselves to live a life in circumstances that are terrifying. Even when they are at the front the contrast between the little pub the kind of thing they go to fun of warmth and the smell of it and the vinegary white wine and all the bodies jammed in and then the darkness and the waiting. The book follows a big arc but I don’t want to say too much as it might spoil it but again they will be huddled together just as they are at the beginning.
MW – Daniel’s first instinct when he gets back from France is to build a makeshift shelter.
HD – That’s absolutely true. When he gets back he can’t move back to the cottage that his mother used to rent because his mother has died while he has been on active service. He no longer has that home and his possessions have been given to neighbours for safe keeping. But as it so happens he knows an old woman on the fringes of the town who has small holding. She says he’s welcome to build a shelter. He does that by making it out of corrugated iron and other bits and pieces. Gradually he makes a home for himself.
I very much wanted to show the contrast between the elements. Many of you may know West Penrith, Cornwall which is at its furthest west part. You will know how strong the weather is there and how little land there is and how much mountain there is. So you have the winds blowing, the seas beating up, I wanted very much to show how strong the elements are and how fragile human shelter can be. And then there is that extraordinary paradox during war when millions go out of their shelter and they go out of their homes and they go into this world, this world that is relatively primitive, difficult, arduous, and dangerous and live there for sometimes months at a time.
MW – I was struck by how Daniel’s experience is not untypical of historical reality. When he goes to war it’s the first time he has been abroad.
HD – It’s true. He hasn’t gone beyond Truro before. He is absolutely typical. That’s the story of our grandparents most of whom did not have those opportunities that we all take for granted. For the first time he goes on a train outside the county, crosses England, goes down to embarkation, and then he goes over to France. When you think about it, going to France and Flanders, possibly going to Gallipoli, it was the first massive excursion of the British working man. People normally didn’t go abroad and suddenly there they were, with different languages, everything confronts them at once.
I wanted the first thing that Daniel noticed to be the very high degree of organisation and logistical support. He’s quite an observant young man and he sees straight away that there’s army workshops, there’s hospitals, and telephones for communication and stables. There’s every kind of structure. It’s like a city, it’s industrialised, a very complex organisation.
MW – I wanted to comment now on the male friendship, both between Daniel and Frederick, but also the wider kinship between the soldiers.
HD – I found that very interesting to write about because all my research, reading, and listening that I did suggested to me that those bonds were absolutely essential to survival. For physical and psychological survival. You bonded within your platoon, you bonded within your company, and I wanted to suggest that Daniel, who was a bit of an outsider loved the world he loves the world of education, he longs for it. He’s also fatherless and is even a lot poorer than a lot of the children at his school. Then he goes to the army and he finds he’s a good, efficient soldier. He’s physically tough because he’s worked all of his life, he’s observant, he wants to survive, he responds to the army training. To his great ease and relief, he forms bonds with the men who he is fighting with. This time he’s part of an “us”, he’s on the inside and it’s a very fragile thing. But it’s something that means an enormous amount to him. He realises that Frederick who is an officer, and who responds to the conditions and responds to the “lie” differently, Frederick is in agony, he finds it very difficult. He doesn’t feel integrated. Their experience of the war is quite different. I wanted to write about that, to not write about the stereotype because not everyone had a stock experience.
MW – It strikes me, not untypically, when Daniel returns he’s old before his time, due to his experiences.
HD – Yes, he is old before his time. He is a very young man, but he’s seen and done more than most people ever do in their life. He’s seen and heard more than he should have done at his age. He goes back to a world where he keeps thinking how untouched it is. The landscape is unmarked, the landscape, the fields, the town are the same. There’s been no bombing, there’s been no shelling, and there are no graves because the decision has been made not to repatriate the dead of the First World War. There is no sign that they ever existed and all this makes him feel very old. Frederick says to Daniel he feels more acquainted with the dead than he does with the living and that’s probably true for Daniel too. And that’s a very ageing thing.
MW – It strikes me that I think one of the things you’re doing in the book, it’s a novel, but you’re writing history from, as it were, ‘underneath’.
HD – Yes, very much so. It’s Something I try and do in my novels, it was a technique I was thinking about. Particularly when I wrote the novel The Siege some sixteen years ago. But thinking “where am I going to get the viewpoint?” and I wanted to look from below and look at the lives of people who were not or who did not have influence in a large way. We get a lot of overviews of what people like Asquith were thinking and what Lloyd George was thinking. It’s endlessly fascinating, what decisions were being made by the generals, but I also want to know the experience of people like my grandparents. People who did leave school at thirteen and who didn’t leave records and who were the greatest number who were affected. I’ve also been influenced by great writers like Tolstoy, who wrote about the war through the lives of ordinary families.
Audience Question – I’ve read a number of your novels, like The Siege, it seems to me that this is the greatest of your books and it’s the most poetic. Was it a conscious decision to make it poetic?
HD – That’s an interesting question and a very kind observation. My formation was in poetry and I published poetry long before I wrote fiction. I have problems when I hear a novel is poetic. That usually means it’s not quite got the cohesion or the dialogue quite right. At its best, I think it should mean that the images really come alive and that there’s a cadence to everything. I think this is a novel that I heard a lot in my head. I heard the characters speaking. I have used poetry in the novel to an extent because, as being young men of their generation, their education was rather different from the kind of education children receive today. Rote learning was far more prevalent then. Education was about learning things by heart and was very, very important and enforced. They learnt poetry by rote. So these characters in the novel learned poetry in this way. So I wanted all this to come into the book, too.
Audience – After you’ve done your research do you then let the characters lead you through the book, or do you research into your characters before you start writing?
HD – Well with this book, and because it’s not the first time I’ve written a book set during this time, the First World War – my book The Spell of Winter was set during the same time – so it wasn’t starting from a complete beginning. In terms of the characters, quite often, very early on I’ve got a sense of where the characters are going to. So I will have, and this might sound a bit strange, I have the final scene in my mind, but no precise idea of how to get to it.
Audience - I was wondering about your visual influences. On a number of occasions, I kept being reminded of Stanley Spencer’s resurrection paintings. Do you feel influenced by those kind of paintings, photographs, etc?
HD – That’s a very interesting question. Because I do indeed like the paintings by Stanley Spencer. And I do like ideas of resurrection taking place in an ordinary little village, in every day clothes. And the whole iconography of resurrection is very interesting. The way Stanley Spencer handles it is extraordinary because it’s located in a specific spot and not some vague area. It sits in a little village in Cookham Church. I think I am very influenced by paintings. I love painting, I spend a lot of time looking at paintings. I love landscapes and want to be a landscaper. This book probably does come out of looking at, and not just looking once, but getting to know the area.
Audience – Hi my name’s Adam Fleming, I work with the BBC. We’re making a documentary for Radio 4 about the publishing world and some of the challenges and some of the changes at the moment. Are you affected by this dispute between Amazon and Hatchette* in the US? And as an author, do you worry what that sort of stuff means for your trade?
HD – Well I think as an author, I’ve always been concerned about the lives of authors and this is why I became involved with the society of authors, and I went onto the management committee of the society of authors. I then became chair of the society and then became involved in a great number of campaigns to try and improve conditions for authors. With having many friends who are authors, from starting out in poetry where people tend to be poorly paid, I know it can be a hard life. I think the average income of an author is £11,000, which is not a great sum of money. If you look at the amount authors get from the cover price of a book, it’s not very much, and clearly would be much nicer if they got more. I would like to see new technology helping authors to do better. If it’s making books easier to reach readers, then it would seem a shame if the author didn’t get a little bit more.
MW – Thank you Helen Dunmore.