Those who know me, won’t be surprised to hear me confess I have a slight (cough) interest in Wales. The landscape fills me with a sense of rightness, the language enchants me, Wales’ history both saddens and inspires me. When I get a chance to read Welsh historical novels by Welsh authors set in Wales, my enthusiasm knows no bounds. This is how I came across Gwasg Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press and, in this instance the novels of Juliet Greenwood.
Those who follow my every blogged word will know I reviewed Greenwood’s, Eden’s Garden, a few weeks ago. If I were to set you a quiz, I hope you would remember it is set in both North Wales and Cornwall and that it was tactile enough to make me feel I had visited both places. Well, guess what, I’ve read Greenwood’s second book, set primarily in Cornwall, with just touch of North Wales, and despite being a World War One book, and handling a host of grim issues, it somehow managed to be hopeful, inspiring and even enjoyable. I decide a review wasn’t enough for this one. I’d see if the author would answer a few questions. Greenwood was gracious enough to agree. Before we proceed. Let me give you the cover blurb for We that are left:
Elin lives a luxurious but lonely life at Hiram Hall. Her husband Hugo loves her but he has never recovered from the Boer War. Now another war threatens to destroy everything she knows. With Hugo at the front, and her cousin Alice and friend Mouse working for the war effort, Elin has to learn to run the estate in Cornwall, growing much needed food, sharing her mother’s recipes and making new friends – and enemies. But when Mouse is in danger, Elin must face up to the horrors in France herself. And when the Great War is finally over, Elin’s battles prove to have only just begun.
We that are left, has won Waterstones Wales Book of the Month, Wales Independent Bookshops Book of the Month and Wales National Museums Book of the Month, March 2014
See, I’m not the only one excited.
I asked Greenwood how she came to write a World War One novel. She confessed the idea had come to her while researching Eden’s Garden, parts of which were set at the end of the Victorian era. She had studied the war poets and read novels set in that era, but realised she knew very little about the experience of the women. In the end it was just a small paragraph about a women who discovered her own skills as manager and businesswoman, that jumped out at her.
“My strongest feeling from the very start was that I wanted to see the experience of the war through the eyes of one woman. Part of that was that I didn’t want the story to be the horrors of the trenches and the battlefields. I felt that focussing on such visceral horror would overwhelm the civilian’s experience that I wanted to tell, and effects of war on the men who survived.”
As the blurb indicated, We that are left tells the story of Elin a naive young woman with a blind acceptance of her less than ideal marriage who grows into a young woman with ideas of her own and a destiny of her choosing. Her voice is innocent, almost child like, in the beginning of the story, and somehow matures without loosing a sense of her being the same person. Greenwood said she took ages to find Elin’s voice. Though she knew from the outset that the novel needed to be written in the first person. I asked her how her own life lessons had a bearing on Elin’s journey.
“I didn’t realise it when I was writing the book, but I definitely drew on my own experience of being a naïve and idealist teenager, and the knocks and experience that have made me grow along the way. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when women were still not seen as capable of achieving much beyond marriage and a family. That image was just as insidiously corrosive as the size zero one today. Like many women of my generation, Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’ was a bombshell that put into words many of frustrations I had assumed was just me being a failure, and finally gave me permission to be what I wanted to be, sending me on a rollercoaster of a ride towards becoming my own woman. The experience of Elin’s generation is not really that far away!”
We that are left is a war book that somehow remains light without skirting around the major issues. From reading Greenwood’s blogs on the Novelistas site I gathered this is something of a personal philosophy. I asked Greenwood to explore this philosophy with me.
“I think sometimes books are only seen as ‘serious’ and worth reading if they are full of horror and doom and gloom, as if it’s the author’s solemn duty to educate the reader, and the reader’s humble duty to listen and learn and be dragged kicking and screaming to face the terminal tragedy of existence. And women, of course, are only capable of writing (and reading) the fluffy bunny version of life known as ‘domestic’. Sigh…
“…Reading might be the only few minutes in a day – maybe even in a week – when the reader is not juggling grown up children going through a divorce along with parents growing frailer and frightened, and maybe also caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s.”
Greenwood maintains her readers doesn’t need educating in the big issues of life. They are living them. That doesn’t mean she insults them by only writing about ‘fluffy bunnies.’
“I think women are the great survivors, who make a life whatever the circumstances, and that should be celebrated rather than seeing them as passive victims of circumstance. I’ve also found that it’s when facing the most difficult circumstances that you not only learn just how vile a small minority of human beings can be, but also the strength, empathy and supportiveness of the vast majority. And it’s also when you learn the most about yourself and become more understanding of others’ experiences.”
Finally, apart from my slight (cough) interest in Wales, I love to hear about the writing journeys of other authors. I wanted to know whether Greenwood was a first draft, no holds barred person. Or one who plots carefully not commiting a word to the page until she has it all worked out. I also wanted to know about the re- drafting process (here, is where you hear my own deep sigh).
“I find this a fascinating process. As my alter ego, Heather Pardoe, I write serials for magazines. There the story is set out and agreed, and I then write it instalment by instalment with little room for manoeuvre. When it comes to writing a novel, I usually have an idea of a setting, and I know the beginning and have an idea for the end, and generally have a focus for the story. I start with a sort of family tree of the interconnecting main characters linked around the setting. So I end up with a piece of paper with circles with names inside them, and with lines connecting one to the other. I usually can’t read any of it by the end, but I know where it is in my mind. I then draw up a rough timeline just to make sure mothers aren’t younger than their daughters and that sort of thing.
“I usually write the very first paragraph by hand, just to get going, then type straight onto the computer. I start off knowing exactly where I’m going. Then by the third paragraph I realise I need a new character to have a conversation with the heroine – who then has a family and a story of their own. And after that a whole host of characters muscle in from somewhere in the ether, and I’m off on a rollercoaster ride of discovery. For the first draft I tend to just go with the flow. I don’t revise. Characters change name, age, and even sex. I just keep going until I have the story. Mouse in We That Are Left was originally a male pilot. After two sentences I realised that was just a cliché and we all know where that one’s going. As I stomped off to walk my dog in frustration, Mouse appeared, out of the blue, and the story took on a whole new dimension.
“I finding it is the redrafting, once I’ve got the story down and know where it is going and who the characters are, that is the exhilarating stage where it all starts to come alive. I draft and re-draft, until I no longer know if the reader will make any sense of it at all. That’s where an editor comes in. Having the first outside view is terrifying, but also inspiring. I don’t always go with her suggestions, but I know in my guts when she is right, and I often find a solution that neither of us have come up with. It’s like having a mediator between you and the reader. It’s almost impossible for a writer to see the story from the outside. Having those bits points pointed out always inspires me to dig deep find a solution.”
What more is there to say, apart from adding a short, about the author blurb:
Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh quarryman’s cottage between Anglesey and the mountains of Snowdonia. As a child, Juliet always had her nose in a book. She wrote her first novel (an epic inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff and set in Saxon times) at the age of ten. After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet worked in a variety of jobs to support her writing, before finally fulfilling her ambition to become a published author.
You can buy a hard copy of the her books through Honno. Or an eBook in all the usual places. Greenwood can be found on all the main social media channels. She blogs on the Novelistas site and at: julietgreenwoodauthor.wordpress.com