Jason Hewitt’s second novel, Devastation Road, came out in paperback on July 14th. Here, he talks to fellow historical novelist Vanessa Lafaye about method writing, war novels, and what’s coming next.
The aftermath of WWII makes for an interesting setting, among all the books that focus on the fighting itself. How did you decide to focus on this aspect of the conflict?
My first novel The Dynamite Room was set in 1940 and had some major plotlines that investigated elements of the war that I had known very little about. I took the same tact with Devastation Road. I figure that if I’m going to spend two years writing a novel I might as well use it also as an excuse to learn something new. Most of us have a pretty good understanding of what happened during the war but I had no knowledge of those hours and first few days after peace was declared, other than the celebrations in Trafalgar Square. But in Germany, for example, where the fighting was still going on, what happened there? Did the guns immediately stop firing? What happened to the soldiers? And to those in the camps? What was the atmosphere like? This was something that intrigued me.
From a more pragmatic point of view too, you can’t turn around in bookshops without knocking a World War Two-based novel off the shelf. I didn’t see the point in just adding another to the pile so Devastation Road very deliberately starts where most other war stories end.
In many ways Devastation Road bounced out of The Dynamite Room. I wanted to investigate more deeply some of the themes that I had already touched upon, such as the impact of war, but to also write something that you could argue is the antithesis of The Dynamite Room. I hate the thought of writing similar stories twice so while the style and period might be familiar the two books in terms of their story are very different. The Dynamite Room is claustrophobic, small-scale and intense, whereas Devastation Road is expansive and epic and is very much a quest story that spans across Europe.
We stay with Owen’s point of view for the whole book, although we learn in turn about other characters. Tell us how you decided whose POV to show.
I knew from the very start that the novel would be told from Owen’s point of view. It begins with him waking up in a field with no idea of where he is. He is a man completely out of time and place, trying to make sense of a world that he doesn’t understand – rather like Alice after she falls down the rabbit hole. In fact, the BBC war correspondent Robert Reid actually said that Europe in the closing stages of the war had ‘an Alice in Wonderland kind of air’, and this was an image that stuck with me throughout the writing process. Just as Owen wakes in a field not knowing what he has done, so too Europe is slowly waking from its nightmare. By staying in Owen’s head we share his experience of trying to make sense of it, in not understanding what other characters are saying, and making the discoveries about them at the same time that Owen does.
You have talked elsewhere about the trek that you undertook through Europe. Why did you feel this was necessary?
Yes, I took the same route that Owen takes, and have written about some of it in an article I wrote for Bookanista. In today’s Internet age I suspect I could have got a pretty good idea of the landscape Owen travels through by using Google Maps and without even leaving the house. But it’s not the same. There are some locations that I could only really create the atmosphere for by visiting them myself, and many of the other smaller locations in the story were found en route. What is more, I doubt that I would have understood the psychological impact of taking the journey that Owen does, without doing it myself. I experienced his exhaustion, his loneliness, the sense of falling in on your thoughts as he does, or not being able to make yourself understood. I don’t think I would have truly understood Owen or what he goes through unless I’d taken the trip myself.
You also learned sufficient Czech to include some dialogue in the language. Do you think there is such a thing as ‘method writing’, like ‘method acting’?
Yes, I think there is; and I think that, as with actors, there are some writers that are more ‘method’ than others. Like all novelists these days I spend a lot of time researching online, but, given the choice, I prefer to experience as much as I can for myself. Janek speaks very little English and I learnt basic Czech to help me understand and formulate his dialogue. The process of learning his language also helped open a door into his character. I felt that I understood him more and could connect with him more easily. We read stories to experience lives other than our own, so I think it only natural that to make these stories authentic writer’s want to experience what their characters are experiencing so that they can commit these to the page with accuracy.
The parallels with today’s refugee crisis are inescapable, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing countries destroyed by war. What do you see as the main differences in the crises?
I think the main difference is that in 1945 not all but most of those travelling across Europe were trying to make their way home whilst today these people are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in their own homelands and are, instead, trying to make a new home for themselves elsewhere. This makes it infinitely harder to deal with, because it has no clear end point. It is a gross over-simplification but in 1945 once those released from the prison camps etc. had been repatriated or had made a new life elsewhere, the post-war refugee crisis was largely considered to be over. Today’s crisis seems to have no end. The refugees will keep coming as long as they believe that Europe offers them a safer, more prosperous and stable life. They are not endangering the lives of their children making these boat crossings out of choice. The numbers will only ease once peace and stability is restored to Syria and the region around it, and that at the moment seems impossible. What is important, however, is how we as an international community respond to the situation. There are inevitable similarities with 1945 but today’s crisis is infinitely more complex and harder to resolve.
Loss of memory is a terrifically useful device in fiction. It takes until the final page of the book for Owen to put the pieces together. Could you have written the book with his memory intact?
Interesting. I’ve never actually considered this before. Owen’s amnesia was integral to the story from the moment it was conceived. I suppose the main elements could have been written without his memory loss but I would have been less interested in it and the book would probably have never been written. Memory is a theme that I keep returning to – how memories build us, what is remembered and what is forgotten, how memories are forged, shaped, fabricated and falsified. If you read the letters and diaries of many of those living through the war years the fragility of memory is a theme that occurs again and again. The novel, therefore, is as much about what we choose not to remember as it is about what we do, and that I think is particularly relevant when it comes to assessing the Second World War. There is an enormous amount of selective memory involved. Also, very soon the war will no longer be within living memory. It is the job of the younger generations not to forget what their ancestors went through or to glorify it, so that we can ensure, and continue to ensure, that it doesn’t happen again.
The infant in the travelling group never acquires a name, for reasons explained by his mother. This niggled me as I read on, continually reminding me of how important names are, for identity and belonging—it’s the first thing that Owen needs to recall, and the first thing that the Nazis stripped from their victims. What’s your view of the importance of names in your writing?
I am very glad that this niggled you because I agree that names are critical for us to form our sense of identity from, and the mother for this reason very deliberately does not name the child. As a writer I can’t bring a character to life until I have firmly fixed their name. Janek and Irene’s names came quickly but I couldn’t settle on a name for Owen until very late in the day which ultimately meant that he was the last character to fully lift himself from the page. The significance of names is even more important in The Dynamite Room. The reader is never told Heiden’s first name and for good reason. He wants to depersonalize himself to Lydia and, as we later discover, build himself anew.
Tell us how this story relates to your next book, and how all three are connected.
My new project is set in 1947 so I am slowly edging my way out of the war. It’s a more personal story and on a smaller scale than Devastation Road. Whereas Owen’s story is about the immediate aftermath, the new story is more about the long echo of war and what it leaves behind. Again, the idea bounced out of the previous book and circles my favourite themes, but is set a lot closer to home. I am learning a lot about sheep.