As 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.
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.
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 was 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.”