Why choose war as the backdrop for your novel? Prime Writers Kerry Drewery, Sarah Vaughan and Juliet West explain what drew them to write about conflict, and the impact of war on ‘ordinary’ lives…
Kerry Drewery: “A Brighter Fear is set in Baghdad at the time of the 2003 invasion and follows teenager, Lina, as she struggles to survive, as her future is thrown into turmoil, and as she tries to find out what happened to her mother, who was taken by Saddam’s secret police. The idea for the book came from the smallest thing: trying to come to terms with my own feelings about the UK going to war, and whether or not I agreed with it and the reasons we were being given. I spent a great deal of time looking into it and reading around it, and came to the conclusion that although what everyone thinks is important, what mattered most was what the people living it, those on the ground in Iraq, actually thought. But of course, that was incredibly varied! My own children were teenagers at the time, and I also started thinking about what it would be like to be at that stage of your life, with all your hopes and dreams for the future as you leave school, think of college, university, jobs, careers, etc, but to suddenly have it all taken away from you – and that was how my main character, Lina, came into being. This gave me the opportunity of really exploring what was happening, and really thinking about how the Iraqi people’s lives were changed. I was particularly careful never to take sides, never to show my opinion, but instead present it how I believed my character and her family would be experiencing it. I hope I got that right.”
Sarah Vaughan: “My latest novel, The Farm at the Edge of the World, features a time-slip story set in 1943-4. The Second World War fascinates me because those who lived through it were the last generation as a whole to have been truly brave. It’s also just within touching distance.
I can remember my grandfather – a prisoner-of-war captured on Kos in 1941 – telling me briefly about his experience, and in researching this novel I was lucky enough to plunder the memories of nonagenarian and octogenarian farmers – all wartime farm boys in their teens.
Although my action occurs in Britain, and in rural Cornwall, the war is ever-present: felt, not just through the bombers that fly from the north Cornwall coast, or the uneasy awareness that those conscripted may never return, but more dramatically. The war allowed me to throw characters together who wouldn’t otherwise have met; to intensify emotions and to heighten the need for decisions at a time when the future was fraught with uncertainty. When the novel shifts briefly to London, in 1944, I used a real wartime event to devastating effect.
I started writing this novel soon after the deaths, at 95, of my elderly neighbour, an officer in the D-Day landings, and my grandmother, who worked in a munitions factory. Neither dwelt on the war but there would be casual references that made me realise I hadn’t a clue what they had experienced. This novel was written as a sort of apology to them, and an expression of my gratitude. None of us can know their quiet bravery but this is my attempt to imagine it.”
Juliet West: “Wars may be conceived and plotted in the corridors of power but it’s only by studying the impact on the ground – on the home front as well as on the battlefield – that I’m able to understand the true cost of conflict. I was drawn to write Before the Fall after coming across a dossier of archived documents relating to Annie Baker, a young soldier’s wife who fell in love with another man while her husband was away fighting during the First World War. The affair led to a murder trial and the tragic events that unfolded are still shocking to me. Annie’s name is not inscribed on any memorial; in 1918 and beyond, her name would have been remembered with a sense of shame, if at all. As we pause to honour the bravery of servicemen and women today, I’ll also be remembering Annie Baker and countless like her: the unspoken casualties of conflicts around the world.”