Chatting to Elizabeth Day

l9l056bj590_Elizabeth-day-author-journalistAfter reading and reviewing Home Fires by Elizabeth Day, I was very interested in many of the details that crop up within the pages. I was lucky that Elizabeth said yes to me asking a few questions about her latest book. In fact she treated us with very in depth answers, so a massive thank you goes to her for that. For those who don’t know much about Elizabeth; She is an award winning author and journalist. She currently writes for The Observer and appears on Sky News newspaper review. Her debut novel Scissors Paper Stone was critically acclaimed and I’m sure the same will be said for her new novel – Home Fires.

What was the initial spark that kick started Home Fires? And did your work at The Observer, etc, help solidify the idea?

There are three main, interconnected storylines in Home Fires and so there were three initial sparks that seemed to fit together when I was thinking about what to write. I’ve always been fascinated on the impact war has on the home front because I’m interested in unexamined bits of history. It struck me that although lots had been written about men’s experience of the First World War – the men who died in the trenches, or those who came back suffering from extreme shell-shock – not that much had been written about the women who coped with the aftermath. I was intrigued by the idea of a man who – on the surface, at least – survived the Great War unharmed and who returned home to a daughter who had never really known him and a wife who had been surviving for four years without him. It must have been the cause of pain for so many families – the women struggling to understand and the man unable to find the language to convey what he had been through. I was hugely influenced by Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which does detail a woman’s experience with such ferocity and emotion that, after reading it, you never look at the First World War in quite the same way again.

The modern strand was definitely influenced by my day-job. For a while, as a journalist, I was coming into contact with a lot of parents who had lost their children in Iraq or Afghanistan, many of whom felt let down by the government who had sent their beloved children to war. I wanted to explore this in Home Fires, as well as the idea of a woman who is angry in her grieving, rather than docile and accepting. I wanted to look at the corrosive nature of loss and also ask a deeper question about whether it is better to die a hero than come back a damaged man.

The third element, which I think is crucial to the book, is a study of ageing. Andrew’s mother has suffered a stroke and is reliant on others, which is a cause of immense frustration to her. I think we shy away from examining the indignities of age and it was important to me to get across how difficult it is both to care for the elderly and for the elderly to cope with their own infirmity. This came from seeing my own grandmother go through something similar – and the impact it had on my mother looking after her. It’s partly why Home Fires is dedicated to my wonderful grandparents.

You must have put in a lot of research while writing. What were the most important things you learned and did anything shock or surprise you?

Yes, I did, but it was research I enjoyed because it mostly consisted of reading other books! I read a lot of contemporaneous accounts of the First World War but also a lot of novels set in that era – everything from Rebecca West to Pat Barker and a lot of non-fiction accounts of the period. I also looked into the psychological impact on children of fathers returning from war. There was hardly anything written about that for the 1914-1918 conflict, but there was a lot more research available for the post-1945 period when people were beginning to talk in those terms and to record their experiences on the home front in diaries or as part of Mass Observation programmes.

The interesting thing about doing research into a period that is so widely taught in our schools and universities is that we think we know a lot of it already but actually, being confronted with first-hand experiences when you’re a bit older can be incredibly moving. It struck me with renewed force how unbelievably young the men who went to fight on the Western Front were – 17, 18, 19, barely even adults and filled with idealised notions of what war was. Reading Vera Brittain brought it home to me how hard it must have been to attempt to go back to a “normal” life after suffering the brutal loss of your loved ones. Brittain lost her fiance, her brother and her two closest male friends over a four-year period. When the war was over, she was still only 22 and went to Oxford. She recounts so vividly how awful it was going to university and being surrounded by lots of giggling undergraduates who had no concept of what she had been through and who dismissed her as being overly serious and bitter. It surprised me just how much I could relate to that, the immediacy of it: imagine having endured such suffering and not being able to communicate what it felt like to her peers.

I did a bit of research into the equipment provided to modern-day troops in Iraq and Afghanistan too. That was surprising – and saddening – because it made me realise how thinly stretched the resources for our armed forces are. There are soldiers out there at the moment, fighting in our name, who have had to buy their own knee-pads. In an era of austerity cuts, I worry that will only get worse.

How was it dabbling in two time frames?

9781408807613I enjoyed the challenge. My first novel, Scissors Paper Stone, was set in the current day, with brief flashbacks to the 1970s. Going back to 1920 was both exciting and panic-inducing because, as a History graduate, I’m extremely picky about trying to get things right. (I’m sure, now I’ve said that, a litany of historical inaccuracies will be pointed out to me…) In the end though, I do truly believe that fiction is about portraying an emotional truth rather than a factual one. If I’ve managed to convey a feeling with precision, that’s more important to me than whether I’ve described someone using the right kind of teapot.

Having said that, I think I made it slightly easier on myself because a large portion of the earlier time frame is written through the eyes of Elsa, a 98-year-old woman who is losing her mind: her memories are intense but fractured and don’t always make chronological sense. That is deliberate, but it did mean I could write a bit more freely.

Anger plays quite a large part of the novel, as does depression. How did you personally feel as you put the words down onto a page?

I felt, at every stage, that I was writing what I needed to write. I hope that doesn’t sound hopelessly pretentious. What I mean is that I feel some fiction tries to prettify things, to make things neater and more digestible. Some readers need their characters to be likeable, with easily understandable motives for their actions and they need their endings tied up. Whereas in real-life, people don’t always act in reasoned, obvious ways and there are hardly ever clear endings to particular life phases where all the loose threads are knotted together and that’s what I try to convey in my own writing. People are complex and can do bad things and then they can try and forget they’ve done those things, or lie about them, or bury them away and think they’ve moved on: they think they’re being honest, but deep down, they know they’re not sharing everything. I wanted to get under the skin of that human paradox: the fact that we are who we are because of what we’ve experienced, but sometimes we almost want to deny the experience itself. I also feel that all my characters continue to live their lives beyond the final page of my book – that’s why not everything is explained and brought together by the last chapter. There are some unexploded bombs waiting to go off in all of their lives, but that’s for the reader to imagine. I don’t want to be too prescriptive.

I didn’t feel depressed or angry while writing Home Fires. I think that possibly if you’re writing anger, it’s a good way of getting it out of your own system! I did feel upset at points though – there’s a scene at the Cenotaph later on in the book that I remember writing in a cafe on a weekend morning and I had a cold and was a bit under the weather anyway and when I got to the end of the scene, I felt like you do after you’ve been crying for hours: that sense of exhausted calm. And writing about grief certainly brought up my own experiences of having lost loved ones. I drew on those and, in a way, writing helped me to process how I felt – but that wasn’t why I was writing; it was more of a fortunate by-product.

Did you find it difficult creating such intense sadness on the page? You captured it so well, in my opinion.

9781408828670Thank you. I was very, very worried about whether I’d be able to capture it. I was aware that, potentially, there would be people reading this book who had lost a child and I was deeply concerned about paying tribute to their experience rather than trivialising it in any way. That added an extra layer of anxiety to what I was writing. But I think it goes back to what I was saying about emotional truth. The novelist’s role is to imagine and to render that imagination onto the page in a way that can connect to the reader. It isn’t to live through everything and then recount it. I worked hard at it though. And I looked at my own grief too: to how I’ve reacted when people I’ve loved have died. I had to force myself to be honest about that which was difficult but necessary, if that makes sense. I felt I needed to write it.

Were you scared as to how the public would react to a novel that touches on such a current and tender issue?

Yes! I’m still scared. The writing of Home Fires has been a real journey. I wrote the first draft and my editor felt it wasn’t working so I had to go away and revise it quite substantially. There was an entire character I’d written in the first person which I then transferred to the third person to make it feel less claustrophobic. That process dented my belief a little and made me question what on earth I was doing for a while – I began to doubt my own instincts. But I think that is part of the process of re-drafting and now, looking back, I’m so, so glad I did it and that my editor told me to do it because there’s absolutely no doubt that the book is better as a result.

I was very worried that readers wouldn’t warm to some of the characters because they do act in difficult ways, but then they are living in an extraordinarily pressurised situation and grief can make you do things you don’t think you would ever do otherwise. I wanted the reader to understand why they were doing things and yet not to over-explain and that’s a tricky balance.

Then there’s a further layer of complexity when you write your second novel. With your first, when you give it to friends or family in manuscript form, they are generally so astonished you’ve managed to write a book, that the reaction is very positive. By the time you do your second, it’s become the thing they expect you to do and their critical faculties are more engaged! In a way, it was helpful because it made me re-edit myself much more than I might have done otherwise. Ultimately, though, you need to remember why you’ve written the book, why you felt the story needed to be told in the first place and stick by what you think, instead of just taking on board what other people suggest. I’m getting better at that!

It’s still very early days in terms of gauging how people will react to Home Fires. So far, I’ve been immensely touched by some of the responses – particularly from two reviewers on Amazon who I’ve never met and who took the time to write what they thought before Home Fires was even officially published. That meant so much to me because they were real readers, who didn’t know me and who completely got what the book was about.

Lastly, what part or character did you bond with the most during the experience?

I ended up loving Elsa more than I thought I would when I set out to write Home Fires. The more I wrote, the more I got to know her and the more her back story developed. I hope I managed to show that the way she behaved was a consequence of her own vulnerability. I also completely adored her husband, Oliver, who only has a couple of walk-on parts but who is quite possibly the nicest, most solid character in the entire novel. And he likes Twiglets. What more could you want in a fictional character?

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