Have you ever watched Long Lost Families? The format is predictable. Either a mother who gave her child up for adoption, or a child who was adopted, ask ITV to help them find their son / daughter/ birth-mother/ biological father. The programme works because of its intimacy. When a match is made, first photos, then the only handwritten letters in modern times are exchanged. We watch it for the reunion tears and everyone is pleased with the outcome.
That’s what I don’t understand. There are no rekindled jealousies from having a new person hurled like a grenade into the fragile truce between acknowledged siblings. No one asks if this changes the parental will. No one carefully checks the DNA sample to see if the fledgling is genuine or a cuckoo. (I’ve always presumed that the makers of the programme do that off-screen).
That was one of my starting points for Girl Without a Voice. After her husband’s funeral Izzy goes in search of the son she gave up for adoption. Izzy already has four children. Throwing a fifth into the family mix allows for sibling fireworks as new alliances are forged and the family dynamics are altered for ever.
Another starting point is stated in the title. Izzy’s daughter, Leah, is the girl without a voice. She doesn’t speak. She exists on the edge of society and watches. Humans are talkers not listeners. When we are not talking we are often thinking about what we might say next. If you don’t talk, all that vanishes from your life. Instead you observe and you listen. Leah is bright and a formidable observer.
So many interesting things happen if you don’t talk. For instance, Leah has a lover, called Martin. They make love wordlessly without having to muddle the activity with epithets about love. Think how much of our courtship is done through words.
As in Back Behind Enemy Lines I am always interested in the way people change and grow. Leah is mute and has no qualifications. Martin is an unsuccessful bookseller. There is nothing smartly dressed or sassy about either of them. So I have teamed them up and sent them into battle with one of the greatest evils of our time: a fundamentalist cult. Think ISIS, think Exclusive Brethren, think any group that believes it knows what God thinks and exactly what he wants them to do. Add overwhelming male dominance. Sprinkle with the leadership’s sense that everything is permitted if you only believe. Such movements recur throughout history and wreak havoc.
What can a mute girl and a failed bookseller do against that?
Halifax bombers were edged out by the superior Wellingtons, so Halifax bombers were used to drop SOE agents behind enemy lines in the last years of the 2nd World War. They were big enough to carry a pay load, could defend themselves if necessary and, it has to be added, they were expendable as were the agents. I knew that my character, Anna, would have been flown across the channel in a Halifax bomber.
I needed to visualise the scene. It must have been terrifying. From my research I knew Anna had probably finished training only a week ago. Most agents had only done three parachute jumps: two in daylight and one at night. Even the night time jump was relatively domesticated because it was over an airfield she knew, and she wasn’t jumping alone. There were others in the plane and there was always an ambulance in attendance, should something go wrong. Her fourth ever jump would be a lonely affair into the unknown, so the journey out would be filled with tension. To write the scene I needed to see inside the plane.
There is only one Halifax bomber in existence in the world and it just happens to be at Elvington Air Museum, just outside York and close to where I live. I went there, explained why I’d come and a lovely man called Phil Kemp let me climb inside the plane.
A bomber is made to do a job of work. It does not exist for the comfort of the crew. There is only one way in and that was designed for dropping bombs through and its size was the size and shape of a large bomb. It is rectangular and quite narrow, difficult to climb through any way, at least I found that and I was not wearing a parachute. It must have been really tricky to parachute out of.
Once inside I saw the same utility. The walls are ribbed. There was a toilet in full view and no curtain. The agent sat on a chair nearby, quite alone, waiting. Above her head dangled the feet of the top gunner. A long way up at the front sat the pitot and navigator. I imagined it cold and dark, noisy and shaking. I imagined the crew exchanging terse information, Anna wouldn’t understand. There would be pallets on the floor loaded with weapons. There would be separate parcels, each with their own parachute. One of the gunners would push them out when the time came and push the spy out too if that was necessary. Inside that plane I felt like a school kid and again my respect for these agents and for their sheer physical courage grew enormous. I hope I’ve conveyed that. If those scenes don’t work I have no excuses.
I need you to picture the scene. This is a prostate cancer clinic. Seven men, all between the ages of forty and ninety, are sitting in the waiting room. We are all wearing pants, socks and one of those hospital gowns that fasten round the back. It’s biopsy time and we are all nervous, both for the discomfort of the procedure and for what it might reveal. Five men are called for in turn and go out. Two of us are left there. I find myself talking to a younger man who reveals he is an ex-soldier who served in Bosnia and for novel writing purposes I need to understand more about PTSD.
Is it moral to ask? If he’s as nervous as I am, will he want to answer? I knew I should leave it, but it was a real chance, and chances don’t come round very often. You write fiction, but that fiction needs to convince, needs to be as true as it can be. I’d read A War of Nerves by Ben Shephard, but I’d never talked to a soldier, never heard it face to face.
To my chagrin I don’t remember his name. I had to acknowledge him anonymously. I learnt so much from him and of course I had no pen and paper to make notes. Surgical gowns don’t have pockets! While we waited I pried more and more into the intimacies of his life. I could do this because he seemed happy to talk, indeed talking about it is part of the cure. He gave me details I used in Back Behind Enemy Lines. His wife, when he returned form service, had handed him his first child to hold, but he’d refused because he was thinking of his dead comrades who would never be able to hold their own children. He cried on his own. Once, in Bosnia, he’d parked his jeep on what he didn’t know was the ruins of a house. The bodies were still buried there and the air round him smelt like chocolate, so, for him, chocolate now smells of death. I used those details. When he was called out of the waiting room I thanked him profusely. I didn’t have a pen and paper, but I did have my I-phone so the moment he left I hurriedly made notes. Some of what he told me was too personal for me to exploit. When I’d written as much of this down as possible, I sat and thought about what it must be like to carry round secrets that you feel you can never tell, not in some cases, like Anna’s, for decades. It was one of those moments when my main character swam a little closer. I scarcely noticed the discomfort of the biopsy because my thinking was so intense.
You think you know it all and then this happens. I’d done the research. I’d studied how spies from SOE operated in the second world war. I’d assimilated that research and created Anna, my main character. I’d finished the novel three times and even persuaded an agent to take me on when I walked into the Trondheim Museum in Norway and realised I’d missed a really important trick.
As a novelist you sit in front of a computer and try to imagine what it’s like to be one of your characters. I had imagined what it was like to operate a radio behind enemy lines in Normandy in 1944. I knew it was every agent’s most vulnerable moment. The Gestapo could trace radio waves. As an agent you needed to be quick. You needed to be accurate. Two signature codes had to be sent to identify yourself. Only one code and London would presume you’d been captured and tortured and your set was being used by the Gestapo. I knew all that. So I sat at my desk and conjured up a scene about Anna being in radio contact with London that I thought was fool-proof. To give authenticity I made Anna listen out for approaching vehicles. A chance encounter in Trondheim told me how stupid that was.
Behind the glass in the museum was a waxwork of an agent using his radio to contact London. On the desk was a pistol with the safety catch off! I stared it before I realised. Of course. No agent could listen out for approaching vehicles. To receive information from London they had to be wearing earphones. How could I have missed that! Because they were wearing earphones they had to be able to defend themselves when the gestapo burst through the door. Hence the gun with the safety catch off.
I learnt the detail and slipped in into the final version. It was an object lesson to me about how any amount of research can only take you so far. But it was more than that. The girls who worked for SOE in the 2nd World War had been brought up for marriage and motherhood. Instead they found themselves, like Anna, behind enemy lines, their lives dependent on the instant ability to stop de-coding an incoming message turn and fire at whoever came through that door. My respect for them grew.
This was my first published novel but the fourth that I had written. The first novel I wrote was poor. It was in fact two novels shoved together, like a car impact. The second was about abuse. I rewrote this one eight times before I got it right. It’s waiting in the list for publication. It’s now called The Excuse of Snow. The third novel is called Fun-da-mental. This was the first that an agent picked up and asked for the first 30 pages. She made positive comments, so I asked if I could send her Back Behind Enemy Lines and she said I could. She read the first 30 pages and asked for the whole novel. I whooped. Alone in the house, I whooped. I sent her the rest and she loved it, but no publisher would take it.
I wasn’t surprised. I’m the wrong age for a start. Perhaps, for the first time in my life, I’m also the wrong gender. When I tentatively said that to Molly, my daughter, she pointed out that I had no right to complain having benefitted so often from being male. She has a point.
Of course, I would have preferred a printed copy to hold and put on the shelf, but when my agent offered to publish it for me on Amazon I grabbed at the chance.
I have to say there are real benefits to Kindle publication. The reviews helped to boost sales and they gave me feedback, made me feel like a writer. By publishing like this it was possible to put small mistakes right as we went along. Because it sold well I was offered a printed version through Amazon’s superb PoD (Print on Demand) system. That was a real high point, placing it on my bookshelves next to Jane Eyre, because that was where it went in alphabetical order by name of author.
I have really enjoyed the feedback.
I try to make my writing reflect the world I live in. I suppose this has something to do with the teacher I’ve always been. Back Behind Enemy Lines began with a revelation and was spurred on by a feeling of guilt. The dedication in the book reads: For my mother, Nora Bridge. In my first version I added, by way of an apology.
My Dad had died several years before. Mum was living alone in a large house and was already in her mid-nineties. Of her four children I lived nearest to her and I was three hours away by car. Like so many grown up children I was concerned for her safety. With little time to spare from a demanding job (can you hear the special pleading) I phoned up the local vicar’s wife and asked if she thought Mum was coping. Together with the Vicar’s wife I arranged for another member of the congregation to clean for Mum and generally check on her. Mum hated this arrangement, but I insisted.
I was never sure where the revelation came from but one day I finally twigged that Mum valued independence more than safety. Let me spell that out. I think she was prepared to risk dying slowly at the bottom of the stairs she had fallen down because that was the price for being able to live independently. In spying in her I had violated her privacy.
I began to think about how we treat older people and out of that thinking I created Anna. She had to be aged 90. That’s quite a challenge for a novelist to have your central character already over the age of incapacity. So I made her a spy, gave her an exciting earlier life. That’s where the title comes from. Anna served behind enemy lines in Normandy when anyone and everyone might report her to the authorities. Being old makes her feel as if she is back behind enemy lines. She needs to bring her wartime skills back into use in order to defend her independence.
I think that idea works well in the book. It also allowed me to explore another theme that intrigues me. How much can we ever know another person, or ever fully understand the life we have lived and the impact of the choices we’ve made. When in Part 3 Anna goes back to France and confronts the ghosts that have haunted her I hope readers respond to the persistent ambiguity I create there. I hope that feels like the truth.
A novel must tell a story that engages you, keeps you reading and leaves you thoughtful.
To tell a story, all you need is a hook and a thread. But novels can be so much more.
A novel is like a dating site. Readers are looking for someone to love, for a character they can engage with, someone they can live alongside. With a hook, a thread and such a character you can truly engage readers.
Love is not always the strongest emotion. A novel is a kind of threesome: at its best it is an intense engagement between the reader, someone they love and someone they hate.
A novel is also an adventure holiday. Novels take you into other countries, other lives, other worlds. Novels give you experiences you haven’t quite had.
Every novel is a lie. Great novels are lies that tell you the truth: the truth about your world and about what it means to be human.
If you try to write novels with these ingredients each book you conceive will be different. That isn’t easy for readers. You will disappoint.
Only once have I built a character around someone I knew, and if I’m ever challenged I shall deny it. But I do borrow the physical features of people I meet or see, often in cafés. I like to write in cafés. The Fossgate branch of Spring Café in York is my favourite place to write. You can sit at the window, plug your lap top in and watch the world go by. I’ve picked up mannerisms and occasional snippets of conversation there. And once when I was searching round for the physical description for Leah in Girl Without a Voice she suddenly walked into the café. Everything about her was right: the way she stood, the unkempt hair and a cardigan with deep, crammed pockets. I sat there and discretely made notes.
But some years ago Gemma was giving me problems. Gemma is one of the young people in Back Behind Enemy Lines. I had a sense of her character but no physical description to fix her as a real person. I was in Cornwall, staying with my sister. We’d gone to Sennen cove, walked the beach and watched the surfers. It was a cold day so we went to the café to warm up. We found a table and the waitress headed our way. She was tall, about 18, which was the right age. She had a thin face and wonderful brown hair. It was the hair that fixed it for me. It was tightly pulled back from the face and tied in a single thick ponytail which hung down one side of her face. It was a striking look and I snapped it up.
In the book her hair becomes a metaphor for the person Gemma is. It plays a crucial part in her relationship with Nathan.
I suppose my message to readers is stay away from novelists. You never know when they are looking at you and what they are storing up for future use.