Who or what inspired you to write We That Are Left?
I’ve been fascinated by the First World War since studying the war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. But I knew that I wanted to write about the experience of women and the civilians, who are so often forgotten. I was lucky to stumble across a wonderful book, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Elsie-Mairi-Go-War-Extraordinary/dp/1848091354 - Elsie and Mairi go to War by Dr Diane Atkinson, which tells the true story of two friends who set off to help the men on the front line. They were amazing women, and from their story I also learnt about the many women who set up field hospitals, drove ambulances and braved horrific conditions and danger to help both the soldiers and the civilians caught up in the fighting.
My other inspiration was my mother, who as a teenager was in
when WW2 broke out and had to make a terrifying
journey home on her own. I’ve never forgotten her stories of what she saw on
that train journey as war erupted around her, including being hunted by a
submarine as the boat crossed the Chanel. I’ve got family in France , so this really brought home the sense of civilians
caught up in the middle of a war, and what it is like to experience an
invasion, something we haven’t experienced in France for centuries. Britain
What is this novel about?
We That Are Left is the story of Elin, young woman leading a conventional, comfortable life on the family estate in
in 1914. There are shadows in Elin’s life, but she
pushes them to one side until war breaks out and her life changes forever. With
her husband at the front, Elin has to take charge, finding hidden depths in
herself and gaining new skills and confidence. She works growing much needed
food and developing her mother’s recipes, and when a friend is in danger, she
braves the horrors of occupied Cornwall in a desperate attempt to rescue her, racing through
enemy lines in a battered ambulance. When the war is over, Elin is expected to
return to being a dutiful wife, but with all that she has been through she
finds this impossible, and so her own personal battles for freedom have only
just begun … France
How did you organise your research?
The locations were the most straightforward. Because I’ve family in
, I’ve visited the war graves and the trenches several
times. I’ve lived in France , and London Anglesey is just across the water from me.
What was more difficult was finding out details of women’s experience in the war, as it has been less studied than the actual fighting. I found some great books and first hand experiences. One of the best things I did is a subscription to the British Library’s collection of online newspapers of the time. They have proved invaluable, not only in getting a sense of early 20th Century life an attitudes, but also some of the recipes that Elin uses in the book. As shortages began to bite, there were plenty of recipes and advice on meals without meat (unthinkable for even modestly well-off families before the war) and how to make the most of what was available. There are also traditional Welsh recipes that Elin uses, that she has inherited from her mother, so I had great fun trying them all out!
Who is your favourite character in the story?
I think it has to be Elin’s friend Lady Margaret, known as ‘Mouse’, who is headstrong and reckless and gets herself into all kinds of trouble, but beneath all the bravado has a heart of gold. She can be exasperating at times, but is determined not to be constrained by being a woman. She flies an aeroplane and teaches Elin to drive, but it’s when she takes herself off to the front line to help soldiers and civilians that she really finds a sense of purpose, despite the dangers.
What did researching the period teach you?
One of the big surprises was just how much women did in WW1. I knew that they took over much of the work at home, but I hadn’t realised how much they also did on the front line, including picking up bodies in No Man’s Land and driving ambulances. This was when women were considered too fragile to work or even study, and who were there simply to support their husbands – with marriage being their only respectable option in life. It also taught me how much we owe to these women, as they were also the women who after the war forged careers and created the freedoms and opportunities we have today.
The other thing that surprised me was just how much WW1 echoed the experienced of WW2. Although there was not rationing until the end of WW1, there were shortages and people had to find different ways of living. There were air raids, too, with first Zeppelins and then early aeroplanes making their way across the Chanel. It was clear that lessons had been learnt, so that things like rationing were put in place right at the start of WW2.
What does a typical writer's day hold for you?
Thank you for chatting to me, Juliet. Congratulations on the publication of this lovely new novel!
If you would like to win a copy of We That Are Left, please leave a comment on this blog post.
Juliet will choose a winner and I will ask the winner to contact me in March 2014.
‘We That Are Left’: http://www.amazon.co.uk/That-Are-Left-Juliet-Greenwood/dp/190678499X