Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Q&A with James Wilson

It has been a couple of weeks since I finished The Summer of Broken Stories but, as I said in my review, it's still floating around in my mind. For that reason I was very excited to have the opportunity to grill the author, James Wilson, about the novel and certain elements which stood out for me. 

Q. Both world wars cast a long shadow in this book and it’s clear that many of the characters were involved with and affected by war in one way or another. Was this a conscious decision to draw attention to the effect of war, or was it just an inevitable part of the novel because of the period in which it’s set?

A. That’s an interesting question. The answer is that it wasn’t a conscious decision, but a reflection of what I found on my return visit to my ten-year-old self. I realized that almost every adult I knew then had been directly affected by one or both of the world wars: my father had been evacuated from France (Calais, not Dunkirk) in 1940; my mother’s childhood home had been damaged by a German bomb; my grandmother had lost her fiancĂ© on the Western Front; one of my great uncles had been killed, and his brother, my grandfather, had been gassed, and remained a semi-invalid for the rest of his life. The strange thing is that, while these back-stories were a constant off-stage presence, people very rarely talked about them openly.

Q. Did you face any challenges whilst writing this novel?

A. There are challenges with every novel, starting with trying to find the right narrative voice. With The Summer of Broken Stories, the problem was to come up with an approach that acknowledged the lapse of time between the 1950s and now, but didn’t weigh the story down with hindsight: I wanted the reader, as far as possible, to be able to share Mark’s experiences as they happened. Only after several false starts did I hit upon the structure I eventually used: a short opening section set in the present, which then – by a kind of cinematic fade – moves back into the past.

Q. I loved the focus on stories, storytelling and imagination in the novel. Did you make up imaginary worlds like Peveril on the Swift when you were a child?

A. Absolutely! Like Mark, I had a model railway, and made up stories about the people who lived (in little cardboard and balsa wood houses) in the village next to the station. And like him, too, I spent a lot of time outside with my dog, imagining myself back in some earlier period – the eighteenth century, or Roman Britain, or the Middle Ages.

Q. There’s a lot going on in this novel – it explores a variety of themes, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. Were you driven by any particular theme or message whilst writing?

A. You obviously read it very perceptively! Yes, there is a lot going on, much of it – as you suggest – beneath the surface. I can’t reduce what I was trying to do to a message, exactly, but there are certainly a number of themes. One of the most important is the power of the stories we tell ourselves, and their relationship with our experience of the real world. So, for example, Mark’s imagined community, Peveril on the Swift, is a kind idealized version of the village he actually lives in – the village as it would like to be, or he would like it to be – where he can take refuge from the tensions of his family life. 

Q. Was there anything in particular which triggered the idea for this novel?

A. Part of it stemmed from the death of my mother, and the realization of how much had disappeared with her. At a stroke, a lot of my life, the world I grew up in, became, literally, history. And I wanted to recapture something of what it actually felt like – or at least, what it felt like to me, growing up then – before it had vanished altogether. It was nothing at all like the popular view of the 1950s, which sees it as a kind of dull, monochrome prelude to the psychedelic sixties. The two world wars, as you say, still cast long shadows, and there was a good deal of anxiety about the future – a lot of it expressed in TV and radio dramas, and children’s comics, and the novels of authors like John Wyndham. And I was interested in what those stories tell us, not only about the time in which they were written, but also about the world we live in today.

Q. Finally, I’m pretty nosy when it comes to books so I’d love to know what you’re reading now?

A. My reading’s a bit hotch-potchy: a mixture, usually, of research for my latest project (currently, Rob Young’s excellent Electric Eden, about the visionary tradition in English music); classics I should have got round to earlier (most recently, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter); and contemporary fiction (I’ve just started Patrick Flanery’s I Am No One). 

Thank you very much to James Wilson for taking the time to answer my questions so brilliantly! You can find my review of The Summer of Broken Stories here and find the book on Alma's website here.

James Wilson can be found on his website and on twitter.


Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Summer as Character || Mini Reviews

A few weeks ago I found myself reading two books with the word summer in the title back to back. They couldn't be more different - one is a debut thriller, the other a work of literary fiction from an established author - but I was struck by the role summer played in both. Summer, and heat waves in particular, acts as a crucible or catalyst in many novels (having read it this year, I'm reminded of Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave). These two novels take summer as their setting and weave tales that are inextricably linked to the season; one because of the heat, the other because of the school summer break.    

The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan

In the blistering heat of Western Texas, Jasper Curtis returns home to live with his sister and her two daughters after ten years in prison. Jasper says he's done with trouble, but the town can't forget what he did.

I thought I'd like this novel when I first read the synopsis, but I'm surprised at quite how absorbed - almost addicted - I was. Donal Ryan's quote there on the front cover sums it's up pretty well, this novel is gripping, dark and compelling. The darkness that presides over it is thick with heat and uncertainty. I found myself losing sight of what's right and what's wrong the further I was led into the story and into Jasper's life.

The heat is an important part of this novel. It's oppressiveness is felt throughout and reading it I could almost feel the sun beating down on me, feel the panic of confinement and the discomfort of the thick air.

This is a novel that tips you upside down and makes you question your long held beliefs. Once it's done that, Ronan hits you with the climactic scene. I was surprised at how it played out, yet I was in awe of Ronan's gentle touch. Her writing is detailed, lyrical and tense. I turned those final pages with my heart in my mouth, but it never felt overdone or sensationalised. Her understanding of humanity and particularly of the need for revenge is truly something.

The Summer of Broken Stories by James Wilson

This novel is written from the perspective of Mark, a school boy who is busy spending his summer wandering with his dog and making up stories when he comes across a rather unusual man in the woods. This man is Aubrey Hillyard, a writer working on an ominous science fiction novel, who has been shunned by village society for reasons unknown to Mark. They strike up an unusual friendship based on storytelling, whilst the villagers plot to drive Aubrey out.

This book is set in 1950s England, where the shadow of the Second World War still looms. It's quite different from The Last Days of Summer in a number of ways, but it is equally as unsettling and memorable. I was struck particularly by how intricate the book became considering that the plot was relatively simple. What made it intricate was the sheer number of themes and issues it addresses, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. It explores things such as friendship and childhood, betrayal and rebellion, and yet it never feels overdone. Check back tomorrow to hear more about this as I was lucky enough to arrange a Q&A with James Wilson.

Summer here is like a character in a play. It's there to move things along and to instigate various actions, but it has a start and an end point which brackets the novel. There isn't so much a sense of oppressive heat here, rather the tension comes partly from the time constraints as the days before term restarts (and reality hits), slowly fall away. On a slightly more metaphorical level the passing summer also reflects Mark's childhood and the passing off his innocence as he gets more and more embroiled in Aubrey's world.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these novels and I've found it so interesting to reflect back on them in a slightly different way. The more I think about it, the more I realise how important the season is to a work of fiction. It can completely change the tone and tensions of a novel - I wonder how either of these would play out in the winter. Quite differently, I suppose.

Have you ever been struck by the role the season plays in a novel?

Thank you to the publishers for providing me with these novels for review. All opinions my own as per.

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