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.


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