Saturday, 15 September 2018

Book Two, the long view - Rowena House

Book Two isn’t so much gestating as morphing, like some alien creature of an unknown species, uncontainable in time or space except for its broadest “on brand” parameters: World War II and France.

If it does turn out to be the love story that so far I’ve imagined, then I know the lovers’ names. I thought I knew what she wanted and needed, too, but lately his story has come into sharper focus than hers, so I’m going to start over again, experimenting with a dual point-of-view and third person (past tense), breaking out of my comfort zone of first person present.

When I have the time, that is.
Which is now far, far scarcer than it was. Which means I won’t need to plan another launch party any time soon. Which is sad, but there you go: needs must and advances everywhere are low.

I am researching facts. Facts are good. Knowledge is addictive, as I remembered when looking back at past ABBA blogs, and finding one about a New Scientist article that described how the brain’s reward centres light up when we discover something new.

My bedside table is piled high with WW2 non-fiction and fiction, each book teeming with light bulb moments. That’s not procrastinating, right? It’s just being thorough.

Recently I finished Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, a beautifully written, inter-linked series of stories set in the earliest years of the war and the German Occupation of northern and western France. I’d taken it with me to Paris in late August to read slowly and deliciously in Marais cafes, the Palais Royal and the gardens of the Tuileries.

The stories remain unfinished as Ms Nemirovsky was deported to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942. I wonder if she would have published her first two suites in their original form, depicting some Germans so tenderly, had she survived.

As a researcher, and human being, I’d like to find an answer to that question.
As a writer, however, it is enough to have glimpsed her world, devoid of hindsight, to read about the raw fear of her characters, and the psychology of those with an inclination towards collaboration, and the pettiness of a time when all were ignorant of the horrors to come.

Such an avoidance of hindsight is, for me, one of the greatest challenges of writing historical fiction. As creators of credible characters, I believe we have to believe in our characters’ expectations of the future, even if they’re almost certainly wrong. Granting them clairvoyance seems to me to be fundamentally dishonest; we serve today's readers far better by rejecting self-serving mythologies and lazy nostalgia.
For my debut novel, The Goose Road, isolating a peasant girl from any false knowledge of the significance of her times was relatively easy: 1916 was a pivotal year in the First World War, and therefore containable, especially after my editor asked me not to dwell on subsequent, and consequent events – the Spanish influenza pandemics of 1918 and 1919. 

World War II feels different somehow, perhaps because it is closer in time and there are still survivors. The facts remain contested, too, as well as the simple duality of Us Good, Them Bad. Research has opened my eyes to the full contribution of the Red Army, which was blurred in my youth by the Cold War and lack of access to Soviet archives.
In Paris last month, I  stumbled across etched marble memorial panels to the dead Jewish children of the Marais, public expressions of remorse and responsibility for the deportation of Jews by the French authorities which weren't there in the late 1980s when I lived in that district.
Seeing these memorials made me rethink the reasons why I had decided to set Book Two in the Marais. Familiarity didn't seem enough any more, since any character living there would surely have known what was going on, and would therefore have to bear some responsibility, as witnesses if nothing else. But I've no intention of writing about the Holocaust; the death camps aren’t places I’m willing to enter as a fiction writer.

That led me deeper into questions about whose story I do want to write - and why - which inevitably raised issues of cultural appropriation. My protagonist in The Goose Road is also French, a 14 year old peasant. It didn’t worry me when writing her story that I am none of these things. Why, then, should telling the love story of Manon Lecoeur be different?

I discussed this briefly with a charming bookseller in the Hotel de Sully’s bookshop, which specialises in the history of Paris. He said I was welcome to write about a Parisian girl in 1944. His city belonged to the world to reimagine, he said. I thanked him most sincerely, and accepted that as permission to go ahead.

Which only left the small matters of a plot,  POVs, settings, tone, voice etc. etc.

Presumably they will come, given enough time and effort, enough patience and determination, plus the money for more research, and the gift of good sense to recognise moments of clarity,  and the willpower to keep going and going and going...
Gosh, wouldn't a bit of clairvoyance be nice to know if any of it will be worthwhile in the end?


Twitter: @houserowena

Instagram: @rowena.houseauthor or @rowenahouse


Ann Turnbull said...

In answer to your final question, Rowena: No. It wouldn't. The struggle is the heart of it.

Rowena House said...

What a positive way of looking at it. Thank you. I never see myself as a struggling artist, more a journeyman wordsmith. Either way, I'm sure you're right. Uncertainty & doubt are integral parts of it all.

Anne Booth said...

Well, I'm intrigued and want to read it already!

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Anne. I'm so looking forward to writing it!