Anna Hope discusses her novel Wake set in London at the close of World War I
Wake takes place in London at the close of World War I. What drew you to that that time period?
It's funny, I came at WW1 sideways - I was reading a lot of women's social history from the turn of the 20th century, and was fascinated by women's fight for the vote and the early suffrage campaigns. I knew that the vote had been granted for most women in Britain in 1918, but I wanted to know why, what had changed for women during this period? Then, the more I started to research the period of the end of the war, the more I became compelled by what I learned of British society of the time. The Empire, which before the war had been so sure of its status in the word, was brought low and crippled with grief. Servicemen were homeless and begging on the streets. Hardly any family was untouched by death. There was great social unrest. The cracks were beginning to appear in all of those patriarchal certainties women voting, gaining new independences, bobbing their hair and binding their breasts.
To add to this was the fact that the government had taken the unilateral decision not to bring any of the bodies home from the Western Front. So all of those dead young men were buried in graveyards close to where they had died in Belgium and Northern France and beyond. I was fascinated by the extraordinary sense of absence and lack of closure this must have created for the families who had lost a loved one.
You tell the story through the lives of three women whose stories are braided together. What led you to take this approach?
I knew from very early on that I wanted to see these events through the eyes of women. I was really aware that most of the known tropes of the war: the barbed wire, the mud, the botched battles, were all from the male experience, and that there was another side to those four years, that of the women who lived through them. Through books like Vera Brittain's memoir Testament of Youth I felt I learned a little about the work of the women who went over to France as nurses, but I wanted to write about those that didn't go out to France and have those life changing adventures. Three women, who on the surface appear unremarkable, but all of whom are profoundly changed by the experience of war.
How much did the burial of the Unknown Warrior influence your story? Was this a nonfiction element you knew you had to include to shape the novel?
Yes, it was. Just technically I knew I wanted to have that opportunity to be present in the consciousness of more than just my women characters. The body of the Unknown Warrior gave me that freedom. We catch glimpses into the consciousness of those who accompany the body on its journey: a nurse, a farmer in Northern France, the British Undertakers who lay out the body, an Irish soldier in the crowd at the Cenotaph.
Perhaps a little bizarrely, while I was writing, I kept thinking of that fabulous Mexican road trip movie Y Tu Mama Tambien. I loved the way that the camera would pan away from the main action and you'd hear a little bit about a character the car was passing; a worker from Michoacan who had died crossing the road; you'd get these glimpses into a wider society that was carrying on outside the bounds of the main plot. I loved that, and sought to create something of that in Wake. I also returned often to Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. What he does so cleverly in that book is show how you can tell the story of a city, a society, a turning point in history, through one symbolic event.
It was great to work within the limits of those five days too, and to challenge myself with how I could tell the story within that frame. And then of course, thematically, it was hugely important; the more I read about this event the more compelled I became: for so many hundreds of thousands of people this was the cathartic ritual they had been yearning for.
Did you find any part of the novel or character particularly hard to write?
Oh blimey yes! I wrote the first draft fairly quickly, but then redrafted again and again. One of the hardest things was trying to make enough happen in those five days to fill the novel, without the events seeming gratuitous or contrived. Balancing the main story and the backstory for each character was also a challenge. And then character-wise, both Ada and Hettie posed problems for me; Ada because she is so locked in her past and her grief, she was hard to energize (Evelyn has her spikiness, which though it doesn't endear her to those around her, was perversely quite good fun to write.) Hettie was the hardest, perhaps because she has lost the least. I wanted her to represent a new, thrusting energy, but that was tricky to achieve without her seeming callous.
What authors have you discovered lately?
In the course of my reading for Wake I came across a book called The Forbidden Zone by Mary Borden. She was an American nurse in WW1 and wrote these extraordinary prose sketches of her time in France. They out Hemingway in their sparseness, honesty and beauty. I think she is a great writer, and deserves to be much wider known. I'm hoping that the centenary will bring her to a wider reading public. I've been re-discovering Rebecca Solnit recently too - her latest book The Faraway Nearby is as close to a masterpiece as I've ever read.
Interview courtesy of Barnes and Noble Discover Program.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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