C.J. Carey Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

C.J. Carey

C.J. Carey

An interview with C.J. Carey

C.J. Carey is the pen name for journalist Jane Thynne, who has also authored several works of World War II-era historical fiction. Her speculative fiction debut, Widowland imagines a 1950s London in which Britain allied with Nazi Germany during World War II.

Much of Widowland centers on this idea of rewriting great works of literature. I've heard of burning books, but not rewriting them. Was this an idea you invented, or has this actually occurred?

I've written several novels set in and around wartime Europe and Nazi Germany, and in researching those, I came across something that absolutely astonished me: in the 1930s and going into World War II, there was a man called Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi functionary very close to Hitler, who was an obsessive pedagogue. He set up an SS task force to go through occupied Europe to seize books from libraries and personal collections, then bring them back to Berlin, where a team of scholars would rewrite these history books. The idea of actually rewriting history so painstakingly was so astonishing to me that I took an imaginative leap and I thought, what would it be like if you had a situation where somebody had to rewrite English literature to make it ideologically appropriate for Nazi ideology?

And then when my husband died, I was out to lunch with an old friend who made a passing comment that he'd love to invite me to dinner, but that they only had couples to dinner, and I thought to myself, "I'm living in widowland now," which would be a great book title. That same day I'd been researching the treatment of women during World War II in Germany during the latter stages of the war. Everyone had rations, and there was one particular category of women who had the lowest rations because they were over 50 and they had no children, no husband; they were useless. They were nicknamed "Friedhofsfrauen" which means "Cemetery Women," and I thought it would be interesting to take these "useless" women, when we know women over 50 tend to be the most literate in a society, living in a Widowland as women who actually knew what English literature was all about. All those ideas came together and ultimately became Widowland.

Those women of
Widowland also have the least to lose.

If you take everything away from someone, then they have nothing to lose and they have nothing to fear. In Widowland, there is an outbreak of subversive graffiti: banned lines from women's literature, women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Brontë. The authorities are horrified by this, particularly as the Leader is about to visit Britain and be greeted by embarrassing graffiti about women and power and education. The suspicion falls on the widows because everybody understands they have nothing, so they're not frightened anymore.
Towards the end of the novel, there's a line from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that becomes very important to the heroine: "Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful." In the context of the novel, with reading frowned upon but with classics like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, the government recognizes people won't forget those books in a hurry. So the best thing to do is correct and edit them, but these older women read these books in their original, and remember them. So the difficulty of stamping out memory becomes important, and that's a theme I'll carry on in the sequel to Widowland.

It gives new meaning to the idea of history being written by the victors, doesn't it? It's more like
re-written by the victors.

That's something I think about a lot, and it even has a very contemporary feeling if you think about the Trump era and the idea of "facts" and "alternative facts." And the idea that we're quite concerned about at the moment, though it's certainly not new, that people rewrite history. Winston Churchill said, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." That idea about history being adjusted to suit the victor is not just something that we see now, it's been going on since Greek and Roman times.

What felt different to you writing this book, which is speculative fiction, compared to your other novels, which are historical fiction?

That's actually why I adopted a pen name for Widowland, because I've always gone to enormous lengths not to get the historical facts wrong in any way in my other novels, and to get everything accurate. And so when I decided to do an alternative history, I thought to do it under a different name.

I've always loved that "sliding doors" theory of history, how easily things could have been different, so what I wanted was not to have a sort of fantastical dystopia, I wanted how it would have been. Helpfully, an intelligence chief for the Nazi party wrote a whole handbook about how they would have run Britain once invaded--that was very useful, and I tried to keep fairly accurately to things that I thought would have happened.

It was also liberating, because you suddenly think, I could make that happen! For example, there was a senior Nazi called Rudolf Hesse who flew to England during the war and crashed and was kept prisoner in Spandau Prison for the rest of his life. In Widowland, Hesse has not crashed his plane, and he's bought a mansion in Scotland instead. I wanted that alternative, that "what if?"

And the biggest "what if?" of 20th-century British history, which is: What if Edward VIII had not abdicated? Edward was a Nazi sympathizer, and I think without any doubt, if that had happened, England would have been allied with Germany and all sorts of things would have flown from that. Life would have been very different, so that's a huge what-if in English history, and I wanted--I've always longed--to tackle that one.

It's so interesting to think of the multitude of what-ifs, and then back to the power of literature to hold so many stories, both real and imagined.

I suppose one of the things that I really fear is that the books that everybody knows of English literature--famous books like Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, etc.--can, in the space of just a generation or two, become books that only a few people know. That fear, about losing reading and our literary heritage, underpins this. Obviously the people in charge in the regime believe that it is very easy to stop people reading and stop people thinking, and so what [this book] really is, is kind of a vote of confidence for reading. The important thing about reading is that you experience other lives, and it expands empathy. I suppose, in that way, it's really about reading as much as anything.

This interview by Kerry McHugh first ran in Shelf Awareness in April 2022. It is reproduced with permission of Shelf Awareness and C.J. Carey's publisher, Sourcebooks

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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