Interview: July 1, 2011
Author Margaret Leroy's latest work, THE SOLDIER'S WIFE, is a story of love and fear that takes place on the island of Guernsey --- off the coast of Normandy --- as World War II draws near. When the Occupation turns brutal, Vivienne de la Mare, who is wrapped up in a love affair, must decide if she is willing to risk her personal happiness for the life of a stranger.
Bookreporter.com's Melanie Smith spoke with Leroy about her inspiration for the novel, and how her family history, motherhood and social work helped inform the narrative. She also talks about falling in love with Guernsey and imagining what it was like growing up in wartime.
Bookreporter.com: What inspired the idea of writing about a love affair in occupied Guernsey during World War II?
Margaret Leroy: The seed of the story was planted a long time ago, in 1992, when the government papers relating to the Occupation of the Channel Islands were released. I remember reading about the Occupation in the newspaper --- this was well before I became a novelist --- and thinking at once that this could make such a wonderful story. The idea stayed in my mind for years until I felt the right moment had come to begin to write the book.
BRC: Did you travel to Guernsey? What research did you do?
ML: I took a research trip to Guernsey and fell in love with this little island. I explored the deep lanes of St. Pierre du Bois, where I decided Vivienne, my heroine, would live, and I found a house that seemed perfect for her --- a tranquil, white-washed house surrounded by orchards and woods. There was a gravel yard in front of the house, with a table and chairs set out there; in summer you could drink your coffee there, in the leaf-speckled light. I imagined the idyllic life you could lead in that place; and then how it would be to have that life so violently disrupted, with officers of Hitler's army living next door. As soon as I'd found this house for my heroine, the story began to take shape.
BRC: While love blossoming in trying times is a theme in THE SOLDIER'S WIFE, there is also the difficult task of parenting during wartime. Vivienne de la Mare is determined to preserve some sense of normality and innocence for her daughters even while surrounded by enemies. Her role as a mother is equally as important as her role as a lover. As you were writing, were you thinking of how to balance those two storylines?
ML: I felt the two storylines could work well together. The fact that Vivienne is a mother raises the stakes in the story: the risks she takes are greater, and the moral issues more acute, because through her actions she may be endangering her adored children. But, at the same time, her love affair sustains her in her mothering and helps her to keep going through the dark times. The love affair feels like a safe place to retreat to: the lovers imagine they can close the door on the outside world and the war when they're together. But as the story develops, the war begins to intrude on the sweet, secret life that they share.
BRC: THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY was published in 2008. Where were you in your writing process when that book came out? Did you read it?
ML: I'd just started writing my own story when the book came out. And though I was intensely curious, I made a deliberate decision not to read it until I'd finished my story. This wasn't because I was worried about overlap: the Occupation was a complex event, and there's room for plenty of stories about it. It was rather because, like most writers, I sometimes remember what I read quite exactly, and there's always a risk that another writer's style will bleed into your own --- especially if your subject matter is similar. So it was a real treat to open Mary Ann Shaffer's book once I'd finished mine. I adored it: it's such an enchanting book.
BRC: Each book gives readers a snapshot of this tiny island during the war. What do you think was the charm and appeal of writing about Guernsey?
ML: Guernsey is very beautiful. It has a temperate French climate and a very British feel, and that special clarity of light that you only find on small islands. And it feels so peaceful, with its orchards, flowering hedgebanks, little streams. For me, part of the appeal of the story idea was the shocking contrast --- there's this lovely, tranquil island, and then the Nazis march in. I also liked the way many of the issues that war raises are there in a microcosm on Guernsey. How should you react to the enemy? These men are representatives of a brutal regime --- but they maybe don't want to be fighting; you get to know them, they even show you photos of loved ones they've left behind. How can you hate them? And then, when the slave workers arrive on the island, the moral challenges become especially agonizing. Is it right to help a desperate stranger, if to do so could put your own family at risk?
BRC: How much do you feel war survivors are marked by their experiences? Are war children more or less likely than adults to come away seeing things positively?
ML: It's a difficult question to answer, because in the UK that experience shaped an entire generation. For people like my parents who lived through World War II as young adults, I think there was a tremendous need to establish a sense of safety in the post-war years. Perhaps also a fear of taking risks, and gratitude for the big, simple things --- health, a family. People aspired, above all, to have stability and security. I think that aspiration contributed to the culture of the 1950s; and maybe in Europe the upheavals of the 1960s were in part a reaction against the stasis of those years.
BRC: Your writing focuses on the carefree joys of childhood. Are ideas based on your own parenting experiences, and have you kept a journal while raising your kids?
ML: I did keep a journal while raising my daughters, and I'd advise any aspiring novelist to do the same. So many magical or touching things happen when you're bringing up children, and they say such extraordinary things, and you always think you'll never forget, but of course you do! I love writing children. Millie is perhaps my favorite character in THE SOLDIER'S WIFE. I see her as a robust, vivid little girl who is also a kind of moral compass in the story. In some ways, parenting was very different then: Millie at five is roaming the countryside with her seven-year-old friend --- a freedom that very few children of that age would have nowadays.
BRC: The lovemaking scenes in THE SOLDIER'S WIFE are really quite touching and tastefully handled. Were these intimate scenes easy to write or a challenge?
ML: Intimate scenes are always a challenge because readers vary greatly in how explicit they like such scenes to be. In the end, the best you can do is to adopt a style and a way of writing that seem right for your story. And because I was writing about a time when sex wasn't openly spoken about, I chose to write those scenes in quite a metaphorical way.
BRC: To your knowledge, did passenger boats ever sink carrying people away from Guernsey?
ML: No, they didn't sink. But there was a very real possibility that they could have, which must have weighed on people's minds as they tried to arrive at a decision. Should they go and leave behind the entire life they'd built on Guernsey? Or should they stay --- everything safe and familiar to start with, sleeping in their own beds --- waiting for what must happen?
BRC: Do you feel the average American or English citizen, being preserved and safe from the nearness of war, is naive to the meaning of it --- both the necessity for protection and as a destructive force?
ML: If you're fortunate enough to have no experience of war, it's a huge imaginative leap to put yourself in the position of people in wartime. For me, one of the things that was particularly challenging was to understand how people saw their world in 1940. For American and British people today, the whole way we think about World War II is shaped by the fact that we won. But in 1940, when the story begins, people believed that defeat was inevitable --- that the Occupation of the Channel Islands was just the start, that Hitler would cross the English Channel and Britain would be invaded and defeated --- and they made all their decisions in the light of that belief. I always tried to remember that, as one of my characters remarks, the people in the story don't know how it's going to end.
BRC: Have your experiences as a social worker given you insights into the state of mind of those suffering from the threat (or memory) of violence?
ML: The knowledge of psychology that I gained from my time as a social worker certainly does inform my writing. For this story, I tried to imagine what it was like to be afraid all the time, as the islanders must have been --- constantly afraid that there might be the most terrible consequences for some slight infringement of rules. This does have parallels with the way children who live in violent homes can feel, but there's a crucial difference. Violence in war is visited on you by the enemy, while for children who are abused the violence is most often perpetrated by their caregivers, which is very different psychologically.
BRC: Did your being a mother influence how you wrote about Vivienne and her children?
ML: I do use aspects of my own children in creating children in my stories. Blanche is a little like my own daughters when they were teenagers: there's often a restlessness in teenage girls, a feeling that they would rather be anywhere but here! Millie has that clarity that so charmed me in my own children when they were small. And Vivienne's parenting style is probably quite like my own. Evelyn says to her, "You're too soft with those girls, Vivienne," and I can well imagine someone saying that of me!
BRC: What does it mean to be a "jerrybag"? Is that a curse?
ML: It was the most insulting term for a woman who was sleeping with the enemy. Resistance was impossible on Guernsey --- the island was overrun with Germans, and, unlike occupied France, there was nowhere to hide. As a result, the kind of energy that in other occupied territories might have been channelled into resistance activities was here often directed at those people on the same side who were felt to be betraying the cause --- especially women who fell in love with soldiers from the occupying army.
BRC: Can you tell us the significance of fairy tales appearing repeatedly in THE SOLDIER'S WIFE?
ML: The idea of using fairy tales came to me in a bookshop in St. Peter Port, where I discovered a book of Guernsey folktales and lore. Some of the stories in the book seemed to be folk memories of invasion --- of mysterious people who came to Guernsey from over the sea --- which fitted beautifully with my story. I knew at once that I would use this material in my novel, to illuminate the story and to provide moments of reflection. And it was the folktale book that inspired the character of Angie, one of Vivienne's friends. Angie is gullible and believes all the old superstitions --- so when she starts to whisper to Vivienne about the things that are happening in the work camps, this seems like some appalling nightmare fairy tale beyond belief.
BRC: Are you writing now, and if so, when can readers expect to see your next book?
ML: I'm writing a novel about a young Englishwoman who goes to Vienna to study the piano just before the Anschluss, when Hitler annexed Austria. I should finish it within a year --- so I'm hoping it will be in bookshops in a couple of years!