Congratulations on all the success your first novel Somewhere in France has had! Were you surprised by the response from readers?
I have to admit I was! When you’re a writer, you spend years working more or less alone, and so when you present your characters to the world it’s hard not to feel a little bit anxious, even protective. I had become very fond of Lilly and Robbie, and indeed of all the characters in the book (excepting Lady Cumberland, of course) that it was terribly gratifying when so many people fell in love with them, too.
We first met Charlotte as Lilly’s friend in Somewhere in France, how did you decide to make her the heroine of your second book?
When I was creating her character, she kept reminding me of other women who have inspired me, among them my grandmother, who spent her working life as a journalist, and my late mother, who was a lawyer and, in the last years of her life, a judge. Both had the courage and determination to work in fields traditionally dominated by men, and they persevered in the face of what must often have been quite dispiriting working conditions.
It made me wonder: although I grew up in a family where no one ever said I couldn’t do something because I was female, what must it have been like for women such as Charlotte and Lilly and their contemporaries? How would it have felt to live and work at a time when so many doors were closed to women?
I also knew that I had to resolve the story of what happens between Charlotte and Edward, for good or for bad, else risk the wrath of everyone who had been waiting to discover what becomes of them after the war.
During the war, many women did “men’s” work, and took on all kinds of new and exciting challenges. Did that have an effect on their lives after the war?
It did, but in a pretty limited fashion. Yes, some women (though not all) received the right to vote in 1918, and from 1919 onwards the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act opened the professions to women and also made it illegal to sack a woman if she got married. In practice, however, high levels of unemployment after the war—levels that were particularly dire in the industrial north—meant that virtually all women who had been employed during the war were given the sack shortly after its end, and few were then able to find positions outside occupations that had been traditionally considered “women’s work.”
What the war did encourage, however, was a growing conviction among women that they were absolutely able to do the same work as men, that they ought to receive the same wages if they did the same work, and that they contributed just as much to society as did men. They saw themselves as capable, as able, and that perception lingered. Their daughters picked up on it, and then their grand-daughters—and so, while appreciable and measurable change did not happen until after the Second World War, it did happen. And I would say that we all owe a debt of thanks to those first women who had the guts to leave behind everything that was familiar and comfortable, and do the jobs they were asked to do.
What was your favorite part of researching After the War is Over?
Oh, definitely the portions that involved Oxford. I studied there in the early 1990s, and it was great fun to send Charlotte and Edward along streets I myself walked as a student, to put them in some of the same buildings I worked in and visited, and to describe the splendor of a degree ceremony. Fortunately for me, the city itself hasn’t changed all that much since the turn of the last century, and the ceremonial aspects of life at the university have altered hardly at all. So it was mostly a case of re-acquainting myself with smaller details that I had forgotten over the years, and brushing up on my Latin a little bit!
Were there any historical details that were especially difficult to uncover?
So many resources are available online via digital databases that in most cases it was simply a matter of digging and asking the right questions of the right people. I did have to be very careful when I was describing the layout of certain neighborhoods in Liverpool and the East End of London, however—large swaths of both were all but wiped out during the Blitz, so I couldn’t rely on modern maps as wayfinders. Instead, I turned to ordnance survey maps of the period, which showed me the streets as they existed in 1919.
I will say, though, that if I know a street or building is largely the same as it was a century ago, I find Google Streetview a tremendously helpful (and entertaining) means of putting myself in the shoes of my characters—just as long as I ignore the modern signage, cars, and other evidence of the twenty-first century.
How did you research the details of Edward’s injuries?
I began by reading a number of books and articles from the immediate post-war period that sought to explain and understand the phenomenon of what was then known as neurasthenia, but today we would call post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. At the beginning of the war it was understood imperfectly, to say the least. Though the number of soldiers and officers executed for cowardice, but who in fact were likely suffering from PTSD, is often exaggerated, it was nonetheless a horrible and tragic byproduct of the lack of understanding that then prevailed.
By the end of the war, however, there was a growing consensus that a man might, through no fault of his own, be so traumatized by what he had suffered that he was truly not fit for duty. It was also the case that growing numbers of men were being diagnosed with traumatic neurasthenia, which recognized that a man might be badly injured by the concussive effects of shellfire, even though he bore no readily identifiable wounds. In the case of many men, their concussions were overlaid by tissue wounds or fractures, as well as PTSD, so it was difficult for their physicians to diagnose them, let alone treat them properly.
For my descriptions of Edward’s concussion—its signs and symptoms, as well as his recovery—I drew upon the experiences of a close friend. After suffering a severe concussion, as well as a skull fracture, she was bedridden for many months, and recovered only after a frustratingly long period of complete rest and withdrawal from work and her daily routine. I should add that most people who suffer from concussion do recover fairly quickly, but a minority—like Edward, and my friend—suffer from post-concussion syndrome. For them, recovery can take months or even years.
Do you have a daily routine for your writing?
I’d say that my routine is somewhat unusual, in that I have young children who have only just begun to attend school full time. During the week I work from the moment I drop them off at school in the morning to the moment I have to collect them, a little less than seven hours, and I try to ignore emails and phone calls whenever possible and just focus on my writing. After my children are home I’m busy with homework, after-school activities, dinner, and bedtime until at least 8:00 p.m., at which point I fire up my computer again and try to get in a few hours of research or updates to social media. Fortunately my husband often has to work in the evening, too, so we keep each other company! If I’m really pressed for time—if I have a deadline looming—I often end up working through the night, since the wee hours are wonderfully quiet. But as I get older I’m finding this approach tends to knock me flat, so I’m doing my best to put work aside and go to bed at a reasonable hour.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
The best piece of advice I have ever read is to simply sit at your desk and write. Just write. You’ll never be successful if you don’t write—and I don’t mean writing about writing on social media. Social media is terrific, but it can only help you if you first put in the work of actual writing.
Beyond that, I would tell them to press on in the face of rejection. I was told “no” any number of times before I got my first “yes,” and like most writers I received enough rejection letters and emails to wallpaper my bathroom.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the middle of working on a third book, also set in the same period, with a protagonist who appears briefly in both Somewhere in France and After the War is Over. This time, however, most of the narrative will take place in Paris, in the world we now associate with the “lost generation” of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. If my first two books left you dreaming of a trip to England, this one will have you packing your bags for the City of Lights.