Catherine Hall: In Conversation
Catherine Hall’s third novel, The Repercussions, is a brave and ambitious work that examines the legacy of war. Laura Macdougall talks to her about her fascination with writing about times of war, and how queer life is represented in contemporary fiction.
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The Repercussions, the third novel from award-winning writer Catherine Hall, is set in Brighton, partly in the present-day and partly during the First World War. When war photographer Jo returns home to England from Afghanistan, she takes up residence in the seaside town because she’s inherited a flat left to her by her Great-Aunt Edith. As Jo tries to recuperate and nurse her wounds – the physical and psychological legacy of the trauma of war – she comes across the diary written by her great-grandmother, Elizabeth, kept while she was working as a nurse in the Brighton Pavilion in 1915. More than a million Indian soldiers fought for Britain during the conflict, and the wounded began arriving in Britain in Christmas 1914. Like Jo, Elizabeth is a young woman trying to make her way in a world torn apart by war and full of tension; between races, classes and sexes. As Jo immerses herself in Elizabeth’s story she is forced to confront her own past, not just the horrors of the many conflicts she’s witnessed, but also her relationship with her ex-girlfriend, Susie.
The Repercussions is a brave and ambitious novel that examines the legacy of war, not just on those who fought but also those who were left behind. It also asks important questions about the role of women in society, not just our own, and is an interesting examination of photography, the media, and propaganda. Lastly, The Repercussions is a book about love and the deepest of friendships that can develop in the most unexpected of circumstances.
Having been a fan of Catherine’s writing since her debut novel, Days of Grace, was published in 2010, I was excited to be able to speak to her in more detail about The Repercussions. A week before I had attended an event at Gay’s The Word bookshop in London, where Catherine read an excerpt from her novel and answered some questions about it. Catherine’s comments about being inspired by the past and about her charity work that involved travelling to areas particularly affected by war had stayed with me, and I was keen to find out more about how they have influenced her writing.
Days of Grace was set in the 1970s and your two other novels have a more obviously historical focus. What is it about the past that fascinates you?
I suppose what I’m really interested in is how the past informs the present. My first book, Days of Grace, and this new one, The Repercussions, both have a split time frame between the present and the past, and explore the theme of consequences. I’m very interested in how human beings fundamentally remain the same as time passes. Human nature doesn’t change even if our surroundings do. I suppose also I like the challenge of writing about the past. I like the research process, I like going into another world. I find it more challenging to write about the present day, partly because I find it harder to make it believable. The present-day sections in Days of Grace and The Repercussions were much more difficult to write because I had to represent a reality that people would recognise and might find quite banal unless I could manage to write about it in a way that would make them want to read about it.
How did you approach the research for your novel? It sounds like quite a daunting task, covering both the First World War and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan as well as the life of a contemporary war photographer.
The research for this book was massive. I couldn’t go to Afghanistan because I had a six-month-old baby when I started work on it so I had two challenges: researching World War One and researching Kabul. For both, I read many history books but also went back to original sources. For the World War One sections I read a lot of diaries, written by ordinary people left at home, as well as officers at the Front; letters from the Indian soldiers to their families – because they were censored they were all translated into English, which was helpful; and newspapers from the time. I looked at collections of photographs, including postcards that were made of the Indian soldiers by the Brighton Corporation. I read the private papers of the officer in charge of the Pavilion Hospital. I also read a lot of literature that people would have been reading at the time, to set myself in the language, like the war poets, as well as Kipling and Virginia Woolf. I was very lucky in that the British Library has an enormous India Office collection which was very helpful for researching the Indian sections of the book, and the Imperial War Museum has excellent archives on the war for all the little details that you really have to get right. The Imperial War Museum was also helpful for my research into war photography. There happened to be a series of talks on war photography when I was just at the start of my research, so I went along to try and get a feel for what kind of person might take on that kind of job. The Frontline Club in Paddington was good for that too, with its talks on journalism and war. I watched films about women war photographers and read books on the psychology of people who report on war, and the effect of it on their mental health.
For the parts of the book set in Afghanistan, I began by talking to people. I was amazed at how I could put out a message on Facebook asking, ‘Does anyone know what the airport looks like in Kabul?’ and very quickly be given contacts who could help. I spent hours on Skype talking to people who lived and worked there, asking questions on broader subjects but also tiny details like the menu of a particular café. For a book that questions the veracity of photographs, it was ironic how long I spent on the internet, looking at pictures of Afghanistan taken by professional photographers in books, amateur snaps on Flickr, home videos on YouTube. I read blogs from people stationed there, from soldiers to NGO workers to journalists. And then, of course, I went to Brighton, many times, hanging out and soaking up the atmosphere, going to the memorial service held once a year for the Indian soldiers at their old cremation ground up on the South Downs, visiting a graveyard to get the detail right for when Jo goes to visit Edith’s grave. So yes, you could say the process was exhaustive!
Was The Repercussions difficult to write from a structural point of view? How did you approach negotiating the balance between the past and present narratives?
It wasn’t easy! First there was the question of making sure that each voice was sufficiently distinctive. Then came trying to make sure each narrative was compelling in its own right, and that they informed each other. Trying to make sure that they intertwined without being too obvious was really tricky. It’s a hard one to pull off – you run the risk of people liking one voice more than the other (certainly some of the editors at the many publishers who turned it down felt that way) and of having two flimsy narratives instead of one solid one, but I like the way it turned out in the end.
While Elizabeth’s sections are told in the form of a diary, Jo’s story unfolds in the form of a letter to her ex-girlfriend, Susie. Was this the way you had envisaged telling the story from the very beginning?
Originally it was much more of an epistolary novel. Jo’s sections were told in the form of emails with times, dates and subject matters. I wanted the immediacy and intimacy that you get from writing to someone directly. But I was steered away from it by various people who thought it didn’t quite work, partly because it raised the question of why Susie never wrote back. The way it’s told now is sort of like a letter but less directly so, which I think is why it works.
At a recent event at Gay’s The Word, you spoke about how your previous career in peace building organisations had informed your writing, and this novel in particular. Can you describe how your experience of travelling to conflict zones has affected your books?
The odd thing is that when I was writing The Repercussions I forgot that I’d already written a book about war (Days of Grace, which was set during World War Two). I hadn’t realised that war was so deeply ingrained in my consciousness It was only when I came to put together talks about the book for various events that I realised why I’d done it.
Looking back, it became clear that I’d been thinking about war for years. I used to make documentaries about developing countries, and there was always the question of how to tell other people’s stories, and whether you could ever get it right. Then later on, I got a job at an international peace building organisation. I was in charge of communications, and that meant trying to work out how to talk about complicated conflict situations in a way that people could understand. This got me interested in how we talk about war, how the messages that we see on the news are never all the story, and the politics of how to get people’s attention.
In 2003 I took a trip to Rwanda and the Congo with a photographer to talk to people involved in those terrible conflicts and to take photographs that we could use for our communications work. First we went to the Congo and talked to rape victims, from a little girl of six to a grandmother of seventy-five. Then we went to a school in Rwanda where hundreds of people had been massacred, which is now a memorial. I saw twenty-five classrooms full of skeletons and partially preserved bodies, some with the wire that had bound their wrists behind their backs intact, others with babies still tied to their backs with pieces of cloth.
I was profoundly affected by that trip. For months I felt a sense of nausea, and had terrible nightmares. The photographer I was with had been there last just after the genocide and she was still traumatised. I began to wonder what it must be like for a war photographer, who sees more wars, and even more close up, than most soldiers. And that was where the idea for Jo, my war photographer in The Repercussions, came from. But those experiences fed into the writing of Days of Grace, too. I guess I’m interested in the way that war creates situations that wouldn’t happen in other contexts. Emotions are heightened. Things happen, not only during the war, but after the fighting is over. The consequences last for generations. I think that became clear in my own experience when I went into therapy as a way of dealing with what I saw on that trip to Africa.
You recently mentioned that your novels never really feel ‘finished’, even when they’re published. Do you enjoy the editing process, and do you think you will ever reach a stage where a novel of yours feels ‘done’?
I edit many times, going over drafts again and again. The process is always a bit of a mixed bag. In some ways I love it, because it’s the chance to make the book as good as it can be, really getting down to it and considering every word, and how they flow on the page. Having said that, it’s usually quite painful as the bits that don’t work really jump out at you, and you have to figure out what to keep and what not. I cut 60,000 words from this book. As for knowing when a novel’s finished, I never really think it is – even once it’s published, if I read it again, I start thinking ‘oh no, that bit’s wrong, why did I do it like that, wouldn’t it be much better like this?’ But given that I know that’s going to happen, I’ve got much better at reaching a point where I just think, ‘Ok, that’s enough; it’s got to go to print’. Usually by that point I’m pretty sick of it! Once a novel is published, I sort of let it go, and don’t think about it that much, because I’m usually wanting to get on with the next.
At the Gay’s The Word event, one of the questions raised was about the author’s own voice, and to what extent that can inform a novel. Are you able to describe what it’s like when you’re writing and whether or not you’re aware or conscious of how your own opinions on such issues as women, feminism, racism and sexuality might be intelligible to the reader?
It’s difficult not to let my own opinions and feelings come through, particularly when that concerns issues that are very important to me, such as sexuality or gender. But a novel isn’t an essay or a speech! I’ve had to learn not to try and make points. You have to always bring things back to the characters and look at it through the lens of how they would feel or behave. They should never be a mouthpiece for your own opinions. If someone makes me aware that I’m doing that, then I’m very happy to cut or edit those parts. The main thing is always the story.
Racism is an important theme in The Repercussions. How far do you feel we’ve come as a society since the First World War? Do you feel we’ve made progress, or have we just exchanged one prejudice for another?
I wanted to look at the complicated history between India and Britain, and the tensions, especially connected with class. Hari, the Indian doctor who’s been studying at Oxford has a tendency to rile the authorities because he won’t be subservient, and is therefore seen as ‘getting above himself’. It was all very well, it seemed, to use uneducated Indians as cannon fodder in the trenches but quite another to have an educated Indian doing the work of a doctor. There was also a deep-seated fear of interracial relationships – the military authorities were terrified of sexual contact between the Indians and white women, and went to great lengths to prevent it. I’m not sure how far we’ve come as a society. On the surface there is much more equality, but there’s still a suspicion of mixed-race relationships, I think, and the politics surrounding immigration are suffused with racist thinking. In some ways, the racism in the book was a metaphor for homophobia, which is another prejudice that on the surface might seem to have abated a bit, but is definitely still alive and kicking in many parts of the UK today.
How do you feel about the term ‘lesbian writer’ and has it ever been applied to you? How do you feel about being asked to use your sexuality to promote your work?
When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a writer – the sexuality part of things isn’t important at that point. But people, especially when promoting, like to have hooks and things that put people in categories. I don’t mind being called a lesbian writer sometimes, and at others simply as a writer. Partly this is because I think that there still aren’t that many lesbian role models out there. It’s a lot better than it was, but we’re still way behind the men in terms of visibility. And certainly when I was young, I’d have loved to have been able to look at someone in the public eye and know they were gay, and they’d achieved something. I think it’s important to stand up and be counted.
Is it important to you to represent queer life in your fiction? If so, why, and how do you go about it?
It’s always been important to me to represent queer life in my fiction. That’s partly because when I was growing up (in a very remote valley in the Lake District without television or the Internet, which hadn’t even been invented), books were the only way I could find out about anything gay. I don’t think I was the only one, either. I think fiction has always been a massively important medium for gay people to explore different ways of being, of different possibilities. I also think it’s important to represent queer life for non-queer readers. One of the most interesting developments I’ve noted recently is the change in queer literature, which has gone from mostly coming-out stories to all kinds of stories. The Repercussions isn’t about Jo being gay. It’s about relationships and the challenges of war – she just happens to be a lesbian. I think when queer life becomes part of the mainstream in literature then we’ll have come a long way. Having said that, it’s a lot harder to get published if you’re writing about queer characters. I’m having to think very seriously about whether my main character in the next book will be a lesbian or not. If she isn’t, there’ll still be a queer element to it, that’ll always be part of my books.
You won the Green Carnation Prize for your second novel, The Proof of Love. What is your opinion of literary prizes?
Well, the main point of prizes is publicity – and free publicity. There are thousands of books published every year and it’s really difficult to get them known about. So prizes – any prize – mean that people hear about your book, and are more likely to buy it, and that has to be good for writers. I mention free publicity because that’s important – it costs a lot to get books promoted by the big bookshops and places like Amazon, and publishers have to decide which books to invest in the most. Smaller, less well-known writers are unlikely to get those promotions, and so the free publicity that comes with a prize is really helpful.
Prizes like the Green Carnation bring out books from, for example, the gay and lesbian section of a bookshop and get them onto those main tables, where people who don’t necessarily identify as queer will see them and perhaps pick them up and buy them.
True, it’s a niche. But so are most prizes. They all have their criteria, whether they are gender-based or age-based or genre-based. In a time when ‘gay’ is still one of the worst insults in the playground, a prize where openly LGBT authors are afforded recognition sends a message either to young people – or indeed to anyone – that gay people do good things, and that, I think, is still important.
For more information about Catherine Hall and her novels, visit her website at http://catherinehallbooks.wordpress.com/