Those of you who read my last post, a review of Catherine Hall’s Days of Grace, already know I am a fan of both the book and the author. I was delighted to recently have the opportunity to interview Catherine for What Women Write and am delighted to share our conversation with all of you.
KB - I’ve read that you were once involved in the production of documentary films. How do you believe this work may have influenced you as a writer?
CH - Well, it was very good discipline in how to tell a story as simply as possible. Being involved in editing scripts and the films themselves was great training in stripping things down to essentials, and in showing not telling. For example, a scene that illustrates a particular aspect of someone’s personality is far more powerful than just saying in a voiceover ‘she was a difficult woman’. Making documentaries taught me how to let your characters speak for themselves.
KB - As a writer, I’m in awe of how tight your prose is, yet you pack so much sensory detail and emotion into it without ever being melodramatic. Do you write long and then edit like mad, or does it come to you like this?
CH - Thank you! That’s a lovely compliment. You’re right with the first guess, I write long and then edit, edit, edit. It’s the only way I can do it. It took me a year or so to write Days of Grace, then about two years on and off to edit it, cutting about 60,000 words. Every time I read it through I discovered mistakes, or things that weren’t quite right. But I’ve also learned that there comes a point when you’re just too close to it and you have to let someone else have a look.
KB - What came first for you – Nora or her story?
CH - Nora. She came out of a particularly difficult time when I’d just ended a long-term relationship. The character of an elderly woman came into my head, the sort of woman that I, in my post-break-up state of mind, thought I might turn into one day – awkward, slightly difficult, and lonely.
I think her character then tapped into lots of things that I’d been thinking about for a while. I’m struck by how invisible old people seem to be today. In a culture that’s obsessed with youth, it’s almost as if they don’t exist. I was fascinated by the idea that an ordinary old woman - ignored by everyone who passes her by - might have an extraordinary history. So Nora became my heroine. The next step was to trace back and work out how she ended up so alone.
KB - I confess you had me in tears by the third page. In hindsight I’m convinced that it was because while it was clear what Nora’s illness was, you did not use the words ‘cancer’ or ‘tumor’ for quite some time. It felt like a secret that Nora had decided to share with me alone. What prompted this approach?
CH - It was partly because it seemed to fit with Nora’s character. She isn’t someone who gives too much away, or if she does, she takes her time. And cancer is such an immediate, emotive word that means so much to so many people. I wanted to introduce the idea of a terminal illness but not be too clear about exactly what it was, at least for a while.
I think also, I wanted the cancer to be almost a metaphor for the feeling of things not being quite right that Nora has felt all her life. When I was researching the book I was struck by the psychiatrist and scientist Wilhelm Reich’s description of cancer as “a disease following emotional resignation… … a giving up of hope.” Whether or not that’s entirely true, it seemed to fit Nora and her situation.
KB - It is interesting that DAYS OF GRACE is described as a beautiful mediation on love, friendship and family, yet it also unflinchingly tackles many controversial issues. Despite them, I felt the description was accurate. You never came across as having an agenda. How did you keep the controversies from taking over the story? Have you received mean-spirited press about any of it?
CH - You’re right, I didn’t have an agenda. But I did want to explore how things are usually more complicated than they seem. The controversial issues were just part of the story, rather than being added to make a point. I guess things that become ‘issues’ actually always start off like that – they’re just things that happen to people. It’s when they’re analyzed that they turn into issues. So I just stuck to telling the story, and letting the characters lead it. Thankfully, I haven’t received any mean-spirited press. They seem to have felt the same way as you, and focused on the story rather than any issues around it.
KB - One of the controversies (alluded to on the book jacket) is Nora’s growing desire for Grace. Homosexuality is still a rather loaded issue in the United States. Is it less so in England?
CH - I guess it depends where you are. I’m lucky to live in London, one of the most liberal, diverse cities in the world, so in the circles that I move in, it isn’t a problem. But I’m aware that it isn’t the same for everyone.
Homophobia still exists – one of the worst insults in the school playground is ‘you’re gay’ - and it’s still hard for young people to come out of the closet.
On the other hand, a lot of the people who’ve enjoyed the book are from places in rural
KB - I was surprised Nora eventually married. It seemed out of character for her, and I wondered why she had done it? Pressure to conform to society? Pure loneliness?
CH - There’s a story behind that! In the original version of the book, Nora lives alone all her life until she takes Rose into her home. But when I was first trying to find a publisher, an editor said she wanted to see that Nora could show some sort of adult capacity for love, and asked if she could have been married. To my mind, that wouldn’t work, because she’s a lesbian, but on further reflection, I decided she might have married someone, for security and companionship, as she knew she didn’t have a chance of erotic fulfilment. So I married her to Bernard, with whom she experiences a different sort of love. But I made sure that he wasn’t capable of having sex - I spared Nora the indignity of that! The editor didn’t take the book in the end, but at least I showed willing…
KB - The novel Rebecca is mentioned many times throughout the book, as well as the works of Shakespeare. They are, as Nora says, her friends. I’m sure you had reasons for picking these particular stories. Can you elaborate for us?
CH - I first read Daphne du Maurier’s novels as a teenager and was captivated by the sense of place and the darkness that hovered just below the surface, not to mention the vaguely lesbian sensibility of her books and indeed of her life. I mention her novel Rebecca in the book, partly as a hint to readers, holding a mirror to the sapphic undercurrents of Mrs Danvers’ the housekeeper’s obsession with the dead Rebecca, and partly because it’s a book that would have appealed to someone with Nora’s slightly dramatic teenage sensibilities. Shakespeare I mentioned because I wanted something that was both conventional and at the same time not. On the surface, Shakespeare is very establishment, something that every English schoolchild has to read. But underneath the stories are different, transgressive and thrilling. It depends how you read them. I wanted to give Nora the opportunity of doing that, and to direct the reader, again, to look under the surface.
KB - Many Americans are probably unfamiliar with the idea of children being evacuated from
CH - Of course! In the summer of 1939, the British government urged parents to register their children for an official evacuation scheme, arguing they would be safer and healthier in the countryside. Operation Pied Piper began on 1st September, just before the outbreak of war. In the next four days, two million children left the major cities by train. Luggage labels tied around their necks gave their names – all they carried were their gas masks, a change of clothes and a stamped addressed envelope to send to their parents to tell them where they’d ended up.
Some evacuees came to see the war as the best years of their lives, loving the freedom of the countryside. Others suffered terrible homesickness, feelings of abandonment and, sadly, mental or physical abuse from their hosts. For some, it was impossible to get over the trauma of separation from their parents, never again managing to form close relationships. Their lives had been saved, but the psychological damage was enormous.
I wanted to explore that trauma of separation, and of course, it’s a situation in which someone is thrown into a new and alien world, which works very well for writing fiction. Also, my work for an international peace building organization meant that I’d seen first-hand the effects of separation between children and parents during war. I think that also informed my decision to make Nora an evacuee, albeit sub-consciously.
KB - DAYS OF GRACE is your debut novel. Many of our readers are hoping to have one of those someday. Would you share your success story with us?
CH - Well, it took a while – over 20 years. I first decided that I wanted to be a writer aged 11, but it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties, after a degree in English at Cambridge that terrified me into silence, and a career in documentary production, that I started to seriously write. Eventually, my boss at the production company allowed me to go freelance and so between series I wrote a novel.
Three years later I was stuck in a job I hated and desperate to leave. A colleague gave me the name of a friend who was an agent. We met, and she told me I could write, but that this novel wouldn’t get published, and that I should go away and write another one. My grandmother told me that she had been planning to leave me some money when she died but that I looked as if I needed it now. I quit my job the next day, and started to write.
After two years I had a manuscript, but when I phoned the agent to tell her she said she was very sorry but she was about to go on maternity leave! So I had to look for another agent…I found someone who said she thought it needed work, but had possibilities. We edited for another year, then sent it to publishers.
They all rejected it, but one said she would look at it again if I would consider making some changes. I did. She still didn’t want it. So my agent sent it around again. By this time I was doing freelance work in a refugee agency to pay the bills. I was at the office one day when I saw that my agent was calling. I managed to sneak off to the bathroom and listen to my voicemail. She told me that a publisher was interested – a small, independent with a good reputation. My book was finally going to be published!
KB - I’ve read that the whole promotional side of writing used to terrify you. Has your stage fright subsided over time?
CH - Not really – and I suspect it never will! One of the reasons I write is because I find speaking difficult, especially in public but even in groups of friends. I’m a shy show-off – I want my voice to be heard, but I don’t want to be seen whilst I’m doing it, so writing is the perfect profession for me…
Photo credit: Beth Crosland