Celia Rees is the author of the new novel Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook. Her many other books include Witch Child and Sorceress. She lives in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, UK.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook, and for your character Edith?
A: The book began with a cookery book, the Radiation Cookery Book, given away with gas cookers. The cover boards were stained and faded, the back had gone, and it was held together with parcel tape.
I found it among my mother’s effects and I’d never seen it before. The pages were interleaved with clippings from old newspapers, magazines - and handwritten recipes. I recognised my mother’s writing, and my aunt’s and what I took to be my grandmother’s.
I guessed that it had been my grandmother’s book, passed onto my aunt and then to mother who had kept it after her sister’s death. To my knowledge, there were no existent letters between these women, so these recipes were the only connection.
The book and the recipes suddenly seemed very precious. I knew that there was something I wanted to write about here but had no idea what it could be.
Years later, I was in the Imperial War Museum in London with my daughter. We were in the gallery devoted to espionage. One of the wall panels said that after the Second World War, the British Zone in Germany had been a hotbed of spying. My aunt had been there then, working as an Education Officer.
One of us said, “Perhaps Aunty Nancy was a spy…”. We both laughed. My headmistress maiden aunt a spy? The idea was absurd. But maybe not… I suddenly saw how I could use the Radiation Cookbook and Miss Graham was born.
My aunt directly inspired the book and her life gave me the character of Edith. She was born 1/1/1900, an auspicious date, but on the surface she led an entirely unexceptional life.
She taught in Coventry, never married, lived at home with my grandparents. After my grandfather died at the beginning of the Second World War, she looked after my grandmother. So far, so predictable.
Then, in 1946, much to the consternation of the whole family, she went to work for The Control Commission in the British Zone in Northern Germany. The Control Commission were tasked with re-construction. She was fluent in German and was taken on as an education officer, with the equivalent rank of lieutenant colonel.
Much to the further consternation of the family, she liked the life there and stayed on, well into the 1950s. She only came back to Britain for my grandmother’s last illness. She took up her work in schools again, becoming a headmistress.
I remember her talking about her time in Lübeck and the photographs she had of the devastation: ruined cities and sunken ships.
As a child, I absorbed the family narrative about how irresponsible and selfish she’d been, but as an adult I saw her differently. I admired her striking out, rebelling against the role convention had assigned for her, her sense of purpose and her compassion.
All her life, she worked tirelessly for the Save the Children Fund, never forgetting the plight of those refugee children in Germany.
I also liked that she had a hidden life: her fluency in German, her “friendship” with a German boy before the war; the trips abroad she’d taken with her cousin; the holidays she took in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, often on her own; her lifelong friendship with an American whom she’d met in Germany.
She flew to America to see him, the year before her death, in 1984. She once told me “However old you get, you’re the same person inside. Only your body lets you down.” I’ve never forgotten that.
Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: A novel like this takes a lot of research. I use the same technique for any historical novel. First, I need to understand the history of the period, so I can be as accurate as possible. Then I go to eyewitness accounts: diaries, journals, letters memoirs, novels of the time to get the details of everyday lives.
I research while I write, not just in the library and from books, I visit museums, go to exhibitions on anything relevant, visit the places I’m going to write about and take photographs. For this book, I took several trips to Germany, visited locations in London, even went on a spy walk!
I collect things: photographs, postcards, printouts and keep a scrapbook – a kind of record of the writing of the novel.
With this book, food was an important research strand, so I collected menu cards and researched recipes. I was not just interested in recipes appropriate to place, time and circumstances but also more generally, examining what food could symbolize and signify in people’s lives and its use as a weapon and means of oppression.
I was shocked by the utter destruction in Germany. The Germans call midnight on 8th May, 1945, the end of the war in Europe, Stunde Null – Zero Hour and that seemed to sum up the desolate aftermath and the gargantuan task of re-construction.
The horrors of the Nazi regime are always deeply shocking but the Euthanasia Project and its connection to the Holocaust took me to some very dark places indeed. I was also surprised by the role women played in the Nazi machine and by the mass suicides that occurred in the wake of Germany’s defeat.
Q: You've written novels in various genres--do you have a preference and does your writing process differ depending on what you're writing?
A: I have written in different genres, but I don’t really have a preference. The genre is dictated by the idea. The only real difference in the process is that historical novels require a great deal more research!
Q: Did you know how this novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: In one way, yes - at least, I thought I did! But I ended up making a hugely radical change that didn’t exactly change the ending, just changed who was there.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I want my next project to be a sequel to Miss Graham. I want to tell Dori’s story and then maybe Adeline’s. I like the idea of a trilogy about three women, two spies and a war reporter, engaged in arenas that are usually seen as essentially male.
If anyone out there agrees, do please contact me, either via my website: www.celiarees.com, or Instagram @celiarees1 or Twitter @CeliaRees. I’d love to hear from you!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb