Sunday, June 23, 2019

Q&A with Julie Berry

Julie Berry is the author of the new young adult novel Lovely War. Her other books include The Passion of Dolssa and All the Truth That's In Me.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Lovely War?

A: Lovely War grew from three seeds of inspiration: the war, the romance, and the music. I’d been reading about Victory Gardens during World War II, and was struck by the discovery that most Home Front efforts to support the war had begun during World War I. I realized, too, how little I knew about World War I compared to World War II. This fascinated me.

During this time, it so happened that, for work reasons, my husband and I had to live apart for a year. To my surprise, the piano became my consolation during this period (I loved learning piano as a child, but had never been a great piano student). I spent hours meticulously learning Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and pouring my loneliness into my playing. 

There the three came together; I was thinking about the Great War, playing ragtime piano, and missing the one I loved. I wondered—could I fit that specific combination of elements into a novel? Stumbling upon the history of the contributions of the Harlem Hellfighters and other World War I black regiments (both in fighting and in bringing jazz, then a new form of music, to Europe) put all the pieces together. I had to write this book.

Q: In a Washington Post review, Karen MacPherson wrote, "A heady mix of mythology, historical fiction and romance, Berry’s meticulously researched book spans two wars and two worlds." How did you decide on the right blend of mythology and historical fiction, and how did you research the novel?

A: Research is part of every book I write, but none more so than for Lovely War. There are boatloads of primary source material on World War I, which I had the task of condensing into an engaging novel while staying true to the events of the war. I scoured military records in order to piece together a story that revolved around the war.

It wasn’t until I hit upon the device of using the gods as narrators, though, that the characters and the story took shape. The scope of a world war is so enormous that I had great difficulty pulling together a cohesive story from it.

Who could possibly have the perspective to narrate such a vast war, while being able to get intimate enough with my characters to convey their romance and emotions? The answer was right in front of me. The Greek gods both watched events from their lofty perch on Mt. Olympus and regularly got deeply involved in the affairs of mortals.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I definitely didn’t know how this one would end. When I get an idea for a book, and once the idea begins to gel, my first step is to write a beginning (or usually several beginnings).

Once a beginning feels right, and I have a sense for my characters and their basic situations, I start researching. I write the first draft largely without an outline or particular process. It’s very much an exploration in the dark.

Lovely War was slightly different from my other books in that I needed to plan a little more in order to weave a story around actual war events, but my first draft was still generally improvisational. Only after that draft did I outline it, then revise and re-revise it.

So even if I think I know how a novel might end, every book I write goes through so many changes that it can become something else entirely as I write and revise.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: “Oh! It’s A Lovely War,” is a satirical song describing the horrors of being a soldier in World War I with sarcastic patriotism. It was a popular song during and after the war, and I came across it as I researched for the novel.

Considering the subject matter of the novel: the romance in conjunction with the gritty reality of soldier’s lives, the title fit perfectly. Lovely War wasn’t the first title I considered, but it became irreversibly married to the novel.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Mainly, catching up on sleep. Writing, researching, revising, and promoting this novel were huge undertakings, each under tight timeframes. I’m fiddling with a few ideas now, but mostly reading, watching movies, taking walks, playing piano, and catching up on non-writing projects. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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