Elizabeth Buchan is the author most recently of the novels The New Mrs. Clifton and I Can't Begin to Tell You. Her other books include Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman and The Good Wife, and her work has appeared in the Sunday Times. She previously worked in the publishing industry. She is based in London.
Q: Your two most recent books are set during World War II and its aftermath. Why did you choose that period to write about in these novels?
A: I am always intrigued how, even if the writer has already written about it, a subject sometimes refuses to die and nags away until something is done. But, then. who wouldn’t be fascinated by the women who worked in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War?
My second novel, Light of the Moon, was about a female SOE agent operating undercover in occupied France where she discovers, like Edith Cavell, that patriotism is not enough.
Researching for it proved to be addictive and I made many contacts and some cherished new friends who worked in the undercover agencies.
They told me about the beautiful and fantastically brave Violette Szabo (Carve Her Name with Pride), the equally splendid and intriguing Christine Granville, and the extraordinary Nancy Wake who they revered for their cool bravery and resourcefulness.
All of the agents, both the men and the women, knew that in going into the field, their life expectancy was very short, in some cases it was judged to be as little as six weeks. Many of them met gruesome ends.
Having written several contemporary novels, my obsession resurfaced with a splash when I was talking to Noreen Riols about her recently published memoir, The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish, which describes her work in SOE’s F-section.
I found myself going back into histories, biographies, memoirs and anecdotal evidence and it seemed there was no question of dodging the subject any longer. Thus, I Can’t Begin to Tell You, which is set in wartime Denmark, began to take shape.
This time around when I was doing the writing and the thinking, I found I was concentrating not just on the adventure aspect of the stories but on more fundamental questions. What does war do the spirit? How do you survive? What are you prepared to sacrifice? Or to betray? Is patriotism the only imperative?
All of which, after finishing I Can’t Begin to Tell You led me to think about The New Mrs Clifton and its subject: the aftermath.
Q: Can you say more about how you came up with the idea for The New Mrs. Clifton, and for your characters?
A: At the end of the Second World War my aunt married a German who she had met before its outbreak, a union which probably sent shock waves on both sides.
Getting married then must have taken courage and determination to survive the hostility. Their story has always inspired me because it’s an example of how, despite violence and unthinkable destruction on both sides, human beings refuse to give up their feelings for each other and continue to strive for harmony.
It’s curious to think that in 1945 both Europe and Great Britain, the victor and vanquished, were in an equally bad way. As one historian puts it: “hidden beneath the ruins, both literally and metaphorically, there was human and moral disaster.”
He was describing a Europe where chaos reigned – on the choked roads, in the broken towns and cities and in the daily revenges inflicted by families, friends and fighters on each other.
In Germany, most of men were either dead, wounded or elderly, children roamed like feral dogs and many of the women were on the edge of starvation.
The necessities of life had vanished. There were no banks, saucepans, aspirin, needles or nappies. The old foraged in bins, the young stole. Germany had become “a nation of rag and bone men.”
After the fall of Berlin in April 1945, the Russians swarmed in and unleashed an orgy of rape which few of the women escaped. The Germans called: Nulle Stande or Zero Hour.
Britain did not have it easy either. Yes, we had operational banks and aspirin, but fuel, clothing and food were in short supply and, if anything, rationing seemed more draconian had it had at the height of the conflict.
Soap and shampoo were like gold bars and, if you fancied a lick of paint on your bomb-damaged house, you could think again. Housing was in short supply and outsiders were not welcome. If the truth be told, the Brits weren’t particularly saintly about it and there was racketeering and hoarding and much hardship as a result.
The novel opens in the 1970s with a skeleton being discovered in the garden of a house overlooking London’s Clapham Common. Forensics reveal that it belonged to a young woman who had been dead for several decades, who had given birth and had head wounds.
The action switches back to 1945 when Gus Clifton returns home to Britain with Krista, his new German bride. Their arrival comes as a complete surprise to his two sisters anxiously awaiting his return to the house on Clapham Common and even more of a shock to Nella, his fiancée, who had been happily planning her wedding to Gus.
Why has Gus done this? All three of the women feel instinctively there is something odd about this marriage, especially as Gus and Krista do not seem to know each other at all. And why would Krista wish to live in a hostile England? What mysterious hold does she have over him?
One of the women will end up dead. Revenge? Despair? An accident? As I wrote the opening disinterment scene, I felt a huge sadness for the waste of this woman’s life but also had to acknowledge that her fate – like so many others – was a consequence of the war.
I planned The New Mrs Clifton with the aim of keeping the reading guessing and I have had a lot of readers telling me that they had no idea who the victim was until it happened.
The intention was to show that war puts men and women in impossible and dangerous situations and it changes them, often brutalizing them. All of us. Pink, brown, black and yellow. Nice, good people end up doing terrible things.
So, what is redemptive and optimistic about this situation? On reading contemporary accounts, one thing emerged clearly from the diaries, letters, reports and histories – which was a longing to be normal. “How nice life would be,” reflects my Krista, “when the past is forgotten, washed clean of death and suffering.”
She is dreaming of a future when people would take light-heartedness as nothing unusual and there would be time and space to take pleasure in the small things. When the little niggle would be about frost on the dahlias and whether they had enough clothes pegs. When people could sit down to a family meal of sardines on toast and bit of butter and enjoy being alive.
Out of the rubble can grow great love. Despite the damage done by war, the novel is about a man and woman deciding to place love over hate, forgiveness over blame, compassion over brutality and to become normal.
Q: Do you usually plot your novels out before beginning to write them, or do you make many changes along the way?
A: I know the opening and, almost invariably, the end. But what is in between is a mystery and I have to dig it out, word by word, page by page. It is slog and sometimes a despairing one but once I have erected the “architecture” of the story then everything is easier.
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?
A: Novelists Anne Tyler, William Boyd, Robert Harris, Helen Dunmore: the biographer Richard Holmes: the historians Amanda Foreman and Simon Schama.
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of the great novels which I reread often and there is a raft of brilliant young writers bubbling up to the surface. Every so often, I dive into one of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels (I was briefly her UK paperback editor and like everyone else fell in love with Jamie Fraser).
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am 50,000 words into a novel about broken promises which is set in Prague just before the Velvet Revolution, Berlin after the Wall has come down and contemporary Paris. The joy is that I shall have to visit all three cities in order to do some research…
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I wish everyone a fabulous 2018. I and very appreciative of all my readers and love it when they make contact. www.elizabethbuchan.com
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Elizabeth Buchan.