Monday, June 18, 2018

Q&A with Melanie Phillips

Melanie Phillips is the author of the new novel The Legacy. Her other books include the memoir Guardian Angel. She is a columnist for The Times of London, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Observer.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Legacy, and for your character Russell?

A: A number of things came together in my mind to create the novel, and I can’t really recall which came first. Certainly, my father’s death in 1998 had a lot to do with it. I was bereft when he died, not least because there were unresolved issues which could now never be explained and put to rest.

So an important part of the novel was the exploration of this vortex of mourning and grief, anger and regret, and the attempt to bring about some kind of resolution.

I think the character of Russell sprang directly from this; he emerged in my mind and then drove the story forward. Over the years, I’ve known a number of Russells – and they have all been men – whose profound ambivalence towards their Jewish identity is inextricably wrapped up with embarrassment or anger or other negative feelings towards their families.

And Russell inhabits a world I know very well – the world of the media, brittle and shallow and merciless towards anyone who doesn’t fit its own ideological template.

Years ago, I knew someone who had stumbled upon a medieval manuscript and that experience lodged in my mind. I also read a book about a particularly dreadful event that occurred in Holocaust Europe and which made an enormous impression on me.

Once I had written my own “medieval manuscript” for the novel, the rest of the story, including the mystery that it represents, gradually fell into place. And it became obvious to me that the journey upon which Russell embarks despite himself would take him into the territory I know so well: the deep ambivalence and discomfort of British Jews with their identity, and the persistent antisemitism of British society.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I did a lot of research for this novel. Although it is fiction, two incidents central to the plot actually took place. So I was anxious to ensure that I represented these as accurately and as fairly as I could. As I have already said, I had previously read about one of these incidents; and I then read everything else I could find on that topic.

On the daily life of Jews in medieval Britain, though, I had to do a lot of digging because sources were few and far between. There was more written about Jews in medieval Europe than in Britain, but since at that time Jews had flowed from Europe into Britain the European sources provided some useful detail.

Although I wasn’t surprised, I was still shocked to discover the unspeakable barbarism with which Jews had been treated in medieval Britain (as well as in Europe, of course, during the Crusades).

It confirmed me in what is a key theme of the novel: the ultimately unfathomable continuity of antisemitism through the ages – the way in which it morphed from theological antisemitism under medieval Christianity, through racial antisemitism under the Nazis to its current manifestation as ideological antisemitism in left-wing dogma.

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

A: When I started writing it, I certainly didn’t know how it would end. Indeed, I changed various elements in the narrative several times. The characters and plot started to develop in ways I had not anticipated when I started but which seemed entirely appropriate as I continued to write.

My first draft, though, ended the narrative far too early: I realised I had left too many threads dangling in the air, and so several further chapters then followed before I finally called a halt. And now readers tell me they want to find out what happens next to Russell and his daughter and will I please write a sequel!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Well, despite what I have just said I am not writing a sequel. I have started work on a new novel, but it will be very different from The Legacy. More than that I cannot divulge – but I do hope I’ll be able to write it rather faster than The Legacy, which took forever!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’d like say a bit more about what I was trying to do in The Legacy. I wanted to look at what motivates people to behave in certain ways – to get under the skin of both the antisemite and the Jew who despises the Jewish part of himself.

I wanted to show that life is all about change and growth and that we are all capable of escaping from the traps we create for ourselves, even though fate may have to give us a kicking before we do so. 

I wanted to show that we all need to know what we are, to anchor ourselves in a cultural identity and to feel we belong. And I wanted to show that things are often not what they seem to be, that to avoid pain we sometimes create fantasies in which we hide, including denying our identity; but history lays claim to us regardless, and in one way or another we need to make our peace with it.

People who have read The Legacy tell me how strongly they identified with it, how they laughed and cried over it and how they couldn’t stop turning the pages. I didn’t believe I could ever write a novel. I can’t tell you how much that reaction means to me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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