Roma Tearne is the author of the new novel The Last Pier. Her other books include Brixton Beach and Mosquito. Born in Sri Lanka, she is based in the UK.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Pier, and for your character Cecily?
A: It began with a group of photographs which I found in a flea market here in Oxford. A photograph of a young girl, her name and the date written on the back: Cecily 1939.
A year later I found a photograph album at another flea market, this time in London. What was remarkable was that this album had pictures of the same girl! Cecily Maudsley! There were more images of the rest of the family and when I researched it I found the entire family had died out. I kept the photographs without doing anything for about 10 years.
Then I stumbled on another story.
Seventy-five years ago, in July 1940, an unmarked ship called the
Arandora Star, carrying 800 Italian and German internees together with British military personnel left Liverpool docks. It was bound for Newfoundland on the orders of Churchill. Unable to distinguish who were enemy aliens and who were not he had ordered the police to “collar the lot” and remove them from Britain.
As the ship passed the coast of Ireland in darkness, its decks covered in barbed wire, and with no white flag visible, it was torpedoed by the same German submarine that had sunk the Royal Oak. Nearly all on board died.
I came upon this tragic story one summer while staying far away with my family in Lunigiana in Northern Tuscany because many of the victims were from this area.
Although we had been coming to this part of Italy for more than 15 years I had never heard of the Arandora Star and her ill-fated journey, so I decided to investigate and discovered why this story had remained a secret.
The trail led me to a curious bilingual village called Brato, where many of the inhabitants are British-born Italians speaking both languages fluently.
There I met an old man who told me the story again, but this time from the point of view of a small, bewildered boy growing up in wartime England. His father, together with other relatives, had perished on the ship, so, in later life, he had returned to his family’s village.
This part of Tuscany is very beautiful with waterfalls, gently undulating hills and wonderful views. Tourists hardly visit, for the guidebooks prefer the cypress trees of the south, yet this is a land steeped in history.
The Romans found the wild tribes of Luni intimidating. They lived in the recesses of the dense chestnut forests - the very same trees that, concealing their secret history, served as cover for the partisans in the Second World War.
Many of those men from the forests around Brato had been put on the Arandora Star and later, when I said my goodbyes, I noticed my elderly friend was crying silently. He asked me if by any chance I might tell his story before he died. I told him I did not know but sincerely hoped I would and at that he nodded, satisfied. He was in his 80s, blind, and in poor health, but the events of that time were still very clear in his mind.
Q: A review of the book in The Independent says, "As she has done in previous novels, Tearne vividly depicts the devastating impact of war on ordinary lives." How do you see this novel connecting with your previous work?
A: Within my last novel about a Sri Lankan refugee, there is embedded in it an incident connected with WWII and when I finished writing that book I realised my interest in the war remained.
A chance find of a cache of photographs of one family in two separate locations was followed by series of conversations with relatives of victims of a wartime injustice. It was for me the moment when The Last Pier was conceived.
But why should a Sri Lankan novelist with five books set in that country chose to write a novel about Suffolk on the eve of WWII? The answer is simply that the imagination, like the human heart has no borders. If indeed we live in a truly global world then the passage to India can equally be the passage to Suffolk.
For many years I have wanted to write a novel steeped in the English countryside, in a part of the world I know and love. I have wanted to depict an England that is receding. The Last Pier is that novel, I hope.
Q: The book is set in 1939 and also in 1968. Did you focus more on one time period and then turn to the other, or did you write the novel in the order in which it appears?
A: I read quite a lot from Mass Observation made during the months leading up to the war. I was both shocked and humbled by the courage of ordinary people. It was only after that I began work on the 1960s.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on two books, actually, both nearly finished.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Yes, I’m painting again after 16 years and will be having an exhibition in 2020.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Roma Tearne.