I know you have been interested in the Cassandra myth for sometime; can you tell us how it came to form the basis of The Foreshadowing?
Cassandra has about 4 one line mentions in Homer’s Iliad. Most of her story is in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which was my main source, though I did read some of the things that have been written about her as well. Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of the prophecy but then cursed her so that so no one would believe that her visions were true – at least that’s one version of the story. It’s interesting because although people are aware of her story, she’s not a central character in the Trojan Wars. I think that’s because of her curse which I think is a powerful story and one that I have wanted to use for a while. In the end I didn’t need much of the original myth and quickly moved into my own story. By setting the book in the First World War I was able to give it more layers, whereas a straight retelling of Greek myth would have been more limited. I used the parallels with the original story where they fitted my purpose; for example, their sea journeys and the war. However, I tried not to swamp my story with original source material. And there is a point of departure from the original when Alexandra eventually frees herself with her belief that she can’t make her own future.
That’s a big theme of the book whether a person’s future is determined by freewill,fate or destiny.Were you able to find evidence that premonitions are a genuine phenomenon?
Originally I had intended to write more about premonition. I wanted to find a serious academic approach as a starting point and tried to contact authors and psychologists who had written about the subject, but that didn’t come to anything. I quickly discovered that the ‘Mind Body, Spirit’ shelves in bookshops are full of mumbo jumbo, so I arrived at the conclusion that while premonition was a central theme of the book, it was probably an area where I needed to do least research as the ideas could be drawn from my imagination. I did find recorded instances of premonitions occurring in soldiers on the battlefields. I came across several references to characters like Hoodoo Bill who would accurately predict the names of soldiers that would be killed. I based Jack on material in those reports.
How did you eventually decide that your ‘Cassandra’ story would be set at the time of the First World War?
I knew I wanted to update the story. It needed to be set in a period when people didn’t generally believe in the ability to foretell the future. For instance, if I had set it in the Middle Ages the story wouldn’t work because of contemporary belief premonition. The unusual thing about Cassandra in the original context is not that she could see into the future (the Greeks did have the Oracle and other future telling devices) but the fact that no one believed in her prophecies. The First World War struck me as an ideal and powerful choice: there was a big crisis emerging so Alexandra’s premonitions would have real significance.
You’ve previously written about the First World War; are there anyconnections between that book and this one?
A few years ago I wrote a non-fiction book called Cowards. It took about nine months of research in the Imperial War Museum as well as background reading and online searching. During that research I became very interested in the friendship between Sassoon and Graves and the 19th Brigade which included the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Welch Fusiliers as well as the Public Schools’ Battalion that Tom enlists in. I only used about 5% of my research for Cowards and felt there were other things that could be said in a new book.
How important was the timing?
The story opens in 1915 but then there’s a blank where nothing happens and then a leap forwards in time. I had to start the story before the introduction of conscription, which began on March 2nd 1916. It was important for me that it was the huge social pressure Tom was living with rather than conscription that made him change his mind about enlisting. I also needed the main action to take place in the summer of 1916 with the order for the ‘big push’ on the Somme. Bridging the time gap was one of the challenges in writing the novel. I used Edgar’s death followed by a silent period of mourning to account for the gap. There are six months when Alexandra doesn’t write in her diary, which allows the story to advance more quickly. The following chapters are short and broken to reflect her grief. I prefer to keep the writing of emotionally charged events understated. One of the effects of handling time like this is that I then needed to set up part two almost like the beginning of a new book. Although the First World War has been the subject of some recent children’s books, women’s experiences have not been written about more than a handful of times. The First World War was a catalyst for the women’s movement simply because the men were away fighting and women had to take on traditional male roles like driving buses. After the war, the suffragette movement was able to capitalise on the changes that had taken place during wartime. Alexandra is from a very traditional family but she wants to be able to do something positive outside the home. She’s a symbol of the early women’s movement. The Cassandra myth speaks to her: she thinks she can free herself from tradition and act to save her brothers.
How did you find the site for your final suspense?
With regard to the final suspense, I spent a long time thinking about how the ending would play out and where it would happen. I knew that I wanted Alexandra to get as close to the frontline as was logistically possible and that she had to be based fairly close to Boulogne so that led me to the Somme action. I followed a long line of research to establish the location of field hospitals and how close nurses were to the war zone. Then I had to identify an actual battle to set the ending against. It involved working out authentic ways that both of Alexandra’s brothers could have joined up and what regiments they might have enlisted in. I settled on High Wood because it was where the Public School Boys’ Battalion were heading in July 1916.
How important is research when writing historical fiction?
Research is essential in historical writing because the details need to be accurate. On a visit to the reading room at the Red Cross Museum I discovered that passports were not needed for international travel before the First World War but they became required documents during the war. Things were looking dicey because Alexandra passes herself off as a nurse who has been given the authority to go abroad. I needed to find out whether a nurse going to the field hospitals would have been able to travel without a passport. Then I read about a document that could stand in place of a passport and didn’t have a photograph. It was a great relief because I wanted the details to be authentic and the only other alternative would have been to gloss over it which wouldn’t have been satisfactory.
Was it important to visit places as well as read original source material?
Yes, one of the things in visiting the scene is that you discover things out that you didn’t anticipate when starting out. I knew that I wanted to find out about the geography and terrain but I discovered a lot of unexpected detail. For instance, I was struck by the colour of the mud which was grey and pasty because of the chalky soil. It’s that sort of accurate colour that brings a story to life. Emotionally it was important to visit as well. There are trenches that are still visible and it all feels more recent than 90 years ago. The Somme Valley, that long, narrow strip of land, must have had more deaths per square meter than any other place. It is very strange and eerie and almost voyeuristic to be there.
So your research took you to France, did it take you to Brighton as well?
My family come from Brighton and I had conversations with an aunt who did some research to help me find out where to set Alexandra’s house. We had to find the right kind of house that reflected the status of her family, where a surgeon might have lived and near enough to the Dyke Road Hospital. The hospital was built as a school in 1913 and my grandfather went there for a year but it was converted into a 520 bed Military hospital to receive Dominion troops in February 1915. I also wanted a house with a sea view, which is important to Alexandra. I chose Clifton Terrace and was fortunate to be able to visit the inside of one of the houses in the road during Brighton’s Open Studio event. That helped me pick up small interior details. I also researched the tram system. I needed to know where Alexandra would have caught a tram and where it would have run to. I couldn’t just write, ‘she got on a tram,’ without knowing this information. So even though I might just write one sentence about getting on a tram, there’s a lot of work that goes into finding out. I eventually felt that I was prevaricating with the research - it becomes addictive. You read one book and that leads you on to five new books and each of those in turn lead you on to another five books. So I had to make a decision to stop researching and start writing, or the book would never get written
Can you take us through the process of writing a book like TheForeshadowing?
First of all I do lots of reading and after a while an idea sticks its head up and I’ll start to focus my reading around that subject. Often what happens is that there are two ideas, which I think are going to be separate books, but the ideas go together in a strange story mixture. I spend a long time researching and making notes in my notebook in a fairly random way. Then before I start writing, I work out the plot. I use large A2 sheets of paper and draw diagrams I jot down things about the characters and setting and sometimes the structure. I refine that two or three times. It’s important that I know where I’m going to begin and where I’m going to end, even if I don’t know precisely what will happen in between. Openings are the hardest parts of the book to write well but it’s also important to know how things are going to end. With Floodland I reached the end and then discovered that the character didn’t have sufficient motivation for the events that unfolded. It was tricky and I did eventually find a way out of the problem but not before I’d almost given up on the book; I didn’t want to find myself in a similar situation with The Foreshadowing. One of the crucial issues I had to address before starting out was why Zoe’s parents didn’t search for her. That’s when I decided that her mother would have had another baby and that she’d been ill after the birth. I also like to have one or two really important things that I’m going to say on the way – the stepping stones. Once I think I have enough of a structure in place, I sit down with my big map and notebook and start writing from the beginning, working towards my first stepping stone. At the same time I’m also working ahead of myself on the big map, so the next day when I sit down and start writing again I know where I’m going. I also try to finish the writing day knowing the next thing I’m going to do. It’s very hard to start the beginning of the day with a blank page and not knowing what’s going to happen next. I write very quickly. If I have a full day for writing, I can manage 5, 000 – 10,000 words. When you consider that The Foreshadowing is 60,000 words it’s not a large number of writing days, even if I don’t make 5,000 words everyday. Writing straight onto the computer saves time and effort. My first draft is quite quick and then there will be three, four or even five re-writes. I get the skeleton of the story down concentrating on the plot and then fleshing it out, bringing the characters alive and making it emotionally engaging. It’s very hard to change a plot once you have worked it through because there are too many ramifications so I prefer to concentrate on getting that right first.
The title, The Foreshadowing, refers to Alexandra’s premonitions but it’s also a literary term that describes how you allow the mystery to unfold by offering us clues that help us piece together the final resolution. How difficult is it to build suspense withoutgiving too much away?
One of the most difficult things when you’re writing is to know how much to give away. I do think carefully about how I’m building suspense and how the plot is revealed to readers. Doctor Who is supposed to be about time travel but 99% of the time the characters don’t talk about it because it’s a difficult and dangerous subject and you can end up creating too many problems for yourself. Similarly with Alexandra I’ve told the reader that she can see the future, that she has seen it and knows what’s going to happen. So I need to consider how I can keep some surprises for the reader. I came up with the resolution in which Alexandra shoots Tom very early on. Then it was just a matter of being careful about the way it was written all the way through. I’m so close to telling the reader what’s going to happen. I even mention that she’s the one holding the gun but it’s like a double bluff that keeps the reader from realising that she’s the one who’s going to do it. When you read back you’ll see that it makes perfect sense. It is difficult to know if you’ve got the suspense right and I have to rely on my editor to say if it’s working or not. I liked the use of the raven motif throughout the book which resonates with literary allusions from a range of cultural sources. The raven is an interesting motif and has always been a symbol of war and harbinger of doom. There were quite a few more references to the Raven in the first draft. In the classroom scene, for instance, there was a long sequence with Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’, but Poe wasn’t really admired at the time and wouldn’t have been discussed in the classroom, so we took those bits out.
When writing a historical novel about a teenage girl how do you find a voice that is both truthful but will also appeal to a contemporary reader?
Finding the right voice is something I find really interesting and have to think about carefully. With The Dark Horse I got to the end of the first day’s writing and then realised that I wanted Sigurd’s first person voice as well as the more objective third person. With the first person you set limitations for yourself: you can only tell the reader what the narrator sees, you can’t discuss anything else. Those limitations can give you interesting things to do: if you can convey to the reader something that the narrator knows but hasn’t comprehended then it’s even more powerful. From the beginning The Foreshadowing was going to be a first person narrative. To write in this way you have to able to see things from the character’s point of view, and know how they would feel in any situation. I did read contemporary diaries of volunteer nurses to try and find a convincing young, upper middle-class voice for Alexandra. But the result was too formal. It’s important that the reader likes and can identify with the main character, so I softened her voice contracting ‘I have’ into ‘I’ve for instance. Dialogue is always an artifice because it’s never written exactly as it’s spoken. What IS important is to create the right feeling. So although technically Alexandra’s voice was probably more accurate after the first draft, it would have seemed a bit detached for a modern reader. Enid Bagnold, the author of National Velvet, was a VAD nurse. She wrote about her war experiences at the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich and the front with a more sympathetic voice, so there are some authentic precedents.
Did writing this diary format story, which involves the main character looking back into her past, present any particularproblems?
Yes it is a diary but it’s undated. The diary format in the continuous present can create problems when you are talking about something that happened yesterday but from a more distant reflective stance. It did lead to some convoluted tenses when it changes into the past historic as it does in the dream sequences. Hopefully it works for the reader.
Counting down to the end by numbering the chapters backwards is an interesting idea. How did that come about?
It’s interesting that a number of people who’ve read the book haven’t even noticed that the chapters count back from 101. It’s an idea that I had ages ago. One reason is that Alexandra’s reading her story back to us. I also wanted to heighten the tension and by numbering the chapters like this I’m telling the reader how little time there is left to go before the end so that creates a sense of excitement, that the plot is about to unravel - the end is approaching. I cheated a bit by having really short chapters leading to the denouement and then the two longest chapters in the book afterwards.
Have you talked to children in school about this period?
When researching for Cowards and The Foreshadowing, I’d become very interested in the friendship between Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. They were in the same regiment but different battalions. They met for the second time a fortnight before High Wood and had a conversation about poetry. Up to that point, Sassoon had been writing idealised poetry about honour and victory in the vein of 19th century romanticism. Graves was already writing honest and quite brutal poems about what was happening. I found it interesting that while poetry can be quite ethereal, in this instance the poets’ discussion is fixed at a specific time when war was going on around them. When I have worked in school I have used two of Sassoon’s poems an early and later one and asked the pupils to tell me the differences between them. They had some very interesting insights. Then we talked about the conversation with Sassoon and Graves. I do think the issues raised in The Foreshadowing, like conscription and conscientious objection, are theoretically relevant to children today, and have had interesting debates with classes both on this subject and that of premonition since publication.