Genres are for publishers and booksellers who want to know what shelf to put us on, and fair enough. But I’m not sure we have any business putting ourselves on shelves. It’s a bit too close to putting ourselves in pigeon holes. So I’ve never been big on the term historical fiction. There’s just novels set in different times.
But there is one slight thing: books set in different times aren't often comic*. It's as if being historical is enough - you can't be funny too. Like in the old days when a woman couldn't be both pretty and clever.
THIS HAS JUST CHANGED.
In that pile of the frequently unreadable sent by the possibly desperate to the bewildered and unwitting, ie proofs from PRs, I turned up a book of great glory. It's called Crooked Heart, it's set in the north London suburbs during WW2, and it stars an array of anti-heroic survivors who flick from well-dodgy to irresistable in the beat of a heart. The author is one Lissa Evans. When I found that Lissa Evans had been also been a doctor, and a producer of Father Ted on the telly, I was somehow not surprised. You may know her from such previous novels as Their Finest Hour and a Half; she was new to me. Anyway - I liked her genre-busting book so much that I tracked her down, interviewed her, had lunch with her, and am now insisting on sharing her brilliance.
Crooked Heart is very funny, very touching, and actually heartbreaking. Funny + touching + dangerous is full of pitfalls, both technical and emotional, but you pull it off beautifully - as I once heard Louis de Bernieres cry to Elizabeth Jane Howard, 'how do you do that?'
It sounds disingenuous to say ‘I don’t know’, because that makes it sound as if the words cascade effortlessly from my lap-top and land in perfect formation on the page. In fact, I write incredibly slowly and I re-write ruthlessly as I go along – honing, polishing, moving, cutting, changing – stripping back the sentiment, trying to nail the humour and crisp up the dialogue, aiming above all for clarity; I don’t do a ‘first draft’ as such – by the time I get to the end of a book it’s usually about 90% there. I suppose that the actual answer to this question is that I’m always trying to write the kind of book that I like reading, one that contains humour and humanity, bound together in a plot that is believable but unpredictable.
Tell us about Noel, your heartbreaking little boy.
Noel is ten years old. It’s an age that I particularly like writing about, because I have a mental snap-shot of myself at 10 – we moved house and I had to adjust to a new school, a new town, and a new region of the country, and my memories of that age are very clear. Noel is the product of a singular education; he’s been brought up by his godmother, Mattie, a former suffragette and possessor of a formidable intellect. Noel goes to school, but most of his learning occurs at home, and he has absorbed Mattie’s prejudices and outlook as well as her knowledge, making him utterly out of step with other children of his age. When he loses Mattie, he loses his bearings and his joy in life. Emotionally frozen, he’s evacuated from London and ends up being taken in by Vee.
And a bit about Vee, your thoroughly flawed and equally heartbreaking heroine.
Vee is thirty-six and perpetually broke; she spends her time attempting to support her invalid mother and son through a variety of dodgy schemes which she’s too impulsive and desperate to see through to completion. . She exudes a sort of semi-feral fecklessness – at various points in the book, Noel sees her as resembling a pigeon (…, drab and directionless, pecking at anything that looked as if it might be edible. ) and a magpie (…She had sharp, worried features and she kept moving her head around, keeping a watch on everything, like a magpie hanging round a picnic). She’s aware that her life is unfairly hard, but sees no way of changing it; meeting Noel turns out to be the biggest opportunity of her life…
You've had some phenomenal admiration, from writers as various as India Knight, who says you're going on the shelf between the Dud Avocado and I Capture the Castle, and Juliet Gardiner, who says she doesn't like war novels but loves this. How does that feel?
Praise from someone whose work you respect feels like having some kind of fabulous spa treatment, from which you emerge feeling twice the woman you were…
Your online admirers are just as keen, except for one who thinks your characters are morally shaky, and one who seems to think it's a children's book. OF COURSE a novelist must NEVER respond to reviewers or tell them what they think, but hey - here's your chance!
Ha! Morally shaky’s fair enough, but I read the ‘children’s book’ review with some puzzlement; the reasoning seemed to be that because one of the central characters is ten years old, it must have been written for children. Funnily enough, it made me think about the time when I was hovering on the edge of adolescence, wondering what to read next (this was before the era of Young Adult novels); my way into adult literature turned out to be through books with child protagonists – The Go-Between, I’m the King of the Castle, Father and Son, Frost in May…. I’d be more than happy for ‘Crooked Heart’ to be added to that list!
Cliched but actually very interesting question coming up: how do you go about your research?
The first research I ever did was for my previous novel, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, which was published in 2009. It’s about the making of a British feature film during the Second World War – a plot which linked a desire to write about what goes on behind the camera (prompted by my own TV experiences) with my intense and abiding interest in the home front, which sprang from reading (and re-reading) Norman Longmate’s book ‘How we Lived Then’ as a teenager. My method of research couldn’t really be dignified with the word ‘method’ – I explored in all directions: I read novels and memoirs of the era, dipped into reference books, trade papers, newspapers and leaflets (British Film Institute Library), watched countless long and short films (Imperial War Museum archive) talked to veterans (had to hunt them down), looked at and photocopied original scripts (particularly thrilling to discover hand-written annotations) and kept a constantly-updated file of ‘language’ (phrases/words/references used during the period I was writing about). I researched until I began to feel that I was comfortable in the era. Most enjoyably, and usefully, I delved into specific archives held by specialist libraries and found there to be nothing more thrilling than sifting through ephemera : memos, letters, notes, cards, cuttings – most of them untouched for more than fifty years…After finishing ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, I still felt completely steeped in the nineteen forties, and decided to write another book set in the era. ‘Crooked Heart’, however, presented me with an unexpected research problem: the characters I was writing about - petty crooks, debtors, marginalised people living on their wits - aren’t the type who keep diaries or write memoirs or find themselves interviewed in later years; they’re invisible, living in the cracks, and I had to find a way to peer in. My route was through the pages of local newspapers. The ‘Herts Advertiser and St Albans Times’ (now defunct) was my bible – a patchwork of stories that reflected all aspects of wartime provincial life, where bomb news and black-out advice nudged shoulders with accounts of Masonic Social Nights and lists of people being prosecuted for defaulting on the rates. Here are a few random transcribed snippets:
'It has been brought to the notice of the Lady of the Manor that certain people who have the privilege of scrubbing are sawing the underwood. This is not allowed…’
Residents in the Barnet Rural area who are entitled to have an Anderson air-raid shelter either have no faith in them or are apathetic about them, for of the large proportion of shelters already delivered, probably ninety per cent are still unassembled and lying just where they were put when delivered. ..’
‘Another daring smash-and-grab raid took place in St Albans on Wednesday, when 2 men, operating in a saloon car which had been stolen from a local butcher, were concerned in smashing the window of The Clock House, Victoria Street (with a spanner) and grabbing 2 trays containing between 60 and 70 rings…’
When my writing flagged, or I struggled with the plot, I’d always return to this source, and it never failed to inspire me.
If I was your writing teacher, I would love to set you the task of rewriting it as a full on tragedy - what do you think? Would it work?
Yes, I think it would, though I imagine I’d get rather depressed trying to do it. I’d prefer to commission Bernard McLaverty or Rohinton Mistry to write it for me. I remember finishing ‘Lamb’ and feeling like a wrung-out wash-cloth.
How does - or indeed does - your TV comedy background affect your writing? Because I can't help observing that Father Ted is also very high on the funny/touching-o-meter.
I think it’s the other way round – I ended up working in comedy, and writing the way I write, because I’ve always loved books that make me laugh. I remember when I was 7 or 8, literally weeping with laughter over Molesworth, doubled up, stomach hurting – and I remember my joy in discovering other authors who had a similar effect on me, (Gerald Durrell, Michael Green, Betty McDonald) and whose work I absorbed so that, decades later, whole paragraphs are still embedded in my brain. This love didn’t emerge in my own writing for a while – I still have my English books from school, and they’re full of self-conscious literary efforts, but I wrote a pantomime when I was 18 and when I re-read it recently, I was struck by how tightly-structured it is; it’s not wildly funny, but it’s written with precision – I was using running gags before I even knew what the term meant! At university I wrote and performed in a stand-up group, and when I gave up medicine, the only employment (it seemed to me) that I was in any way qualified for was to work, in some capacity, in comedy. I was lucky enough to get a job as a producer in light entertainment radio, which was where I learned to be a ruthless editor. Later on, in television, I read a script of ‘Father Ted’ and fell in love; it was comedy writing of the highest order – wildly original and yet utterly precise, a master-class in timing and brevity. The two series that I produced were the highlight of my comedy career, and after that I thought it was time I started writing for myself .
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on another children’s book, but I’ve also started researching for the sequel of ‘Crooked Heart’, which will be set about three years after the first. I spent last week in the Imperial War Museum, reading the war diary of a West Hampstead woman called Gwladys Cox. There is nothing, nothing, like handling original material for sucking you back into an era; when I looked up, I expected to see barrage balloons floating above the roof-tops…
Why did you leave medicine?
Over the decades I’ve thought long and hard about this question. The bottom line is that I was terrified for almost every single second of my time as a doctor (I gave up four years after qualifying). Despite having completed a five year course, I felt as if I knew almost nothing, and although I had a cheery and reassuring bedside manner, what my patients didn’t realise is that they’d have been much better off with a mumbling introvert who actually knew what they were doing. My happiest day (or, possibly, only happy day) as a house officer was a sunny bank holiday during which there were no admissions and I sat on the grass outside the medical ward reading ‘The Longest Journey’ by E M Forster. What’s strange is that although it’s now nearly 26 years since I handed back my bleep for the last time, the intensity of the experience was so great that my memories haven’t faded in the slightest – I saw and heard things that I’ll never forget, and those four years have infused everything I’ve written.
Do you listen to music while you write? If so what?
I usually prefer silence, but there are a few pieces - repetitive, low key, usually wordless – that I play over and over again, filling in the background rather than obtruding. Track 4 of the Baka Beyond World Music Compilation is my muse….
What (if anything) do you read while you're writing?
For the three years that I was researching and then writing ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, I limited myself to fiction published between 1938 and 1941 (at The London Library, the date of publication is printed on a book’s spine, so it’s very easy to browse). I know this sounds completely fanatical, but what it brought me was an absolute confidence in my knowledge of the vocabulary, the parameters and the preoccupations of the era. I’ve eased off a bit since then… Currently reading a Stephen King!
CROOKED HEART by Lissa Evans is published by Random House
photo by Alys Tomlinson
Ooh! I thought of one. Frenchman's Creek is VERY funny.
Thanks for this - I'll be looking up 'Crooked Heart.'
Funny + Historical? - Try Tom Holt's 'The Walled Orchard' - written from the POV of a comedy playwright in Ancient Athens. The narrator takes a scathingly bitter, funny view of his city and fellow citizens - and this makes the history all the more vivid and real. Instead of the usual, stars-in-the-eyes view of 'the glory that was Greece', you get a 'dog-shit-on-the-sandals' view which is instantly recognisable from the 21st Century.
I. Claudius had its moments of comedy too. But I agree in general.
Funny, historical and "morally shaky"? Sounds delightful. Thanks for the interview.
I'm off to look this up immediately... Thank you, both.
Coincidentally I'm in the middle of this wonderful book and couldn't be enjoying it more! Makes you want to savour every sentence...
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