Family Faces Grief and Anger in Elizabeth Day’s Home Fires
An exclusive Authorlink interview
When British soldier Max is killed, his mother, Caroline, can’t get past her grief. To make matters worse, her helpless mother-in-law must move in with Caroline and her husband, Andrew. Caroline and Elsa have always had a strained relationship and matters are no better now. Andrew must deal with his own grief and try to be strong for the women he loves.
|“I think, like most writing, it was a mixture of imagination and personal experience.”
AUTHORLINK: How were you able to get into the heads and hearts of these three family members and portray so profoundly what they were going through?
DAY: I think, like most writing, it was a mixture of imagination and personal experience. In my day job, I am a journalist for the UK Sunday newspaper The Observer and there was a time, around 2009, when I found myself interviewing a lot of parents – specifically mothers – whose sons had been killed in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of a failure of military equipment. It seemed to be happening more and more frequently and some of those I spoke to felt they had been badly treated by the government in their subsequent dealings with them. It brought home to me the acute disjunction between personal grief – your son or daughter has just been killed – and the political state machinery involved in waging war. That became a theme I wanted to explore.
I wanted to write the character of Elsa, the older woman who has just had a stroke and is no longer able to look after herself, because I’d seen my beloved grandmother suffer a similar fate. My grandmother was nothing like Elsa, character-wise, but I did witness her frustration and confusion that her incredibly active mind was being trapped by a failing body.
I find families and personal dynamics the most fascinating thing in the world. I love being able to think myself into people’s heads, to imagine what they’re going through and how what they’re thinking might contradict how they are acting. It was a question of thinking myself into the characters’ skin. As soon as you do that, you realize everyone has failings as well as fundamental goodness and that these two things can co-exist in one person. The family unit, for me, is a way of portraying the world in microcosm.
|“I felt it was important to convey these struggles with as much emotional honesty as I could muster. . . “
AUTHORLINK: The story goes deeply into the suffering of these characters. Did you ever feel their struggles so much it was difficult to go on?
DAY: No – I hope that doesn’t make me sound cold-hearted or unfeeling! I felt it was important to convey these struggles with as much emotional honesty as I could muster and that became the guiding force. And I was aware that whatever I was feeling paled in comparison to the real grief of parents whose children have gone off to war and never come back. I can remember one episode when I suddenly felt quite drained – it was the scene by the Cenotaph where Caroline, the grieving mother, is confronted with the truth of her son’s death and suddenly all these endless months of speculation come to a crashing halt and she is left with nothing to rail against. I was writing that in a Le Pain Quotidien café and I remember lifting my head from my laptop and definitely feeling I needed to take a break.
|“When I started out, I knew the plot and where I wanted it to end but I hadn’t planned the detail of each chapter. . .”
AUTHORLINK: How did you decide on the structure of the story, the placement and order of the flashbacks?
DAY: When I started out, I knew the plot and where I wanted it to end but I hadn’t planned the detail of each chapter in advance. Often my characters end up doing things that surprise me or take me somewhere I hadn’t entirely expected and I think you have to allow yourself the leeway to let that happen if you’re writing complicated people who don’t always act according to the purest rules of logic!
My first novel had three main characters and chapters that rotated in order between each of them. I used this structure for Home Fires because I like both the order and the discipline it gives me. You have to think yourself into the skin of every single character.
The flashbacks were particularly necessary in the case of Elsa. As I was writing someone in the grip of early dementia, I really wanted to show her as she had been to establish a human connection early on, so that the reader didn’t just see her as an old woman losing her marbles. I think we have a tendency, in society, to sideline the elderly, to see them as archetypes of age rather than being able to imagine the young, vital people they once were. I didn’t want to fall into that trap.
Having said that, I wrote a first draft, then re-ordered a lot of the structure in the second. I changed the beginning, for instance, and set the first chapter in 1920 with a young Elsa on a day-trip to London with her mother, witnessing the return of the unknown soldier in the aftermath of the First World War. This was part of establishing that empathetic connection with Elsa – I realized, as I re-drafted, that it was crucial to the shape of the narrative.
AUTHORLINK: How did you choose what memories would come to each character? Was it hard to delete scenes to get the ones that would work best?
DAY: It’s always hard to delete scenes because, as a writer, you’re convinced that they contain great, vivid passages with awe-inspiringly lyrical descriptions and Pulitzer-worthy prose! So, yes, I did have to cut some things out and it wasn’t easy but I’m lucky to have a terrific editor, Helen Garnons-Williams at Bloomsbury UK, whose judgment is impeccable and I always trust what she says, even if initially I take some convincing. There was one particular passage in the book where I had switched to the perspective of Max, the young soldier fighting a conflict in South Sudan. My editor felt that to make this switch so suddenly in the midst of a narrative which, up till then, had been guided by three different voices from the home front, would cheat the reader. She persuaded me to re-write that passage as imagined by Caroline. She was absolutely right, but it meant that I had to chop out and re-shape a few sentences that could have been the most beautiful sentences ever written (and now we’ll never know…).
AUTHORLINK: How did you research the historical and military back stories?
DAY: Well, luckily I love to read. I researched a lot online and in newspapers to get the military feel as accurate as possible. A former colleague, who was defense correspondent on a national newspaper, helped me out on this. For the First World War strand, I read contemporary literature dealing with women’s experience of the conflict – the mothers, wives and daughters waiting at home for soldiers to return, often unable to grasp the horrors their menfolk had been through. What I read included Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, one of the best and most moving memoirs I’ve ever read. Juliet Nicholson’s non-fiction book, The Great Silence, was also invaluable.
AUTHORLINK: How did the process of writing and publishing your second novel differ from the first?
DAY: It was harder (but in a good way). Home Fires is more complicated structurally than my first novel, Scissors Paper Stone. There are more characters and two different time scales. Whereas I wrote Scissors Paper Stone pretty much straight off from beginning to end in a year, Home Fires took twice as long because I spent the second year re-drafting. As a result, I’m a big believer in the power of re-writing or, as my editor puts it, “re-arranging the furniture”. It’s like you’ve built a house, unpacked the boxes and done the vast majority of the hard work, but it’s only after you’ve lived there for a while that you begin to see how the rooms might look better by shifting things around a little.
|About Elizabeth Day:
Day’s family has urged her to write a lighter book, since she is “capable of cracking the odd joke” so her next novel, Paradise City, is “a serious book with flashes of humor.” The story concerns a multi-millionaire businessman whose daughter goes missing when she’s 19 years old.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.