Jennifer Robson is the author of the new novel After the War is Over, set in the World War I period. She also has written the novel Somewhere in France. She lives in Toronto.
Q: When you started Somewhere in France, did you already know you would write a second novel focused on Charlotte Brown, a secondary character in the first novel?
A: At its genesis, Somewhere in France was a standalone book; it was the first book (apart from my doctoral thesis) that I’d ever written, and to be honest I wasn’t sure, when I started, if I had more than one book in me!
Before long, though, the character of Charlotte began to develop and grow beyond the space she occupied within Somewhere in France, and I realized that she would need a book of her own – not only to tell her story, but also to let readers glimpse the post-war lives of the other characters in Somewhere in France.
Q: Both novels focus on the World War I period and their impact on a generation in England. Why did you choose to look at that particular period?
A: I suppose it was almost inevitable that I would write about it, not least because my father, a university professor, taught the history of both world wars for much of his career.
Dad passed on his passion for the period to me, and inspired me to spend a summer working as a guide at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Northern France.
I was there in 1989, and had the honor of meeting a number of veterans of the First World War. The experience of meeting those men, of walking beside them as they revisited the battlefield, and of shaking their hands and thanking them, never left me.
Q: How did you conduct your research for the novels, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?
A: I took the same approach as I would if researching a work of non-fiction: first I did a high-level survey of the sources, starting with general histories for a given period, then I combed through their bibliographies and read what I found there, and so on and so on, until I was at the level of primary sources such as government documents, personal diaries, letters and memoirs, as well as newspapers, magazines and even contemporary novels.
That’s where the really vital information resides – not in Very Significant Events, as it were, but rather the details of everyday life. What did people wear? What did they eat? What were their homes like? That’s what brings historical fiction to life.
What astonished me the most, when I got down to the really intensive primary-source research, was how much of the material I needed had been digitized and could be viewed through online sources.
When I was at Oxford in the early 1990s, I spent several years combing through documents in libraries and archives all across Britain. Fast-forward 20 years, and the newspapers I spent months and months reading on microfilm have all been digitized – in fact, the library that once contained them has been closed – and, amazingly, their contents have actually been indexed.
I feel rather ill when I think of how much time I would have saved, back when I was doing my doctoral research, if I’d had a way of quickly searching the documents I needed.
When I do my research now, I hardly ever have to go to a library or archive in person, since nearly all of the material I need is available online.
It makes for a somewhat more sterile experience – my little home office isn’t nearly as inspiring as the Bodleian library at Oxford, for example – but it does mean I can research subjects in a fraction of the time it took me when I was a graduate student.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: It’s a long and ever-changing list, but off the top of my head I would cite Tracy Chevalier, Erika Robuck, Pam Jenoff, Hazel Gaynor, Lauren Willig and Deanna Raybourn for their historical fiction, although they are only a few of the writers whose work I read and admire.
Recently I read an advance copy of Simone St. James’s upcoming novel, The Other Side of Midnight, and I thought it was just terrific.
When I need a comfort read, I often turn to non-fiction writers, and there the list is a bit more diverse.
I love pretty much everything that Adam Gopnik has ever written—his writings on France are a source of constant inspiration—and I read a lot of history (no surprise there), with an emphasis on European history in the 20th century.
One recent standout is GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi, a really good popular history of the war brides who came to America after WWII.
Q: What are you working on now, and will you bring back some of your characters in your next novel?
A: I’m racing to finish the first draft of the third book (still without a title!) in my Great War Trilogy. It begins in 1924 and takes up the story of Lady Helena, who appears as a minor character in Somewhere in France and After the War is Over, and follows her to Paris.
There she moves in the same circles as the Lost Generation, goes to art school, and tries to find a place for herself in the brave new world of the 1920s, just as they were really beginning to roar.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m one of the contributors to the forthcoming fiction anthology A Fall of Poppies, which gathers together stories with 11 November 1918, the day the guns fell silent, as their central theme.
Also contributing to the anthology, which is scheduled for release in 2016, are Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Hazel Gaynor, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Heather Webb, Evangeline Holland and Marci Jefferson.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb