Today I’m delighted to welcome Clare Flynn to Virtual Book Club, the interview series in which authors have the opportunity to pitch their novels to your book club.
Clare writes historical fiction with a strong sense of time and place and compelling characters. Her books often deal with characters who are displaced – forced out of their comfortable lives and familiar surroundings. She is a graduate of Manchester University where she read English Language and Literature.
Born in Liverpool she is the eldest of five children. After a career in international marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she ran her own consulting business for 15 years and now lives in Eastbourne where she writes full-time – and can look out of her window and see the sea.
When not writing and reading, Clare loves to paint with watercolours and grabs any available opportunity to travel – sometimes under the guise of research.
Today we’ll be discussing her new release, The Chalky Sea.
Q: What is it about this novel that you feel makes it particularly suitable for book clubs?
The Chalky Sea is set during the Second World War, a period that is understandably popular with book clubs because it represents a time of great change and huge upheaval. It was also a period when emotions were exposed, when people knew they could be dead by the end of the week and so behaved more freely than in peacetime. Reading books set during the war opens us to an era close enough that we can try to imagine how our parents or grandparents coped in those times, yet at the same time so far removed from our own everyday experiences.
The book is about difficult human relationships and how war impacts them. There are two interwoven strands – one follows Gwen, a thirty-six year-old, emotionally repressed housewife, whose husband is away at war, and the other about Jim, a young Canadian soldier, who has joined up to escape heartbreak and looks to the war as a means of ending his troubles one way or another. Gwen finds a sense of purpose denied to her in peacetime, while Jim faces months of boredom and waiting only seeing action after three years. There is much to discuss in their individual journeys as well as the choices they make along the way.
Q: Did you know where this book was going to go right from the start?
I thought I did but discovered I didn’t. A character that started out as a fleeting figure proved to have sharp elbows and forced her way into a prominent role, which changed the course of events. The overall direction stayed the same but this character certainly made her mark and has now earned herself a pivotal role in my next book, which is a sequel to The Chalky Sea (a first for me).
I knew about the theme I wanted to deal with – the way war has a transformative effect that is not necessarily bad. My late mother always used to say that war brought out the best in people and I wanted to explore whether that might be true and in what ways.
Q: The two protagonists of The Chalky Sea are Gwen Collingwood and Jim Armstrong. What five (or ten if you prefer) words best describe each of them?
Being awkward I’ve gone for six!
Gwen is buttoned-up, fearful, unfulfilled, searching, perceptive, ready.
Jim is honourable, a little naive, brave, uncertain, loyal, passionate.
Q: Do you feel under pressure to make your main characters likable?
I try to resist it. I want them to be interesting rather than likeable. Usually if that’s the case, readers end up liking them anyway. Gwen in The Chalky Sea is emotionally cold on the surface but with a surfeit of blocked emotions underneath. My critique group authors found her extremely unsympathetic in the initial draft of the first chapter when she says goodbye to her husband and shows him little affection. Her coldness comes from fear, repressed grief and emotional disconnection – but it may take some time before this becomes apparent. Real people often behave badly. Our personalities and behaviours are not set in stone – we evolve and change and some days an angel can behave like a complete devil.
Q: Where is the book set and how did you decide on its setting?
It’s set mostly in Eastbourne on the Sussex coast where I now live, and in Aldershot, the British garrison town, with a couple of chapters in Ontario, Canada. I moved to Eastbourne just over a year ago, having (mis)spent my teenage years here. After I moved back I discovered the town’s role in the war – something I had been completely unaware of – initially it was within the south coast focus of Hitler’s aborted invasion plans and then it became the most heavily bombed town in the south-east. This was something no one talked about in the seventies – I suppose people had put the war years behind them. When I began to look into the topic I found out that one hundred and seventy-two civilians and twenty-seven forces personnel were killed in more than one hundred bombing raids. I didn’t know the town was effectively a garrison for the large number of the Canadian army who were more or less continuously stationed here from 1941 until the D Day invasions. There was a Canadian officers’ mess in one of the houses in my road and it’s possible that Canadian soldiers were even billeted in my house – they were put up in houses throughout the town and used to park their tanks at the end of my road and drink in both my local pubs. I have always lived in old houses and love to imagine who might have lived there before me, so it was a small step for me to dream up Gwen. As I looked through my windows or stood on my balcony watching the sea, I imagined her doing the same.
I was also drawn to the idea of Canada – not a country I know well, apart from a week in the Rockies years ago – my father travelled in the opposite direction to Jim during the war. My dad was in the RAF and so did his flight training, as did all the RAF recruits, in Canada. I think he would have been very interested to know of the Canadian connection to Eastbourne.
Q: It really does sound as if setting the novel in a place that was well known to you has changed the way that you feel about that place.
Yes. I always had a great affection for Eastbourne but now it is coloured with a great respect for what the townspeople went through. Walking along the seafront now, I can’t help imagining it covered with barbed wire and tank traps and the pier with a piece cut out of the middle to prevent the Germans using it as a landing stage. The twee but colourful Carpet Gardens were dug up and replanted with cabbages, spuds and onions during the war.
Every fortnight when I meet up with my writers’ critique group in the Cavendish Hotel, I see the ugly modern section which replaced the east wing of the building and am reminded that this was the result of a bombing raid when four people lost their lives in the hotel. Opposite the Pilot pub in the Meads area where I live, and where the 83rd Battery of the 23rd Canadian Field regiment used to hang out, there is a brick wall with several slits in the brickwork – these were embrasures, created for guns. It’s uncertain whether the Canadians or the Home Guard made them but they were intended as part of the coastal defence.
Q: At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title?
Very early on. One of my school friends who died suddenly a few years ago used to describe the sea at Eastbourne as “the grey-green chalky sea”. One of the things that is remarkable about it, is the way it changes colour and texture so many times in the course of the day. As I look at it now in late evening it is blue-grey but at its most beautiful it is peppermint green.
When I first moved here I kept a mini diary of how the sea appeared each day, while I was waiting for the kettle to boil for my early morning tea. I used some of these descriptions in the book.
Like me, my character, Gwen, lives high up in Meads, above the coast and the town. The sea would have been a constant presence in her life. I suppose the chalkiness of the water is a metaphor for the opaqueness of wartime – not knowing when it would end and whether one would live or die. The sea is what keeps the enemy at bay – just a short distance across the channel. Gwen’s husband is serving, presumably with what we now know to be Special Operations, in a destination unknown but also across that sea. For Pauline, Gwen’s friend, the sea is where her husband is, aboard a ship in the transatlantic convoys. For Jim, home, family and the life he has run away from, are thousands of miles away on the other side of the sea.
Q: How did you deal with the responsibility that comes with basing fiction on real-life events?
Each of the bombing raids described in the book happened. People died in those raids and some of their relatives may still live in the town. The characters involved in the bombings in The Chalky Sea are all invented – but whenever someone dies, it is in a raid where people actually did die. I have endeavoured to be respectful of that. I have also followed the dates and the roads involved.
The information about the Canadians’ activities in the town is limited but has been extensively researched by one of my main sources, Michael Ockenden, in his book Canucks by the Sea. Apparently he corresponded with many veterans as part of his research. Most of these men are now deceased. All my characters are fictional, but I have tried to stay close to the spirit of the various accounts by soldiers stationed here in Eastbourne and in Aldershot and elsewhere.
Q: Did you incorporate any real life characters into your novel? If so how?
I always write pure fiction. I am not a biographical novelist. I do however make passing references to real people – such as the Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King. There is an incident where a German plane is shot down and crashes in the road at the bottom of my own road. This was a real event. As described in the book, the dead pilot, Hauptman Ernst Hollekamp, landed half a mile away from the crash site, on a school roof – now part of Brighton University, and the navigator parachuted into the sea, where he was drowned. For many years it was believed that the crashed plane was a Henkel bomber, until the pilot’s widow, Frau Hollekamp, visited the town and confirmed that it was a Messerschmitt fighter plane.
Q: Which scene did you find the most challenging to write and why?
The scene at Newhaven after the Dieppe raid. This was Canada’s first real action in the war and was a complete catastrophe with more than half the men involved being killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The poor Canucks were desperate to see action, having been kicking their heels in England since the First Division arrived in December 1939. By August 1942 they were frustrated and ready to prove themselves. The misadventure that was the raid on the heavily defended port of Dieppe was a terrible tragedy that cost 900 Canadian lives and was doomed from the start. The Chalky Sea doesn’t cover the battle for Dieppe, just the return of the survivors and the dead – almost two thousand were taken as prisoners of war by the Germans. I knew I wasn’t going to write about the raid itself, but subconsciously I chickened out of the aftermath too – skating over it in a couple of paragraphs, even though it involved the death of an important character. Fortunately my wonderful editor, Debi Alper called me on it and I went back and wrote it again.
Q: Was the decision of how to structure the novel obvious?
Yes and no. I wanted to have alternating chapters between the voices of Gwen and Jim. But a few chapters in, I ignored my instincts and restructured it differently for chronological reasons. Again, my editor challenged me to rethink it and I returned to Plan A – which took some major re-working and a complete rethink on the timeline but I am so happy I did so. You know you have a terrific editor when they give tough feedback and instead of being disheartened you feel a huge sense of relief – I had not felt comfortable with the structure but couldn’t put my finger on why!
Q: Where does this story fit in with the rest of your work?
Until now all my books have been standalones and set in either the nineteenth or twentieth century. There are thematic links between them, notably the idea of displacement and upheaval and its impact on the protagonists’ lives. All of the books deal with relationships, love, marriage, betrayal, unfairness, resourcefulness.
I have always resisted the idea of writing a series. By the time I get to the end of a book and through the editing process, I want to walk away from my characters. I’ve always been a bit of a neophile, constantly seeking novelty and change. This time however my plan is to write a sequel to The Chalky Sea, set in Canada. At least I will have a change of setting and the opportunity to introduce new characters – and I hadn’t done with Jim.
Where to find out more about Clare and her writing?
Twitter – https://twitter.com/clarefly
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/authorclareflynn
Amazon Author Page http://www.amazon.com/Clare-Flynn/e/B008O4T2LC/
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