I reviewed Caroline Lea’s stunning debut novel ‘When the sky fell apart’ last month, and have since had the pleasure of interviewing her about the story and her journey as a new author.
What inspired you to write ‘When the Sky Fell Apart’?
The Occupation of the Channel Islands is a fascinating time, which must have been truly terrifying for those who lived through it. They were a relatively small community of farmers and fishermen, who were cut off from the rest of the world. It was the most heavily occupied area of Europe, with one armed German soldier for every islander, and I’ve always been captivated by the stories of bravery and resilience that emerged from that time. I’m fascinated by the ways in which war changes people, relationships and communities.
This is your first published novel; how long have you been writing for?
Forever, it seems! I’ve always loved writing and was lucky enough to gain a place on the prestigious Warwick Writing Programme’s English Literature and Creative Writing BA, at a time when not many universities ran creative writing courses—the year I gained a place, there were over 2000 applicants for 20 places.
In the years since my degree, I’ve continued to write, but it was only when I wrote ‘When the Sky Fell Apart’ that I felt I had something worthy of publication.
Why do you write?
That’s a tricky one… Obsession. Obstinacy. An insatiable desire for approval…! Often, if an idea comes along, it’s a compulsion: a story that keeps growing and developing, with characters who become increasingly real as I add more details to their story. That’s when it’s going well. On other days, it’s a real slog, and I write because I know I have to get the story finished. It’s still a compulsion, but an uncomfortable one. I set myself deadlines and I try to write every day.
Dorothy Parker said, ‘I hate writing, but I love having written.’ I think writing is like running, in that way: some days, every step feels like torture, but afterwards, you feel like Mo Farrah.
Do you have a writer’s rider list?
I mostly write sitting up in bed (not in my pyjamas—I get dressed first! Usually…) It’s comfortable and I can’t become distracted by making myself yet another a cup of tea. I have two young sons, so my house is rarely quiet, but my husband is very understanding and often takes the boys out so I can focus on writing.
I also carry a notebook with me and write ideas down as they come to me. Some of my best ideas come when I am walking or running (I think the process of walking out in nature frees up the mind), so sometimes, if I’m stuck, I’ll take the dog for a walk.
What are the easiest and hardest things about writing?
The easiest thing is the initial ideas, phrases and scenes that come to me while I’m reading or watching television or walking. The hardest thing is the endless redrafting, improving and editing: I think about 80% of the work lies in the editing. If you’re lucky (as I have been), you’ll have wonderful friends who will patiently offer advice, a great agent, who will read endless drafts, and a fantastic editor, who will help you to shape your novel into something you’re proud of.
Which authors influence or inspire you the most?
I love authors who put great characters into difficult situations, and then write about it beautifully. Helen Dunmore, Kate Atkinson and Sarah Waters are all wonderful, as are Sarah Winman and Maggie O’ Farrell. For a long time, my favourite book was The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I still love it, but I’ve read a lot of books recently that stole my heart just as powerfully: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See haunted me for days, as did Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins. All three novels approach the difficult subject of WW2 with wonderful sensitivity and originality.
What literary character is most like you?
While I’d love to say Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet, I fear I may be more Bertha Rochester, or the female protagonist from The Yellow Wallpaper…
About the book:
How did you choose your character’s names, did you name them first or develop their characters for a while?
I experimented with voices and back-stories and planned the structure of the story before I began to write (I always do this; I admire writers who can simply ‘wing it’ but I have to know where I’m going). Then I picked names that fitted the characters in my head (thank you, Google!), and began writing.
Which character do you relate to most?
I love Edith’s sarcasm and humour; her mixture of brusqueness and empathy, and I loved creating her voice. I enjoyed writing Claudine’s child-like naïveté—I can vividly remember the powerlessness of being a child and only half understanding confrontations. I also enjoyed writing about the confusion of loyalties that she feels because of the Occupation. I was drawn to the way in which war might affect a child’s understanding of morality, and the idea that, often, a child’s innocence can lend them greater wisdom than that of the adults around them.
Both my male protagonists are torn between the desire to stay and the longing to escape their current situation, and I think that internal conflict is something most people can relate to. All the characters also have great love stories, and I enjoyed writing those.
Your beautiful front cover was designed by Imogen Stubbs, inspired by the painting ‘The Inlet’. Why did you choose this image?
The wonderfully talented Imogen chose it herself, alongside my equally talented editor, Rebecca Starford. The image is both wild and romantic: it evokes danger and confinement, along with the promise of freedom and hope on the horizon. These are the themes that are central to the novel, so the cover works perfectly.
There are many emotive themes in the book, including mental health, terminal illness, abuse and rape. Were any of these scenes particularly hard to write about?
Definitely! Without issuing any spoilers, I found many of those scenes hard to write, and had to step away from the computer on a few occasions. I was intrigued by the way that war could damage people, but they could emerge scarred, but stronger for it. And the story is full of positive relationships and bonds that serve to mitigate the darker moments. It is, I feel, ultimately redemptive and hopeful, and I always kept that end point in mind. I think that helped me through writing the darker moments.
You were born and raised in Jersey, what signs of the occupation remain?
Signs of the Occupation are everywhere, from the concrete bunkers that litter the coast, to the fortifications that scar the old castles. And the War Tunnels, which are now a wonderfully dark and evocative tourist attraction—providing a great history of the Occupation—were created by slave labourers as a hospital that the Germans dug deep into the rock of the island. Jersey is a fascinating place to visit because the Germans marked the island—and its people and history—so deeply.
Do you have any family from that time? Are their experiences reflected in the book?
I used some wonderful anecdotes from my brother in law—one of which involved an entire Christmas dinner being hidden from a German patrol under the duvet! I also drew inspiration from the story of his father, who bravely risked death to escape on a boat to France towards the end of the war.
What other research did you do to understand the history of the occupation?
I’m from Jersey, so I knew a lot about the Occupation before I started, but I was lucky enough to have a lot of great books at my disposal and I researched widely before I started writing. Ultimately, I made the decision to fictionalise the events and characters, including the brutal Commandant, who I made far more ruthless and manipulative than either of the men who ruled over the island during the Occupation.
I wanted the novel to be one of high drama, yet containing believable and sympathetic characters, and I didn’t want to feel constrained to a factual account. I know Kate Atkinson has said that she researches widely before she starts to write, but then allows the story to unfold. Historical fiction is, after all, fictitious.
If you had to start again, is there anything in ‘When the Sky Fell Apart’ that you would change?
I don’t think so. I had the gift of such fantastic input from so many great editors and writers (both my agent, Nelle Andrew, and my editor, Rebecca Starford, are published novelists in their own right) and When the Sky Fell Apart is the result of three years of honing and editing. It is very best version of that particular story. I have, however, learnt a great deal through the editorial process, and I hope that my next novel will be even stronger as a result (my agent has been very enthusiastic in her feedback on the drafts!).
Paperbacks vs. Hardbacks? Paperbacks—I find hardbacks too cumbersome.
Fiction vs. Nonfiction? Fiction.
Letters vs. Emails? Letters are wonderful but we’d be lost without the immediacy of emails.
Calls vs. Texts? Texts. I loathe speaking on the phone.
Harry vs. Ron? Ron. He’s straightforward, good-humoured and sarcastic. Although, I suppose you can afford to crack jokes when you have a loving, supportive family, and when you don’t have Voldemort trying to bump you off at the end of every school year. Poor Harry.
What do you plan to write about next?
I’m currently finishing the latest draft of my second novel, which is set in seventeenth century Iceland, against the backdrop of the Icelandic witch trials. It starts with a body emerging from under the sea ice. It is a story about love and betrayal, passion and violence, religion and superstition, and about how times of great crisis can lead to acts of great courage.
While the setting and time period are very different from those of When the Sky Fell Apart, it has many similarities: strong characters, put under pressure by their environment and circumstances. Iceland also gave me a wonderfully evocative landscape to describe. I’m hoping that the finished product will be that gem of a novel that every writer strives to produce: something that is gripping, thought-provoking and beautiful.