I studied English at university and started my working life as a journalist, so I have always written. But I came to writing novels quite late. It was something I’d always wanted to do but never had time for. So, when I was lucky enough to get early retirement from my job, I went freelance and at the same time decided to try writing a novel. I suppose it felt like my equivalent of climbing Everest or getting a hole in one on the golf course, and I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to do it.
I’ve been immensely fortunate. Love and War is my fifth novel – I can hardly believe it myself.
There have been lots of books written about World War One, what made you write about the months after the war was over rather than of the war itself?
Precisely for that reason. I always try to find an unusual angle for my stories – the less well trodden path. So many wonderful books and poems have been written about the war itself that I could not hope to match them. When researching an earlier book, The Poppy Factory, I read just a single paragraph about the many thousands of people who went on those early battlefield tours. The idea is astonishing, given the devastation suffered by Flanders and The Somme, so I began to research some more, and discovered that the tours were also very controversial. How could I resist?
Did you yourself undertake a tour of the battle fields and burial grounds to help you ass authenticity to Alice, Ruby and Martha's story? I felt as if you were writing from experience of seeing the areas given such vivid, detailed descriptions were within the book.
Yes, and it was completely eye-opening, although of course the towns and countryside today are totally different from 1919. The centre of Ypres has been entirely rebuilt; you would hardly believe it was ever flattened. We also visited a small town called Poperinghe, on which Hoppestadt is based, went to the museum at Talbot House and took coffee in the square at the café where Ginger worked during and after the war – there is a lovely statue to her there. Both she and Tubby Clayton, who set up Talbot House, feature in the novel and our tour guide was a lovely man, the perfect model for the Major.
Most of my descriptions came from old photographs and newreel movies, as well from visiting the small museums dotted all over Flanders which often hold many personal stories and artefacts.
How challenging did you find it writing the story as seen through the eyes of three main female characters, each with such different yet harrowing stories to share?
Very, in a word! I thought it would make the story interesting, and help me to explore the notion of reconciliation more thoroughly. In practice it was very difficult to structure their different stories and make sure they dovetailed together, not to mention the problems of who could speak what language, and to whom. Despite the topic, wanted to find some humour and joy in the book, and this was also a bit of a challenge.
I thought it was excellent to include Martha as I don't think the viewpoint of the opposing side is given much prominence in books based on the World Wars, I thought a very well rounded perspective was given of all sides. Were you tempted to give Martha a different ending given there was so much hostility from the Belgians towards her and Otto?
I try to avoid stereotypes, and wanted Martha to be a very sympathetic character. I thought carefully about allowing her to be the only one to come away with good news, but decided to run with it so that the other characters were forced to work even harder to find forgiveness.
The idea that she is Jewish came to me as I wrote her, because I wanted to hint towards the fact that WW1 was not of course the ‘war to end all wars’ and whatever reconciliation may have taken place was quickly lost with the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. But I wanted Martha’s contact with Alice to offer a future escape route to America once the persecution of the Jews started.
I think Ruby was my favourite character given the transformation she undergoes given the emotional state she was in when we first met her. Do you have a favourite character or is too hard to choose?
Ruby is easy to identify with because she is English and we can place her in our society. But I really enjoyed writing the others, too. Martha is a mother, like me, and I simply cannot imagine the agony of losing a child. Alice embodies a certain American girl of the time: rich and headstrong, more liberated than European women and yet frustrated by the expectations of respectability. It was great fun to write her affair with Daniel.
How different was the process of writing In Love and War compared to some of you earlier novels?
Very different, not least because of the different nationalities involved and the need for each of them to have a ‘narrative arc’ that worked alongside those of the others. But the process of writing was similar: I start with the merest idea and a few characters, do a lot of research and discover new plotlines, write a first draft which then I print out and read. As usual, this leaves me in despair, convinced that I’ve written a load of rubbish. Then I do more work, show it to my editor and agent, and take on board their suggestions, and finally knock it into a shape I am satisfied with.
I experienced a myriad of emotions when reading this story. Were there any specific moments where everything really struck a chord with you while writing?
Yes. The moment when Ruby discovers that before he died Alfie had saved Joseph’s life. I didn’t see that one coming until I began to write the scene! I found it very moving to know that she would treasure this knowledge about her husband’s bravery for the rest of her life.
I also enjoyed writing the scene at the end where they say farewell to Freddie. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen but knew he wouldn’t demonstrate any emotion – he’s not that kind of man. But I also knew that he would be really broken up, because Ruby had helped bring him ‘back to life’. She was very fond of him, too. Who knows what might happen to them in the future?
Three women, once enemies. Their secrets will unite them.
The First World War is over. The war-torn area of Flanders near Ypres is no longer home to troops, but groups of tourists. Controversial battlefield tourism now brings hundreds of people to the area, all desperate to witness first-hand where their loved ones fell.
At the Hotel de la Paix in the small village of Hoppestadt, three women arrive, searching for traces of the men they have loved and lost.
Ruby is just twenty-one, a shy Englishwoman looking for the grave of her husband. Alice is only a little older but brimming with confidence; she has travelled all the way from America, convinced her brother is in fact still alive. Then there’s Martha, and her son Otto, who are not all they seem to be...
The three women in Liz Trenow’s In Love and War may have very different backgrounds, but they are united in their search for reconciliation: to resolve themselves to what the war took from them, but also to what life might still promise for the future...