An interview with Helen Simonson, author of ‘The Summer Before the War’
Brooklyn Heights resident and acclaimed author Helen Simonson sat down with the Brooklyn Eagle to discuss her long-awaited second novel, “The Summer Before the War,” which takes place before and during WWI. (Book review here.) Here are some of her comments.
Helen Simonson: The way I see it, the book is in three parts: It starts with the very important concerns of my characters that [very idyllic] summer. Beatrice Nash — how is she going to survive without her father? Will she be able to afford an independent life? We have the two young men, who are nephews of Agatha Kent, trying to fathom their careers. We have Agatha trying to make her progressive way and get things done in town the way she likes. It’s really about what people think is important. And then the war breaks out. And people start to be tested.
In the second part of the book, war breaks out. But it doesn’t happen like in the movies, with a declaration of war, and then everybody on a train to the front. There is a lot of patriotism, all the fun and flags, all the excitement, the war having a crispness . . . And now life has shifted somewhat and people are called upon to reevaluate under this new scenario.
In the third part of the book, war comes down like a hammer and we actually go to the front. For me it was an issue. What I was really doing was taking the comedy of manners, which is a slightly more light-hearted approach to literature, and I was seeing how far it could stretch. Would I be able to take it all the way into the war? How would I manage? I was literally trying to stretch myself.
I thought I could manage because humor has always been used to explain the absurdities of war —“M*A*S*H” would be an example, and “Monty Python” has some amazing WWI sketches. Comedy has been used in that way for a long time. But I wasn’t doing something farcical, just seeing if I could stretch as a writer and whether the comedy of manners itself might stretch towards a war scenario.
Brooklyn Eagle: Was it hard to pull off?
HS: It was very hard to pull that off. In the end, I just went to war with one of my characters, Hugh, the surgeon, and I just went for it. I actually wrote the whole war section in a very short amount of time, in a very sustained manner. I actually had to, as a writer, really set aside my irony and my desire to be witty and really try to just be respectful and humble in the face of what was going on.
At the end, when my editor read the whole novel, she said, “Well, in this final section on the war we’re in Hugh’s head, and all your fabulous female characters sort of disappear from the narrative . . . and we’re not going to change a thing!” I had managed to pull off a sustained piece of writing, in her view.
BE: Talk about a comedy of manners vs. something more realistic.
HS: Well to me, comedy of manners is realistic. I live in a world where the funny things people say happen to me every single day. I don’t actually see a disconnect between a comedy of manners and, shall we say, realistic fiction. I live in a comedy of manners. I live in Brooklyn Heights!
BE: For our Brooklyn Heights readers…
HS: I think the whole world can be explained in a small town, and a small British village is not that much different from our Brooklyn Heights. I don’t mean that we’re small people. I hope that we can laugh at ourselves. But we’re very serious about our charitable committees and paying for the blessings we have . . . And that’s wonderful, and at the same time can be a source of humor.
BE: How did you get the idea for this novel?
HS: When I was told my first novel would be published and that my agent was going to take me on and make me a published author, I stepped out onto a busy New York Street outside the office, and the whole landscape of Rye appeared. I seemed to see Agatha Kent, the matriarch of the family. I think my home town just appeared before me and I felt the characters.
My book is also an homage to authors. I was a teenager when I moved to Rye, and somewhat lonely in high school. What sustained me was reading, and what I loved to buy were the local authors in the local bookshops. The local authors of Rye are Henry James, Edith Wharton, Virginia Wolfe, Rudyard Kipling and E. F. Benson [who wrote the Mapp and Lucia books, set in Rye].
BE: Is the character of Tillingham based on any particular writer?
HS: Yes, it’s a highly fictionalized, scurrilous almost-portrait of Henry James (perhaps). I did a lot of Henry James research, and I’m a huge fan. I’ve read biographies, I read novels about him, I’ve read his letters. And some of the more outrageous things Mr. Tillingham says are unusually close to things that Henry James said in his letters. Henry James was not a fan of young women writing fiction.
Mr. Tillingham came around at the end — and I was very happy when he came around. The joy for me in writing is that I follow my characters and I try not to know where they are going. I really try not to compose a plot, or an outline or a plan. I know we’re going to war and I have these big problems coming up, and I’m not sure how we’re going to resolve them; and I’m not sure how people are going to behave. But the delight for me is waking up in the morning and going, “Oh my goodness, perhaps Mr. Tillingham will save the day.” And whenever I can generate that, it is a high point in the writing for me.
Eagle: How did you research the war scenes?
HS: I did extensive research, and not only through history books. In the United Kingdom there’s a huge interest in the war. A lot of information has been collected on the internet, professionally and by amateurs, including things like war diaries. Soldiers were not allowed to keep them, but they did, and there is a large collection of those digitally available. So I had primary sources as well as books. I spent hours with surgical texts from 1914, and surgical technical journals, at the New York Public Library.
I felt very humble about approaching the war. I remembered going to see “Black Watch” at Saint Ann’s — a tremendous show – and the playwright (Gregory Burke) speaking about how he’d gone up to Scotland to interview soldiers who were in the Black Watch. And their initial reaction was, “Who the hell are you? You’ve never been in danger and we’ve all been in war.” I know my job. My job is to write, and I need to do my job – but at the same time I needed to be respectful.
BE: Why did you pick that time period?
HS: Because the writers I admire, such as Henry James (and his friend Edith Wharton, who would come down to Sussex in her big motorcar and take him out for summer afternoons), lived there around this time. Virginia Wolfe was Virginia Stevens when she came to tea in Rye with Henry James. Rudyard Kipling was at Burwash. So when I think of the writers of Rye, I think very much of the Edwardian period.
And also part of the inspiration came from my research into Henry James and his little book of essays called “Within the Rim”. He actually stood on the ramparts of Rye, in 1914, looking at the rim of the horizon, understanding what was coming and questioning whether a thousand years of English history was about to be swept away. And nobody knew but him.
BE: Do you have plans for a future book set in today’s times?
HS: Oh, yes! What was I thinking? How does Hillary Mantel [award winning author of the historical novel “Wolf Hall”] do it?
My next book won’t have any kind of historical setting at all because that is real work. There is at least two solid years of research in this book because it’s not just the war, it’s fashion, transportation, water and sewer. I know everything about the water and sewage system of Rye!
The more I got into the book, the more I realized I had to research everything. I researched the history of British gypsies extensively; which led me into researching the persecution of ethnic Roma worldwide. Three months later I looked up and realized, wait a minute, I’m not writing a book about the international plight of the Roma!
At some point I had to take all the research and set it aside, and say OK now I’m just going to write the story, I’ll check the text later. Because the worst thing in the world is a historical novel where the writer is showing off all the facts he or she knows. The lightest touch is all you can do.
BE: How does your family feel about “The Summer Before the War?”
HS: John [Helen’s husband] is absolutely proud; he just put it on LinkedIn. The boys pretend to be very blasé. A film director once called to option a Major Pettigrew movie, and only then did my older son, Ian, say to his brother, “Hey Jamie, mom wrote a book!”
BE: What’s your next book going to be about?
HS: I have a new pledge – I’m not to talk about the next book! The more I talk, the less I write. I do have six pages. I’m very committed to it. It’s gestating…
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