Author Q&A:
Melissa Harrison

All Among the Barley
(Bloomsbury, £16.99)

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Nature writer Melissa Harrison’s latest novel takes the reader back in time to 1930s Britain, where people living in rural communities were recovering from the First World War and farmers were coming to terms with modern technology. Protagonist Edie, a farmer’s daughter, is delighted by the arrival of a female journalist from London, who claims to be documenting fading rural traditions, but there is more to the older woman than meets the eye.

The book describes rural life in the interwar period. Tell us about your research and how you imagined what life was like for people living in the British countryside during those years.
As well as taking several trips to East Anglia, where All Among The Barley is set, I immersed myself in contemporary accounts of agriculture from that period. Interestingly, farming memoirs were as popular back then as nature writing is now, so there are plenty to choose from. I spent a lot of time at the Museum of English Rural Life, which has a wonderful collection of agricultural implements and machinery, household items and beautiful old farm wagons, as well as a fantastic library. And when researching the politics of the era I called up original 1930s magazines from the British Library – some of which were really chilling.

The protagonist Edie is a teenager living a sheltered life on a farm in the 1930s. How did you find and develop her voice?
I wanted to write in the first person because it was something I’d never done before – it was a bit of a challenge to myself, although I know it’s the preferred mode for a lot of young writers these days. At first I found it very difficult to situate myself fully inside Edie’s consciousness; the position of my “camera” tended to be just on her shoulder, seeing what she saw but without full access to her thoughts and feelings, and with the added ability to zoom away every so often to capture Wych Farm, Elmbourne and the Valley of the Stound in a more widescreen view, something that comes very naturally to me as a writer. It took several drafts, and many compromises, before I could make the narrative work; I found I needed to include more commentary from Edie’s older self than I had to begin with, to lend perspective and insight – something which also allowed me to write a little more descriptively and lyrically in those passages than perhaps suited a young girl’s voice. The final thing to get right was her actual words and language, which meant thinking hard about period modes of speech (“rather” in place of “very”; “How do you do?” as a greeting; “poppycock”), regional terms and dialect, and the difference between the generations when it comes to diction.

How has the countryside changed since the period the novel is set in?
There are parts of the British countryside that still look, on the surface, very like they would have in the 1930s but what’s missing is the wealth of wildlife we had then. Were the characters in All Among The Barley to suddenly find themselves in 2018 they would be utterly shocked by how much life has been lost: corncrakes gone, hedgehogs and water voles all but gone, farmland birds decimated, nightingales vanishingly rare, hardly any butterflies – hardly any insects of any kind, in fact, compared to 100 years ago. Due to the intensification of agriculture much of our most treasured landscapes are unfortunately green deserts now.

The book explores the difficulties facing farmers during the Great Depression. More than 80 years later and agriculture is still under threat. Should we have worked out a way to protect farmers by now?
Yes, absolutely. The intensification of agriculture is not the fault of farmers; it’s a reflection of what’s been asked of them over the years. They have risen to every challenge, and now many want to farm in a more wildlife-friendly way, as true custodians of the countryside – but it’s made very difficult for them. Food has become so cheap thanks in large part to supermarkets, and we’ve become used to low prices that don’t reflect the costs that farming involves. But there are no easy answers, as I hope the book makes clear (a very similar debate about farming was raging in 1934, which was also a period of economic depression). There is an opportunity right now to overhaul some of the way we support British farmers, and I hope we take it; as consumers, we also need to think carefully about our spending power and how we use it.

The novel explores the dangers of nationalism and nostalgia. To what extent were you inspired by the current political climate?
When I began writing it in 2015 the EU referendum was still on the horizon and the idea of a Trump presidency seemed absurd. What I set out to write was a book about the change from horsepower to tractors on an East Anglian farm, and the slow dissipation of folklore and ancient rural belief systems. I also wanted to question the thread of nostalgia that runs through the English sense of identity, but it was only slowly, as events unfolded (like the emboldening of the far right and the ugly rise in anti-Semitic attacks), that I realised that the 1930s were becoming highly resonant years and that the book was going to have to get a lot bigger – and I was going to have to get a lot braver – to rise to the occasion.

There seems to be a trend with writers delving into folklore in their work. What is it about tradition that continues to inspire new work?
I can’t speak for other writers but I’m fascinated by folklore as a repository of collective wisdom, a record of collective fears and an archive of highly evocative archetypes that have been part of our national subconscious for so long that they still resonate with us today, despite all our modernity.

You split your time between London and Suffolk. Do you have to be in the countryside to write about it? 
Absolutely not! My previous novel, At Hawthorn Time, was set in a rural village and I wrote that while living full time in South London, where I also wrote Rain: Four Walks In English Weather. There was a longing for the countryside that drove the creation of both books, I think. Really wanting and needing to be out walking gave my writing an extra emotional payload, I think.

Do you have another book in the pipeline?
I do but I can’t talk about it! I sometimes picture the need to write as a balloon filled with air. If you let little squirts of it out, you end up – like poor old Eeyore in Winnie The Pooh – with a sad, limp, empty balloon and no impetus to write the story any more.

Interact: Responses to Author Q&A: Melissa Harrison

  • Pauline
    04 Sep 2018 13:47
    She's a music journalist who doesn't like men. Click around - it's not nice - but it is the back story to this cliche nature stuff.

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