In the last days of the war, Violet lies alone in a hospital bed. Her husband has been deployed to Burma and her pregnancy is over. She is no longer able to conceive. In a small town in the Welsh valleys, an encounter with a Polish soldier has left another Violet in an impossible situation, until an overseas posting to Naples offers her a way out. When a son is born the two Violets’ lives intertwine inseparably in this spare, original and moving debut.
Tell us about the real-life inspiration behind Violets.
Violets is based on the story of my dad’s adoption at the end of WW2. He always knew he was adopted and started his own search as a teenager, amassing an archive of paperwork. I grew up hearing lots of stories about it, which were full of intrigue and sliding-doors moments. My father very kindly agreed to lend me his files and I went through them trying to piece the story together, before realising that I could bend and shape and completely reimagine events for the fictional narrative that was emerging. It was great to get deeper into the interior lives of the characters as they gained independence from family history.
How did you develop your prose style, which is spare and interspersed with passages of poetry?
The poetic voice that runs through the novel was the first thing to land on the page and always the most intuitive part. I don’t know where it came from, to be honest, and don’t really want to! I’m not sure I think of it as “poetry” because that’s a different kind of work, making poems. I loved being able to write poetically in a way that was related to a broader story and offered another perspective woven in and out of the main plot. In terms of the prose, I always had the idea that I was writing “scenes”, not chapters, and wanted to make them focused and immediate, beginning and ending with some kind of action or gesture on the part of the two main characters. That part always felt like writing what I saw playing out in my head, like a film. I always wanted to be minimal and pared back in my descriptions, so the prose is quite spare.
How did your own experience of motherhood shape the novel?
Well, it’s a short book, and it took a long time to write fairly spasmodically, so that’s one direct way in which motherhood shaped the novel. I started making notes for the book after I’d had my first child in 2014, and I finished the final draft a few months after my last child was born in 2021. In terms of the content of the book, I’d say lots of things came directly from experience, in real time almost, and landed on the page. Initially, the book was written over countless Saturday mornings when my partner took the children swimming, or evenings or just when something struck me. I was still writing it over maternity leaves when I had my third and fourth, also during lockdowns and homeschool – that was a bit mad. But in many ways by then it was an escape into a totally different world, and probably saved me.
More profoundly, perhaps, I didn’t really think what it might have meant for my dad as my grandparents’ adopted son until I had my own children. And it was only after I had my first child that I started to talk to my grandmother about her experience of an ectopic pregnancy and how she felt as my dad’s adoptive mother. And I hadn’t thought much about how it might have felt for his birth mother giving him up. On the basic level of watching a very small child grow, realising how much they know and understand and express of need and love, it’s in gratitude and awe of my dad’s two mothers as much as anything else that I’ve written the book.
You lecture in women’s experiences of war and military power at UCL. Were there key points from your teachings that you wanted to include in the novel?
I didn’t set out at all to write something based on my research interests, no. But of course, in the end, what I wrote is absolutely in line with my research interests, looking at the everyday experience of war and how it shapes people’s domestic lives and gender relations – not just the grand narratives of military history, battles won or lost. In the end I came to think of it as inevitable – a bit predictable even – that I ended up writing a war novel!
The two women’s experiences of desire and their bodies could easily come from a novel set in the present day. Were women more liberated in the 1940s than we might assume?
I think this is a great question – thank you very much. I guess there are bodily processes and experiences that I can’t imagine being much different in 1945, so I wrote them in. I really wanted to invest my characters with the kind of intimate habits and sensations that might not normally be included in historical novels, either because it’s assumed they don’t matter or maybe are taboo, especially in relation to women’s bodies. I think I wrote through a contemporary lens, addressing current concerns, to explore the limits of what we consider relevant or permissible to include in literary representations of WW2 today.
In terms of women being more liberated than we might assume, I’m not sure. But I did want to portray the characters’ choices in ways that didn’t just assume they were trapped by their circumstances. I view them as making bold decisions, or confronting what life dealt them and making the most of their material and emotional resources, including making the most of the opportunities the war offered them. I’m interested in how all of us work within, or get around or seek to transform the social constraints put upon us.
You didn’t set out to write a novel initially. Will you set out to write another?
Nope, I definitely didn’t set out to write a novel. I thought I’d start writing and not worry about what it was, so that I could just see what came out, in whatever form the story might take. I would like to try and do that again, with the same approach. We’ll see, I guess.