WILLIAM NICHOLSON author of MOTHERLAND
From an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, a powerful story of a love triangle set in England, France, India, and Jamaica against the backdrop of World War II.
Kitty is loved by two best friends: Ed, a handsome hero, and Larry, not-so-handsome, not-so-heroic, but a good, kind man. Larry adores Kitty from the start, but it’s Ed who Kitty marries. Both men go off to war, and Ed wins the highest military honor for his bravery. But sometimes heroes don’t make the best husbands. [READ MORE]
The staff cars are pulled up by the coastguard cottages, close to the cliff edge. A steady drizzle is falling and visibility is poor. A cluster of officers stand in glistening greatcoats, binoculars raised, tracking the movements on the beach below.
“Bloody mess as usual,” says the brigadier.
“Better than last time,” says Parrish. “At least they found the beach.”
Seven assault landing craft are rolling in the grey water of the bay, as men of the Canadian Eighth Infantry Brigade flounder ashore. Each man wears an inflated Mae West and carries a rifle and a full battle pack.
They move slowly through the water, blurred by rain, like dreamers who stride ever onward but never advance.
The watchers on the clifftop command a view that is almost parodic in its Englishness: a river winds through green meadows to a shingle beach, framed by a line of receding humpbacked white cliffs. They are known as the Seven Sisters. Today barely two of the Seven Sisters are visible. The beach is defended by concrete antitank blocks, scaffolding tubes, and long rolls of barbed wire. Small thunder flashes explode among the pebbles at random, and to no obvious purpose. The popping sounds rise up to the officers with the binoculars.
One of the landing craft has cut its engine out in deep water. The tiny figures of the men on board can be seen jumping one by one from the ramp. Parrish reads the craft’s identifying number through his binoculars.
“ALC eighty-five. Why’s it stopped?”
“It’s sunk,” says Colonel Jevons, who devised the exercise. “Further out than I intended. Still, they should all float.”
“A couple of six-inch howitzers up here,” says the brigadier, “and not a man would make it ashore alive.”
“Ah, but the advance raiding party has cut your throats,” says Jevons.
“Let’s hope,” says the brigadier.
Behind the staff officers the two ATS drivers are seeking shelter atthe back of the signals truck. The signals sergeant, Bill Carrier, finds himself in the unfamiliar situation of being outnumbered by women. If a few other lads from his unit were with him he’d know how to banter with these English girls, but on his own like this, unsure of his ground, he’s feeling shy.
“Look at it,” says the pretty one. “June! You’ve got to admit it’s a joke.”
She laughs and wriggles her whole body, as if the absurdity of the world has taken possession of her. She has curly brown hair, almost touching her collar, and brown eyes with strong eyebrows, and a wide smiling mouth.
“Don’t mind Kitty,” says the other one, who is blond and what is called handsome, meaning her features are a little too prominent, her frame a little too large. She speaks through barely parted lips, in the amused tones of the upper classes. “Kitty’s perfectly mad.”
“Mad as a currant bun,” says Kitty.
The rain intensifies. The two drivers in their brown uniforms huddle under the shelter of the truck’s raised back.
“Christ, I could murder a cup of tea,” says the blond one. “How much longer, O Lord?”
“Louisa was going to be a nun,” says Kitty. “She’s tremendously holy.”
“Like hell,” says Louisa.
“Sorry,” says the sergeant. “We’re still on action stations.”
“Only an exercise,” says Kitty.
“My whole life is only an exercise,” says Louisa. “When do we get to the real thing?”
“I’m with you there,” says the sergeant. “Me and the lads are going nuts.”
He answers Louisa but his eyes are on Kitty.
“All you Canucks want to do is fight,” says Kitty, smiling for him.
“That’s what we come over for,” says the sergeant. “Two bloody years ago now.”
“Ah, but you see,” says Kitty, pretending seriousness, trying not to laugh, “that’s not what Louisa’s talking about at all. She’s talking about getting married.”
“Kitty!” Louisa pummels her friend, making her crouch over, laughing.
“You are such a telltale.”
“Nothing wrong with wanting to get married,” says the sergeant. “I want to get married myself.”
“There!” says Kitty to Louisa. “You can marry the sergeant and go and live in Canada and have strings of healthy bouncing Canadian babies.”
“I’ve got a girl in Winnipeg,” says the sergeant. He thinks how he’d ditch her in a flash for Kitty, but not for Louisa.
“Anyway,” says Kitty, “Louisa’s tremendously posh and only allowed to marry people who went to Eton and have grouse moors. Did you go to Eton, Sergeant?”
“No,” says the sergeant.
“Do you have a grouse moor?”
“Then your girl in Winnipeg is safe.”
“You really are quite mad,” says Louisa. “Don’t believe a single word she says, Sergeant. I’d be proud and honored to marry a Canadian. I expect you have moose moors.”
“Sure,” says Bill Carrier, tolerantly playing along. “We hunt moose all the time.”
“Isn’t it meese?” says Kitty.
“They’re not fussy what you call them,” says the sergeant.
“How sweet of them,” says Kitty. “Dear meese.”
She gives the sergeant such an adorable smile, her eyes crinkling at the corners, that he wants to take her in his arms there and then.
“Stop it,” says Louisa, smacking Kitty on the arm. “Put him down.”
A ship’s horn sounds from the bay, a long mournful blare. This is the signal to the men on the beach to reembark.
“There she blows,” says the sergeant.
The two ATS girls get up. The officers on the clifftop are on the move, talking as they go, huddled together in the rain.
“So what’s your names anyway?” the sergeant says.
“I’m Lance-Corporal Teale,” says Kitty. “And she’s Lance-Corporal
“I’m Bill,” says the sergeant. “See you again, maybe.”
They part to their various vehicles. Kitty stands to attention by the passenger door of the brigadier’s staff car.
“Ride with me, Johnny,” the brigadier says to Captain Parrish.
The officers get in. Kitty takes her place behind the wheel.
“Back to HQ,” says the brigadier.
Kitty Teale loves driving. Secretly she regards the big khaki Humber Super Snipe as her own property. She has learned how to nurse its grumbly engine to a smooth throb on cold early mornings, and takes pleasure in slipping into just the right gear for each section of road, so that the vehicle never has to strain. She carries out the simpler operations of car maintenance herself, watching over oil levels and tire pressures with an almost maternal care. She also cleans the car, in the long hours waiting at HQ for the next duty call.
Today, driving home through the little towns of Seaford and Newhaven, she resents the drizzle because she knows it will leave a film of grime over every surface. At least she’s not in convoy behind an army lorry, enduring the spatter of mud from high back wheels. Louisa, who is following behind her in the Ford, will be getting some of the spray from her wheels. But Louisa has no sense of loyalty to the car she drives.
“It’s not a pet,” she says to Kitty. “It’s got no feelings.”
To Kitty, everything has feelings. People and animals, of course. But also machines, and even furniture. She’s grateful to the chair on which she sits for bearing her weight, and to the knife in her hand for cutting her bread. It seems to her that they’ve done her a kindness out of a desire to make her happy. Her gratitude is the tribute she pays, as a pretty child grown accustomed to the kindness of strangers, afraid that she does too little to deserve it. She’s been brought up to believe it’s wrong to think herself attractive, and so is caught in a spiral of charm, in which those who seek to please her must be pleased by her in return.
This gives rise to frequent misunderstandings. Unable to offend, she isforever encouraging false hopes. There’s a young man in the navy who supposes her to be his girlfriend, after two meetings and a dance. It’s true they kissed, but she’s kissed other boys. Now he’s written her a passionate letter asking her to meet him in London this Friday, when he has twenty-four hours’ leave.
The officers in the back are talking about the coming big show.
“All I pray is the fliers do their job,” says the brigadier. “I want those beaches bombed to buggery.”
“Do we have a forecast?” says Captain Parrish. “This is no good to anyone.”
He indicates the rain blurring the car windows.
“Supposed to clear by tomorrow,” says the brigadier. “Then we have to wait for the moon. We’ve got a few days. Not that anyone ever tells me anything. Bloody liaison officer knows more than I do.”
The Humber turns off the road up the long drive to Edenfield Place, where the battalion is based. The great Victorian Gothic mansion looms out of the drizzle. Kitty pulls the car to a gentle stop before the ornate porch, and the officers clamber out. Behind her, Louisa brings the Ford to a noisier halt on the gravel.
“Thank you, Corporal,” says the brigadier to Kitty. “That’s all for today.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
He signs her work docket.
“If you have a moment, be nice to our friend George. The boys have made a bit of a mess of his wine cellar and he’s rather cut up.”
The rightful owner of Edenfield Place, George Holland, second Lord Edenfield, has opted to go on living in the house through this period of wartime requisition. In the sacrificial spirit of the times he has retained for himself a modest suite of three rooms that were formerly occupied by his father’s butler. George is barely thirty years old, soft-spoken, shy, in poor health.
“Yes, sir,” says Kitty.
She drives the car round to the garage at the back, followed by Louisa in the Ford. They go together to hand in their work dockets at the Motor Transport Office.
“Fancy a drink at the Lamb?” says Louisa.
“I’ll just give the car a wipe-down,” says Kitty. “Meet you in the hall in half an hour.”
She takes a bucket and cloth and swabs the Humber’s flanks, patting the metalwork as she goes. Then she fills the petrol tank back up, and
finally immobilizes the car by removing its rotor arm, as required by regulations.
Her route through the big house takes her down the cloister, across the galleried hall, past the organ room to the nursery stairs. The room she shares with Louisa is on the second floor, under the eaves, in what was once the night nursery. As she goes she ponders the best strategy to deal with Stephen and Friday. She could say she’s run out of travel warrants, which she has, but she’s always hitchhiked before. And anyway, she’d like to see him. They could go to the 400 Club and dance and forget the war for the night. Surely there’s no harm in that?
In the attic nursery Kitty sits on her bed and unrolls her regulation lisle stockings. She stretches out her bare legs, wiggling her toes, relishing the sensation of cool freedom. She possesses one pair of rayon stockings, but they won’t last forever, and she has no intention of wasting them on the crowd in the Lamb. Friday, maybe, if she does decide to go up to town.
She sighs as she touches up her lipstick. It’s all very well having boys be sweet on you, but why must they all try to own you? Louisa says it’s because she smiles too much, but what can she do about that? You’re allowed to smile at someone without marrying him, aren’t you?
At No. 2 Motor Transport Training Center in North Wales there’d been a girl her age who said she’d done it with four different men. She said it was ten times better than dancing. She said the trick was to pretend to be tipsy, then afterwards you say you don’t remember a thing.
She said if you were lucky and got a good one it was heaven, but you could never tell from the outside which ones would be good.
On the way back down the narrow carpetless stairs Kitty meets
George himself, loitering on the first floor. Somehow since being billeted in Edenfield Place she has befriended its owner, rather in the way you take in a stray dog.
“Oh, hullo,” he says, blinking at her. He has poor eyesight, apparently.
“Are they still keeping you hard at work?”
“No, I’m off now,” says Kitty. Then remembering the brigadier’s request, “I’m really sorry about the wine.”
“Oh, the wine,” he says. “All the ’thirty-eight Meursault is gone. I’m told they drank it laced with gin.”
“That’s terrible!” Kitty is more shocked by the gin than by the theft.
“They should be shot.”
“Well, not shot, perhaps. You know the Canadians are all volunteers?
We should be grateful to them. And I am grateful.”
“Oh, George. You’re allowed to be angry.”
His unfocused eyes gaze at her with silent longing.
“I suppose they meant no real harm,” says Kitty. “They’re like children who don’t know what damage they’re doing. But even so. You’ll get compensation, won’t you?”
“I expect I’ll be paid something.” Then with a sudden rush, “The thing is, Kitty, I was hoping we could find a moment to talk.”
“Later, George,” she says. “I’m late already.”
She touches his arm and gives him a smile to soften the implied rejection, and runs on down the main stairs. Louisa is waiting by the ornate fireplace in the great hall. She’s wearing her now-obsolete FANY uniform, made for her by her father’s tailor, with the lanyard on the left, yeomanry-style, in the FANY colors of pink and blue. Kitty raises her eyebrows.
“To hell with them all,” says Louisa cheerfully. “If I have to wear uniform when I’m out in the evenings, I’ll bloody well wear one that fits me.”
Kitty and Louisa both volunteered for the FANYs, so much more socially acceptable than the ATS, and met at the training camp in Strensall.
“I don’t mind being bossed about by lesbians in trilbies,” says Louisa, “so long as they’re my own class.”
Two years ago the proud FANYs were merged with the ATS, which is not at all Louisa’s class and has the least fetching uniform of all the services.
Outside the rain has stopped at last. There’s a crowd of Camerons by the pub, sprawled on the damp grass strip between the door and the road. From inside come cheers and waves of laughter.
“You don’t want to go in there, darling,” one soldier calls out to them.
“I don’t see any drinks out here,” responds Louisa.
They go into the saloon bar and find a mixed bunch of Camerons and Royals banging on the tables, roaring out encouragement. A trooper from the Fusiliers Mont-Royal is dancing on a table.
“Frenchie! Frenchie! Frenchie!” they chant. “Off! Off! Off!”
The trooper, a gangling French Canadian with a craggy, stubble-dark face, is performing a mime striptease. Without removing a single actual garment he is managing to create the illusion that he’s a sexy young woman peeling off layer after layer.
Kitty and Louisa watch, mesmerized.
“Bravo, Marco!” shout his comrades. “Baisez-moi, Marco! Allez Van Doo!”
The trooper writhes with seductive sinuousness, as little by little, with careful tugs, he eases invisible stockings down his legs. Now mock-naked but for brassiere and panties he plays at coyly covering his crotch with his hands, opening and closing his legs. Looking round the faces of the watching men, Kitty realizes they’re genuinely aroused.
“Show us what you’ve got, Frenchie!” they call out. “Knickers down!
Off, off, off!”
Teasing inch by teasing inch, down come the imaginary knickers, while the performer remains in full khaki battle dress. Kitty catches
Louisa’s eye and sees there the same surprise. It’s only a joke, but the male sexual hunger on display is all too real.
Now the knickers are off. The legs are tightly crossed. The ugly soldier who is also a gorgeous naked woman holds his audience spellbound with anticipation. Now at last he throws up his hands, parts his legs, thrusts out his crotch, and a great sigh of satisfaction fills the smoky air.
The show over, the young men packing the bar become suddenly aware that there are two actual females in their midst. Laughing, jostling, they compete to get close.
“Look who’s here! Let me buy you a drink, gorgeous! This one’s on me. Budge up, pal! Give a guy a chance.”
Kitty and Louisa find themselves pushed back and back until they’re pressed to the wall. The friendly attentions of the excited soldiers become uncomfortable.
“Take it easy, boys,” says Kitty, smiling even as she tries to fend off reaching hands.
“Hey!” cries Louisa. “Get off me! You’re squashing me!”
None of the soldiers means to push, but the ones behind are surging forward, and the ones in front find themselves thrust against the girls.
Kitty starts to feel frightened.
“Please,” she says. “Please.”
A commanding voice rings out.
“Move! Get back! Out of my way!”
A tall soldier is forcing himself through the crush, taking men by the arm, pulling them aside.
“Idiots! Baboons! Get back!”
The crowding soldiers part before him, all at once sheepishly aware that things have got out of control. He reaches Kitty and Louisa and spreads his arms to create a clear space before them.
“Sorry about that. No harm done, I hope?”
“No,” says Kitty.
The man before her wears battle dress with no insignia of any kind.
He’s young, not much older than Kitty herself, and strikingly handsome.
His face is narrow, with a strong nose over a full sensitive mouth. His blue eyes, beneath arching brows, are fixed on her with a look she’s never encountered before. His look says, Yes, I can see you, but I have other more important concerns than you.
The soldiers he has displaced are now recovering their poise.
“Who do you think you are, buddy?”
The young man turns his faraway gaze on his accuser, and sees him raise a threatening hand.
“Touch me,” he says, “and I’ll break your neck.”
There’s something about the way he says it that makes the soldier lower his hand. One of the others mutters, “Leave him alone, mate. He’s a fucking commando.”
After that the crowd disperses, leaving Kitty and Louisa with their rescuer.
“Thanks,” says Kitty. “I don’t think they meant any harm.”
“No, of course not. Just horsing around.”
He guides them to the bar.
“Got any brandy?” he says to the barman. “These young ladies are suffering from shock.”
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” says Kitty.
“Yes, please,” says Louisa, treading on her foot.
The barman produces a bottle of cooking brandy from under the counter and furtively pours two small shots. The soldier hands them to Kitty and Louisa.
“For medicinal purposes,” he says.
Kitty takes her glass and sips at it. Louisa drinks more briskly.
“Cheers,” she says. “I’m Louisa, and this is Kitty.”
“Where are you based?”
“The big house.” Louisa nods up the road.
“Take care at night,” he says. “More killed on the roads in the blackout than by enemy action.”
Kitty drinks her brandy without being aware she’s doing so. She begins to feel swimmy.
“So who are you?” she says. “I mean, what are you?”
“Special services,” he says.
“Sorry. I don’t mean to sound mysterious. But that really is all I can say.”
“Are you allowed to tell us your name?”
“Avenell,” he says, pushing back the sweep of dark hair that keeps falling into his eyes. “Ed Avenell.”
“You’re a knight in shining armor,” says Louisa. “You came to the rescue of damsels in distress.”
“Damsels, are you?” Not a flicker on his pale face. “If I’d known, I’m not sure I’d have bothered.”
“Don’t you like damsels?” says Kitty.
“To tell you the truth,” he says, “I’m not entirely clear what a damsel is. I think it may be a kind of fruit that bruises easily.”
“That’s a damson,” says Kitty. “Perhaps we’re damsons in distress.”
“You can’t distress a damson,” says Louisa.
“I don’t know about that,” says Ed. “It can’t be much fun being made into jam.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” says Louisa. “You get squeezed until you’re juicy, and then you get all licked up.”
“Louisa!” says Kitty.
“Sorry,” says Louisa. “It’s the brandy.”
“She’s really very well brought up,” Kitty says to Ed. “Her cousin is a duke.”
“My second cousin is a tenth duke,” says Louisa.
“And you still a mere corporal,” he says. “It just isn’t right.”
“Lance-corporal,” says Louisa, touching her single stripe.
The young man turns his steady gaze on Kitty.
“And what about you?”
“Oh, I’m not top-drawer at all,” says Kitty. “We Teales are very middle- drawer. All vicars and doctors and that sort of thing.”
Suddenly she feels so wobbly she knows she must lie down. The brandy has come at the end of a long day.
“Sorry,” she says. “We were up at four for the exercise.”
She starts for the door. Apparently she staggers a little, because before she knows it he’s taking her arm.
“I’ll walk you back,” he says.
“And me,” says Louisa. “I was up at four,, too.”
So the gallant commando takes a lady on either arm, and they walk back up the road to the big house. The soldiers they pass on the way grin and say, “Good work, chum!” and, “Give a shout if you need help.”
They part by the porch.
“Corporal Kitty,” he says, saluting. “Corporal Louisa.”
The girls return the salute.
“But we don’t know your rank,” says Kitty.
“I think I’m a lieutenant or something,” he says. “My firm isn’t very big on ranks.”
“Can you really break people’s necks?” says Louisa.
“Just like that,” he says, snapping his fingers.
Then he goes.
Kitty and Louisa enter the cloister and their eyes meet and they both burst out laughing.
“My God!” exclaims Louisa. “He’s a dream!”
“Squeezed until you’re juicy? Honestly, Louisa!”
“Well, why not? There’s a war on, isn’t there? He’s welcome to come round and lick me up any time he wants.”
“Don’t sound so shocked. I saw you simpering away at him.”
“That’s just how I am. I can’t help myself.”
“Want to come into the mess?”
“No,” says Kitty. “I really am bushed. I wasn’t making it up.”
Alone in the attic nursery Kitty undresses slowly, thinking about the young commando officer. His grave amused face is printed clearly on her memory. Most of all she recalls the gaze of those wide-set blue eyes, that seemed to see her and not see her at the same time. For all his staring, she never felt he wanted something from her. There was no pleading there. Instead there was something else, something vulnerable but all his own, a kind of sadness. Those eyes say that he doesn’t expect happiness to last. It’s this, more than his good looks, that causes her to keep him in her thoughts right up to the moment she finally surrenders to sleep.
What kind of research did you do to create such a detailed portrayal of pre- and post-war England?I’ve been planning Motherland for years and have amassed a small library on its many subjects; the novel has required a very great deal of research, most of it in the traditional way (I list some of the source books in my Author’s Note at the end). The Dieppe Raid was covered in great detail by war correspondents at the time. The history of Fyffes, the banana company, has been written, and I have benefitted from private works owned by my friend David Stockley, whose family founded Fyffes. Then of course the Internet turns out to be a source of wonders. I learned a great deal there from posts by old soldiers.The bio on your website mentions that your mother loved your father at first sight. Were your parents in any part inspiration for Kitty, Ed, and Larry?Sadly my parents’ marriage was not a success, though for very different reasons than Kitty and Ed. No, I don’t think my parents are featured here, at least not directly. I would say that Ed and Larry are both formed of different aspects of myself. I might even go further and suggest that Kitty is me also, except that this would baffle most people. Writing is a mysterious business, by which the writer becomes each character as he writes.Motherland tackles profound themes, such as passion, doubt, duty, honor, and faith. How did your own inquisitiveness about faith impact the characters’ struggles with religion and God?Like my main characters, I was educated at a Catholic monastic boarding school, Downside. I’ve been struggling with the mystery of God and religion all my life, finding it impossible to believe and yet wanting to believe, and this forms a constant theme in all my work. In Motherland I’ve dramatized this tension through the disagreements between Larry and Ed, and in Larry’s own development.You’ve stated that you believed yourself to be forever in search of the one true love. How did your search impact the novel’s theme of true love?My love life has been messy. I’ve had many disastrous relationships, one of which forms the direct model for the Larry-Nell affair in the novel. But in more recent years –since the age of forty–I’ve experienced what it’s like to have a deeply loving marriage. I never stop thinking about what it takes to find and keep true love, and what that means. Now I watch my own children as they grow up and take their own faltering steps in love, and my heart is in my mouth. So yes, everything I write is about the nature of love, just as it’s about the puzzle of God.Much of what you write is linked, and many of the landmarks and fictional characters in Sussex repeat throughout your novels. How much of a character is Sussex throughout your writing? How did you continue the storyline in Motherland, and how did you choose which details of your previous books to include in the narrative?For some years now I’ve been at work on what is in fact a massive sequence of linked novels. Each one stands alone, but the same characters recur, in different stages of their lives. My intention is to convey the complexity of people’s lives, the way we never know what’s going on inside others, and how, if we did, we would feel compassion, even love, for them. The first three novels follow the lives of a group of people in my home territory of Sussex, from the year 2000 to 2010. With Motherland I’ve gone back in time to trace the ancestors of some of these characters, to show what’s gone into the making of them. If you so wish, you can find in my other books what happened to Kitty and Ed’s grandson Guy Caulder, and great-granddaughter Alice Dickinson. In the next book in the series you can follow Kitty and Ed’s daughter Pamela into the 1960s. And all the time you get glimpses of the same Sussex landscape through changing times.Larry and Kitty are both avid readers—Larry says, “all the best characters are bad” (p. 103). Do you agree with this sentiment? Who are some of your favorite characters in literature?No, I don’t agree. My favourite characters are always the ones who struggle to lead good lives–Dorothea in Middlemarch, Pierre in War and Peace. But it must be admitted that Rosamund Vincy, the selfish pretty heroine of one of Middlemarch’s plots, is a wonderful creation.The raid on the beaches at Dieppe plays a central role in the action. How did you prepare for this? Was Mountbatten based on a particular figure?The raid was mounted from a port near my home, and I’ve known about it for a long time. My research was extremely thorough, through books, news reports, and firsthand accounts. Lord Mountbatten is a real person, a controversial figure in recent British history, who was assassinated by the IRA in 1979. He has turned out to be one of the linking figures both in Motherland and in the book that will follow it. I find him a fascinating character, full of faults, and yet I’ve come to love and admire him.Ed appears to suffer from what we now know to be PTSD. What kind of research did you do to get into the psyche of a soldier and prisoner of war?My wife, Virginia Nicholson, is a social historian, whose most recent book, Millions Like Us, traces the impact of war on the lives of women in World War II. Her work gives a vivid picture of the emotional devastation of wartime marriages, and I’ve been strongly influenced by all she recounts. I’ve done no academic research into PTSD.You write female characters, such as Kitty and Geraldine, with intimate knowledge and empathy. How do you navigate the differences between women and men in your work? Who was the most challenging character to bring to life throughout the story?It’s hard for me to explain what it is I do when I write characters, because it sounds so unlikely, but the nearest I can get is to say that when I write a female character, I am a woman. Obviously I’m not a woman, and can’t pretend to be having a woman’s experiences, but I have made it my life’s work to understand what it feels like to be a woman. This began when I was young and longed to be loved by women, and used empathy as a form of seduction, I suppose. Since then it’s grown and grown, because when writing I find that it’s mostly through the female characters that I’m able to explore what interests me most. I think this is because I’m very emotional myself and want to explore emotional states; and while it’s not true that women are more emotional than men, it is true that they are more willing to take an interest in and talk about their emotional lives. I have never ceased learning from all the women I know and every new woman I meet. In this sense, insight into the not-me, which is a writer’s stock-in-trade, applies equally to all the characters. I’ve never been a soldier, or a businessman, or a little girl, but it’s my job to become these people, to the best of my ability, as I write.What prompted you to expand beyond post-war England to the more global depiction of India at the time of the partition and the banana trade in Jamaica? How did you go about bringing these events to life, and what do they contribute to the greater story in Motherland?I wanted to tell a story through many years, in order to track the central love stories; and if you do that, you have to think about what your characters are actually doing all this time. They can’t just go on about love. They must have jobs, work lives, connections with the greater world. In pursuit of a wider context for Larry, I settled on the banana trade and a plot, which I think quite unusual in literature, of a man born into a family firm who seeks to be an artist (a common theme) but who finds his fulfillment back in the family firm. Working out this arc required all sorts of plotting, particularly given the war in the middle of it all; and so slowly I realised that his journey would take him to India, and then to Jamaica. This in turn gave me another angle on my overall theme of emotional heritage, but on an empire scale. Britain referred to itself as the motherland, thus infantilizing millions of people around the globe. As you can see, my notion of ‘motherland’ is very nuanced.Do you believe Ed ultimately found peace? What do you think the future held for Kitty and Larry?Ed does not have a peaceful nature. Suicide is an act of despair and extinction, not a search for peace. I love Ed, but I think he was too damaged to be saved. Kitty and Larry, however, once they got over the guilt of Ed’s death, made the kind of loving marriage that I have myself. So there at least is a happy ending.As an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, are there any plans to bring Motherland to the big screen? How would you envision adapting such an epic love story for a film?I think the book is almost impossible to fit into a film: it’s just too long. It would ruin the story to make it gallop along at too fast a pace. Maybe it’s better suited to a multi-part TV series, which would allow the twists and turns of the characters’ lives to play out in full. But this isn’t something I think about. Motherland is in its perfect form as a big novel; it’s not a film script in waiting.
I first began to feel we might have a winner on our hands with this book when the art director called me, in the middle of the work day, gasping and sobbing, “I’ve just . . . read . . . the . . . letters . . . ” She was at her desk, glued to the end of this big, sweeping story about a love triangle spanning the first half of the 20th century. Mind you, our art director has read a lot of books, so I was thrilled that Motherland reached her on such a personal level. Then others in the company began texting each other during weekends and missing subway stops as they read Motherland. The rising tide of in-house enthusiasm elevated Motherland to a lead position on our Spring 2013 list.
Motherland is a great love story about three friends struggling to find love and meaning amidst war and its aftermath. It also grapples with some of the big issues of life, like faith and duty and honor. There are frightening war scenes, pageantry and politics, questions about art. There are also quiet, intimate moments of passion, doubt, and longing. Somehow, William Nicholson writes women and men with equal understanding and empathy. The story moves from wartime England and Nazi-occupied France to India at the end of British rule and Jamaica, but the insistent current running through all that these friends experience is the tension of the love triangle that binds them together and must somehow be resolved.
You may recognize William Nicholson’s name because he is a well-known screenwriter. He was nominated for Academy Awards for Shadowlands and Gladiator, and he has written the scripts for the greatly anticipated Les Misérables and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. He has published YA and fantasy novels and three adult novels that have not been widely distributed in the U.S. U.K. reviewers have adored his work, saying things like “One finishes his books exhilarated” (The Sunday Times) and “You turn the pages addicted” (The Spectator). We are very excited to be bringing this talented storyteller to U.S. readers with his stunning breakout book.
I hope you will enjoy Motherland. Don’t forget the tissues!
Trish Todd | Vice President and Executive Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org