We sat down for a chat...with Lydia Syson
Okay, we didn't really sit down for a chat - there was a bit of the world between us for this interview!
We're awfully pleased to have Lydia Syson on the blog today, author of the incredibly passionate A World Between Us which is published by Hot Key Books on 4 October 2012.
What inspired you to combine a love story with a tale about the Spanish Civil War?
Of course there’s a long literary tradition of love and war, from Homer to Hemingway and beyond. But ever since reading Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels as a teenager, I’ve associated the Spanish Civil War with romance and passion, so I suppose it was inevitable that A World Between Us would be a love story.
The men and women who joined the International Brigades to help Spain’s democratically elected government were volunteers for a cause for which they were prepared to die: nobody made them fight. That fact, and the intensity of emotion involved in this particular war, somehow makes the combination of the two themes unusually potent. For both soldiers and medics, choosing to go to Spain seems to have been an absolute gut reaction to the situation. As C Day Lewis put it in his poem:
“We came because our open eyes
Could see no other way.”
In the 1930s, I think a lot of people were first drawn into politics by an emotional response to a dramatically divided world, driven by quite a romantic and idealistic desire for change. I wanted to reflect both kinds of desire in my story.
Felix’s character isn’t based on any particular person, but I drew on incidents and events in the lives of a great many real people for my plot, and she is certainly affected by all the different things that happen to her. I was hugely impressed by the down-to-earth, almost nonchalant, courage of all the nurses, relief workers and hospital administrators I read about, particularly Patience Darton, Penny Feiwel, Nan Green and Francesca Wilson, but I was also interested in the different ways in which they responded to the difficulties of their situations.
The stories told by medics Len Crome and Reginald Saxton and the American ambulance driver/poet James Neugass were also unforgettable. Some extremely striking images – like cooling off in the Royal Mausoleum at El Escorial, or men in a cave hospital dying with nobody who could understand their language, or the smell of dead horses, or children killed by bombs disguised as chocolates –just wouldn’t leave my head, and they found their way into the book in various ways.
I’ve written elsewhere about the influence of my beloved grandmother, who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s – through her and my grandfather I already had a certain understanding of the world which Felix enters at the beginning of my book - but I also had my other grandmother at the back of my mind when I was writing about the stultifying suburban life from which Felix is so desperate to escape: she never really did get away.
The novel makes comments about the selection and censorship of news by the media. Did your work as a radio producer influence this?
I’m sure it did – not least because it drew me to Paul Preston’s riveting book about war correspondents in Spain, We Saw Spain Die, through which I discovered all kinds of fascinating people. Several appear in my book, with their real names. Preston’s book also opened my mind to the difficult moral issues involved in reporting war, and double-edged effects of propaganda and censorship.
I had a wonderful early career working for the World Service, mostly making arts programmes, but when I was taken on as a trainee I think the expectation was that I would work in current affairs. Although I hugely enjoyed the relatively short time I spent doing just that, I always felt a bit of a fraud – it’s hard to explain why. Some of that anxiety probably went into the character of George in A World Between Us.
Do you believe in love at first sight?
Such a difficult question! My instinct is to say, yes, yes, yes, of course I do – but I realise that I believe in love at first sight in books. I believe in strong emotions at first sight, and I think you can probably fall in love in a flash, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea necessarily to trust those emotions, or that they make for a love that lasts.
You’ve said you enjoy being barefoot. Did you write this novel with shoes on?
Not if I could help it. Although I do my research in libraries (where I often kick my shoes off under the desk), by choice I actually write in bed. Very Barbara Cartland– except that I don’t have false eyelashes or a pink negligée or a secretary. My bedroom is right at the top of our house, with views over London in two directions, and I like to be able to see the sky and parakeets flashing past, and treetops and chimneys, and spread out any books I’m using around me in my nest.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Sadly, only a handful of International Brigade volunteers are now left alive. Penny Feiwel, the last of the British women who served on the side of the Spanish Republic, died in January 2011. It feels presumptuous, but my hope is that A World Between Us will do something to help the memory and spirit of men and women like Penny live on, and encourage a new generation to find out more about their stories and their lives.
You can find out more about Lydia Syson and the research that went into A World Between Us on her website.
You can read M's review here.
You can read M's review here.