Why stories of war?

ED: How do you account for our continued appetite for stories from World War Two and stories of survival?

MC: Wars generate extremes–heroism and cowardice, generosity and selfishness, death and survival, and so on. Those extremes fascinate, but they raise fundamental issues. We all ponder, at some time, how we would behave faced with unimaginable danger or hardship and those thoughts touch our moral core: would we kill/betray/connive for our survival or those of our loved ones? How far would we go? Stories of war – of other peoples’ heroism or brutality – allow us to make those decisions vicariously and let us off the hook for the time being.Wells Literary Festival.009
War could so easily happen in Europe again, if we are not careful.
ED: Are you working on another novel? If so, what are its themes?

MC: My next novel is set in the Channel Islands under the German occupation and in it I am exploring themes of betrayal and survival in the war, and their reckoning after the war. But I am also trying to invert – or subvert – some of the usual stereotypes, and tell the story through two very different characters and perspectives. Watch this space…

Hidden histories

ED: You write so beautifully about the notion of “the twilight” in history, the real stories of what happened, stories of women like Ada: “Ada’s war would be forgotten.” Do you think it’s a problem we still face, today?

In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, the public narrative that prevailed in Britain was one of victory and valor and stories which did not conform to this template were often ignored, not listened to, or believed. The subjugation and imprisonment of British subjects was one such. Male prisoners of war held a heroic place as resisters and survivors in the narrative. But women? There is for the most part silence. Collaboration was another toxic theme. This was not the pressing issue in mainland Britain that it was in other parts of Europe, with the exception of the Channel Islands (although this remains contentious and controversial.) But I wanted to raise some of these questions in my novel: what happened to women subjugated by the enemy? How were they regarded? What is collaboration? What is choice under these circumstances? Where does gender sit in this murky arena? Women charged with collaboration in Europe (and in the Channel Islands) – usually for sleeping with the enemy – were regarded particularly harshly and often the victims of a brutal rough justice. The nature and forms of collaboration with an enemy may take many forms, gradations of co-operation which may have little or nothing to do with sympathies for the occupying power and much to do with survival. Equally, the ethics of resistance are not so clear-cut: how right is it to carry out an act of sabotage knowing that the reprisals would be savage?
In the years following the war people were desperate to put the hardship and suffering behind them and look to the future. The political environment had also changed as the Cold War bifurcated the world bringing with it the potential for nuclear annihilation. These were cosmic issues of survival which contributed to an amnesia of the war. I think many writers of my generation, born during or just after the Second World War and growing up in its aftermath, are still trying to make sense of our lives and the turbulent century into which we were born. Other tales now are beginning to be told, which examine a more ambiguous and ambivalent past. This is a rich seam to mine.