Telling the Truth

17 01 2013


I’m grateful to the hardy souls among you who braved the January chills to come and listen to my talk at Exeter Library the other evening. Thank you. We had such a lively debate and it’s always great to connect with readers. For those who couldn’t make it, here’s an edited version of the talk:

One of the questions that preoccupies me as a writer is: how far should the author go in revealing what they know?

This question accompanied me all the way through the research and writing of two novels for John Murray: Hotel Juliet and The Beautiful Truth. At various points along the way, I addressed the question: how much do I tell the reader and the second question: can the reader take it?

I have always used actual events in my work and I use them unfiltered. It feels natural, but also audacious. I enjoy the challenge of creating fiction out of stuff that happens. To take the raw material of life and transform it requires me to work at the very edge of my capacity. Once I’ve set up a framework, I write into another truth. It takes work to find this other, hidden truth, a truth that is not the same as actual events, but feels more authentic. There is an internal logic to fiction that I can only grasp when I’m working within it. So I write from the inside out. I go in to try to work out what I have to say.

When I knew that I was going to be ‘doing’ a book about Poland, I knew that I would be using real events. The Second World War ended 68 years ago. There are still people alive who lived through the war in Poland and I wanted to be faithful to an experience that shaped not only the Polish nation but Europe itself. All of European identity can be traced back to the war. All of us in Europe are in a sense rooted in this war.

I spent the best part of a year reading about Poland. My father was Polish but he never spoke to his four children about his country. In fact, the happiest day of his life was when he became a British citizen. I can still remember him sitting in a chair watching his favourite programme Planet of the Apes with the black and gold embossed passport on the arm of the chair next to him, almost as if he were worried that someone would snatch it away.

As I grew older I wondered why my father was not proud of Poland, why didn’t he share stories of growing up? Why was Poland somehow a forbidden topic?  I realised as I read more about Poland how the country had been mauled throughout history. There had been several attempts to obliterate it as a nation and for a period of one hundred years it had ceased to exist. Poland’s geography made it a target, a jewel to be plucked and plundered. One historian offers an image of a kitten being torn limb from limb by a pair of salivating dogs. The Germans had been defeated only to be replaced by a stultifying and sinister Soviet regime. There wasn’t much of Poland left anymore to fight over. No wonder my father did not want to share his memories.

My research into war-time Poland made for uncomfortable reading. I was stunned by what I read. Often I simply sat and cried. There seemed no other response to the scale of such loss. How comfortable my Britishness seemed in comparison. My Britishness was never something that I was going to have to fight for. I was never going to arm myself with home-made grenades and fight off oppressors. I was never going to have to face near starvation for the right to live in my own country. I was never going to witness my people being executed purely because they were British nationals. I was never going to face the question of whether I would be prepared to die to defend my own country.

Millions of Poles sacrificed their lives. The scale of death in the concentration camps is well documented. What is less well-documented is that more than six million Polish citizens, eighty per cent of the population living in cities, died under the Nazi occupation. Four hundred thousand people died within Warsaw alone. Knowing he was facing defeat, Hitler ordered the city to be razed without trace. Flame-throwers, bulldozers and dynamite teams set to work. Street by street, literally building by building the city and its inhabitants were reduced to ashes.

When the Soviet Army finally advanced on the ruins of Warsaw on 17th January 1945, they found a smoking moonscape. Ninety three per cent of all buildings were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. According to the historian Norman Davies ‘the destruction was on a par with that of Hiroshima, Leningrad or Dresden. A city of 1.2 million no longer contained a single living soul.’

When I began to write my first draft, it was with a sober feeling that I needed to acknowledge what I discovered. As I wrote, I realised that I was working on a story that required me to pay precise attention to the details. It felt wrong to try to fudge things, almost a form of dishonour. I worked intensely. I had maps spread out on the floor and spent weeks tracing my way through forests, trying to find a way through. Days of pacing up and down, leaping back to the laptop when I realised I didn’t know what colour of uniform the Russians wore, or whether they smoked cigarettes on duty (they didn’t)or what a Russian might sound like who was trying to speak Polish. There was so much I didn’t know.

I could have spent ten years on this novel and not come anywhere near close to what I was trying to bring forth. The material I read about the Warsaw rising drove me to the laptop. My own petty daily anxieties were an irrelevance, an irritation. I was so gripped by what I found out, so utterly absorbed in it, I had to try to find a way to bring it to life through characters that needed to be large enough to carry it off.

What I wanted was a story that was as electrifying as the material I was reading. I made many wrong turns. The trouble with writing fiction set in wartime is that I already had so many imaginative associations from film and novels. I knew I had to be careful not to allow these impressions to come to the surface and cloud my judgement. I knew that I just had to concentrate on the facts.

Once I began to focus more closely on the research material, it set up a train of ideas that tumbled out so quickly I had to rush to keep up. It felt like opening a vein. It was a strange and utterly exhilarating time. When I emerged, I felt as if I had been away to war. I remember finishing the novel at Easter and driving across Shaldon Bridge and just feeling amazed that the buildings were intact. There was no rubble, no white dust. How perfect and beautiful everything seemed. It made me appreciate what a truly astonishing thing it is to live in a country completely at peace. 

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