Speaking of Writing . . .
What started you writing fiction?
I’ve always been writing fiction. In grade school, I wrote these wild comic adventure stories. They amused my best friend’s mother so much, I kept on writing them. I took it up more seriously in adulthood, joining critique groups and revising, revising. I was not in a position for some years to devote myself to writing that didn’t pay promptly, but I continued to write fiction in my free time (usually the hours between midnight and 2:00 a.m.). I learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses as a fiction writer, and doubled down on the latter. A theatrical producer once advised me, “Don’t fall in love with your own words.” It was great advice. I have learned to axe paragraphs, chapters, characters, and to turn a story on its side and view it from another angle. If you want to improve, you have to take your ego right out of it.
About five years ago, I found myself in a place where I could finally spend serious time on developing a book-length piece of fiction, and make fiction writing my ultimate career. I jumped at the opportunity. The result is The Sticking Place. The novel I am working on now is set in the 16th century, so the research is staggering (my desk is awash in post-its and dog-eared books) but engrossing.
Flaubert said, “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” I love that.
Why did you set The Sticking Place in World War II?
I think that we are still processing World War II. It was the event of the 20th century, and it gave us quite a shock. The rise of the Third Reich, the Nazi occupation of most of Europe, the death camps—all bore witness to the extreme brutality humans can commit. But that’s only one side of the story. The response to the Nazis’ barbarity also demonstrated our capacity for heroism and self-sacrifice. For many people it was, as Churchill said, their finest hour. That’s the larger context of the war’s allure as a setting.
The more specific appeal is the themes it opens up: The struggle to survive against all odds. Finding the strength to keep going—to trust, to hope, to love—in our flawed and frightened selves. What do you do when you feel you’ve reached the end of yourself and yet more is required? What personal code do you live by when the normal conventions no longer apply and the rulebook’s been tossed out? The extreme stakes posed in World War II provide unparalleled fertile ground to explore these questions.
How did Catherine come to be your protagonist?
Women operated the “bombe” machines that broke each day’s Enigma settings. Women worked as spies behind enemy lines. It was a woman, Constance Babington Smith, who spotted the V-1 flying bomb in a recon photo, thereby confirming its existence. That said, the authority belonged to the men in every branch of the military and intelligence services. So, at one level, Catherine has been marked as quite special. At another level, she is, by her gender, invisible. This makes her perfect for the covert work Menzies assigns her.
I also wanted her to be someone the reader could identify with—a newbie in this high-stakes world rather than a seasoned pro. Catherine may be a child of privilege, but she is far from home and nothing has prepared her for the decisions she must make or the risks she faces. She is dropped into the house of mirrors that is intelligence work and must figure it out as she goes. There is no way out but forward.
Did The Sticking Place begin as a romance or a thriller?
The two threads were never separate in my mind. There’s a reason we say, “All’s fair in love and war.” They are both states of extreme risk. You may have your heart ripped out, figuratively or literally. When both those risks are present, they create a profound synergy. Can you imagine Casablanca, for example, without the war? Can you imagine it without Rick and Ilsa’s love story? Each drives the other. War makes love logistically difficult but, at the same time, emotionally vital. And a love affair in war always carries a desperate, darker edge. I enjoy reading and writing books that are thick with life.
What do you find most challenging about writing a historical novel?
Getting inside the heads of my characters and seeing the world as they see it, not from my twenty-first century perspective, but from the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, uncertainties, fears, and hopes of their time.
Although the Allies had been victorious at El Alamein once Montgomery arrived on the scene, and “Operation Torch” (in French North Africa) was successful, the rumors of Hitler’s “vengeance” weapons sparked real fear in the Allied High Command. They feared the total destruction of London and a preemptive strike that would prevent the Normandy Invasion. They also worried that the new V-weapons would carry either a biological or a nuclear threat. It seems clear to us now that the Allies were destined to win, but it often seemed far from certain then. The characters can only act from and within that uncertainty.
What books have you most admired/enjoyed?
Whew! The long answer is hundreds, but I’ll keep it to a baker’s dozen: The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafón), The Imperfectionists (Tom Rachman), Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks), The Book of Air and Shadows (Michael Gruber), Atonement (Ian McEwan), The History of Love (Nicole Krauss), Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel), The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri), Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Márquez), The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver), and for comic (but by no means fatuous) relief, Liane Moriarty’s brilliant social satire Big Little Lies. My “deathless” authors’ list includes Shakespeare, Chekhov, Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Henry James, John Steinbeck, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. For nonfiction, I will read anything by Peter Ackroyd and Bill Bryson; also, most anything on brain research—it’s fascinating.