Tuesday, 3 June 2014
On not reading reviews
I'm trying out a new review-reading strategy. It involves not reading any reviews.
The main reason is that I found Love and Other Wars incredibly hard to write.
It was a great privilege to interview former conscientious objectors, read letters and diaries in archives all over London and spend time with Quakers to learn about their pacifist beliefs. But at the end of my research I felt rather crushed by the sadness of it all: so many lives wasted, so many people killed along with their hopes and plans.
At the Imperial War Museum, I read the letters from a young RAF pilot to his parents and saw him mature from wide-eyed teenager (off to Rhodesia!! First solo flight! Elephants! Fifteen exclamation marks per page!!!) all the way to calm, unflappable RAF ace. When I reached the bottom of the box, after the last letter, there was nothing but a telegram to his parents: We regret to inform you...
In the University College London archives, I leafed through old copies of the student newspaper. There, between an ad for a lecture by an eminent birth-control expert and a witty spat over a work of modern art in the cafeteria, was an appeal for British sponsors to help a Jewish student leave Berlin. What was the outcome of this desperate bet on the kindness of strangers? Did he make it out?
And so on. Every day brought a new encounter with some brave, optimistic, life-loving person who had been born at the wrong time, in the wrong place. It seemed pointless to turn away and invent a story about fictional characters when all these true and important stories of real people were still untold.
In the end, a good friend reminded me that a novelist's task is to write a novel. Which I did. Since the writing part of the job is now finally done, since there is nothing I could have done differently about this particular book, and since the people whose judgement I am most curious (and perhaps most worried) about are dead, it's probably best to let others get on with the reading and reviewing part, and not interfere. Having said that, I am very grateful to have you as my readers and do hope you enjoy the book.