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July 25, 2011

Margaret Leroy: THE SOLDIER'S WIFE -- Part II

Posted by Stephen

Author Margaret Leroy's latest work, The Soldier's Wife, is a story of love and fear that takes place on the island of Guernsey --- off the coast of Normandy --- as World War II draws near. When the Occupation turns brutal, Vivienne de la Mare, who is wrapped up in a love affair, must decide if she is willing to risk her personal happiness for the life of a stranger.'s Melanie Smith spoke with Leroy about her inspiration for the novel, and how her family history, motherhood and social work helped inform the narrative. She also talks about falling in love with Guernsey and imagining what it was like growing up in wartime.

Click here to see Part I.

soldier's wife.JPGBRC: Your writing focuses on the carefree joys of childhood. Are ideas based on your own parenting experiences, and have you kept a journal while raising your kids?

ML: I did keep a journal while raising my daughters, and I'd advise any aspiring novelist to do the same. So many magical or touching things happen when you're bringing up children, and they say such extraordinary things, and you always think you'll never forget, but of course you do! I love writing children. Millie is perhaps my favorite character in The Soldier's Wife. I see her as a robust, vivid little girl who is also a kind of moral compass in the story. In some ways, parenting was very different then: Millie at five is roaming the countryside with her seven-year-old friend --- a freedom that very few children of that age would have nowadays.

BRC: The lovemaking scenes in The Soldier's Wife are really quite touching and tastefully handled. Were these intimate scenes easy to write or a challenge?

ML: Intimate scenes are always a challenge because readers vary greatly in how explicit they like such scenes to be. In the end, the best you can do is to adopt a style and a way of writing that seem right for your story. And because I was writing about a time when sex wasn't openly spoken about, I chose to write those scenes in quite a metaphorical way.

BRC: To your knowledge, did passenger boats ever sink carrying people away from Guernsey?

ML: No, they didn't sink. But there was a very real possibility that they could have, which must have weighed on people's minds as they tried to arrive at a decision. Should they go and leave behind the entire life they'd built on Guernsey? Or should they stay --- everything safe and familiar to start with, sleeping in their own beds --- waiting for what must happen?

BRC: Do you feel the average American or English citizen, being preserved and safe from the nearness of war, is naive to the meaning of it --- both the necessity for protection and as a destructive force?

ML: If you're fortunate enough to have no experience of war, it's a huge imaginative leap to put yourself in the position of people in wartime. For me, one of the things that was particularly challenging was to understand how people saw their world in 1940. For American and British people today, the whole way we think about World War II is shaped by the fact that we won. But in 1940, when the story begins, people believed that defeat was inevitable --- that the Occupation of the Channel Islands was just the start, that Hitler would cross the English Channel and Britain would be invaded and defeated --- and they made all their decisions in the light of that belief. I always tried to remember that, as one of my characters remarks, the people in the story don't know how it's going to end.

BRC: Have your experiences as a social worker given you insights into the state of mind of those suffering from the threat (or memory) of violence?

ML: The knowledge of psychology that I gained from my time as a social worker certainly does inform my writing. For this story, I tried to imagine what it was like to be afraid all the time, as the islanders must have been --- constantly afraid that there might be the most terrible consequences for some slight infringement of rules. This does have parallels with the way children who live in violent homes can feel, but there's a crucial difference. Violence in war is visited on you by the enemy, while for children who are abused the violence is most often perpetrated by their caregivers, which is very different psychologically.

BRC: Did your being a mother influence how you wrote about Vivienne and her children?

ML: I do use aspects of my own children in creating children in my stories. Blanche is a little like my own daughters when they were teenagers: there's often a restlessness in teenage girls, a feeling that they would rather be anywhere but here! Millie has that clarity that so charmed me in my own children when they were small. And Vivienne's parenting style is probably quite like my own. Evelyn says to her, "You're too soft with those girls, Vivienne," and I can well imagine someone saying that of me!

BRC: What does it mean to be a "jerrybag"? Is that a curse?

ML: It was the most insulting term for a woman who was sleeping with the enemy. Resistance was impossible on Guernsey --- the island was overrun with Germans, and, unlike occupied France, there was nowhere to hide. As a result, the kind of energy that in other occupied territories might have been channelled into resistance activities was here often directed at those people on the same side who were felt to be betraying the cause --- especially women who fell in love with soldiers from the occupying army.

BRC: Can you tell us the significance of fairy tales appearing repeatedly in The Soldier's Wife?

ML: The idea of using fairy tales came to me in a bookshop in St. Peter Port, where I discovered a book of Guernsey folktales and lore. Some of the stories in the book seemed to be folk memories of invasion --- of mysterious people who came to Guernsey from over the sea --- which fitted beautifully with my story. I knew at once that I would use this material in my novel, to illuminate the story and to provide moments of reflection. And it was the folktale book that inspired the character of Angie, one of Vivienne's friends. Angie is gullible and believes all the old superstitions --- so when she starts to whisper to Vivienne about the things that are happening in the work camps, this seems like some appalling nightmare fairy tale beyond belief.

BRC: Are you writing now, and if so, when can readers expect to see your next book?

ML: I'm writing a novel about a young Englishwoman who goes to Vienna to study the piano just before the Anschluss, when Hitler annexed Austria. I should finish it within a year --- so I'm hoping it will be in bookshops in a couple of years!