Talking about books… with Andrew Duncan

In mid-March, when lockdown started, I was approached by the Editor of the Clapham Society Newsletter and commissioned to carry out a series of virtual interviews with local, debutante authors. The Newsletter, which goes out to people in south London, is usually inundated with requests for publicity for any local events, but, thanks to COVID-19, most of these events ( including the Clapham Book Festival, unfortunately ) were being cancelled. So copy was needed and this seemed a good way to support local authors – whose books might otherwise sink without trace without the oxygen of publicity – as well as to entertain and inform the readers and fill the Newsletter.

Consequently readers of my blog page will see a number of articles over the coming weeks, entitled ‘A Conversation with……’. The first of these is a conversation with Andrew Duncan.

As the seventy fifth anniversary of VE Day, on 8th May 2020, passes during CORVID19 lockdown, now might be the time to read about WWII. If fiction is your preference, try ‘Somerville’s War’ by Clapham author Andrew A Duncan (Vineyard Books, 2020). This novel evokes the tranquil, timeless and sometimes petty-seeming world of rural southern England and its response to war; from the pilots of the RAF and ATA, the Special Operations Executive agents and the spy masters at the famous ‘finishing school for spies’ at SOE Beaulieu, renamed SOE Somerville in the novel. Beginning at a sailing club on the Somer (Beaulieu) River in the Hampshire countryside, the novel takes the reader to war-time London and thence to occupied France, as a large and varied cast of characters, crossing generational, class and national divides, contribute to the war, often for very different reasons.

Julie Anderson (JA): Why, as a long-time Clapham resident, have you chosen to write, so evocatively, about rural Hampshire.

Andrew Duncan (AD):  I grew up at Beaulieu, Hampshire, where my grandparents went to live in the 1930s.  I inherited a house there and now divide my time equally between Clapham (my London based publishing business) and Beaulieu.  As a writer you will know what a head start that gives you in writing a novel, especially a first novel, if the geography is at your fingertips.  Then there is the fact that Beaulieu/Somer is and was a unique place – and that I love the variety of the scenery and the closeness of the sea – you can never get bored with this extra dimension.  It really got under my skin aged around sixteen – just like the Henry character in the book – though I’m not the basis for his character.

Also, I felt that there was a vacant slot for a ‘Beaulieu’ novel; not just that, but that the place itself could be a character in the novel in its own right – as London is in Dickens – but, heaven forbid, I am not comparing myself with him. 

JA: It has been said that England and the English never quite recovered from WWII, so deeply is it embedded in the national psyche. What is it that drew you into writing about this period?

AD: Partly just that: WW2 stories can be good sellers as a genre, maybe third in popularity after the chick lit-female interest-romance and crime genres.  Also because I had some more or less original material – SOE Beaulieu and the ATA women pilots – which had not yet been realized in fiction – anyway not properly. It’s also a bonus that Kim Philby taught at SOE Beaulieu.  I felt this last could give not only reviewers, but readers, something fresh to latch on to. 

Like many another of my generation WW2 had an indirect impact on my life, but this story also struck me as a handy vehicle for a psychological subtext. All four main characters start with obsessions.  By the end they are either destroyed by them or come to terms with them. I hope some readers will enjoy thinking about why and how this happens. There are clues all through the text that they are dealing with obsessions, and on page 332 there is a fuller explanation.

Also partly because I wanted to explore writing a story that exists in the twilight zone between fiction and non fiction – history is not half handy for that.

JA: One central strand of Somerville’s War is a love story, told from the point of view of a young woman ATA pilot.  Why did you make Leonora such a central character and have her feature so strongly in the tale?

AD: In part because realizing one of those women doing men’s work long before it became commonplace seemed to me of special interest to modern women – and men. It puts feminism in perspective.  Partly because I know the territory:  my mother was one of those ATA women and, although it was very hard to get her to talk, I did come to understand what the experience was like for her and consequently I felt I had the insight to write about it.  Leo is partly based on my Mum but only the foundations.  What you see of Leo when she’s in the air is different to my mother, more like other females I have known.

In Leo I wanted to create a real heroine – a human with quality but some serious flaws.  She is truly courageous, not because she feels less fear, like some people, she feels plenty: her nervous system gets slammed by the dog fight and by the storm. Yet she finds her way out of it through moral fibre.  I wanted to show the moral dimension of courage in women operating in the same way as it does in men. I also wanted to explore female aggression, a considerable thing…   I am hoping that in Leo’s dogfight I get near the heart of that, especially when she presses the trigger.   

So Leo was a vessel for these themes and that is why I have her near the heart of the story.

JA: Events in Somerville’s War take place in 1940 and the book captures the attitudes, prejudices and morés of the time using the language then widely used. To this reader, at least, the style and pacing of the book also reflects the literature of that period or earlier. How did you set out to write, in 2020, in this style?

AD: This question got me wondering.  Indeed the story telling is generally straight and traditional, but I hope not anachronistic.  But a major feature of the style – frequent short scenes, much hopping from place to place – is influenced by contemporary cinema.

For that authentic feel, yes I tried to recreate the attitudes, morés and speech of the 1940s. But as you suggest it goes a bit further than that.  At the heart of the story is the Brigadier or ‘Brig’, a man who is really a Victorian.  The whole story is in the Brig’s mind, though told by others.  So it seemed right to have a traditional story structure – patrician story telling as the Brig might have done it had he actually written the story.  This is partly why the sex and action climaxes are underplayed:  for Maxwell and his contemporaries, saying less was their way of saying more.

This straight style does also overlay a subtext, a story of psychological development, but reinterpreted in the light of up to the moment understanding of neuroscience. By the way, I’m hoping the story will make readers think again about the Brig and his like: I hope he represents the best of his kind.  That generation and that type are often ridiculed these days, sometimes unfairly.

Lastly, I must admit I wanted to stick up two fingers to much contemporary story telling style which seems to me to be all form and no content. Form should work hand in hand with content – as I hope I have achieved in Somerville’s War.  I deliberately took no notice of trendy story telling devices hoping that clear structure where characters are allowed to develop in a measured pace in the first half would enable a faster paced, action oriented second half.  I was aiming for a natural, easy read and for readers to know the characters before the action gets going – this means the tension is heightened because you care about them even if you aren’t hugely attracted to them.

You haven’t asked about character and hope you won’t mind my adding my thoughts.  In quality commercial fiction Robert Harris and his like are very dominant – superb plotting and story telling but often at the expense of ‘rounded’ characters.   I wanted to have a go at good story telling but also with three dimensional characters, not cardboard cut-outs.   Others must judge if it worked…

Somerville’s War is available online and at bookshops on request at £10.99.

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