Today I’m delighted to be handing over my blog to the amazing novelist Linda Gillard, whose long awaited new book is out this week. Over to you, Linda …
My latest novel, THE TRYSTING TREE covers a century in the lives of three families, beginning in 1914. Whenever I finish a novel, I show it to a few people: my agent, husband and daughter, my 91-year old Mum (who has a sharp eye for typos) and several friends. Two of these early readers pointed out that there was a lot missing from the book. They meant scenes that were referred to, but not described. This was because much of the novel is told in the form of diaries and letters.
Re-reading, I was staggered to see how much important material I hadn’t written. It almost looked as if I hadn’t written any of the big scenes. Instead I’d written what comes before and what comes after. In some cases I hadn’t done more than refer to major events. I panicked. Would this be unsatisfactory for the reader? Was my approach superficial?
I was all set to think about inserting new scenes when I started to wonder why so much was missing. I realised I’d written a book where almost all the big events happen “offstage”. I’d set out to write a book about a family history, presented partly as oral history, but also as an incomplete archive that has been badly damaged by fire, a collection of letters, diaries and photographs that raise more questions than they answer, the biggest one being, why did someone try to destroy the archive?
After much discussion with my early readers, I decided not to re-write. There was so much missing, so much the characters didn’t or couldn’t know – but that, it seemed to me, was the point: the story was ultimately incomplete. The reader is left in no doubt about what happened, but the 21stC characters have to deduce a good deal from the evidence that survived the fire, filling in the blanks with imaginative guesswork.
Will this make for a satisfying read? I hope so. A family history is, after all, always incomplete. It’s random, often sketchy, biased and ultimately unsatisfactory, because we want a beginning, middle and end. But it’s the gaps that intrigue us. The mysteries. The untold story.
All I know about my grandfather’s involvement in WWI is that when he came home, my grandmother burned all his clothes and he refused ever to speak about his experience. That’s the sum total of my knowledge – of anyone’s. Even his silence is hearsay. He died when I was two.
Years later, when I was a teenager, Wilfred Owen & the War Poets loomed large in my life. Britten’s War Requiem (a setting of Owen’s poems) became a favourite piece of music. I’ve now written two novels featuring WWI soldier heroes. (The other was THE GLASS GUARDIAN.) I wonder now, did my grandfather’s refusal to speak have a more profound effect on me than anything he might have said?
Looking back over my eight novels, I can see my obsession is writing about what is not seen, not said and not known. I’ve written about negative space and the characters’ search for something that might somehow fill it. They are looking for completion. They’re people in search of more than just Mr/Ms Right. They want a surrogate family (Gwen in HOUSE OF SILENCE) or sanity (Rose in EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY and Magnus in UNTYING THE KNOT) or religious faith (Hugh in A LIFETIME BURNING) or just a fuller life experience (blind Marianne in STAR GAZING).
When I was writing THE TRYSTING TREE, I knew it wouldn’t be a complete narrative, it would have to be an oblique book. I didn’t write about the big events, I described the fallout. For example, there isn’t a word about the Battle of the Somme. I wrote about what happened after a soldier walked away from the battlefield, leaving his memory behind as a casualty of war.
THE TRYSTING TREE could have been a much longer and more detailed book, but would that have made it a better book? That’s for readers to decide. My hope is, what you don’t know and don’t see will have as much power to affect your imagination as what you do know and see. But it’s something of a gamble!
My grandfather died over 60 years ago. I have no memory of him, just a few photos, but over the decades, the fact that he, like many, refused to talk about what he’d experienced in the trenches has spoken volumes to me. Perhaps his silence said all there was to say.
Linda Gillard on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LindaGillardAuthor?ref=hl
Linda’s books on Amazon: https://Author.to/AmazonLindaGillard
Note from Jo: I was one of those lucky enough to read the book in an early draft and I can say with authority it is stunning – one of Linda’s best. And reading this guest post made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – this is such an emotional journey, and I hope you’ll join us in sharing and promoting it.
May 20, 2016 at 10:19 am
I was very touched to hear your story, Linda, thank you for sharing it.
The father of my great-auntie, whom I used to called Nonno Gerolamo fought in both WW1 and WW2,he lived until he was 99. In Italy every 4th November we commemorate the soldiers who lost their lives in War (a bit like your 11th November), and during this ceremony all war veterans take part. Nonno Girolamo, on this occasion, always used to wear his uniform and his many medals, but a tear would always appear under his eyes. I used to ask him about the war but he never wanted to talk about it.
One winter afternoon I caught him off-guard and whilst we were sitting by the fire warming our feet he told me that when they were fighting in the Dolomites they didn’t have good boots nor decent shoes. Their feet used to freeze in the snow and some of his soldier friends had to have their legs ‘chopped off’. He didn’t use the word ‘amputated’. A little girl wouldn’t have known such word. I was shocked. I asked him if he was joking and he said he wasn’t. And then he went on to say how they used to starve and were always looking for any scraps of food in the woods. That was the one and only time he spoke about the War. After that, whenever I asked he wouldn’t say any more.
You are right, Linda, when you say “his silence said all there was to say” and Nonno Gerolamo’s silence over the following years kept me wondering. I can just imagine that your novel will make a wonderful read. I am going to get a copy 🙂
May 22, 2016 at 11:01 am
Thanks for sharing your story, Martina. What horrors the survivors lived with, long after they were over! At one point in THE TRYSTING TREE my young 1916 heroine realises she’s only considered the fate of the dead, not those who survive.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is something I deal with in this novel and in another, UNTYING THE KNOT, which features a contemporary war veteran as hero.
May 22, 2016 at 2:15 pm
Some things are too horrible for words and as frustrating as it is, the silence does speak. We just don’t know the language.
May 23, 2016 at 7:17 pm
Exactly, Kathie. I was trying to write about what is not said, but can nevertheless still be heard.
And that reminds me of something I wrote in STAR GAZING. Astonished at her acute sensory perception, the hero, Keir says to blind Marianne, “Och, you don’t need seeing eyes, they’d be totally redundant! You have perfectly good eyes, they’re just not in your sockets.” 😉
May 23, 2016 at 1:08 am
As an honoured early reader, I felt that the untold story was like a character in its own right. My overriding sence was that Linda had created something unique and wonderful by not filling in all of the gaps. Silence has its own intense power.
I am delighted that this book has all the integrity that I’ve come to expect from a great Gillard read.
I’m also touched by this telling of your personal story, Linda. I too have spent a lot of my life wondering about the untold stories in my family, to do with wars and other important matters. It is small wonder that family secrets enthrall me and no surprise that your storytelling enchants and inspired me in equal measure.