Catherine Hall is an award-winning writer whose third novel, The Repercussions, is out now. She spoke to Laura Macdougall about war, break-ups and book covers.
The Repercussions is the story of Jo, a war photographer who returns from Afghanistan to Brighton having inherited an apartment. She finds a diary written by her great-grandmother, Elizabeth, who worked as a nurse in the Brighton Pavilion during the First World War. Did you know that women were going to be such an important part of the novel before you started, or did that develop over time?
Since my last book was about a man, I think I wanted to get back to a woman’s perspective. I wanted to write about the Brighton Pavilion being used as a hospital for Indian soldiers during the First World War and about that war. It just seemed natural to me to come at it from a female character. The main stories – of Afghanistan and the Brighton Pavilion – were there from the start, but once I started to write many more ideas came out and took me off to other places and ideas.
Where did the idea of having a war photographer as your main protagonist come from?
I worked for an international peacebuilding organisation, in charge of communications and became interested in how messages we see on the news are never all the story. In 2003, I took a trip to Rwanda and the Congo with a photographer. In the Congo we talked to rape victims, from a little girl of six to a grandmother of 75. We went to a school in Rwanda where hundreds of people were massacred; now a memorial. I saw 25 classrooms full of skeletons and partially preserved bodies, some with the wire that had bound their wrists behind their backs intact, others with babies still tied to their backs with pieces of cloth.
I was profoundly affected. For months, I felt nausea and had terrible nightmares. It was worse for the photographer, who’d last been in Rwanda just after the genocide and was still traumatised. It brought back to me the horrible photographs of apartheid South Africa I used to see in The Sunday Times Magazine in the 1980s. They came from photographers who took enormous risks to report on the violence. They’ve written books on how they became almost addicted to war and how their work impacted on their relationships and their mental health.
The Brighton Pavilion was intended to be a spectacle, an example of how well the British were treating overseas troops, to encourage Indians to volunteer and because memories of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, which seriously threatened the British Raj, was very much in the minds of the authorities. Postcards were produced of the patients, some published in a commemorative book. A film was made and the King and Queen made several visits. I wanted to look at how photographs never tell the truth. But they do build-up a sort of collective memory or vision of how a war is. Some become iconic, like the photograph of the little girl running naked towards the camera in Vietnam after her village had been napalmed. And, of course, someone has to choose which images will be published and it’s often the most shocking images that are chosen.
You explore the cost of conflict very movingly in The Repercussions, and how that impacts on those left behind.
The book is all about the cost of conflict, which I guess is why it’s called The Repercussions. I wanted to look at the effects of war, for those living through it and those who report on it. As a result of my previous job, one thing I learned was that what happens after a conflict is over is as important as what happens during it. Once a soldier or a reporter or a medical helper comes home, they may not be in immediate danger, but the impact can last a lifetime. My war photographer, Jo, whether she’ll admit it or not, is suffering trauma. The patients in the Pavilion Hospital in Brighton are suffering from shell-shock. Robert, the fiancée of my other main character, Elizabeth, has been deeply affected by his time in the trenches, and is a changed person because of it.
How much do you think our attitude to war has changed since 1915, and our attitude to women’s role in war more specifically?
At the beginning of the First World War, the British population – and crucially, soldiers – believed in honour. They spoke of valour, duty and grit. People today are less likely to believe official sources. During the First World War, the Government had much more control over the press. Censorship was rife. Nowadays, social media means people in the heart of a conflict can share their experiences and perspectives.
Plenty of war correspondents and photographers are female. However, to a certain extent, old attitudes still prevail. Women war correspondents are routinely asked how they feel about leaving their children behind – a question never posed to their male counterparts.
In The Repercussions a lesbian relationship comes to an end, partly because one of the women doesn’t want children. Do you think we’re making progress in terms of our attitudes towards the definition of ‘family’?
My experience of motherhood definitely informed The Repercussions. I started writing it when my first baby was six months old and finished it a week before the second one was born. My situation is complicated. I decided to have children with a gay friend many years ago, when we were both single. By the time we had our first child, we both had partners. Now, I’m single again and live with him and his boyfriend and the children. In some ways it’s almost heteronormative if you look at it from the outside. People are never sure who is with who, and our children live with their mummy and daddy.
In some ways it works very well. We balance things so each of us gets some time to ourselves at weekends and in the evenings. But I’ve been quite surprised by how much I’ve ended up playing quite a traditional role in the home, being the main care-giver and taking on more of the domestic roles.
I have many friends doing this parenting thing in many different ways. All things are possible and I find that heartening.
Can you see a lot of yourself in your novel?
Jo’s trauma following the wars definitely comes from my experiences in Africa. My girlfriend and I split up just after the book was finished and my second child was born. I hadn’t realised I was writing the story of a break-up. Someone asked me after reading the book whether I had written the girlfriend I’d always wanted! I think Jo would be hard work, but I definitely like her.
What is it like being a woman writer today? Do you think it’s harder for women than it is for men?
It’s hard for all writers. Publishers are so cautious. The commercial imperative is so strong. I’m not sure my experience has been harder because I’ve been a women. I do know publishers have very much decided my books are ‘women’s books’, even though my second, The Proof of Love, was about a gay man. Lots of male readers told me they were put off by the cover, which was relentlessly ‘girly’, as all of my covers have been. I’ve tried to have this conversation with publishers but been told fairly clearly they’ve decided on my niche.
Being a lesbian writer or writing books on gay themes definitely makes it harder to get published. Publishers seem to think people will only read novels about people like them.
Yes, there are fewer female reviewers. Yes, there are fewer reviews of women writers. Having said that, this year’s BBC Short Story award has an all-women shortlist. The Booker Prize has been won by women for three of the last four years. I do think there’s still a need for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in that it gets people talking about writing by women and, importantly, sells copies, which allows women writers to keep writing.
You often cite feminist texts as a significant source of inspiration. Are there any in particular that have informed your writing?
I was very lucky to grow up in the 1970s and ‘80s, when there were fabulous women writers around asking big questions about the role of women in the world. Reading Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying when I was 13, was life-changing. It introduced me to so many concepts and questions, from psychoanalysis and feminism to the Zipless Fuck. The novels of Jean Rhys, with their quietly desperate protagonists who paid a price to lead the lives they wanted, made me run away to Paris. Other inspirations are Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Sarah Waters. After having children, I spent a lot of time re-reading novels like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, and suddenly understood why so many women became so angry at the inequality of domesticity and childcare!
Can you tell us anything about your next book?
I’ve just started work. It’s a romp set in 19th Century Clerkenwell about the first female Italian ice-cream seller, Penelope Lick. There will be cameos from Charles Dickens and other historical figures…
Laura is a London-based writer, reviewer and editor with a focus on arts and culture, feminism, lifestyle and LGBT issues.