Writer of the Month
Judith Allnatt is a poet, an acclaimed short story writer and novelist. Her latest novel The Moon Field is available from the 16th January 2014. Set in the First World War, it is released in the centenary year. We caught up with Judith to find out more about her historical influences, the writing and editing process and how her experience as a WEM writer-in-residence influenced her novel.
Click here to hear Judith on the BBC News Channel’s ‘Meet the Author’ programme discussing the book with Nick Higham.
Judith regularly speaks at events, festivals, readers’ days and conferences. She also lectures, runs workshops, takes part in panel discussions and judges competitions. In 2013 she was a writer-in-residence on our Write Here! project at Canon’s Ashby, an Elizabethan manor house, during which she ran 6 different writing workshops where participants enjoyed access to many of the treasures the house holds as well as being able to wander the grounds for writing inspiration.
Find out more about our Write Here! projects here.
Judith’s first novel, A Mile of River, was a Radio 5 Live Book of the Month and was shortlisted for the Portico Prize for Literature; her second novel, The Poet’s Wife, was shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award. Short stories have featured in the Bridport Prize Anthology, the Commonwealth Short Story Awards, and on BBC Radio 4. She lives with her family in Northamptonshire, lectures widely and is working on her fourth novel.
Judith has recently done an interview with literary podcast BookD about her work. Click here to listen.
Your new novel, The Moon Field, is set in the First World War and released in the centenary year. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Some years ago I was teaching War Literature to a group of 18- year-old students. In an effort to help them connect with the subject, I took them to the Imperial War Museum and we traced their relatives who had fought in the war. Most had died. Almost all were under the age of 21 when they lost their lives. This sobering discovery moved us all and I decided that one day I would write about these young men, many barely more than boys, and try to show what a huge amount was asked of them in experiencing the horrors of the trenches. I wanted to present their brutal rite of passage into adulthood as well as recognising the men’s courage and the enduring quality of friendship and love, even in a time of war.
The novel is set at the start of the war, in 1914 and begins as George Farrell, a young postman cycles through the tranquil Cumberland fells to deliver a letter, unaware that it will change his life. George has fallen for the daughter at the Manor House, Miss Violet, but when she lets slip the contents of the letter George is heartbroken to find that she is already promised to another man: a young lieutenant from nearby Carlisle.
George escapes his heartbreak by joining the patriotic rush to war, but he discovers that his rival in love is also to be his commanding officer – so his past is not so easily avoided. His experiences on the battlefields of Flanders leave him believing that no woman will be able to care for the man he has become and desperately searching for love and redemption.
Your previous novel, The Poet’s Wife, is also historically based; set around the life of Poet John Clare from the eyes of his wife Patty. Does writing an historical novel present any particular challenges?
As well as the in-depth research into the minutiae of daily life needed to evoke the chosen era for the reader, a big challenge is to be as accurate as possible about attitudes and beliefs. The writer shouldn’t superimpose their contemporary attitudes on the period: that would simply produce modern characters in period costume. What one wants to achieve is the most credible rendering of the time that one can muster from research.
The Poet’s Wife was a particular challenge as the life of John Clare, the poet in question, is well documented but each biographer gives a slightly different picture. Informed by the biographies, I went back to source documents: Clare’s poetry, letters and journals to help form a view of the man, as I wanted to make sure I did him justice. Similarly, in The Moon Field, I read hundreds of letters from servicemen of all ranks: expressions of love, references to shared memories, stoic understatement about the experience of battle, concern for family left behind. As well as helping me to learn about the attitudes of the time, it helped me to absorb the idiom so that I could give the characters the patterns of speech and even the slang of the era.
Can you tell us about your writing process? What do you find to be the most difficult part, and why?
Strangely, I always have an idea for the end of a novel right from the start. I think this is because an ending is likely to concern a major theme and to reflect the writer’s attitude to it and I don’t start a novel until I have at least a broad idea of both.
Who, or what, has had the biggest influence on your writing and why?
I love books that have interesting, well-rounded characters and that explore relationships: books with some psychological depth such as those by Helen Dunmore, Salley Vickers, Sue Gee, and Elizabeth Berg.
I also love books about the countryside and grew up reading BB, Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, Tove Jansson’s Summer Book and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I think that these, together with living on a farm as a child, influenced my interest in the use of rural settings in the novels.
I’ve also studied under some fantastic writers: Rose Tremain, Alison Chisholm and Bernadine Evaristo to name but a few. Rose Tremain has been a particular inspiration, both because she gave me terrific encouragement early on and advice to challenge and explore, and because I admire her style and her adventurous approach in choosing very different eras and settings for her novels.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
I think I’m my own toughest critic. I draft and re-draft many times in search of improvements. Particularly when writing poetry, I sometimes have to admit that I’ve overworked it, lost the life that was in it at first and have to go all the way back to the first version. The best piece of advice I ever had about writing was to write a spontaneous first draft and not tinker around going back over the line or sentence you’ve just written: to give the creative side of your mind free reign and keep the analytical side in check until you’ve got the first draft down.
Having books shortlisted for literary prizes or chosen as ‘book of the month’ by radio and magazines are huge compliments, as are every e mail I get from readers saying that a book has touched them in some way. I had a particularly wonderful comment from Michael Morpurgo who said about my first book: ‘A novel of rare insight, exquisitely written. A standing ovation for this debut.’ I don’t think one could hope for anything more generous and encouraging than that!
As part of Writing East Midlands’ Write Here programme, you were writer-in-residence at the National Trust’s Elizabethan manor house Canons Ashby. Can you tell us a bit about what’s involved in a residency?
This residency was a lovely mixture of teaching and writing. Every residency will be a bit different depending on the chosen setting and the interests of the writer but I can give a flavour of what mine was like. Initially I wandered a lot in the house and gardens, read about the history of the place and asked the staff questions until I had ideas for a series of morning workshops. In these, we worked from the curious objects we found in the house and from the history of the Dryden family who owned them. We also invented characters from paintings, wrote a group poem, investigated Dryden’s poetry and explored the theme of ‘other worlds,’ drawing on Henry Dryden’s collection of antiquities and the Augustinian Priory in the grounds.
In the afternoons I was free to pursue my own writing. This involved, variously: sitting in the paneled dining room in total quiet and stillness until the idea for a poem presented itself, roaming the grounds to find an oak tree similar to the one used for the paneling and beating a hasty retreat from some bullocks, and the peaceful bliss of writing in the Elizabethan parlour with the late afternoon sun revealing the ancient wall paintings around me. All our work, including my poem ‘Seasoned Wood’ is on the WEM web site and I still have notes for a rather dark short story that I’ll write at some point between novels.
Being a writer based in the East Midlands, how do you feel about the opportunities on offer in the region?
There’s a great deal going on to support writers in the region: the Writing School, mentoring schemes, competitions and the EMBA, residencies, live literature events and writers’ conferences. I have benefitted directly from the opportunity to experience a fantastic residency, through the EMBA shortlisting and also through being involved in events and teaching in the region. I’ve also been able to refer many of my students to resources and opportunities that will help them grow.
There is a very valuable infrastructure here to support the great pool of talent in the region and to foster a sense of identity for East Midlands Writers.
Can you say what you’ll be working on next?
I’m currently working on a novel that’s based on a ghost story. Again, there is a historical element; it has a dual narrative with a contemporary story and one set in the 1810s. I’ve loved doing the research and am now finding that it’s yielding some very colourful characters whose company I’m enjoying.
Find out more about Judith and her work on her biography here.
Or alternately by visiting her website: www.judithallnatt.co.uk