We talk to Chris Moore about his HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown shortlisted novel, The Hoarse Oaths of Fife.
The HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
Always. My dad was one of those guys who stops in the street to gawk every time he comes across a plaque on a wall or an interesting inscription, and I was the same with my children.
The Hoarse Oaths of Fife is a very intriguing title. How did the initial idea for the book come about?
My title quotes the war poet Wilfred Owen – ‘ … the hoarse oaths which kept our courage straight … ’ – and refers to the pervasive use of profanity in the ranks of every army throughout history. Fife is where, as a student, I worked in my summer vacations on a potato farm where my comrades were teenage Fifers who swore fluently and naturally in dialect every time they had anything to say. Wars are fought by mainly fit, young men – plough boys, shepherds, labourers – who swear all the time, the better to play their part in combat and endure the experience.
My characters came in a dream, years ago. On a dark night with the moon mainly hidden by storm clouds, I was fleeing a battlefield pursued by enemies and blundered into a field full of tangled, hugely overgrown potato plants to seek a hiding place. Those in pursuit waded effortfully towards me, cursing and growling as they hunted me down in line abreast, shrouded in scraps of scavenged uniform and hung round with jingling bits of kit. They had no faces under their steel helmets but as they passed within inches of my hiding place I recognised their voices – these seeming vengeful wraiths were not enemies but my comrades, retiring in good order and searching for me as they went. I rose to proclaim myself but the tangled vines of the potato plants kept me shackled and, although I shouted as loud as I could, no sound came. I was tethered tight, voiceless and bereft. I watched my ghostly squad disappear into the mirk, with a gap in the line where I should have been, and knew they were dead and beyond recall.
The novel tells the story of the Battle of Loos in September 1915. What is it that attracts you to writing about the First World War and this battle in particular?
I chose the Battle of Loos because it involved troops of the Indian Army fighting alongside the British. At one place, Muslims fought alongside Fifers serving in the Black Watch; they shared the resulting massacre between them. I have visited the battlefield several times and have developed a feel for it so I knew I could do a good job of evoking it in fiction. I also wanted to make a point. Muslims are badly served in British media, the only ones we seem to hear about are jihadis and terrorists. But a hundred years ago, at a time of crisis on the Western Front, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims kept the British Army in the line and saved the day. As we mark the centenary of 1914 – 1918 we should not forget that.
You’ve written several non-fiction books about WWI. Why did you decide that fiction was the right medium for this story?
Because it came to me in a dream and because, ever since I was a student, I have never not been writing a novel of one sort or another. The reason I chose English rather than History at university was because I thought I might learn how to write novels. I thought wrong. To write novels I had to find my voice and no one could teach me that.
Did your research turn up anything unexpected?
The inside of my head is full of the Great War so in that sense I didn’t have to do any research, it was all there. I rarely read anything that isn’t connected to the history or literature of the First World War and spend most of my spare holiday time visiting its battlefields, not just on the Western Front. But I did discover one thing that was new to me. I knew that those 130,000 Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims of the Indian Army were welcomed by French and Belgian women as an intoxicating novelty in the men-starved villages and towns where colonial troops were billeted alongside their kilted Scottish comrades. I also knew that, on the German side of the Western Front, the white-skinned illegitimate infants born of war were offered up for adoption. I did not know that on the French and Belgian side of the line infanticide was sometimes permitted, with the tacit approval of church and state. In The Hoarse Oaths Of Fife, the fate of mixed race babies begotten in this manner provides the climactic betrayal.
You have a background in journalism and have published several works of non-fiction. What were the challenges of writing a novel in comparison?
After the failure of my first effort to write a publishable novel, aged 21, I realised I could only learn writing by doing it, hence the journalism. I got into the BBC on a training scheme but quickly learned that making radio and television programmes was unrewardingly fiddly and constricting and not for me. All I wanted to do was write and the only place in BBC News where journalists were paid to write, and to do nothing but write, was at the BBC World Service. It was great place for aspiring novelists – four days in the newsroom to pay the mortgage, followed by four days off for writing books. The original plan was to quit the day job as soon as my first best-seller was in the shops, except I could only find someone to publish my books once per decade and none of them were novels.
So what was your path to publication?
A hard road and a long one, mainly uphill. My first publisher tried to cheat me and my co-author of royalties, so that relationship ended in the hands of m’learned friends. My next publisher lost interest after my second book didn’t get reviewed. My third publisher … I still don’t know what went wrong there but the book seemed to be remaindered on publication and is still floating about in various bargain basements. Over the course of multiple drafts over many years, every publisher and agent in London turned down The Oaths so in the end, to coincide with the actual centenary of the Battle of Loos in 2015, I paid to get it published. I was absolutely astounded when it appeared on the longlist for the Debut Crown award, and then on the shortlist. As a writer of novels, the Historical Writers Association is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Finish it. And when it’s rejected, write another one. Writing a novel is like playing the lottery, in the sense that you are almost guaranteed to lose. But someone has got to win and you might get lucky. Be like Samuel Beckett, fail better every time. When you carry on writing because you have to, when it becomes a compulsion, when you feel you have wasted a day if you haven’t written anything – that’s the start of becoming a writer. It is a great and noble calling. You only have one life, you might as well waste it on writing.
Do you have any favourite historical writers?
In regard to Great War historical studies, John Terraine. In regard to fiction, Joseph Roth. All my favourite writers are dead. My favourite books of all are the first person memoirs written by the men and women, of any belligerent nation, who served in the Great War. I search for them ceaselessly in second hand bookshops.
And what are you reading right now?
I’ve just checked the pile at my bedside: David Jones (writer of the great First World War poem, In Parenthesis) by Rene Hague; War in the Mind by Charles Berg (the 1941 case book of a Freudian psychologist); Macbeth by William Shakespeare; The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck (best-selling psychotherapist’s memoir); and Brest-Litovsk, The Forgotten Peace, March 1918, by J.W. Wheeler-Bennett. Increasingly, I find myself skimming books, dipping in and out and leaving them half-read.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m taking a rest from the Great War for a spell because, even though I remain as fascinated as ever, there has been such a deluge of blogs, books and bad telly about WW1 that people are growing bored. So my next novel, working title Shepherds In The Fields Academy, is very contemporary. It’s about what happens to a squeezed middle class family trying to cope with London’s dangerous schools as booming property prices and collapsing public services push everyone except the very rich to the margins. I’m hoping for publication in January, 2017. I tend to work on two or three ideas simultaneously so it’s worth checking my website from time to time; chrismooresbooks.com.
Chris Moore has earned his living from words since he left college, first with ‘Cosmopolitan’ magazine, then as a broadcast news editor with the BBC. He was a foreign correspondent in Sri Lanka in the mid 1980s after which he quit news for a spell and went to Papua New Guinea where he taught at the national university and traveled widely across the South Pacific. As well as writing full time, Chris is a partner in The Great War Bookshop, which specialises in hard-to-find books and related material about the History & Literature of the First World War.