Juliet West and Vanessa Lafaye discuss the dark political backdrops to their new novels, The Faithful and At First Light. Both books are love stories which explore ‘inconvenient history’: episodes which have slipped from the collective consciousness because they expose uncomfortable truths about society.
Vanessa: We both decided to dramatise events which have been shoved under the carpet of history, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. At First Light deals with an unsolved murder by the Ku Klux Klan in 1919, which I knew nothing about although I come from Florida. Juliet, what attracted you to the period and events around the rise of the Blackshirts in Britain?
Juliet: I’m fascinated by the overlap of political and social history – the effect of high politics on ‘ordinary’ lives. My interest in the Blackshirts began a few years ago when I chanced across a library book called Blackshirts-on-Sea. I was amazed and disturbed to discover that Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) held annual summer holiday camps in West Sussex in the 1930s, and that Worthing (my home town) was known as ‘The Munich of the South Coast’. It also surprised me that so many women were attracted to the movement, including former suffragettes. This seemed so counter-intuitive, I knew I wanted to dig deeper.
Vanessa: That’s one of the really interesting aspects of your story, that the Blackshirts made fascism so…normal. ‘Holiday camps’ must have sounded very appealing in the 1930s. And fascinating that it was so attractive to women. The Klan took a very different approach, treating women as objects of worship, whose honour and virtue the organisation was sworn to protect from blacks/Jews/Catholics etc. A woman’s place was in the home, making racially pure babies, which was a big theme in the Deep South culture. But both groups demonised immigrants and ‘the other’. Isn’t it interesting how much shared ideology there was between them?
Juliet: Absolutely, they share a hatred of the ‘enemy within’, although this bigotry was played down by BUF propaganda in the earlier 1930s. The BUF was unusual among fascist movements in the way it courted women, promising equal pay, proper representation of women in Parliament and an ‘end to sex warfare’. Of course these promises were never tested – no fascist MPs were ever elected, and the movement disintegrated at the outbreak of the Second World War. Back to racism though…in our books we’ve both created characters who are not deep-seated racists, and yet they are drawn in. This is an important question, I think – how are supposedly decent people seduced by extremist politics?
Vanessa: I’m really interested in this too. I was very struck by the similarities between the Klan’s recruitment methods and what we understand as ‘radicalisation’ today. I think the key is that neither the Blackshirts nor the Klan were considered ‘politics’ by their members, but ‘causes’. The Klan targeted angry, dispossessed, disenfranchised whites and offered them the chance to become part of something big and important. It was a very powerful ideology, when combined with the message that ‘the other’ was responsible for all their problems. As an author, I wanted to see how far an impressionable young man like Dwayne, desperate to be taken seriously, would go to please his racist father, and what it would take to open his eyes. Your character Hazel is also a ‘good girl’ but lonely and longing to be socially accepted. Vulnerable people make prime targets for extremists, as we see today. When I was writing At First Light, I had no idea that the book would turn out to be so topical. Is that the same for you?
Juliet: I had no idea either – I started writing The Faithful back in 2013. I guess when we embark on a historical novel we’re always thinking about contemporary relevance to some extent – we want a story to chime with modern-day readers. This chime has turned into more of a clang though. I’m not sure how readers will respond to this. In today’s climate, do you think people read for relevance or escapism?
Vanessa: At a conference last year, I heard a bookseller say that the only historical fiction that sells in any quantity is about the Tudors or the Romans. There’s a strong hint of escapism there! I always like to feel that my story has relevance to the present, but I’m not sure that matters so much to the average reader. I’d be interested to ask some of them for an opinion. I do know that they enjoy finding out about the facts behind my fictionalised accounts, which is why I always include a list of Further Reading, and a set of Notes which document my editorial decisions in the novel. The recent comments by Hilary Mantel on the value of bibliographies drew a lot of reaction. While it’s clearly not right for every type of historical fiction, it has a place in the stories that I write. What do you think?
Juliet: Well I’m a geek and love to read an author’s notes and bibliography, and I’ve included my own in The Faithful. Mantel is right in the sense that we have no duty to share this information – historical novels are feats of imagination, they are not intended as scholarly tomes – but many readers are fascinated to learn more about a writer’s research and the ‘true’ elements of a novel. I’m often asked about this at events. Speaking of research, Vanessa, how did you find researching the Ku Klux Klan? I can remember feeling so sickened after spending several hours in the British Library reading awful racist diatribes in The Blackshirt newspaper. Usually I enjoy research but this was just vile.
Vanessa: Oh, yes, I felt the same, after spending months digging into their lore and ideology. I used a mixture of books and primary sources. I even have a PDF copy of their ‘member’s manual’, which is mesmerising in its awfulness. It includes the oath that all Catholics supposedly swear to follow the orders of the Pope! Yet I could still appreciate how clever they were, in the way they tailored their pitch to their audience. They were masters of marketing: concise, compelling, and perfectly crafted for potential recruits. Utterly chilling. Sometimes this can make it difficult to keep my 21st -century sensibilities out of the writing. I have to keep reminding myself that there were different values in different times. Do you find that?
Juliet: Definitely, and in a sense this is part of the attraction of writing historical fiction. The maxim ‘write what you know’ seems strange to me – I’m drawn to research stuff I don’t know because that keeps me (and, I hope, the reader) interested. For example one of the challenges of my first novel was to recreate a 1918 London society where working class mothers simply couldn’t afford to be sentimental about their children. Studying the 1930s, I came to realise that racism was expected and accepted by the vast majority of white Britons. The word ‘fascism’ was not toxic – it even had an edge of glamour in some circles. In At First Light, you convey very well women’s place in post-WW1 society. Alicia is the property of her husband, and yet she does manage to escape. She’s such a strong character – how close is she to the real-life brothel owner who inspired this story?
Vanessa: I agree that it’s one of the attractions. I loved the challenge of inhabiting a disillusioned war veteran alongside a Cuban healer. I learned so much during the research! I had great fun creating Alicia, and a lot of freedom because almost nothing is known about the real person, Angela. She was mixed-race and practiced voodoo rather than Santeria as depicted in the book, and she cursed the Klan for what they did to her lover. (As it happened, several of the Klan leadership met with very gruesome, untimely deaths). Much more is known about her lover, Manuel Cabeza (my character John Morales). I try wherever possible to stay true to the events, which can be both limiting and liberating. I was very interested in the choices made by Manuel and Angela, because I would have made different ones. In some ways, writing about them gave me an insight into why they behaved as they did. Your characters Hazel and Tom also make some hard decisions. Did you agree with them?
Juliet: Hmm tricky question, because again I don’t want to judge from a modern-day perspective! I do admire Tom as a character, as he’s not afraid to stand up to his Mosley-worshipping mother. But Hazel is vulnerable and when the blackshirts seem to offer a solution to her problems, it’s possible to see why she’s drawn in. As you say, creating these characters and sinking into their worlds allows a fresh insight. We can begin to empathise even if we don’t agree. By the way, I really enjoyed all the detail around Alicia’s herbal remedies. Honey as a contraceptive. Who knew?
Vanessa: Thank you. Alicia is based on a real Cuban healer called Maria de los Reyes Castillo Bueno, known as Reyita, and it was fascinating to learn about all the plants and herbs used in traditional medicine there. There’s a revelation towards the end of The Faithful, based on real history, that surprised me (no spoilers). I definitely had to reserve my judgements, and remember that it was a very different time.
Finally, for me, your book puts a human face on the British fascist movement, and reveals how cleverly they exploited people’s vulnerabilities. The public here would prefer to forget that it happened, but we need to be reminded. It gave me a much better understanding of this ‘inconvenient’ episode in British history—and how easily it could take hold again.
Juliet: Similarly, your novel offers a new perspective on 20th century American history, and it’s impossible not to draw parallels with today’s political climate. Alicia’s world feels so real – I have to say I’m now desperate to visit Key West to experience this extraordinary location for myself. And Vanessa, I can’t wait to see which inconvenient history you tackle next . . .
Juliet and Vanessa will be appearing together on Thursday 6 July, 7.30pm at Chenies Manor, Bucks. The event is run by Chorleywood Bookshop and will be chaired by author, Antonia Honeywell. More details here.