Monday, June 7, 2021

Caroline Lea

Photo by Hannah Stevens
Caroline Lea was born and raised in Jersey in the United Kingdom. She lives in Warwick, England.

Lea's new novel is The Metal Heart.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Initially, I struggled to find a title which would encapsulate a wartime love story and also draw in the beautiful work of art that the Italian prisoners of war create. My draft title was simply Italian Chapel but that felt a little dry and cold. As soon as I decided to use the actual metal heart that still sits in the real-life Italian chapel today, left by one of the prisoners of war who fell in love with an Orcadian woman, it was clear that The Metal Heart was the perfect title. I like the fact that metal implies the harsh brutality of war, while the heart suggests something warmer and more hopeful.

What's in a name?

My twin protagonists, Dorothy and Constance, are outsiders within their community but are very close to each other and united, so I was keen to use names that could be shortened to something more endearing – Dot and Con. The main Italian prisoner, Cesare, has a beautifully musical-sounding name, which perhaps reflects the fact that he’s an artist, and although I wasn’t aware of choosing his name for this reason, I definitely aimed for a name that sounded lilting. Perhaps more significant is my naming of the island where the main action takes place: Selkie Holm is a wilder and more remote fictionalisation of the small Orcadian island, Lamb Holm, where the real Italian Chapel sits. I wanted to draw on the Scottish myths about selkies – women who swim in the sea, like seals, but sometimes come onto land to dance by night. The legend tells us that, if a man takes the selkie’s skin, he can hold her prisoner on land and she can only return to the sea once she lays claim to her skin once more. I loved weaving this, and similar myths into the book, to reflect the rich folkloric history of the Orkney islands.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I’ve always loved history and enjoyed reading love stories that offer something of an escapist element. I’m a big fan of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and although it didn’t influence my writing of this story, my teenage self would be sublimely happy to hear readers comparing my book to Louis de Bernieres’. The sea and wild, remote landscapes have always found their way into my writing, so I think The Metal Heart provided me with a wonderful opportunity to write lyrically about what I love. I think my main surprise and joy would be the positive and enthusiastic response I’ve had, both from readers and within the industry, from other writers and publishers – it feels overwhelmingly lovely.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Endings are so hard! I rarely change the beginning of my novels. In most cases, my opening sentences remain the same throughout multiple drafts. I always knew I wanted to start with a dramatic scene, in a storm, with a body being pulled from the wind-whipped water and I was certain that I wanted to move on to the torpedoing of the ship, The Royal Elm (based on the real-life destruction of The Royal Oak) and my protagonists being swept up in the ensuing chaos. My ending changed multiple times, however, and this is nearly always true. It’s difficult to write final scenes that are satisfying but not too cloying; hopeful but not unbelievably so. I think this is particularly true when writing a wartime love story but I’m really happy with the final ending to The Metal Heart.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I always aim to create characters who feel unique and fully developed but I think it’s very hard to write certain feelings or impulses without having experienced them yourself. In The Metal Heart, when Cesare and Dot first meet, there’s an instant connection, which turns, fairly quickly, into something much more profound. I don’t think I could have written that without my relationship with my partner, which felt (and still feels) slightly uncanny in the ways that we understand each other. I often know what he’s thinking, or what he will say, even before he’s reacted. We finish each other’s sentences and can share jokes without voicing our thoughts. It’s a bit sickening, actually. In a more general way, I’ve wanted to write about prisoners of war for a long time: my great aunt was interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in China, during the Second World War; she spoke little of it, but I know it affected her for the rest of her life. Her brother, my great uncle, fought and died in El Alamein, and I drew some of the descriptions of Cesare’s time in North Africa from what I know and have imagined of my great uncle’s experiences there.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Growing up near the sea on the island of Jersey has definitely influenced my work. It feels natural to write about the ocean and about windswept landscapes, but also about small communities: the way they can be both supportive and oppressive; the way they create their own rules – and their own punishments for breaking them. I’ve always enjoyed exploring the power dynamic within relationships – both romantic and familial – and I feel like this is almost certainly a product of an unhappy childhood and unstable family life, which, for many years, made all of my friendships and relationships hard. I spent a great deal of time trying to fathom out how other people worked and the ways in which we misunderstand each other. Trauma and outcasts are recurrent themes in my work, but I also enjoy writing about characters who overcome suffering – and I think this is something I’m getting better at all the time. As a younger writer, I found it hard to write optimistically. Happy endings felt unrealistic. Perhaps it’s a reflection of where I am personally, that writing about hope feels more and more natural. I’m very lucky.
Follow Caroline Lea on Twitter.

The Page 69 Test: The Glass Woman.

My Book, The Movie: The Glass Woman.

My Book, The Movie: The Metal Heart.

--Marshal Zeringue