Saturday, April 16, 2022

Philip Gray

Philip Gray studied modern history at Cambridge University, and went on to work as a journalist in Madrid, Rome and Lisbon. He has tutored in crime writing at City University in London and serves as a director at an award-winning documentary film company, specialising in science and history.

Gray's grandfather was a captain in the Lancashire Fusiliers and fought through the First World War from start to finish, losing his closest friends along the way. Years after his death, Gray came across a cache of trench maps and military documents that his grandfather had kept, and in which he had recorded the events that befell his unit. Gray was inspired to write his thriller Two Storm Wood when the pull of his grandfather's legacy felt too strong to ignore.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Two Storm Wood is the name given to a strongpoint on one of the battlefields of the Somme during the First World War. Because the Western Front ended up playing host to 20,000 miles of trenches, dugouts, tunnels and fortifications, it became necessary for navigational purposes for the army to give them names, most of which had nothing to do with the underlying topography, let alone the local language. This, of course, gives the author a lot of leeway, which I have exploited. I actually came across the name in a different place altogether. (Yes, there is a real place called Two Storm Wood, but it is not in France!)

In the story, Two Storm Wood is where the aftermath of a horrifying atrocity is discovered deep underground. This terrible crime, and the events leading up to it, form the dark heart of the story – a vortex into which the characters are inexorably drawn. As such, it constantly focuses the readers’ attention on the question of what happened there, and why. Helpfully, this puts readers and characters on the same page, as it were.

What's in a name?

I try not to be too clever with the names of my characters. I generally use first names that carry no special connotations, and surnames that are reasonably simple but distinctive from each other. For me, names that have been chosen to say something relevant about a character only serve to remind me that I am reading a fiction, and that the character is not real. In some kinds of story, that does not matter. But in Two Storm Wood, authenticity is crucial. That is why I have avoided using any names that might seem artificial.

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

When I was at school, I had two large posters on my wall depicting scenes from the First World War. So, of all the books I have written or co-written, Two Storm Wood might have surprised me the least. I’d like to think, though, that the book’s particular take on the war – the post-war clearance effort, aimed at locating and identifying nearly half a million missing men, the presence of the Chinese Labour Corps, the extent of drug use by the troops – would surprise my younger self, because these are aspects of the conflict that were quite quickly forgotten.

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

Both are tricky and subject to change, but I find beginnings get reworked and reordered more often. Early drafts of Two Storm Wood actually began with what is now Chapter 3; and main character, Amy Vanneck, began her journey into the story at an earlier point. I think, in general, the need to balance narrative momentum with context and backstory is at its most tricky in the earliest stages of a book. The readers need to be engaged swiftly, but also to know where they are and who they are supposed to be concerned about. Getting it right often involves a lot of trial and error.

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

As is often said, there is a little of the author in almost every character he or she creates, even if it is only the way those characters think or respond to the world. In Two Storm Wood, I would say that Amy’s world view chimes quite closely with my own (although she’s stronger and braver than me!). That said, I think if my personality is expressed anywhere, it is in the overall architecture of the story: the decisions about right and wrong, bravery and cowardice, honour and shame, that the characters are forced to make. I think that’s usually the way it is. You get a sense of a writer’s identity from his or her work as a whole: what makes them angry or sad, what they find ridiculous, what bothers them and what doesn’t.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My writing is often described as cinematic, and this might have something to do with the fact that I used to do a lot of still photography, in particular portrait and landscape work. I tend to imagine scenes visually in the first instance, and the visual context of what takes place is always important to me, helping to fire my imagination. I’ve also written for the theatre, and I think that has considerably sharpened my ear for dialogue, as well as making me more aware of the rhythms that flow through it. The little bit of screenwriting I’ve done may also have changed my perspective on the pacing of scenes, and the balance between description, thought and action. Things tend to move along a little quicker these days – although any novel that aspires to be as stripped down and concise as a screenplay is going to end up very short indeed!
Visit Philip Gray's website.

--Marshal Zeringue