SLEEPING THROUGH WAR by Jackie Carreira
The year is 1968. The world is changing. Students are rioting, civil rights are being fought and died for, nuclear bombs are being tested, and war is raging in Vietnam. There was never a more volatile year in the whole of the twentieth century. For three ordinary women, life must go on as normal. Rose must keep her dignity as a nurse in London. Amalia must keep hoping that her son can escape their life in Lisbon. Mrs Johnson in Washington DC must keep writing to her son in Vietnam. For them, as it is for most ‘ordinary’ people, just to survive is an act of courage.
Q: For Sleeping Through War you chose the turbulence of 1968. What inspired you to set a novel against the backdrop of the many events this year?
A: History has always been one of my favourite subjects, especially social history. From Ancient Egypt to the twentieth century, I never get tired of learning about history. This particular novel was inspired by a series of images. In May 2008, I was in Paris with a friend of mine for a long weekend. One morning we were sitting outside a café with coffees and pastries (as you do!), and found ourselves surrounded by large display boards bearing big photographs of the square that we were sitting in, just outside the Sorbonne university. The photos were all taken exactly 40 years before – May 1968 – when student riots were taking place in the very same spot. They showed protestors and police in riot gear; water cannons and barricades, and the contrast between that and the sunny, leafy square we were sat in was stark and extraordinary. If it wasn’t for the photographs, you would never know that such violence had ever taken place there. As we walked around Paris that weekend, we found more displays of 1968 photographs in situ, and all were equally stunning. When I got home I started doing some research into 1968 and found out that it was a remarkable year that changed the world so much. The images stayed with me until I began writing Sleeping Through War some years later. I wanted to explore what it was like for so-called ‘ordinary’ people to live through such a year. Not the politicians or the celebrities or those that we find in the history books, but the people who still had to go to work, go to school, raise children, and everything else. I fear we may yet live through such times again, as the world is no less crazy than it was in 1968. It’s just different. Still crazy!
Q: Using three different settings for the novel must have resulted in a lot of background research being required. How did you set about that task?
A: I did do a ton of research on the real events of May 1968 all over the world, and some of these I re-wrote as ‘news articles’ that are sprinkled throughout the book. However, as with so much writing, it’s always best to start with what you know, and that’s mostly what I did. One character lives in Hackney, East London – the place where I grew up and went to school. Another character lives in the old quarter of Lisbon, Portugal. Although I was born in England, both of my parents are Portuguese, and as a child I was sent to live with my grandparents in this part of Lisbon for several years in the late 60s. The sights and sounds and smells of both these places are still extremely vivid to me and it was easy to draw on them. The third character lives in Washington DC. Although I have never lived in the US, my father did for years. I’ve travelled up and down the East Coast of America many times and still have lots of friends there. But this part of the story was more about the character than the place. She’s the mother of a soldier who’s far from home. Today I live in Suffolk, which has many UK and US air force bases dotted around it. I see the parades and hear about military men and women who come home, and those who don’t. I drew more upon their stories rather than the place, because it must be the same for mothers of soldiers all over the world.
Q: 1968 is, for lots of readers, a year that they can recall quite vividly. How aware of that were you whilst writing Sleeping Through War? Did it affect the way that you wrote that novel?
A: Yes, I can recall it too, although I was a child, born in 1964. My memories are of the people, the colours, the smells, the sounds, and I wasn’t aware of Vietnam or student riots or civil rights marches. Interestingly, I’ve heard from many older readers of Sleeping Through War who tell me they had no idea how much was going on at the time, even though they lived through it. They were too busy trying to pay the rent or bring up children, and that’s why they not only relate to the book but also learn something about their own history. Readers who weren’t alive in the 60s seem to know even less about twentieth-century history, so have been fascinated to find out what was happening in their parents’ youth and childhood. I tried to write the history as accurately and neutrally as possible so that anyone from teenagers upwards can relate to it. It seems that they do, mostly because not a great deal has changed. We still have racism, we still don’t have equal rights for women, and humans are still at war with each other all over the world. Sad but true.
Q: What do you enjoy the most about writing?
A: Finishing! For most writers, writing is not easy. What is easy, I find, is having an idea or coming up with a story or character. The struggle is always to get it out of my head and onto a page in as close a way as possible to how it was when it was in the abstract, unseen world of my mind. Whenever I manage to do that successfully, it’s pure joy. They say that everyone has a book in them. I think that’s probably true, but not everyone can write it! That book takes time and patience and practise and a big dollop of skill.
Q: How did you get into writing?
I’ve always written since I was a child. We didn’t have books at home – my parents couldn’t afford it – but once I discovered my first public library at the age of six, I was mesmerised and inspired. My first short story was published in an anthology by inner-city kids, put together by Hackney Library when I was still in primary school. In my twenties and early thirties, I was diverted into a career as a musician (long story!), but eventually, I hung up my bass guitar and picked up a pen again. When I was in my late thirties, I was finally able to afford to go to university (the first person in my family to do so), and I managed to get a first-class degree in Creative Writing. It was then that I decided to devote myself to writing as a career. What was I thinking? I’ve been writing ever since. Mostly I write plays for theatre, but after two novels, I’m very keen to write more books.
Q: How do you go about planning your novels?
A: I don’t! And I’m not recommending that as a way of working! Just about all my writing starts with a character and a conversation. Then I put them into a location and ask myself, ‘what happens next?’ or ‘why did they say that?’ and it all goes on from there. Sometimes I can see from the start where the story will end up, but often I don’t. I like to be carried along with the story, which can be a little insecure for some writers.
Q: How do you go about deciding how to portray your characters and the events in which they become involved in?
A: As a female author (and reader), I’m constantly aware of how little history has been written about my gender. We all know this. It’s one of the reasons that many male authors struggle with writing female characters that aren’t clichés. None of us are used to hearing women’s views or experiences, whether it’s in books, movies, TV, unless they directly relate to men (usually mother, wife or mistress!). While I don’t write specifically for women, and I do write just as many male characters in my stage plays, I wanted to include some of the female experience during a moment in time because I genuinely found so little of it in my research into 1968. What did those women feel about the situation they were living in? How do the men help or hinder? What are they all looking for? In some ways, this is dangerous as a writer because it’s too easy to get pigeon-holed as a feminist or writer of ‘women’s fiction’ only. That’s why I didn’t put a picture of a woman on the cover. I knew it might alienate male readers, which I didn’t want to do. Luckily, my ploy worked, and plenty of male readers have enjoyed my novels for what they are without labelling them for any gender. Hopefully, it encourages a teeny bit more understanding between men and women. I’d like that.
Q: Which authors have been most influential to your own writing to date?
A: Authors who inspire me are the ones who write thought-provoking stories or leave their readers with more questions than answers. My favourites are Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Doris Lessing and José Saramago. I also love character-driven stories, and authors who create people you can picture talking to; the kind of people you want to meet and ask questions of. John Steinbeck, Isabel Allende and Tove Jansson are brilliant at this. They know how to find the ‘extra-ordinary’ in the ordinary, which I strive to do myself. And then there are those who I admire most for pure, beautiful imagination and wit: Lewis Carroll, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. One day, I would love to be able to write a piece of fabulous fiction like one of those three!
Q: Have you got any plans for future books that are in a historical setting?
A: Yes. I want to write a semi-autobiographical story set in London’s East End during the 1970s. One of the best things about this period is that you don’t have to write mobile phones and computers into the story! It’s no longer realistic to set a novel in our day and age without including everyday technology in it somewhere. I’d also love to explore the time of the industrial revolution in Britain from the point of view of a struggling factory worker. Sounds like a barrel of laughs, doesn’t it?
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
A: It would be the same advice that I was given when I first started out, and it came from an author of some experience. She said, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write and write and write and write. And when you’re not writing – read!” I’ve still never heard any better advice. There are no shortcuts!
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Sleeping Through War was my debut novel, published by Matador in 2018. My second novel, The Seventh Train, was also published by Matador in April 2019. Both are available as paperbacks and eBooks through all the usual online book retailers, or to order from all good bookshops. Performance rights and texts of some of my plays are available via Lazy Bee Scripts at www.lazybeescripts.co.uk
Alice Poon’s The Green Phoenix tells the story of Xiaozhuang who rises from being a concubine in the Mongol court to the heady heights of being the matriarch and Empress of the Qing dynasty.
Isabella Muir: Forgotten Children and the 1960’s. A story of migration, adoption and heartbreak.
KM Pohlkamp – discusses her research into several periods and her novel set in Tudor England.
Lindsay Littleson – wonderfully constructed novels aimed at Primary School pupils, accompanied by teaching resources
Chris Turnbull – a range of books largely set in the Victorian era, plus a World War Two novel and one set in late 19th century Paris
David Pilling – the Longsword Series, set in the reign of Edward I
Alex Marchant – stories suitable for Primary school children and KS3, set against the backdrop of Richard III’s life
Zenta Brice – a story based in Latvia as the Soviet Regimes grip on the Baltic loosened
Jeri Westerson – an author in 3 genres, most relevant here are the Crispin Guest novels, described by Jeri as Medieval Noir
Simon Schama – an excerpt of a conversation about the way in which Historical Documentaries are produced