Exclusive interview with Isabel Wolff

Exclusive interview with Isabel Wolff image

by Lucy Walton, Female First, 26th March 2014

‘Ghostwritten’ is set in present day Cornwall and on Java during World War 2.  As with Tenko and The Railway Man it’s a story of the struggle to survive - and to retain one’s humanity - in the most difficult conditions a human can face.  The novel is centred on Klara Tregear, who lives on a coastal farm in Cornwall.  But Klara grew up in the tropics, on a plantation in Java, and was interned in a prison camp with her mother and little brother during the Japanese occupation. Klara has never spoken about what she went through in that terrible place.  Now, approaching 80, she has decided to tell her story, and commissions a young ghost writer, Jenni, to help her do so. 

Please tell us about the character of Jenni

Jenni is a complex character.  Shunning the limelight, she has chosen to be a ghost writer, happy to work for months at a time on books that will not even bear her name.  The reason for Jenni’s self- effacement is that she fears exposure.  Were she to become well known, then people might discover the secret that she has kept for so long – a secret that even those closest to her do not know.  For, when she was nine, Jenni made a mistake that led to a tragedy, and she’s still haunted by this, twenty five years on.  So she prefers to stay in the shadows, and her work - immersing herself in the memories of others - means that she doesn’t have to think about her own painful memories too much.  But through her growing friendship with Klara, Jenni may now have the chance to lay to rest the ghosts from her past.

How much has your background in English helped you to write this book?

Reading English at university has helped me to write not just this book, but all my ten novels, in that in order to become a writer, you first have to be a reader.   Studying English meant that I was not only reading a huge deal of literature, but had to analyse the texts and decide why it was that they worked. I had to understand the story structure, the characterisation, the symbolism and the tone.  I still think about these things when writing my own novels.

To what extent has your journalistic background affected your novel writing skills?

My journalistic background has been paramount in becoming a novelist, and I don’t think that I’d have become one without it.  I was a radio reporter at the BBC World Service for 12 years, and the skills that I acquired there have stood me in very good stead.  I learned how to write scripted links that would advance the story, but also had a bit of sparkle, to keep the audience engaged.  I was also writing articles for newspapers and magazines, and from print journalism I learned how to prioritise the elements of the story, to make the piece flow.  It’s not so different doing that with a novel, except that it’s on a much larger scale: I’m writing one hundred thousand words, rather than one thousand, but the technique is basically the same.

Please tell us about your research process in the book

My novels have changed over the years, with the earlier romantic comedies such as ‘The Making of Minty Malone’ and ‘Rescuing Rose’ giving way to novels like ‘A Vintage Affair’ and ‘The Very Picture of You’, which are set in the present and the past.  ‘Ghostwritten’ continues this change, and it required a huge amount of research, because the war-time part is so important.   The story that Klara tells Jenni is based on dozens of true stories about the Dutch, English and Australian women and children who were interned in prison camps throughout the Dutch East Indies during the war.   I had to immerse myself in their remembered world, and so I interviewed two women, one in London, and one in the U.S., who had been imprisoned on Java as children and whose memories of this time were still vivid, seventy years on.  I read the memoirs of several Dutch women who had been interned, and I visited survivors’ websites.  I went to Java myself.  Once I felt that I really knew this world of a tropical paradise that had become a living hell, I placed in it my fictional story of Klara and her brother Peter, her best friend Flora, the treacherous neighbour, Mrs Dekker, and the camp commandant, Konichi Sonei. 

What made you want to write about the Japanese camps in Java?

When writing a novel I always start with what the heroine does for a living, because then from this everything else will flow.  Once I knew that my heroine, Jenni, was going to be a ghost writer I had to decide what the ghost written story that she writes was going to be.  I knew that I wanted it to be a wartime memoir, but worried that the war in Europe has been written about so much.  At the same time I had always been very interested in the Pacific war, and so I turned my thoughts towards that.  And it seemed to me that when we think of the war in the Pacific, we think of the poor POW’s who were forced to slave on the railways in Burma and Sumatra.  But there were a hundred thousand civilian prisoners of war too, most of them women and children.  I read of their struggle with starvation, disease and the cruelty of their Japanese captors.   I tried to imagine what it would be like to be beaten, or have my head shaved, or to stand in the burning sun at tenko, for hours on end, with a child in my arms.  What these thousands of women endured is not widely known.  I decided that my novel would put their ordeal, and their courage, at its heart.

What is next for you?

I’m going to write a novel set in India – more than that I don’t really know at this very early stage!