THIS IS NOT FORGIVENESS
Celia Rees is best known for her historical fiction but her latest title, This Is Not Forgiveness, is a gripping contemporary story about two brothers, Rob and Jamie, one a returning soldier, the other still a student. The book explores their relationships with the same girl that leads, ultimately, to a tragedy that is laid bare in the first chapter.
Q: One of the brothers, Rob, was badly injured while fighting in Afghanistan and the book explores how he copes with this and the return to civilian life. Was the issue of warfare the starting point for this story?
A: Actually no, it wasn't. The book didn't begin with me thinking 'I'll write about soldiers returning from war', or any of the issues in this book.
I was watching a classic French move, Jule et Jim, and I suddenly thought, you could update this – the idea of two young men falling for the same girl.
The original film was made in 1962 and was set in WW1; it's a tremendous story about two very close friends who fall for the same girl and that brings lots of complications. But I had to think very carefully about how to make it a contemporary story.
I wanted the two young men - Rob and Jamie - to be very different kinds of people; I wanted them to be close but to be very different. At the time there were things on television about soldiers in Afghanistan and I thought I could make one of my men a career soldier, someone who had signed up when he was 16 but who was injured and couldn't serve anymore. You often see reported the high level of alcohol, domestic and drug abuse associated with former soldiers trying to return to civilian life.
That put the book on a different level and it worked in a very dynamic way.
Q: Does that mean that the girl in your book, Caro, is modelled on the girl in Jules et Jim?
A: Yes, her role model is Catherine in the film. Catherine was quite an extraordinary girl, quite unconventional and free-spirited, but I had to think hard how to recreate that in the modern world.
In those days, a girl who did what she wanted was exceptional but that wouldn't apply now so how do you make her extraordinary and different from everyone else?
I did dabble with the idea of the occult but that wouldn't have worked for this book, and then I thought, what if she was interested in radical politics?
This was before things started to erupt in London politically with students marching against student fees, and before revolutions started around the world. People around me questioned if young people were interested in politics - well, we soon saw that they were. I had to re-write the book as events unfolded to make my characters more extreme, rather than holding her back as I was.
Q: The story follows Caro and Rob as they become more extreme revolutionaries, but they come to the idea of revolution from very different directions, don't they?
A: Caro is pure mind and Rob is pure instinct and together they are like a two-person revolution. She has arrived at her political stance from talking to people and looking things up on the internet while his background is one of action, he knows exactly what it means to kill someone and she doesn't. She thinks she can control him but, in the end, she can't.
Q: How closely have you based their relationship on the Jules et Jim film?
A: In the film, Catherine oscillates between the two men, she feels a different kind of love for each of them. She loves and is obsessed by one of them but she loves the other enough to save him.
In my book, Rob and Caro could destroy Jamie but she wants to save him. She's very destructive and self-destructive and wants to bring down the world, but there is one moment when she's with Jamie, towards the end, where she thinks, 'we could be happy and we could have a normal life' and she suddenly sees the potential for a real life in front of her, but it's too late to do anything about it.
The way it plays out is very similar to the film, which has a very shocking ending. I follow the structure of the film all the way through.
Q: In fact you tell us the end of This Is Not Forgiveness at the beginning; we start the book knowing that someone has died. How did you maintain the suspense having told your reader in effect what the ending will be?
A: I think I needed to start the book like this because otherwise the ending would come as such a shock.
As you're reading the book you will always have the prologue at the back of your mind so you know that one person doesn't survive but you don't know why, or who that person is, or how any of it happened, so it's a powerful incentive to read the book. The whole of the story leads up to that point.
I wrote the preface first, before I wrote the book, and I wrote it very quickly, but at that stage I didn't know exactly what had happened to reach that point.
Q: The story is told by three different characters, each giving their own view of events. Was that difficult to structure?
A: I found the narrators, other than Jamie, hard. It's quite difficult because they each tell you different parts of the story that Jamie doesn't know but that you as a reader find out. So you can't say too much or you'd give it away.
I use their parts not to move the plot along but to help us understand why they are doing what they are doing and why they would contemplate doing something so terrible. I use their voices to tell the reader how people can be so damaged that they can do something so destructive.
Q: How did you find the voice of Rob, the former soldier?
A: I did some research to make sure that whatever I said was accurate and to get the language right but I found him quite easy to write. I know sons of people who are at a loose end, who can't find a role in life and drift around and get drunk and hide their anxieties under anger. I didn't find Rob unlikeable, he's just a bit of a rough diamond.
Q: You usually write historical fiction so how did you find writing a contemporary novel?
A: I found it very much easier to be honest and much quicker to write initially although a lot of the work was done in re-writes.
With historical fiction the first draft is like the last draft and then you tweak it; with contemporary fiction the editing takes much longer.
This was edited by both the UK and US publishers. There are a lot of contentious issues in it and there's swearing and sex - it's definitely a book for older teenagers - so I had some battles to fight with the editors, especially in the US which tends to be more conservative about what can go into books for teenagers.
As I was writing it, the political framework also started to change around the world and I was writing against a backdrop of student marches in London, then the revolutions in the Middle East began, and I had to add in a lot more at that stage to the book to reflect that sense of sweeping change, to reflect how things like war in Afghanistan and the Stop the Cuts marches impacted on individuals.
One of my colleagues has written that it seems as though I write history as it happens but writing contemporary fiction is not that different from how I write historical fiction.
In historical fiction, what I am interested in is how big events impact on individuals; how those events filter down. In this book, I look at how big events like the war in Afghanistan and the Stop the Cuts marches filter down to an individual level.
Also when you're writing historical fiction you have to write in the way that people might have written at the time. That's why it's hard to write an intense book set in an historical period because fiction was very different then; intense psychological novels are very much a thing of the twentieth century.
Q: What will you be writing next?
A: I enjoyed writing This Is Not Forgiveness so I will probably write another contemporary YA novel but before that, I plan to write an adult book.