Copyright Simon and Schuster UK
Welcome to Oapschat Clare, it is lovely to meet you. Thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for us. Let’s have a cup of tea and we can begin!
Many congratulations Clare on the publication of your first novel, The Gunner Girl.
Who or what inspired you to write this type of book?
The book was inspired by my mother-in-law, who was on the anti-aircraft guns in WW2. Sadly, I never met her, as she passed away before I met my husband, but knowing about her made me fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. When you think ‘soldier’ you automatically envision a man with a gun, but many women volunteered or were conscripted into the armed forces in the Second World War, including Prime Minister’s daughter Mary Churchill and even our very own HM the Queen (then Princess Elizabeth), who trained as a car mechanic with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS – subsequently the Women’s Royal Army Corps, and now subsumed by the British Army).
As well as sparking an interest in women soldiers, there was a mystery surrounding my mother-in-law. When I asked my husband about her he didn’t know very much – she died when he was still quite young – so I asked if she had any surviving family who could tell me about her early life, and he said no. There were no siblings, nieces, nephews or cousins, just nothing. It was as if her life began the day she joined the army. And that set me thinking: what could cause you to either lose your entire family, or disassociate yourself from them entirely, and enlist? So that was the stepping off point for the main plotline in the novel.
The first few chapters were written in part as a distraction from worrying about my husband, who was away on an operational tour of duty in Afghanistan at the time.
Did you have to do a lot of research and visit people and places?
I read a lot of books, watched Pathe newsreels and film clips on Youtube, watched old propaganda films, listened to oral history audio from the Imperial War Museum, and, of course, asked my mum (who was only a small child at the time, but could remember what it was like).
I also visited an ATS re-enactment day. The re-enacters were really helpful, and doing a bit of what Antonia Fraser likes to call ‘optical research’ is always helpful.
And I drew on my own life a little. When I wrote the book we were living on an army camp and my husband was on operations in Afghanistan, so there was an echo of the texture of wartime in my everyday life: my husband was abroad in a war zone, I was in an environment where everyone was in uniform – even the school run was punctuated by the sound of gunfire from the ranges and the sight of soldiers doing their PT on the field, so it wasn’t such a leap to imagine my fictional characters in a wartime environment. In terms of the soldiering itself, I was – very very briefly, because I was a bit useless at it – an army reservist, so I used my own experience for a couple of the scenes where the girls are just starting out their army training (I’m no stranger to being shouted at on a drill square, for example!).
Where is the novel mostly set?
The novel is set primarily in London – there was an anti-aircraft battery in Hyde Park, quite near where they now stage music concerts in summertime. I enjoyed setting it in London as I lived in Nottinghill for a while when I was in my early twenties, so there was a kind of nostalgia about it. I also set some of the action in Surrey and in Kent, also drawing on places I’ve lived for inspiration (if anyone knows Englefield Green, then they’ll certainly recognise a setting towards the end of the novel).
With three young children at home, and a husband in Afghanistan, it was easier to set this book in locations I already knew, because it was almost impossible to actually get out and do the legwork. As any writer will tell you, there’s only so much you can get from Googlemaps’ streetview. I have been able to be a bit more ambitious with the next book, though. The spin-off from The Gunner Girl is set in London and Paris, which meant a research trip to Paris was absolutely vital! (I have a friend in Morocco who is desperate for me to write a book where the action is based in Rabat, which would also necessitate a research trip…hmmm…what do you think?!)
Could you describe a typical writing day?
I drop my twins off at school and take the dog for a long walk round the nature reserve that’s nearby. When I get home I have to make myself a big mug of real coffee and then I’ll be at my desk for ten. I will then work through until three-ish, with breaks for tea/coffee and perhaps a sneaky peak at This Morning on TV whilst I’m having a lunchtime snack (it’s my guilty pleasure – but there is something about writing that’s reminiscent of being a student, so I suppose not all that surprising).
At three I’ll pick up the girls and then I’ll be into the whole supper-making-homework-supervising-club-taking-housework-doing-bedtime-thing. I try to fit in some exercise, too, but it doesn’t always happen. My new years resolution is to put off social media until the evenings – but it is an essential part of the job, so that will be fitted in somewhere between four and nine, along with all the other house and family stuff that happens then.
If I feel I need to, then I might write again after the children are in bed, at about nine-ish, but even if there are no pressing deadlines, then I make sure I write something before I go to sleep, just to keep the creative muscles working: often I will open whatever book I’m reading at random and pick three words as a starting point and write from there – it’s just creative compost, really, unconnected with the book I’m working on, but things that might end up as a starting point for a short story or scene in another novel.
Do you find writing fits in with family life?
Writing is the perfect job if you have a family because you’re always available for school runs, doctor’s appointments, school assemblies, etc. I feel so incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to have this as my main job.
What advice would you give to a first time writer setting out?
Write every day. Accept feedback as a gift. Never give up.
Who would you invite as a dinner guest? You are allowed one male and one female!
Hmmm, well I can’t invite any celebrity chefs as they’d be appalled at my culinary abilities (I have been known to burn soup). I’m thinking Ade Edmonson and Jennifer Saunders, because they seem to be down-to-earth and clearly have a good sense of humour (which they might need when eating my food). Also, one of my best friends already knows them (she used to house sit for them, back in the day, because they live next door to her sister), so I could also invite my mate and her husband, and know that everyone would have plenty to talk about, and we could perhaps bypass the food and just decamp to the pub instead!
What are your plans for the rest of 2016?
The paperback of The Gunner Girl is out in February, so I’ll to do a bit of PR around that over the coming weeks. I’ve got a TV interview lined up with Forces TV and a few other bits and bobs, which will be fun. I’m also doing an online creative writing workshop for my publisher, Simon & Schuster’s, youtube channel. It’s based around an archive exhibition of Boots no.7 cosmetics and adverts, which is currently on at Nottingham Lakeside Arts. I’m really excited about that, as it’ll be a first for me.
I’m just finalising the spin-off to The Gunner Girl, which will be published in hardback in the autumn. I can’t give you a title yet, as it hasn’t been confirmed, but I can tell you that one of the characters from The Gunner Girl is taken into an exciting new story, which takes place in wartime London and Paris.
FIVE QUICK QUESTIONS!
Sweet or savoury? Both (salted caramel, please)
City or countryside? City
Classical or Pop music? Pop
Dining in or out? Out, definitely (You have been warned about my cooking!)
Smart or casual? Smart casual (think high heels with jeans)
Thank you so much Clare for your time and for your kind donation of a signed copy of The Gunner Girl for one lucky Oapschat member to win in a future competition. I wish you every success and happiness for the future. The Gunner Girl is available to buy here.
Photo copyright Marte Lundby Rekaa
EDITOR: I am delighted to announce that Clare won the Joan Hessayon prize. Clare told me ' As you know, I wrote a lot of The Gunner Girl whilst he was in Afghanistan, so I wore his dog tags to the awards night for luck, and it worked!' A SUPER photo isn't it!