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An Interview with Eliza Graham

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Eliza Graham’s debut novel, Playing with the Moon, explores how the mysterious death of a black GI in World War II brings together two women separated by a generation. Graham wrote the novel in two timelines: the story of young Felicity -- known as Felix –- and her encounters with the soldier, and in the present day, the story of a young woman named Minna who meets Felix while reeling from her own terrible loss. Minna becomes almost obsessed with uncovering the truth about the soldier, believing Felix knows more than she will let on. A writer and freelance editor, Graham lives in Oxfordshire, England, with her husband Johnnie and two children Mungo, 10, and Eloise, 9. Her short fiction has been published in Carillon and Scribble magazines. Playing with the Moon was released this summer by the Macmillan New Writing Program and is due out in paperback by Pan Macmillan in February 2008. Graham recently received word that Macmillan New Writing will publish her second novel in September 2008.

Freelance writer Kristina Riggle interviewed Graham recently about her novels, the challenges of motherhood and writing, and the Macmillan New Writing Program.

Kristina Riggle: Tell us how Playing with the Moon came to be. What was the inspiration?

Eliza Graham: About ten years ago my family and I visited a coastal village that's closed to the public for most of the time. It was evacuated during World War II so it could be used for D-Day landing practice. The villagers never returned. We wandered around derelict cottages and looked at the abandoned school, and I found the atmosphere very poignant. It haunted me.

It wasn't until another seven years had passed that I found the other bit of the story I needed to make something out of the village -- an article on TV or in a newspaper, I can't remember which, about black U.S. GIs in England during the war. Suddenly I had my two strands: enough to start writing.

KR: So you empathized with that loss of the family home...

EG: I had my children with me at the time we visited and I wondered how I'd feel if I had to deprive them of their home and take them somewhere new, for the sake of a cause bigger than us individually.

KR: How did you write the character of Lew Campbell, a black American private who would have lived sixty years ago, with such authenticity?

EG: I was lucky with my source material! I found a book called When Jim Crow Met John Bull that was full of information and accounts written by native Brits and by black GIs. There were stories about local girls falling for black GIs and becoming very indignant when white officers tried to stop the GIs from being served in pubs or going to cinemas. It was a fascinating read.

I also read some short stories written by people from the South [United States], and they helped with language and details like the crops grown in Lew's home. The biggest problem came in nomenclature: the words people used for black are not those we'd use today, and it felt weird using them. But there's no point shilly-shallying and making a book historically inaccurate, even if it sets your teeth on edge to type certain words. And a writing friend who is half Afro-Caribbean was very encouraging, told me just to get on with it and stop worrying because readers would get what I was trying to do.

KR: Besides the interesting source material, was there another reason you chose to make your GI character black? A white soldier's death could have intrigued Minna, as well.

EG: Yes -- he could have been white, I suppose, but having read the accounts of the black GIs it seemed like such an interesting part of British social history that I wanted to write about it.

There had to be something about Lew that marked him out, made him feel special and exotic. By that time in the war (late 1943) people were getting tired and hungry and slightly faded. And suddenly here's this exotic figure, whom they find absolutely enchanting. His poor background makes him particularly perceptive about things, as well. He can see Felix's awkwardness about wearing secondhand clothes to school because he's done it himself, at home. Because he's been an outsider at home, he suddenly finds that he's treated differently in England, which he finds extraordinary.

KR: It's interesting how you contrast American attitudes about race at the time with the way black soldiers were received in the United Kingdom.

EG: Yes -- it was fascinating to me. Because only a decade or so later mass immigration from the West Indies to Britain started, and many of those immigrants were not treated so kindly. I was interested in the different conditions applying in wartime: the sense that they were all in it together, that they had a common enemy, and that the black GIs were doing their bit to get rid of the Nazis.

Sad those warm feelings didn't last! Not that everyone felt warm glows towards them: there were accounts of returning white husbands and boyfriends and spurned local young men feeling very aggrieved about the affection for the GIs -- of all colors. Some elderly ladies over here still get a sparkle in their eyes when they talk about American soldiers during the war.

KR: The character of Minna is struggling with a devastating loss. How did you get yourself into that place to be able to convey such grief?

EG: I found Minna very challenging to write. I felt very strongly that the only way I could tune into the sadness I had picked up in the village was to use a character who herself had faced a great loss, that she would be particularly perceptive to the vibes in the village. Also, I needed a reason for a young woman to be spending so much time by the coast. She needed to be exiled for some reason, to have done or experienced something that meant she needed to be in the village for a time. But it felt like very dangerous territory -- to be writing about a woman who'd lost a child, if you haven't experienced that yourself (and I'm almost too superstitious to say things like that). Actually a friend of mine who lost a child is reading my book right now and it does make me nervous that I've done it properly. Even now, I still wonder how I thought I could begin to write about what is probably one of the worst things to happen to a human being. But that's what I'm learning about writing, that it's the subjects that do make you feel nervous and keep you awake at night that you should be writing about because they make you dig deep.

KR: Was it challenging to make sure Minna's personality emerged as well? It would have been easy for the grief itself to overwhelm the character.

EG: Yes -- that's a good question. I didn't want her just to be an emblem. She had to have something to her apart from being a grieving mother, so I developed her career and her interest in art.

KR: What were your inspirations for the character of Felix? The reader gets to watch her grow from a girl into a young woman and also into an elderly woman by the time she meets Minna, and that must have been challenging to follow her changes.

EG: There are a few women of a certain age I know who were young women during the war and I've always been impressed by them. We have a neighbor who was recently burgled and offered counseling. She told the young policewoman that she'd survived the Blitz and served as a Wren [also known as WRNS, Women's Royal Naval Service] and thought she'd probably manage without. The story sums her up perfectly -- a lot of people that age just got on with some pretty remarkable events in their life. I always enjoyed Mary Wesley's books and there are many brilliant female protagonists in them. Often these books are set in World War II and they're amusing and poignant, without ever being sentimental or over the top. I found both the books and the characters were a great inspiration. And the humor.

KR: How did you discover the Macmillan New Writing Program?

EG: There was quite a bit of coverage in the media (online and print) both here and in the United States. So I had a look at the site and it seemed so easy. No need for an agent. You could e-mail the book to them -- and anyone who's ever tried to interest an agent or publisher in a manuscript will know how rare that is, or was just a year or so ago. It seemed easy. So I just did it. And almost forgot about it.

KR: In that case, it must have been a happy shock to see the acceptance arrive.

EG: I actually screamed! My husband thought we had been robbed and came running downstairs. I made him read the email because I wasn't sure I'd read it properly. I was used to scanning the message for the "...but we'd like to wish you all the best in the future" line.

KR: In the Macmillan New Writing Program, not-yet-published authors forgo a traditional advance in exchange for a greater than usual percentage of royalties, and the contract is standardized, all of which eliminates the need for a literary agent and makes it easier for the publisher to gamble on new talent. Did you have reservations about this plan, and what made you decide to submit your novel this way?

EG: I had no reservations. My view was that it was better to have a novel published than sitting in a drawer waiting for someone to offer a large advance. Which might never have happened -- in the UK, the market's still really tight.

KR: How has your experience been with the Macmillan program?

EG: I can honestly say it's been everything I could have wished for. My editor and I get on well and enjoyed collaborating on the book -- well, I did, so I hope it was mutual. Their publicity has been well-timed and intelligent, and if I have any queries they answer them promptly.

KR: Tell us about your new novel.

EG: It's set in the closing stages of World War II, in Eastern Germany, now part of Poland. A blizzard has forced four people to take shelter as the Red Army moves close. The people in the group know each other. Some are old friends, some are enemies, and each of them has information about the others that can't be shared. By morning one of the party is dead, another missing, and two others have been driven into exile. The mystery of how they came to know one another will take sixty years to resolve. When I was a teenager, I used to stay with a German family. They'd originally come from the East and had left their castle one night with a handcart full of the family silver, to escape the Russians. I was always fascinated by this story. At the time, Eastern Germany was closed, which made the story all the more fascinating.

KR: How do you come by your interest in history?

EG: I've always been keen on history, studying it for A levels (what we take when we leave school at 18) and agonizing between choosing it and English at university. In some ways writing about non-contemporary things, especially those set in wartime, is easier for me because there are already so many external challenges you can throw the characters against, which helps to define and develop them.

KR: What about future work from you? Do you believe you will continue to focus on historical stories?

EG: At the moment, I'm fiddling around with some ideas that have a historical angle to them. I'd like perhaps to write about the area I live in, which is rich with history. And it would be easier to research than Poland!

KR: Why do you think historical stories resonate with modern readers?

EG: I used to think it was a way of escaping from our sometimes less than exciting modernity. Now I think it's because some of the issues seem more clean-cut. Not like Middle-Eastern politics!

KR: What are some of the challenges of writing as a mother with children to care for? And how do you get around the challenges?

EG: As witnessed by the interruption to this interview, when I had to make a dash to collect a child from the school bus, it seems to be a constant juggle and a fear that a ball will come crashing down. But writing does have its benefits: I can just about cope with children off sick from school (although I can almost guarantee that on the rare occasions when I'm in London seeing my editor, some mishap at school will occur, meaning someone needs an X-ray).

KR: What advice would you give to mothers who are also trying to write, and finding it all overwhelming?

EG: It does get better as they get older, at least during the day. My evenings are busier than they used to be. I remember with fondness the years in which I could pop them into their cots at 6 p.m. and do an hour or so before supper. They also get better at respecting your time and need for peace as they grow older.

My main advice would be not to beat yourself up if you can't write as much as you'd like. You're probably working on your writing internally as you look after your children.

Kristina Riggle is a mom of two kids, a novelist and a former newspaper reporter. Her novels include The Whole Golden World and Real Life & Liars, which was a Target “Breakout” pick and a Great Lakes, Great Reads selection by the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. Her short fiction has appeared in the Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. She is a former editor for fiction at Literary Mama.

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