Helen Dunmore in conversation with Belinda McKeon

Your book The Greatcoat is a ghost story of a kind, but what I want to ask you is, as a writer who delves so frequently into history, when you sit down to write, is the room full of ghosts?

In a way, yes, there are. What interests me is the way the past won’t leave the present alone; it wants to possess us and take us back. When I had an email from Hammer house of Horror asking if I’d like to write something for them I was surprised; they wanted to commission writers for literary quality work that they could then adapt. After thinking about it for quite a while, I realised there was a story I wanted to tell. It felt a little outside my register, but it brought up something very strongly autobiographical.

Helen Dunmore

How the autobiographical element began – what turned the key in the lock of the story – was this greatcoat of my father’s. When I was a child, I used to share it with my sister. We had an iron bed with a ticking mattress that was lumpy and bumpy; no one had heating in the bedrooms in the 50s, you just ran across the cold lino and sprung into the bed where you’d snuggle up to get warm. I remembered very intimately the weight of the greatcoat, the texture, the protective feel of the garment. Then, two or three years later, my sister said she’d seen at the bedroom window the ghost of an airman. We called it a dream. When I was writing the book, I asked her; do you remember that ghost? And I asked if she remembered the greatcoat – it wasn’t something we’d ever talked about – so I drew on that. I then made the setting similar to my parents’ first home; a little flat where my sister and myself were born. The landscape of Yorkshire is huge, vast, lonely land. It’s a very haunted landscape full of post war dereliction – so that drew me more and more into the story.

You managed to portray the wasted landscape as well as the bustle of the airfields; is this something that you were familiar with yourself?

I do remember the bombsites and visiting airfields but not to the extent that the book needed. The memories that Isabel has are based on the disappearance of my own uncle – I’ve woven together a plait of fiction and haunting family memories. Whenever there’s a strong event, the impact continues for far longer than people are willing to allow. It goes on for generations of echoes; the immediate survivors have to turn their backs on what happened because they have to survive. But things aren’t really talked about; they had to turn away and look to the future. In my own case, we were the post war generation, with lots of opportunities, a better, newer world. There was a strange mixture of optimism, looking forward, jumbled with the undertow of the past. It was all mixed together.

Your book The betrayal is set in year of own birth – does it hold particular interest for you because of this? Was it something you were purposely considering?

Yes, it was something was thinking about. It’s a close date but it’s moving away. When people describe certain eras that they don’t actually know themselves, didn’t experience or don’t remember, you notice tiny details are wrong.  I do find it a fascinating period; it’s written through my view of history, addressing the longevity of any historical event and the reach of its impact. When something major happens, you don’t really understand it until much later. You’re slowly processing it and trying to understand it until you come to a time much later when you can fully grasp the depth of it.

Writing about the past can be about the present. For you is setting your novels in the past is it about writing about the world today?

To some extent, yes; I’ve written about powerful states under pressure that exert control and dominate the lives of its citizens. We’re talking spies in buildings, reports as routine. In that, I’m clearly describing Stalinist Soviet Union, but I’m also describing an alarming and permanent tendency in institutions worldwide. For instance, consider what we now accept as a matter of course for anti-terrorism. Gradually your sense of what liberty is and your idea of what you’re entitled to is pushed sideways. You move people farther and farther; it’s a question of to what extent do you yield? You’re always reflecting upon your own society; you can’t help doing so. I’m not writing from a sense of complacency, from a different place in a different era.

Tell us about domesticity in your books. Do you feel that writing as a woman, you have certain conceptions and expectations placed on you – an amount of condescension?

In The Betrayal, I wanted to show hard it is to construct a home and how precious it is for us. For all the emotional entanglements and difficulties, it’s important to you that you sit with your food, your glass of beer, whatever it is that grounds you, and feel content. It’s a feeling of freedom and release; part of the novel is to show how enchanting private life can be yet how delicate it is. In The Greatcoat is different because Isobel doesn’t know how to be the 50s housewife. It looks at the preciousness, yet the suffocation of the domestic – I’m not saying it’s one or the other but it’s both.

Because my themes are a mixture of public history and the way public history bears in on public life, I haven’t felt condescension. Instead, I experienced the reverse. You always have to remember that your intentions as a writer are never what other people see; there are as many readings as there are readers. It was important to me to get the register of the language completely right; how do you suggest that they are not native English speakers – that their everyday thoughts are affected

You said that you don’t want your characters to be translated. How do you deal with dialogue?

Yes, I had to think about this a lot about the way Alex talks; he’s a young bomber pilot. There was specific language used, but if you overdo it, it would sound like a stiff-upper-lip 1950s film. So there were certain words I didn’t want to use so that I could keep it subtle. Its not just the words, it’s the rhythms; the speech patterns change from generation to another. You have to hear the music of it.

What is the process of tuning your own ear to be able to hear those registers?

Reading contemporary documents, reading diaries and letters, listening to fiction at the time and recordings. What you don’t want to have is a character saying things they don’t or couldn’t have said.

The internet has made so much research material available…has this changed your research?

Yes, now there is easier access to recordings and documents. There’s no more painstaking slugging from museum to museum. It’s much easier now to get at sources; but the internet is a trap as well because things are not filtered. However, if you’re going for an original, incorruptible source, that’s very good and it’s interesting that you can now do that without the huge technical performance that it would have twenty years ago.

Are your writing and interest in history coming from the same place?

I think so; I love poetry and Russian history and there are Russian poets that are very interesting to me. In the beginning, as a young girl, I was always interested in forms. It was an ear thing, a rhythm thing. I loved people to read things aloud; poetry was recited, learned by heart. It’s about the ear; the kind of pressure poetry makes. It goes very deep, rousing very deep feelings.  History is the same; every ear hears it differently. Travelling, I experienced first hand that there are a lot of different histories to be heard and understood; that’s an eye opener.