I’m very excited to welcome Isabel Wolff as my guest on One More Page today. I’ve been a fan of Isabel’s books for many years, so was delighted when she agreed to answer my questions about her latest novel, Ghostwritten.
Isabel was born in Warwickshire and read English at Cambridge. She worked for the BBC world service and wrote feature articles for many newspapers and magazines including The Spectator, The Evening Standard and the Daily Telegraph. Ghostwritten is her tenth novel. She lives in London with her family.
Isabel, your tenth novel, Ghostwritten has just been published. Could you tell us a bit about it?
Ghostwritten is about a young ghost writer, Jenni, and an elderly Dutchwoman, Klara. Klara lives on a coastal farm in Cornwall, but grew up in Java, on a rubber plantation. Her idyllic childhood ended abruptly when the Japanese invaded Java in 1942. Interned in a brutal prison camp with her mother and little brother, Klara has never talked about what she went through, but now, at 80, she feels that the time has come to revisit her past. So she approaches Jenni to ‘ghost’ her memoirs. Jenni is at first excited about this, but when she learns that Klara lives in Polvarth, near the very beach that holds devastating memories for her of a childhood tragedy, she panics and nearly pulls out. But Jenni decides to face down her fears and go, not just to tell Klara’s extraordinary story of survival, but to lay to rest the ghosts of her own past. Ghostwritten is a story of love and forgiveness, of memory and hope.
Ghostwritten focuses on the experiences of women and children interned in a camp on Java during the Second World War. What drew you to this particular period and place?
I was drawn to the idea of a main character who was shy and self-concealing, hiding in the shadows: being a ghost writer seemed to go with this. I then had to determine what the story that she ghost writes was going to be. I decided that it would be wartime memoir – not of the war in Europe which has been written about so much, but of the War in the East instead. As a teenager I’d read A Town Like Alice, about a group of women struggling to survive in Japan-occupied Malaya; it’s a novel that has stayed with me all my life. In the early 80s I used to watch, avidly, the popular TV series, Tenko, about a group of women imprisoned in a camp on Sumatra, struggling with starvation, cruelty and neglect. I remember being fascinated by their grit and strength. With these influences in mind I decided that Klara’s memoir would be a memoir of civilian internment in the Far East.
How did you go about doing the research needed for the book?
The main part of the research was historical and involved reading books and memoirs, translated from the Dutch, about this largely unknown part of World War 2. I also interviewed two women who had been interned as children, and whose memories were still strong, seventy years on. I visited websites that are devoted to the camps in the East Indies and read the very moving posts left there by survivors. I also went to Java, to see the beautiful landscape that Klara saw, and to see the rubber trees being tapped, and to hear the sounds of the tropics. The most moving thing I did was to go to the military cemetery – Evereld Pandu. This contains the Dutch ‘Field of Honour’ where all the Dutch people who died on Java during World War 2 are buried. Standing there brought home the scale of the atrocities committed against them. Thousands of white crosses, in perfectly straight rows, stretch as far as the eye can see. Many simply said ‘Onbekend’ – unknown.
The novel focuses on ghost writer Jenni, and Klara, who as a child was interned in a camp on Java during the Japanese occupation. Their life experiences are so different – did you have a favourite character, and how did your approach to creating and writing them differ?
I didn’t have a favourite – I liked Klara and Jenni equally and felt for them, because both have been prisoners, but in different ways. Klara was imprisoned by the Japanese; but Jenni is a captive of her own conscience, unable to break free from her unending remorse. Of the two women, Klara was easier to write because her story was a clear and vivid one of growing up in an ‘earthly paradise’ that became a living hell. But Jenni’s story is shrouded in mystery: she is reticent, and hard to know. So I had to make her sympathetic in other ways, notably in the sense the reader gets that she does love children but feels that she doesn’t deserve them because of what happened on the beach that fateful August day.
The friendship between the two women is key to both of them moving on in the story; what do you think the three elements of good friendship are.
You have to have a lot in common, and you have to be loyal to each other. Also, a truly good friend is not just sympathetic when times are bad: they are thrilled when things are going well. I also think that good friendships survive with a watering of tact.
You’ve written three novels with an historical element (A Vintage Affair, The Very Picture of You and Ghostwritten). If you could travel to any time and place, where and when would you go?
I’d like to go to Lahore, in the 1930s, where my mother was born and brought up – her father was on the North West railways. I grew up on her stories of life in India – the mango and lychee trees in their garden, her much loved ayah, the Gymkhana club and their journey up to Simla when the weather was hot. I would love to be able to see my mother as a little girl, in that world.
And finally, what can we expect next from Isabel Wolff?
Well, funnily enough, I’m thinking that my next novel will be set in India, in the 1930s…
Thank you Isabel.
Ghostwritten is out now in paperback and ebook formats.
Find out more about Isabel and her writing at: http://www.isabelwolff.com/