An Interview with Simon Tolkien
Words By Dani Hedlund
Let me start with the most stereotypical of questions: talk to me about what inspired No Man’s Land.
From a historical point of view, it seems to me that World War I was a seminal moment in England’s history—everything changed. I grew up in little English villages, and in every English village there are these incredible war memorials—incredible in the sense that they are covered with names. And the names from World War I are usually three times as many as those from World War II. When I was a kid, in the early ‘60s, there were people around—including my grandfather—who had actually fought in World War I. You look at those photographs of young men in 1911 and 1912, and you think that they had absolutely no idea what was coming. I grew up during the era of Vietnam and it had a great effect on me, this concept of people being sent to places against their will from which they were unlikely to return. I feel that strongly in relation to the trenches, because with the trenches you have the added element of claustrophobia, and you have the sense that many of these soldiers had never even left their little English village or their county before, and suddenly they’re being put into the horrors of France. You have the miners who were so eager to go to France because they thought that they would be getting out of the mines, and in fact they just got put into more holes in the ground.
So I think that all this had a really resonant effect on me. I began to think about writing about it ten years ago, but for a long time I didn’t feel ready to take it on—I think I was really intimidated by what would be involved. There are all the technical demands of trying to bring to life an environment which has effectively disappeared, involving conditions and armaments that you can’t experience for yourself first-hand—you can’t fire a Lewis gun, you can’t sleep in a trench. So I started off writing crime books because I was a criminal barrister in England. Then the history began to seep through like water. In my third book, The King of Diamonds, there is a whole dimension of the Holocaust in Belgium. But my fourth novel, Orders from Berlin, was the real changing point for me. While it still features Inspector Trave, it is basically set in 1940, so I had to do a lot of primary historical research in order to bring to life what the Blitz was like, what it was like to be bombed—and again, I’ve never been bombed. So I think that the positive response to that novel gave me the confidence to think: now I can start doing this. I started reading about World War I in great depth. It was a slow process of immersion. I’m like a miner, you know, mining for gold—you get little gold bits here and there which actually bring it to life. That took a long time, but at the end of that I felt ready to begin.
In the book we have more than one hundred and fifty pages where we’re getting to know what London is like and what the focal mining community is like. Did you always plan to start the book with this background or did this come together when you began your research?
I always knew that there was going to be a homefront dimension. I began with the idea of two young men of equivalent age—one who doesn’t go to war and one who does—and a girl who’s between them. That was in my mind from the beginning, so there would always have been a background story to some degree.
Having said that, this book took me a really long time—between three and four years—and this two hundred page hinterland grew during that process of gestation. The book turned out to be twice as long as I anticipated, because it became clear to me that if you’re going to write about World War I and ask your readers to empathize with the characters who are experiencing it, then this won’t work unless you know them very well before they’re actually sent into the trenches.
I decided to focus on a mining town because you’ve got several interesting aspects: the mine, the mining owner, a close-knit community. This section was almost as much of a challenge as the war itself, because I had to research the mines. These were the mines at the beginning of the twentieth century, when there was such a high risk of explosion and things that would disappear within twenty years were still being used, like pit ponies. It was like a vanished world.
Your writing is really tactile—you get into what things smelled like, what they felt like, how the emotional pull affected the characters. As a writer, how did you put yourself into something which, as you’ve already said, was impossible for you to experience?
I think it’s due to the amount of research. I always think of my life as being kind of weird, in the sense that I had a historical training, then a legal training, and then I became a novelist—and each part of my life helped me to write this book. For instance, the historical training meant that I had the patience to dig and dig and dig, until I found accounts, or parts of accounts, that were true—true in the sense that they bring to life a person’s experience, rather than using borrowed language so that the experience is dry and, of course, secondhand. So what I’m good at, from that historical point of view, is sorting the corn from the chaff.
It seems to me that I connected with these people from the early twentieth century. The First World War is the first war that produced such an incredible outpouring of language, not just in terms of artistic language such as poetry, but because the changes in education during the Edwardian and late Victorian era meant that the literacy in the UK had vastly expanded just before the war. This meant that the people in the trenches produced this vast trove of written material. The post service between home and the trenches worked really well, sometimes even better than it works today, because after all it wasn’t far—in the Weald of Kent you could actually hear the gunfire in Flanders—so you could get letters going from a man on the front line to his family in England within three days. The soldiers had this agreement among themselves that if one of their comrades had died then they would share out the parcel, and there was a strange sense that it had been packed so lovingly by the mum and dad back in England but they didn’t yet know that their kid was dead. So there was this extraordinary sense of how close the fighting was, both in terms of mail and in terms of distance. You could have people out to a show in London who’d left the front line only a few hours before. You could get on a train and go to and from the war.
Then there’s the interesting aspect, which you still get now with Iraq for instance, of the people coming home to other people who have really no idea what it was like. Because it was a male war. Not that women weren’t working—they were doing all these jobs on the home front, from making shells to dying of TNT exposure—but they weren’t actually there on the front line. There was this desire to protect them and so there was a vast male-female disconnect which occurred when they came back. There are amazing accounts of London in 1920, describing how after dark the streets would come alive—not with people talking but with people tramping the streets, all the soldiers who couldn’t sleep and couldn’t talk, tramping the streets through the night.
But I don’t think I could venture before 1900. There’s a disconnect with the nineteenth century—I haven’t got the same kind of visceral connection.
Very early in the book it becomes evident that there are two ideological threads: politics and religion. Talk to me about how those two forces move throughout the book.
The beginning of the book says that it honors the memory of my grandfather. Obviously I wouldn’t be here if he’d caught a bullet—which was extremely likely because he was there in 1916. But I also think his experience crept into the book—his mother died when he was ten years old and the mother of one of my characters, Adam, dies when he is ten. So there’s this sense of identifying with the mother, and the mother’s Christianity. It obviously affects Adam in a different way—my grandfather believed that his mother had died a martyr to the faith, but in Adam’s case, his experience drives him away from God. His mother’s early death binds her left wing husband, Daniel—he can’t escape the sense of responsibility for it and carries his guilt with him when he takes Adam to the north of England where he has found work as a union organizer. So right from the very beginning of the book you have this relationship between the two gods of Socialism and Christ.
My viewpoint, as somebody who’s never really believed as an adult, is that it would not be possible, however hard you tried, to retain a sense of belief in the face of that kind of dehumanizing experience. It reaches its crescendo when they’re going out on burying parties wearing gas masks, and the parson—the other really significant religious person in the book—gets to this level of absurdity of deciding how many parts of a corpse are required in order for them to have a chance of paradise.
The way in which Adam is partially restored at the end of the book is through one of my characters, Rawdon, and his Freudian psychoanalytic idea of reliving your experience—in other words, going through a burial of his bible and processing the experience by bringing it to life, not through Christ.
You mentioned this book taking three or four years to write. When you look at your first draft and then the finished book that’s about to come out, what’s the biggest change that happened between those two drafts?
It got a lot longer. As we’ve already said, the hinterland expanded, which was very important because it enables us to identify with the characters. When my father read the book that was the first thing he said: the pre-1914 coverage enables us to really identify with the characters during 1916.
This novel represents a major departure for me because I began by writing books which were plot-orientated—one of my books, The Inheritance, is a straight-up whodunit. So after having been writing for thirteen years, I felt ready to let the characters run the book rather than the book run the characters. The plot is subordinate to portraying the characters and their interactions. It’s an absolute change for me, a really big change. Just like being intimidated about writing about a war, I was intimidated about writing the kind of book where I didn’t feel that I had the road map of a fast running plot to carry me forward.
When I was reading this I was really taken by how delicious your prose style is—you have these beautiful sentences that divert my eye in so many different directions. How did you develop this style or did it just come naturally to you?
I think it’s linked to the accident of having become a writer later in life. I didn’t write anything—no short stories, no books, nothing at all—until I was 40 years old. But I started writing a diary when I was 30, and altogether I wrote more than two thousand pages over the course of twelve years. I didn’t do this because I was intending to become a novelist—I was absolutely certain that I couldn’t be a novelist in fact. But sometimes in life we do something and we don’t quite know why we’ve done it until we have the benefit of hindsight. And what I think I was doing, unconsciously, was honing a way of writing that would enable me to express myself without being self-conscious, so that I would be comfortable with what I was writing and the writing would be a tool for me. So when I began to write, I’d gone through this long process of ridding myself of self-consciousness.
I’ve also always devoured a vast amount of nineteenth century fiction, particularly when I was younger. I was an only child, and we didn’t have TV then, there weren’t any screens—there was reading. I read the Brontës and Dickens and Trollope at the age of ten and eleven—which is not to say that I’m special in any way, but it does mean this kind of language and this kind of world went straight into my head and I think that it really informs my consciousness and the way I write. So, the whole process of writing a diary purged the self-consciousness whilst preserving this more old-fashioned style.
Did coming from such a unique position of having so much literature in your blood add to your insecurities about going into writing? How did that kind of pressure affect you?
I was absolutely convinced I couldn’t write. I just didn’t have any confidence in the fact. Obviously having J. R. R. Tolkien as your grandfather has the effect of sapping one’s confidence. But set against that I had a real desire to be my own person. I think that the two forces were in conflict with each other and kind of exploded some time around my late 30s, and led to me starting down this road.
A friend once said to me that the success of a book isn’t measured by how many copies are sold or how many languages it is translated into, but by whether or not he says the one specific thing he set out to say with his book. So what do you think is the one thing that you wanted to say with No Man’s Land?
I wanted to bring to life what it was like for those young men. The book falls—or does not—on that point. What I am passionate about, more than anything, is the dead. Not in the sense of them being dead, but in the sense that these people had such extraordinary lives and were alive just as much as we are, living in quite an incredible environment. But we can’t reach them. I feel, for lack of a better word, tenderhearted towards these people. It was just so terrible what happened to them, not just that they were sent off without any idea of what they were getting into, but the whole sheer appalling process, the fact that it seemed to produce very little good except another world war twenty years later. So I passionately wanted to bring to life what it was like for them—I suppose that’s the historian in me. And I think that the book, although it has faults, does succeed in that, and therefore I am pleased.