Simon on No Man’s Land 2016
Question: We are interested in the story behind your book No Man’s Land - as are many reviewers, interviewers, and booksellers. Please provide any helpful background information about the book’s origins. How did the idea for your book originate? Did the book involve special research or travel? How long have you been at work on this book?
Answer: I can remember being given a long playing record called 1914 for my tenth birthday which I listened to over and over again until it got scratched from too much playing. The First World War was real to me because I knew that my grandfather had fought in it and that I wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t survived! And then as a teenager I imagined what it would have been like to be forced to go and fight in the trenches when there was such a real prospect of never coming back. The war memorials in the sleepy English villages told their own story of the chances of survival with the long lists of those who gave their lives. Many were from the same families and had never left home before they went to fight in France and Belgium.
Later, I came to see the Great War as the great dividing line in modern history. The Victorian belief in progress and self help gave way to a new world in which the machines truly did take over and there was nothing that the soldiers could do to withstand an apocalypse of shellfire. The scale of the slaughter undermined religious belief and changed the hierarchical social structure of society. And yet the War was also a testament to the bravery of man and I was moved by the comradeship of the British soldiers in the trenches and wanted to find a way to bring their experience to life.
I spent a week touring the Belgian and French battlefields in 2004 in the company of my son and a guide and was moved by so much of what I saw: the utterly quiet winter cemeteries with their acres of white crosses and bound visitor books where the parents of the dead had signed their names when they came to see where their sons were buried at the end of the War; a sunken road where the soldiers had waited to attack on the first day of the Somme; the Last Post being played by a lone bugler under the vast Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval.
I knew then that I wanted to write about the War but I also knew that I wasn’t ready for such an undertaking, and I am glad now that I waited, honing my craft in other directions before I returned to this project eight years later. Altogether it has taken me nearly four years to write No Man’s Land with half that time spent on historical research.
I soon realized that the reader would only come to care about the soldiers in my book if he or she had spent time with them before they went to war and I therefore decided to set the first half of the novel in a coalmining town in the north of England. This then meant that I had to research the way the mines worked in an era when coal was being moved by pit ponies, and learn the way in which the miners spoke. D.H.Lawrence’s novel, Sons and Lovers, was a particularly helpful source here.
The hero of my novel also spends time in an Edwardian country house and I enjoyed reading about that vanished world in which ladies changed five times a day, wore wire cages on their heads to hold their elaborate coiffures in place, and ate 12 course dinners each night. Downton Abbey was a valuable research tool here!
I was much more intimidated by the technical demands of writing about trench warfare but I was able to overcome this by a constant process of reading first hand accounts which ultimately made Lewis guns and Stokes mortars seem familiar rather than strange. The Great War produced a vast documentary archive. Soldiers in the trenches wrote and received constant letters and kept diaries and many of these are available online. With regard to actual books about the War, I concentrated on those that tried to describe what it was like for the common soldier in the trenches because my purpose with this novel was not to discuss strategy and responsibility but to try and make real the extraordinary experience of ordinary men. It will be for my readers to judge whether or not I have succeeded.
Question - Please tell us about your avocations, hobbies or enthusiasms. Anything of relevance to your book No Man’s Land will have special significance.
Answer - I suppose my life is strange, lived half in the 21st century in a modern but beautiful American seaside town with amazing landscapes but little history, and half in my mind delving back into the first half of the 20th century in the country that I left behind when I emigrated 8 years ago.
In Santa Barbara I have a large yard and I have enjoyed creating a drought tolerant garden with pathways winding amongst oak and jacaranda trees. I play tennis and golf and walk by the sea.
I feel lucky to live in the golden age of American TV drama and love the worlds that people like Vince Gilligan and David Simon create - currently I am half way through The Wire. I am a storyteller and I think I would be good at writing for film / television but will probably never have the opportunity.
I think that my books and style of writing is informed by years of reading old novels. I was an only child and, with no computers and little television to distract me, I devoured the classics up in my bedroom. Reading fired my imagination and Treasure Island, Wuthering Heights and Gormenghast Castle remain utterly real to me: more clearly defined than many of my actual memories!
I have always been passionately interested in modern history – (my childhood hero was Napoleon!) - and it makes me happy that I have now found a way to bring the past to life. In a sense I have gone full circle ending up back with history after a career in the law. But lawyering taught me how to research and organize and how to be patient and thorough and these skills help me now with my writing.
Being the grandson of J.R.R.Tolkien has brought me many benefits but I also found it difficult to be in his shadow. As my thirties turned into my forties, I became determined to make something creative of my own and this stimulated my writing career and helped me stay determined as I encountered inevitable obstacles along the way. I think he would be pleased that I have written this new book about the Great War which he experienced as a soldier in the Somme Trenches a century ago and which, in my view, informed much of his writing in The Lord of the Rings. I have seen the backs of the faded trench maps on which he began to write what would later become The Silmarillion and I feel a powerful link to him that my journey as a storyteller has taken me to those same trenches where he fought in 1916.