I published my latest novel, The Chalky Sea, this month and have promised my readers to write a sequel. As I sat down to work on the second book I found I was struggling to re-connect with my characters. One of them was a secondary character in The Chalky Sea but moves to centre stage in the next book. I was anxious to get back inside her head again.
The answer to my prayers came in a blog piece by writer JJ Marsh, who writes the excellent Beatrice Stubbs European crime novels (if you haven’t read any yet, put that right!). Jill has a list of questions to ask your main character which she developed with fellow crime writer Sheila Bugler.
I decided to give the questions a go and to get both my main characters, Jim and Joan to answer each one. I interviewed them separately – just as Joan is about to sail to Canada in 1946, as a war bride, so they have been apart for three years. If you haven’t read The Chalky Sea you may want to stop reading now as there are some spoilers here. If you have read it, you will be relieved to know that yes, Jim did survive the war. Here is the interview.
Are you typically British/ Canadian?
Joan: I doubt a typical Brit gets herself pregnant and has to quit the army to bring up her child. I’m working class and proud of it but I didn’t like what that meant for me before the war – working in a chippy. I used to stink of fish. At least the war got me out of that.
Jim: In my time in the army I met so many people, Yanks, Canucks, Aussies, Kiwis and Tommies. I can honestly say it doesn’t matter a damn to me what nationality a guy is as long as he’s got my back.
What makes you easy/ hard to get along with?
Joan: Bloody hell. What kind of questions are these! I don’t suffer fools. I hate to be taken advantage of and I have a horrible feeling that’s what you’re trying to do now… trick me into giving something away that I don’t want to. But if you buy me a drink and don’t mind me bringing my cousin Ethel along, we’ll all get along just fine. Mine’s a port and lemon and have you got a light?
Jim: I try to get along with everyone. I don’t pick fights. The only one I ever got into ended badly for all concerned and I’ve no wish to repeat it. With one exception, I’ve never had a problem getting along with anyone I work with. I take people as they come.
Your earliest memory?
Joan: That’s easy. It was my Dad walking out on my mum and me. It was having to listen to Mum bawling her head off every night. Then going all quiet. Then bawling again when a particular song came on the wireless. But I’d rather not talk about those times, thank you very much.
Jim: My brother, Walt, getting born. I was only two or three years old and I woke in the night to hear Ma screaming. I covered my head with the eiderdown and went back to sleep. Next morning Walt was there. He was so small and cute and clasped my finger in his tiny hands and I loved him at once.
Who do you trust?
Joan: No one. Well, apart from our Ethel. She’s my cousin. Otherwise, never mind a pinch of salt, I’ll take a whole sackful.
Jim: Trust rather went out the window for me when I found out my fiancée was cheating on me with my brother. That made me very untrusting of everyone – specially women. But then in wartime you have to trust your colleagues. I’ve already trusted my life with so many of them and I’d do that again in a heartbeat. But women…
Who or what is the love of your life?
Joan :Apart from Errol Flynn, you mean? I don’t really want to talk about the love of my life, but his name’s Jim and I’ve always thought I love him more than he loves me. Enough said.
Jim: (Shakes his head) I’d rather not discuss that. It’s private.
Who is your hero?
Joan : Again, Errol aside, it has to be our Ethel. She’s not exactly a swashbuckler but she’s the bravest woman I know. I wish I had a tenth of her guts. I’d have crumbled if I’d been engaged to marry Jim and he’d dropped dead, like happened with her Greg. She’s strong and she’s unselfish too.
Jim: Another thing war’s taught me is everyone’s a hero when it comes down to it. I met hundreds of heroes and saw many of them fall in battle. I don’t hold much with heroism. Just with getting on with the job.
What was the last book you read?
Joan: You think I’ve got time for books with a small child? Last one was probably a bloody ration book. I always preferred going to the pictures.
Jim: Probably something by Hemingway or Jack London. These days though it’s mostly the Farmer’s Almanac
What do you have for breakfast?
Joan: You having a laugh? Bread and dripping if I’m lucky. What’d I like for breakfast? – the last proper one I had before rationing. Bacon – two rashers – and eggs with tomato and a bit of fried bread, followed by toast and my nan’s homemade marmalade. Ooh marmalade? what’s that? Can’t even remember what an orange looks like.
Jim: Eggs, bacon and sausage from our own hens and pigs. Sometimes French egg toast with maple syrup.
Are you like your parents?
Joan : As for my dad I can’t tell you. I was only a kid when he packed his bags and ran off with his fancy woman. My mum says I’m like him when she gets mad at me. Says I’ve got my head in the clouds and my eyes on the prize when I should have my head down and be getting on with it. Maybe she’s right. I thought I was like her, sticking by Pete when I knew I didn’t love him. But I was just a coward. Couldn’t face telling him. I s’pose that means I’m more like my mum than my dad.
Jim: My folks are hard-working simple people who love the land and I guess I am too. My dad’s stubborn – he didn’t want me going to war because he knew what it would be like. But he went himself. I’m just the same. I’d move heaven and earth to stop my son joining up if there’s another war. I just hope that after all the horrors of the one that’s just finished we’ll never have to face that again.
If you were an animal, which would it be?
Joan : A cat. I love to be stroked but if I don’t trust you, I’ll spit at you and scratch you. And it’s bloody hard to win my trust as I’m naturally cautious.
Jim: A dog. Like my own one, Swee’Pea, sadly no longer with us. Why? Dogs are faithful, reliable, unfussy, energetic, playful. Hell, I miss that dog.
An example of one of your rituals?
Joan: Getting washed. I always work from the top down. Even when I’m lucky enough to get the chance to have a bath instead of a quick scrub at the basin. I wash my face, then neck. I soap my breasts and try like a flipping contortionist to do my back. Underarms next and then on down. If I do a bit out of order I have to go back and start all over again. Afterwards I rinse out the flannel, wring it out, and rather than hang it up in the bathroom, I bring it into my bedroom and drape it over the rail at the end of the bed. I don’t want my stepdad using it by mistake.
Jim: Milking. Ploughing, Drilling for seeds. Harvesting. Life on a farm is all ritual.
Who or what are you most afraid of?
Joan :That my husband, Jim, only married me because of our Jimmy. I’m more afraid of him being with me out of duty than I am of him leaving me.
Jim: Joan, my wife. We barely know each other. After the wedding we spent about fifteen minutes with each other before I embarked for the Med. She married me to give a name to our child, Jimmy. If her fiancé hadn’t got killed she’d have been with him. I’ve never know where I am with Joan. I don’t know how she really feels about me and I don’t even know how I feel about her if I’m honest. We’d never have met if weren’t for the war. I’m terrified now that she’ll be unhappy once she gets to Canada. I feel such a weight of responsibility towards her, dragging her across the Atlantic out of reach of her family and her whole way of life. I want so much to make a success of our marriage but I’m absolutely petrified.
What’s the last thing you do before you go to sleep?
Joan : I say a prayer. I’m not religious, mind, but I am a bit superstitious. I ask God to keep an eye on our Jimmy and Ethel and my mum. Before I finish I ask him to watch out for my husband, Jim, keep him safe. During the war I used to tell God I’d sacrifice being with Jim if God would keep him alive. Now that the war’s over and he’s come through it unharmed, I just pray that he’ll love me.
Jim: I walk around the yard and make sure everything’s in order and the barn locked. I usually wait until Ma and Pa have gone to bed, then make sure the fire’s safe and head up to bed myself. we keep early hours here.
Are you normal?
Joan : Too flipping right I am. Next question.
Jim: (Shrugs) What’s normal?
Your desert island disc?
Joan : String of Pearls by Glen Miller. It was playing on the wireless the night I met Jim and it reminds me of him.
Jim: A song one of the Yanks I was with in Italy used to sing. It was by some folk singer. I think it’s called This Land is My Land. I liked it because it made me think of home, back here on the farm, when I was far away surrounded by smoke and shellfire. There was a line something about the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling and it made me determined to make it back to Canada.
What would you change about your appearance?
Joan : My nose is too big and I could do with a bit of help in the cheekbones department.
Jim: I’ve never given it much thought. But thinking about it now I’d lose the scar on my face – not out of vanity but because every time I see it in the mirror I think of my pal, Greg and how I got him into a fight that cost him his life.
How do you indulge yourself?
Joan : You’re joking! There’s been a bloody war on. Fat chance of indulgence in any form. If I dream about treating myself it’s about having a bath that covers my tits while eating a bacon butty, made with white bread and real butter.
Jim: Maybe a beer once in a while. More than that doesn’t seem right when I think about the guys who didn’t make it.
What are your prejudices?
Joan : The same as every other bugger’s! I hated Adolf Bloody Hitler and his henchmen and even now he’s dead I always will. End of story.
Jim: I can’t say I have any. Life’s too short. I take people as I find them.
What makes you laugh?
Joan : Laurel and Hardy. Split my sides watching them. Not a lot else these days.
Jim: I’ve always had a soft spot for Popeye cartoons. Named my old dog after Popeye’s kid.
Do you have any scars?
Joan : Mind your own business.
Jim: You joking? You’re looking at my face right now.
Your most precious possession?
Joan : A cinema ticket. Jim and I went to see The Sea Hawk. Our only date. He didn’t actually ask me out but it was the first time we were alone together. I saw the film again in London without him. Later that evening he told me he’d have liked to have seen it with me. That was the night Jimmy was conceived.
Jim: The farm. Well it’s in my Pa’s name but eventually it will come to me.
What keeps you awake?
Joan : I don’t have trouble sleeping. Unless Jimmy wakes in the night or he’s sick.
Jim: My bedroom’s next door to Ma and Pa’s. He snores like an erupting volcano. Sometimes I can’t sleep when I think about stuff that happened in the war, seeing my friend Mitch dying, the fear that crippled my guts before an attack. The worst is when I dream about seeing my brother Walt’s dead face when I found him on the dockside at Newhaven after he was killed in Dieppe. I often wake covered in sweat. Ma once told me they can hear me calling out through the wall.
Why do you have children?
Joan : Because I was so flipping cold and miserable in a freezing hotel bedroom I swallowed my pride, got out of bed and snuggled down with a man who didn’t actually want to be with me. Well that’s what I thought at the time. When I found out that that one and only sexual experience resulted in me falling pregnant, I panicked. I thought about getting rid of it, What with me being engaged to Pete at the time and him being in the African desert. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to think about what I’d tell Pete. All I knew was it was Jim’s and I wanted to have it even if I couldn’t have him.
Jim: My son was the result of my first time with a woman, now my wife. It was the only time we ever slept together. We were married in a hurry after I found out about the baby and I was about to shipped out to Sicily. I haven’t seen Joan or my son for three years. We’re waiting for her to be brought to Canada but it’s a long slow process. I thought about her and my son, Jimmy, every day for the years since we married. I hope when we eventually get together again we can have some more children.
Your best friend?
Joan : That’s easy. Ethel. My cousin.
Jim: Once I’d have said my brother, until he turned against me. Then he was killed. At the start of the war my closest friend was Greg. We used to call him Grass, short for Grasshopper, because his legs were so long and skinny. But he died too. Brain haemorrhage before we saw any action. I saw another pal, Mitch, die in front of me when landed in Sicily. After that I kept myself at a distance. Losing friends was just too painful.
When did you last lose your temper and why?
Joan : I don’t lose my temper. I withdraw. I hate conflict.
Jim: Back in Aldershot in ’41 I was being goaded by Tip Howardson who was my corporal. Tip came from my home town and never tired of bullying me. He went too far one day, talking about my brother cheating on me with my fiancée and I lost my temper. It didn’t end well. He knocked me out, then punched my friend Greg, who died of a brain haemorrhage. I’ve always tried to keep my temper in check since then. It’s not easy.
Which items do you carry with you always?
Joan : My ration book. Ciggies. a Box of matches. Jimmy’s first tooth – I’m saving it for Jim.
Jim: A picture of Joan and my boy that she sent me a few months back. It’s getting a bit dogeared as I look at it so often. I hope they’ll get here before it falls apart.
A perfect evening?
Joan : (laughs) Anywhere as long as it’s with Jim. But a really perfect one would be an Errol Flynn picture, a few drinks in the pub – and I wouldn’t be averse to some dancing afterwards.
Jim: Home cooked supper. A glorious sunset. Here on the farm.
Your greatest regret?
Joan : Not telling Jim properly how much I love him before he went overseas. Not having the chance to make love either. It’s hard to believe we’ve a nearly–four-year-old child, been married for three and have only shared a bed once. And that was more like a fumble in the dark than making love. Can you blame me for feeling nervous about seeing him again?
Jim: Falling out with my brother. Being the indirect cause of Greg’s death.
Characteristics you look for in a friend
Joan : I’ve only room for Ethel as a friend. I’m terrified of going to Canada and being separated from her. If I do find a friend in Canada I hope she’ll be like her – loyal, brave, supportive, affectionate. But there’s only one Ethel.
Jim: I’m not looking for a friend. After my brother, Greg, and Mitch I don’t want any more. Bad things happen to my friends. I’ll just settle for having a wife. That’s all a man needs.
Your most recent achievement?
Joan : Summoning up the courage to go to Canada and start a new life. The telegram came yesterday. Help…
Jim: Getting out of the war alive.
If you’ve read The Chalky Sea I’d love to know whether you think I’ve captured Jim and Joan.