JOANNA ROSSITER’s first novel The Sea Change was a Richard and Judy summer read in 2013. It is a haunting novel about a mother and daughter, and their fractured relationship.
The daughter, Alice, is thousands of miles from home when she wakes up to see a massive wave on the horizon. A tsunami is about to strike; her new husband is nowhere to be seen. Back home, her estranged mother, Violet, is haunted by the past, and, in particular, her upbringing in Imber, a village that was requisitioned by the army during the Second World War.
“The Sea Change tells the true story of an evacuated Wiltshire village that was taken by the military in 1943,” Rossiter says. “The army never returned the village to its residents, despite a verbal pledge that they would do so after the war: it is still used extensively today for army training.”
It is a story strongly built around a landscape. “Imber is a real place, and I wanted to make sure I captured the strong sense of attachment that the villagers had to their valley and homes, long after they were forced to leave,” she says. The character of Violet cannot let go of her attachment to her birthplace, even though the village is in ruins. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Alice is confronted by ruins of a different kind: the debris-ridden, fragmented landscape that is the legacy of a tsunami.
PLACE is important to Rossiter, and she will be discussing this with the novelist Marie-Elsa Bragg at the Bloxham Festival this month. (Bragg’s book Towards Mellbreak is described by its publishers as “a hymn . . . to the landscape of Cumbria and to a disappearing world”.)
“I’ve always been fascinated by ruins — places that were once inhabited but have been reclaimed by nature,” she says. “In 2010, I went to watch the army train in preparation for Afghanistan on the Salisbury Plain military base. This was the first time I came across the lost village of Imber. As I stood inside the ruins of the old school house, and watched a soldier fire a rifle through the window opposite, I started to think about what it would feel like to watch your home being used in this way. I was interested in the question of whether people can grieve places as well as people, and I was amazed to discover that Imber’s story remained largely untold.”
Rossiter had also spent six months working in India, and visited some of the areas affected by the 2004 tsunami. “I wanted to twin two seemingly separate stories, and explore the impact that war and natural disaster have on landscapes and communities.”
Her next novel covers some of the same territory. “It’s set on Tristan da Cunha, the remotest island in the world. It was evacuated when the volcano erupted in 1961, and its people were sent to live in England for three years. These were people who’d never seen a car or a washing machine, and they hated it, and longed for a return to their simple life.” The story is about their return to Tristan, and the struggle to re-establish their communities.
“Though the settings are completely different, the second novel picks up where the first finished. There was a sense of exile in my last novel. This novel is about return. How does it feel to return to a place when you’ve chosen it? How do you survive in a place when you have experienced another kind of life? On Tristan, there’s a closeness to nature and a remoteness. At the time I was writing, a letter took a year to arrive, whereas nowadays we are all so close that we can communicate at the click of a button. There’s something appealing about that.”
ROSSITER’s first book was published when she was 27. After gaining a degree at Cambridge, she worked as a researcher in the House of Commons, and as a copy-writer, scribbling ideas for a novel in her evenings and lunchbreaks. Eventually, she left her job to take an MA in Writing at Warwick University.
Winning the Richard and Judy stamp was “very helpful, because I was a complete unknown”, she says. Since then, she has slowed her writing pace as she has two pre-school children. Motherhood has altered everything. “It’s utterly changed my approach. You can’t wait until you’re in the right mood. If you have half a day, or an hour, you use it. I’m much more efficient now.
“You don’t have the luxury to have a bad writing day. I used to think writers’ block was something you could catch, but it’s like any other job. You turn up and sit at the desk and do your hours, and some days will be better than others. It’s like being a sculptor, and chipping away at the block of stone. It’s important to pick up your tools.”
In her writing, Joanna’s faith is implicit rather than explicit. “I really love stories that make me ask questions. I’ve always been of the view that the best stories probe the meaning of human existence, and, for me, faith is part of that. It’s about the nature of why we are here. I don’t like stories that tell us the answers; I want stories that probe the meaning of life.
“I like what [writer] Marilynne Robinson says, how we’ve lost the sense of wonder. Writing, in my view, enables us to recapture that wonder.”
FRANCESCA KAY is another novelist whose first book won plaudits. An Equal Stillness scooped the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers, and was shortlisted for Best First Book in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Europe and South Asia Region). She was aged 52.
“I’m a bit embarrassed, because I think [the Orange Award] was probably aimed at young writers,” she says. “But it was a huge encouragement to win it.”
Her success came after “a whole boxful” of rejections. “It took a very long time to break through the barricade of agents and publishers, and then, in the end, it was luck. I found the right agent who said ‘Yes’, and then it was lovely.”
AN EQUAL STILLNESS — about a fictional 20th-century artist, Jennet Mallow, inspired by Barbara Hepworth — was followed in 2011 by The Translation of the Bones, about a modern-day miracle in an inner-city Roman Catholic church in Battersea. Then came The Long Room, set in the 1980s in the world of espionage. Kay is currently working on a novel focused on the tombs and chapels of the Reformation.
She expresses surprise that The Long View was treated as a spy novel. “I hadn’t intended it to be so specifically in that genre. It was more a question of loneliness, and what would an intelligent, sensible human being do in extreme isolation; how that can become a temporary madness. I set it in the world of espionage because I can think of nothing more alienating. It was lovely that it was described [by reviewers] as a thriller, but unexpected.”
YET it is The Translation of the Bones that raised eyebrows, she says, because of its overtly religious theme. Kay is a practising Roman Catholic: her Indian mother came from the Roman Catholic community of Bombay, while her English father served in the Foreign Office, in Delhi. She grew up in south-east Asia and India.
“I think there’s a general intake of breath if one even mentions [religious belief],” she says. “The Translation of the Bones did much less well in an obviously commercially sense than my first novel. There was a slight embarrassment from the people in marketing and designing the cover, and that probably does show a little bit. Interestingly, it did well in Italy and France, where there’s not such embarrassment.
“One broadsheet reviewer even wrote: ‘You don’t have to share the faith of the characters to enjoy it.’ I’m sure it was meant to be encouraging — you don’t have to be a raging papist — but it is still extraordinary.”
THERE has also been a certain amount of “tiptoeing around” the question whether the book was an exploration of her faith. “It’s an unnecessary question,” she says. “But the Christian faith is so deeply unfashionable [that] it means that secularism is the default position.”
So how does she think her faith informs her writing? “It means that I’m open to exploring those questions. My faith may not be conventional, but my practice is. I love the sense of the liturgical year unfolding, and the rituals; the fact that it’s mysterious — it is, and it isn’t. There’s an openness to the things unseen. That’s part of my exploration in fiction, but that goes much wider than [stories that are] set in church. What lies beyond is what sparks my interest and sustains it. I continue to be extremely interested in the ways people believe and disbelieve.”
The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter is published by Penguin at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10) . Francesca Kay’s books are published by Orion. The Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature takes place from 16 to 18 February at Bloxham School, Oxfordshire. For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk.