1st Jun 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Shelley Harris
FBS: Your début novel, Jubilee, set during the Silver Jubilee celebrations of 1977, has been released to coincide with this year’s Diamond Jubilee festivities. There’s a lovely quote in the book that notes the change in British attitude towards this kind of celebration:
“Twenty years ago this would have been unacceptably nationalistic. Ten years ago it would have been ironic. And now? Well, now it’s probably retro, or something like that.”
Are you finding that a majority of the readers are looking for a sense of nostalgia, or is there a growing number of young people able to relate to it now that we are once again surrounded by bunting, cupcakes and Union Jacks?
SH: I have to confess that this summer’s enthusiasm for all thingsJubileehas taken me completely by surprise. When I wrote the book, I thought I’d be describing a lost world of sorts, and that many readers would find the Cherry Gardens festivities quite alien.
Last December, I wrote a piece about the ubiquity of the Union Jack in the summer of ’77, about how very different that time was… and last week I went into my local supermarket and saw a Jubilee-branded pot of Marmite (Ma’amite, actually. Quite witty, I thought).
I do get a lot of feedback from people who recall the Silver Jubilee, and say that the novel really triggered memories for them, but looking at the way we’re gearing up for this jubilee, I think most contemporary readers would find that time of red-white-and-blue, street parties and patriotic fairy cakes surprisingly familiar.
FBS: One of the first things people comment on with Jubilee is the nostalgic value. How did you take yourself back in time to create such a vivid picture of the summer of 1977?
SH: Weirdly, that was the easy part. I found that all I had to do was to think about it – all of it, what 1977 tasted and smelled and sounded like – and the tiniest details started coming back. I had to dig quite deep, or all I’d have remembered were the clichés, the stories we tell ourselves now about that time.
But the process isn’t perfect; I watched Dominic Sandbrook’s series The 70s recently, and the archive footage reminded me of something I’d forgotten – the way white people used to slap themselves out in the sun, the way ‘sun tan lotion’ was factor 2 or something. People were leathered. I thought: damn! I should have put that in.
FBS: You have mentioned that the photograph central to Jubilee’s story is actually based on a real photograph at your parents’ house. Tell us about how that picture came to inspire your first novel.
SH: Photographs like Dad’s can be found in thousands of British homes, I’m sure: a sepia-tinted VE Day street party, with Dad and his brother John looking as miserable as sin.
I tend to be attracted to a story by the things which are held in tension, and there were certainly tensions here: on the one hand, a very public event which has become part of our national memory. On the other, all the private stories of that particular family and that community – stories actually hidden from view by the superficial nature of a photograph and by the split-second transience of the moment it captures.
I felt this click. It’s brilliant – a really wonderful moment for a writer, when you think: ‘Hey! Hang on…’ And I thought, I want to do that, I want to give the reader a photograph which everyone thinks they know and understand, but which conceals secrets.
I want to reveal those secrets throughout the novel, so that at the end you can look at the photograph again and suddenly understand everything – all the tiny details you disregarded or misread at the beginning. And once I knew my story, I also knew what my photograph would be – the iconic street party, not of my father’s generation, but of mine.
So much of writing is about slog, hard work, self-discipline. But that moment of creation – it’s bloody brilliant.
FBS: This novel is a lot darker than it first appears. There is a stark juxtaposition between the celebratory mood of the Jubilee street party and the underlying tensions and aggression in the community. Do you think that people are inclined to only remember the fond memories, and brush aside the things that are more regrettable?
SH: That’s a fascinating question. I think – appropriately enough – about family photograph albums, how we never capture the dull bits or the horrible bits or the dysfunctional bits: everyone’s permanently happy. There can be a temptation to do that on a national level as well: all that leather-on-willow bollocks.
What I’ve tried to do in Jubilee is to tell a bit of the complex truth; I’d like to think there’s a lot of optimism in there, along with the shame. The writer Gary Younge wrote recently about his Barbardian parents settling in Stevenage in the late sixties. Most of their white neighbours shunned them, but a Mail-reading royalist called Mrs. Stilling offered to warm their baby’s milk. People are complex, and so are communities and nations – I hope Jubilee reflects this complexity.
FBS: The anger leads to some quite shocking acts of violence, especially with the children on the street. Was it difficult to write those scenes, and to create young characters that could be so wicked?
SH: It was difficult to allow my characters to be hurt, for sure; much as my sensible writer-head acknowledged that the stakes had to be high, I also felt a great deal of empathy for them all – especially for Satish as a child.
As far as wicked children were concerned, I saw events very much through the children’s eyes, and the truth is: children can be wicked. Maybe we don’t like to acknowledge this as adults, but anyone with a memory knows it’s true.
FBS: The protagonist, Satish, is a pediatric cardiologist, and in both the present and flashback stories, parenthood is quite an important theme. Satish notes a profound understanding after becoming a father that when treating a child, their parents’ life is also on the line. I thought it was really interesting to have this kind of emotional, parental link narrated from a male perspective. Did you ever consider the idea that this story might have a female protagonist?
SH: That’s interesting. In many ways it would, of course, be easier, but given that I was drawing on a lot of my own experience in the novel I really wanted a central character who was definitively not me. So: Satish is British Asian, and he’s male – I am neither.
It’s funny that people ask about the difficulties of writing outside my culture, but they’ve never asked about writing outside my gender, despite the fact that it was really challenging. One of the things I had to do, after feedback from an early (male) reader was to crank up the competitiveness in the relationships between the boys.
As a feminist, I resist the idea that we are ‘wired’ differently – and yet, be it nature or nurture, there do seem to be differences in the way we construct the world. Quite how any of this has a bearing on Male Fridge Blindness, I have yet to discover.
FBS: It has been noted that your background growing up in South Africa comes through in Jubilee as “an acute understanding of how it feels to be an outsider”. Did you set out intending to address these issues? Given that your family left South Africa due to their opposition to Apartheid, do you think ideas of immigration and identity may feature in your future work?
SH: With Jubilee I set out to tell a good story above all, but along the way I also wanted to explore what community really is, and what Britishness really is. These aren’t just abstract concepts – they are human stories. Diversity is in our DNA as a nation because of pioneers such as Satish, and I wanted to explore what that process felt like for him, how he goes from being an outsider to being this incredibly important part of British society.
To understand Satish I drew on my own childhood, recalling what it felt like to be new and out of place; as a kid I spent a lot of time trying to fit in, and I think there are common experiences amongst children who’ve had to do that.
I’m careful to keep that in perspective, though; I had a few mean girls at school to contend with; Satish had the National Front. Part of my research for the novel was to spend a lot of time listening to British Asians talk about their experiences of growing up in seventies England.
As to future work, I’m endlessly fascinated by ‘us’ (and by ‘them’), by the ways in which we define and redefine ourselves, and how we learn to live together. I’m sure that will keep resurfacing in my next books.
SH: Actually, it’s hard to talk about this without gushing. Suffice to say, I was incredibly happy – and flabbergasted – to be told they’d selected Jubilee. Before I was published I just hoped that someone other than me would read the book one day, though I didn’t have any particular expectation that it would happen. The Richard and Judy Book Club selection was beyond anything I’d let myself imagine.
FBS: You have mentioned that you volunteer regularly in your local Oxfam bookshop, helping people find new literary loves. Which writers would you say are your literary influences?
SH: In terms of the books which were an influence on Jubilee, I’d mention two: I read Jon McGregor’s lyrical If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things several years ago, and loved the way it explored different lives on a single street. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park helped me to explore the paradoxical position of the outsider – at the margins, but also beneath people’s notice and therefore able to witness secrets which more central characters would not be privy to.
Other favourites include Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel, Michael Chabon, John Irving, Jane Harris… I could go on all day. I’m not sure any of these is a direct literary influence, but I find something to learn in almost everything I read.
Whether you’ll be flying the flag at a street party or closing the curtains until it’s all over, Shelley Harris’s twisted tale of a community with dark secrets is the perfect read for the long Bank Holiday weekend. It is available as a hardcover, paperback or ebook.