The Sea Gate with author Jane Johnson

The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson is a wonderful story with the perfect blend of present-day and past and a compelling cast of characters featuring the frail but crusty Olivia–I picture Maggie Smith or Judi Dench in the role–and the lovely Becky who is trying to get her life in order.

There are broken families, a house with a hidden passage to the sea, a scheming family intent on fraud, and a long-ago murder or was it merely a disappearance? As the book description says: an entrancing tale of love and courage.

Throughout, Jane Johnson ratchets up the suspense chapter by chapter culminating in a very satisfying ending. I recommend it highly!

The author, Jane Johnson, kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

Most of the story is set in Cornwall in a house called Chynalls. Chynalls is almost its own character in the book. Where did you get the inspiration for it?
Jane: Chynalls was inspired by a number of houses I’ve known over the years. There was my grandmother’s house, which was rambling and rather decrepit, and made strange noises at night (including the sound of a brass doorknob turning where for years there had been no door Flushed); and my great-aunt’s house, from which I stole the scullery, with its channel to wick away water – or maybe blood; and the spider-infested outdoor privy; and one of the houses I grew up in down in a remote spot on the south coast had a tunnel that ran from the cellars to the shingle beach and was locally known as a smugglers’ passage. The ‘sea gate’ itself I spotted in a local village – I lived in the area of West Penwith, in the far tip of Cornwall, where the novel is set.

A Cornwall sea gate used for the cover

Unique and relatable characters are one of Jane Johnson’s strengths. I asked her whether any of the characters in The Sea Gate inspired by real people she knows.
Jane: Not directly, but the idea for the novel came initially from conversations with my mother, who was around the same age as Olivia when the war broke out, and she spent some of those years down here in Cornwall, before going up to London to work. My mother, though, did not have an artistic bone in her body, unlike Olivia, whose paintings made her semi-famous. My mother, on the other hand, when engaging in a Christmas game of ‘Pic-Charades’, in which you have to draw for your game-partner the word on the card, managed to bamboozle me completely by giving a duck 4 legs…
Several of the old folk in the village where I live offered me their recollections of life here during the war and I felt it was important to honour their memories and that remarkable generation. They have – including my mother – all passed now. I mourn them, but am so glad I managed to write some of their experiences into the book.

What was the most difficult part of the artistic process for this book?
Jane: I think the fact that it’s set where I live gave me pause to begin with, especially since some of the events are within living memory for some of the very oldest inhabitants. I didn’t want anyone reading it and complaining that the farmer’s wife wasn’t dead and that he didn’t have a daughter with special needs, or that their father definitely did not hoard butter etc… So instead of calling the village Mousehole, I called it by its old Cornish name of Porth Enys – the Island Port: and that gave me the creative distance I needed to free me to write the story I wanted to write.

Porth Enys … also called Mousehole

Were the WWII incidents and circumstances influenced by what really happened in Cornwall during that war?
Jane: Yes, I used actual incidents and well researched circumstances – the bombing of Penzance, the crash of a German warplane into farm fields, the stationing of internees and POWs at the local farm to carry out the farmwork for the war effort, the pelting with rotten vegetables of French refugees when they docked at Falmouth, the trawlers lost to mines and submarine attacks; the coast dotted with lookout posts and barb-wired off from civilians; the general sense of paranoia about strangers. It was fascinating to do the research and learn more about the region I live in, and enormous fun to write such recent history for once: it’s the first time I’ve written anything so modern, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My next novel – THE WHITE HARE – is set in a remote valley in Cornwall in 1954. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and the end is in sight!

The Swingate stone near Porth Enys into which a WWII plane crashed.

The Seat Gate by Jane Johnson ~~ A broken family, a house of secrets—an entrancing tale of love and courage set during the Second World War.

After Rebecca’s mother dies, she must sort through her empty flat and come to terms with her loss. As she goes through her mother’s mail, she finds a handwritten envelope. In it is a letter that will change her life forever.

Olivia, her mother’s elderly cousin, needs help to save her beloved home. Rebecca immediately goes to visit Olivia in Cornwall only to find a house full of secrets—treasures in the attic and a mysterious tunnel leading from the cellar to the sea, and Olivia, nowhere to be found.

As it turns out, the old woman is stuck in hospital with no hope of being discharged until her house is made habitable again. Rebecca sets to work restoring the home to its former glory, but as she peels back the layers of paint and grime, she uncovers even more buried secrets—secrets from a time when the Second World War was raging, when Olivia was a young woman, and when both romance and danger lurked around every corner…

The power of paintings & sketches

While writing Paris In Ruins, I came across numerous paintings and sketches that helped me appreciate the times, the city, and the people. I found a number of them while on a research trip to Paris. Others I found in books and through online sources. Each one added to the descriptions I used or to my imagination of the scenes where my characters enacted the story.

I’ll let the paintings and sketches speak for themselves – after all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The view from place de la Concorde toward l’Arc de Triomphe
Paris Fortifications – looking out at the countryside
Claude Monet – workers on the Seine unloading coal
Degas – Women ironing
Attack by the French Garde Mobile on a chateau outside Paris
Fighting around Place Pigalle
1870s civil marriage ceremony
Pantheon 1870
Securing the cannons in Montmartre – an act the sparked the Paris Commune
I found so many sketches of gowns
Salon gathering – inspiration for Madame Lambert’s salon
Women on the barricades during the Paris Commune
The bridge at Sevres – inspired a scene with Mariele and her mother
Barricades during the Paris Commune
Conciergerie prison – where one of my characters is imprisoned

These and many more inspired my writing and helped me keep my thoughts in 1870/71 Paris.

Paris In Ruins: 1870 Paris – Raised for a life of parties and servants, Camille and Mariele have much in common, but it takes the horrors of war to bring them together to fight for the city they love. War has a way of teaching lessons – if only they can survive to learn them.

Paris In Ruins is available in many countries on Kindle, on Amazon (paperback), on Kobo, and on Barnes & Noble

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

World-weaving with invisible strands

Melissa Addey is on the blog today talking about novels featuring the unseen figures of the past. Like her earlier post on approaching research as a child, Melissa offers a unique angle on writing historical fiction. Melissa’s latest novel is From the Ashes.

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As an author of historical fiction, I have always been pleased that many of my best reviews mention my ability to world-build. Writing in this genre, after all, requires a whole world to be rebuilt from nothing but bits of paper and crumbling ruins, from an odd mixture of official records which often forget or deliberately omit whole groups of people and events, to hearsay and quasi-legends passed down orally which you sense hold certain truths but often get questioned if you use them. For my PhD in Creative Writing, I wrote about looking beyond the inevitable ‘is it true?’ question. I suggested that as well as that question, another question to ask of authors would be: ‘What fictional elements did you add to your historical setting and why was it important to your vision of the past?’ And one obvious answer, of course, is that when you set out to build your world, you are very likely to find parts missing, strange holes in the tapestry you are weaving which you must fill in, one way or another. 

This recently happened to me when I decided I would like to write a series set in Ancient Rome, following the backstage team of the Colosseum. I spent the first three years of my life in Rome, my mother worked in an office just over the road from the Colosseum, perhaps it had been bubbling away in my brain, waiting for a chance to be included in my writing. I began in my usual fashion, gathering up the first strands with which to string my loom: children’s reference books for the basics of daily life in that era, several large tomes entirely dedicated to the Colosseum and its spectacles. These, I reasoned, would give me a good overview of the shape and size of my eventual world, which I could then follow up on with more detailed research. 

And then I found the hole. In an extremely well documented time and place in history, right in the centre of one of the most famous buildings left to us from ancient times and featured in countless books and films was… a huge, gaping hole. Because there is no mention of a backstage team. We do not even know the name of the architect who designed the Colosseum, let alone the people who must have run it on a day-to-day basis. Oddly, no academics or authors of substantial works on the Colosseum seem to even mention the existence of this gap in our knowledge, to such an extent that I spent a lot of extra time doubting my research abilities, certain that somewhere, known to all but myself, was a neat list of the team and their roles. But no such list exists. And yet: I could feel the invisible strands out there, waiting to be woven. There were 100 to 200 days of Games put on per year, each of which took up most of a day: beast-hunting in the morning, criminal executions at lunchtime, gladiatorial bouts in the afternoon. The Emirates Stadium (a similar sized 50,000-seater arena) today employs 3000 people. The invisible backstage team must have existed. But I would have to create them. 

In the end, creating the invisible team required three main strands:

What did they make?

The historical record does not mention the backstage team. But it does describe what they created. We have mentions of animals, both wild and tamed, which means there were people placing orders for them, catching them, transporting and storing them, as well as taking many months of hard work to train those that were made to perform in specific ways, such as horses who would willingly run through water when the Colosseum was flooded for naval battles and an elephant who would bow of its own accord upon seeing the Emperor (bit of subtle signalling there, do we think?). The gladiators, of course, had to be trained, appropriately kitted out in both battle and theatrical parade armour and patched up by physicians. There were synchronised swimmers, whom the poet Martial admired, asking whether a sea-nymph had taught them, or whether the performing swimmers had been the ones to teach sea-nymphs their moves. As for the criminal executions, many were turned into re-enactments of bloody myths, requiring costumes, scenery and rehearsals. The list of staff quickly grows long when you look at what they created. Even something as tiny as a mention of using coloured sand in the arena leads to the question, where do you get that from? Was there a known supplier of coloured sand in first-century Rome, with a colour chart to pick from and a regular agreed delivery day? Would the manager frown when taking delivery and say that this wasn’t the shade they’d agreed on? And why do you need different colours of sand? Are you making patterns? Illusions of water or grass? Vast sand ‘paintings’ across the arena floor? Even modern-day recreations of, for example, the lifts that brought beasts and fighters up into the arena, only briefly mention that each one requires four to six people to operate, which means easily 150 people just for the lifts during a show, and that’s leaving aside the question of, who is giving the signal to release a beast or gladiator from a specific lift to a given schedule? World-building in such circumstances relies on endless questions of this kind, each question making one thread at a time become visible. My novel began to take on a shape: the endless day-to-day logistical challenges of running such a vast amphitheatre, mixed with the vast and terrifying events of 79-80AD, from Vesuvius erupting to a ‘pestilence’ that killed ten thousand people in Rome, a three-day fire and the knowledge that not delivering a spectacular inaugural Games would result in certain death in the very arena the team worked in. 

What kind of people were the backstage team, given the era in which they worked? Gladiators, actors, dancing girls, criminals, beast-hunters, women who fought… all of these performers at the Colosseum formed part of an underclass that was both despised for not conforming to the norms of society, but that also held a certain allure. We know that actors were considered sexy and that gladiators had enthusiastic fans who followed their careers with interest, much as boxing fans might have their favourites today, often gambling on the outcomes of a bout. If these were the performers, the backstage team would have associated with them and been associated with them, their own status determined by the work they did. There would have been slaves to work the lifts and keep the Colosseum clean, there were up to 200 sailors who rigged the awnings that kept the sun off the audience’s heads. There would have been a man whose job it was to play Charon, to kill with one blow of a hammer any gladiator or criminal who would not make it but had not yet died. I spent time talking with modern-day boxing promoter Steve Goodwin, who talked about the ethics of the job, which resulted in the creation of two very different fictional gladiator trainers in the final novel. Throughout, I had to find a way to make my characters likeable, even though they were engaged in putting on Games that we would find brutal in the extreme, yet which were entirely acceptable in their time. The more I explored the team, the more I saw them as a motley crew of misfits and outlaws: tough, sexy, rude and dangerous. 

What is required of any backstage team, regardless of the era?

Two qualities. Showmanship and organisation. Like it or not, the Games were a magnificent spectacle, capable of drawing crowds of 50,000 and more, up to 200 days a year. When you read about what they could do, from flooding and draining the arena in half an hour each way to raining down perfumed water to cool the crowds, you can’t help but be impressed. Meanwhile, from an organisational point of view, to manage what must have been thousands of staff and performers but without any modern technology, must have been quite a feat. My two main characters came to embody these two qualities: a manager with a gift for showmanship and his female scribe who keeps the team on track, day by day, through tragedy, loss and danger. And the slow-burn romance I have included, developing across four books, comes from the growing intertwining of these two characters and their qualities.

And so back to that question I dislike because of its too-narrow gaze. ‘Is it true?’ No, it isn’t. There is absolutely no record of the team I have created, so it is purely a fiction, albeit set into what I have strived to ensure is an accurate historical setting. But why did I create that fiction and why was it important to my vision of the past? Because I looked into the past and saw a gaping hole at the very centre of one of the most famous historical buildings of all time, and I saw the invisible threads that I could weave together to create a world that must once have existed.

From the Ashes by Melissa Addey ~~ Rome, 80AD. A gigantic new amphitheatre is being built. The Emperor has plans for gladiatorial Games on a scale no-one has ever seen before. But the Games don’t just happen. They must be made. And Marcus, the man in charge of creating them, has just lost everything he held dear when Pompeii disappeared under the searing wrath of Vesuvius. Now it will fall to Althea, the slave woman who serves as his scribe, to ensure the Colosseum is inaugurated on time – and that Marcus makes his way out of the darkness that calls to him.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS  is available for pre-order on AmazonUS, AmazonCanada, Kobo and Barnes & Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.