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 times they are a-changin’

There are many works of Roman political and military fiction, but few set in the late era like SONS OF ROME, and none with such a unique dual viewpoint as the story is told in turn by two different protagonists each voiced by a different author. Sons Of Rome, which releases today, is the creation of  Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty, who have more than 50 novels between them. I’m delighted to have Simon on the blog today.

So, in writing historical fiction, one of the prime requirements is trying to get our heads into the era. The further back our milieu, the harder it can be to connect with the people about whom we’re writing. Or can it? Can you imagine how different the world was at the end of the Third century? A world of pagan gods, of savagery and superstition, of autocracy and monsters? Let’s look a little deeper at it all.

The world into which our protagonists Maxentius and Constantine are thrown at the closing days of the third century is one in which religious strife is common. Christians might still have been persecuted under recent regimes, but they were also increasingly numerous and a strong sector of society even in the capital. Already, even before the Catholic Church exists (thank you, Mr Constantine), there are divisions and schisms arising. The Christian Church was still in flux at this stage, and there was no central set of tenets for an organised worship as there were once Constantine delineated them at Nicaea. As such there were many differing beliefs even within the Church, which often came into conflict with one another. Add to this the Lapsi (those Christians who had recanted their Faith during the persecutions and who now wanted to re-enter the Church) and you have something of a mess, with frequent conflict and persecution. I wonder what a Roman from 205 AD might think of our modern world with its settled religious state and lack of conflict?

With the era of Constantine and Maxentius, we are looking at a time when a once-great empire ruled by a strong and individual leader has all-but broken up due to internal pressures, both political and economic. The Rome of Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian is but a distant memory. Just a couple of decades ago, a huge chunk of the western empire had enjoyed many years as a separate and breakaway empire until brought back into the fold by the sword, and during that time the powerful city of Palmyra had done much the same with a large swathe of the East. There have been secessions, usurpers and civil wars for a century. Recently, the powerful emperor Diocletian tried to devolve the nation into more than one piece, a system called the Tetrarchy, each with their own rulers within a grand system, all in an attempt to try and halt the decay. At least nothing like that happens now, eh? Devolution and local governments, and independence sought by constituent parts of larger conglomerates… And certainly I’m sure we don’t have to worry about the rise of autocrats unsatisfied with being part of a larger machine and forging brutally conservative nations. *Coughs nervously*

Sarcophagus

Perhaps one of the most distinct differences between the empire of the late Third century and the modern world is our modern individuality, yes? Rome sought to enfold all within its grasp, whether by peaceful annexation or by conquest. Its religious policy was inclusive. Skin colour was no issue. Cultures may be disparate, but once part of the empire they were all Roman, subject to the usual low-level grumbles of the mentally myopic. This inclusiveness, added to military conquest and political machinations led to an empire that stretched from Scotland to the Sahara and the Atlantic to the Red Sea, all with Latin as the Lingua Franca, the Roman system of coinage, and the same military, political, social, architectural and engineering systems. Imagine if you could take your cash from the west coast of Portugal, cross every national border without worry, reach the east coast of Bulgaria, and still be able to spend that money? Wow, eh? But that was what it was like to be part of the empire in the third century. And if the common use of Latin empire-wide cannot be mirrored today, that’s only because Zamenhof’s language of hope – Esperanto – never gained sufficient popularity. Could the EU be the last descendent of Rome?

But at least we can content ourselves that now we are multicultural and widely-travelled. Because the third century was a land of Romans versus Barbarians, in which only the army travelled widely, surely? Perhaps not. After all, perhaps you could tell that to Barates the Syrian merchant, who married a Briton and lived in what is now Newcastle. And even to the occupants of the fort of Arbeia (‘Place of the Arabs’) there, who in the Third century were a unit of Boatmen from the Middle East. The simple fact was that traders and individuals travelled widely, and since military units were always posted far from their homeland, different accents and skin tones would be perfectly normal all across the empire. Heck, there were even tourists on Holiday. The emperor Hadrian toured his provinces and his wife visited sites of interest, including the Colossi of Memnon in Egypt, where she went so far as to leave graffiti. So you see once again, Rome in the imperial age was in a number of ways analogous to our modern world.

Barates’ Wife

At least we don’t have gladiatorial combat today. Mind you, we have cage fighting, ultimate fighting championships and the like. And I don’t think we have to look too hard to find a sport where vehicles hurtle around a track at dangerous speeds. And horse racing? Wrestling? Ok, maybe we’re not so different in that respect. And perhaps, then, we’ll go and see a comedy or a tragedy at the theatre? Perhaps we can watch some Frankie Howerd, whose monologues in Up Pompeii were derived from the works of Apuleius?

Were there differences between then and now? Of course there were. The world of Rome was a brutal one, and we have moved away from concepts such as slavery, divine leaders, organised torture and the like (for the most part). But despite the many differences you can identify, the simple truth is that we share more with our ancient counterparts than we hold as differences with them.

Remember that as you read Roman Historical Fiction and try to get your head into the mindset.

Many thanks for taking us back to the present, Simon.

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, and Indiebound.

Sons Of Rome by Simon Turney, Gordon Doherty ~~ Four Emperors. Two Friends. One Destiny.
As twilight descends on the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire is but a shadow of its former self. Decades of usurping emperors, splinter kingdoms and savage wars have left the people beleaguered, the armies weary and the future uncertain. And into this chaos Emperor Diocletian steps, reforming the succession to allow for not one emperor to rule the world, but four.

Meanwhile, two boys share a chance meeting in the great city of Treverorum as Diocletian’s dream is announced to the imperial court. Throughout the years that follow, they share heartbreak and glory as that dream sours and the empire endures an era of tyranny and dread. Their lives are inextricably linked, their destinies ever-converging as they rise through Rome’s savage stations, to the zenith of empire. For Constantine and Maxentius, the purple robes beckon… 

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest 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.

A Writer’s Inspiration

My grandmother’s second wedding was in October of 1977 when she was seventy-five. Unfortunately, my husband and I were students living in Vancouver at the time with insufficient funds to afford plane tickets for the big event. We sent a telegram with our congratulations in advance – the custom in those days for guests who could not attend – then telephoned my parents’ home at the time when the reception was scheduled in order to talk to the bride and groom.

Imagine us hearing the stunning news that my grandmother had died of a massive heart attack on the way to the church!

Reeling with shock, Ian and I went for a long walk before deciding that I would fly to Toronto that night on the red-eye flight to be with my family, attend my grandmother’s funeral, help deal with condolences and pick up the pieces. Over the years, I’ve come to think of her death with gratitude for how happy she was when it occurred. And I always thought it would make an amazing ending for a story.

However, writers are not always masters of their stories. In my case, it was my son’s friend Ashley, who made the difference. She agreed to read the first draft of Unravelled. She was an ideal reader, an English major and a woman of twenty-five who could give me insights into whether younger women would enjoy the story while at the same time providing useful editorial feedback. Ashley hated the ending.

I still remember her comments, written in large, underlined capital letters “YOU CAN’T LET HER DIE!!! IT’S TOTALLY UNSATISFYING.”

Well, the rest, as they say, is history! Unravelled does not end with a death. Instead it ends with hope. I won’t say anything more in case you decide to give it a try.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.