Hazel Gaynor spoke to author, Isabel Wolff to find out more about her tenth novel Ghostwritten, available now from HarperCollins. Isabel starts by explaining a little about the novel.
“Ghostwritten is set in present day Cornwall, and on Java during the Second World War. Its main character is a young ghost-writer, Jenni, who is asked to ‘ghost’ the memoirs of an elderly Dutch woman, Klara. Klara lives on a farm in Cornwall, but grew up on a rubber plantation in Java. When the Japanese invaded, Klara was interned in a prison camp with her mother and little brother. She has never talked about what she went through – the atrocious conditions, the punishments, the difficult relationships with the other internees, not to mention the cruelty of the Japanese guards. Now, approaching 80, Klara has decided to write her memoirs. Jenni is very drawn to the idea of working with her – until she learns that Klara lives in the very Cornish village that was the scene of a trauma that has haunted Jenni for twenty five years. Jenni had vowed never to return but now, after much soul searching, she decides to go back, not just to write Klara’s remarkable story of survival – but to try and lay to rest the ghosts of her past.”
“When writing a new novel I always start with what the heroine does for a living, because from this everything else will flow. I wanted her to be a ghost writer because I was interested in the psychology of someone who chooses to be in the background, shunning the limelight, especially in these celebrity-obsessed days. Once I knew that Jenni was going to be a ghost writer, I had to work out what the story that she ‘ghosts’ was going to be. I wanted it to be a wartime memoir, but not of the war in Europe, which has been written about so much, but of the War in the East, instead. I’d always been very interested in the Pacific War. My father’s friend, Dennis, had been a POW on the dreadful Thai-Burma railroad, and I knew from my parents that the experience continued to affect and distress him. In the early 80s I used to avidly watch Tenko which was a very popular TV series about a group of women and children interned in a jungle camp on Sumatra. I was intrigued by the way in which they tried to help each other, but, at times, would betray each other. And I had read and loved A Town Like Alice set on Japan-occupied Malaya – a novel that has stayed with me all my life. So I decided that Klara’s story would be a story of the internment of women and children in the Far East. I set it on Java because that was where the camps were most numerous. They were also, by and large, the worst.”
The narrative of Ghostwritten moves between Klara’s remembered experiences during the war, and the present day in Cornwall, where we learn more about Jenni and her story. Isabel explains how the two stories connect.
“Jenni’s story ties in with Klara’s although at first they seem to have little in common. Jenni is very reticent and reserved. She has become a ghost writer, because having to immerse herself in the lives of others means that she doesn’t have to think about her own life too much. For Jenni carries a terrible secret from what happened in Cornwall when she was nine – a secret that not even those closest to her know. The growing friendship between these two women, one old and one young, will enable Jenni to start to lay to rest the ghosts of her past.”
With much of the novel being set in the past, it is clear that Isabel carried out a significant amount of research in order to write so authentically about Klara’s life and her family’s traumatic experiences on Java.
“I used to be a BBC radio journalist, and so I approached the research that I had to do for this part of the story with great pleasure. I went to Java, I also interviewed two women, one in London and one in the US, who had been interned on Java as children and still had vivid memories of the camps, seventy years on. I read the memoirs of Dutch survivors and read scholarly historical studies of the period as well. In other words I immersed myself in the world of a tropical paradise that, after the Japanese invasion, became a living hell. At times it was hard to write, because what these women and children went through is so harrowing. I used to imagine what it would be like to be starving, and living with the daily fear of punishments that included beatings and head-shavings just for looking a soldier in the face. I tried to imagine what it would be like to stand in the hot sun, for hours at a time, at roll-call, with a child in my arms. I tried to imagine risking execution, by going under the fence to trade some meagre possession for the banana or the piece of bread that might keep my children alive for one more day.”
This is a fascinating novel which touches on some very raw human emotions. What does the author hope her readers will take from the novel?
“I think that by reading about my characters’ experiences – which are still within living memory – will make us realise how lucky we all are to have what we have. It certainly used to put my daily difficulties into perspective when I was writing it. The scenario may sound a little grim, but Ghostwritten is actually an uplifting story of triumph over adversity, and of learning how to forgive and move on with one’s life. The novel also shows the resilience of the human spirit – that these women were tested to destruction, but remained determined to survive. I also hope that the novel will increase awareness of this part of World War 2. When we think of the war in the Pacific we think of the poor men who were forced to slave on the Thai-Burma railroad, as dramatized in ‘Bridge On the River Kwai’ and ‘The Railway Man’. Few people know what happened to the women and children who were living in the region as the wives of teachers, planters, civil servants and merchants. There were 108 thousand of them, of whom 13 thousand died. I was very moved by the accounts of what they suffered, and I wanted to write a novel that would put their ordeal, and their courage, at its heart.”
With this being Isabel’s tenth novel, has her writing routine changed much over the course of her writing career?
“The routine has changed a lot since having children. When I was single, I could stay in my nightie, writing all day if I felt like it. Once I’d had my kids, it became a matter of writing around their day to day lives. They’re at primary school now, so I walk them to school in the mornings, then charge round the park with our cocker spaniel, Alfie, for an hour before getting down to work. I write in the mornings, and edit in the afternoons, then suddenly it’s 3.20 and time to collect the kids, so the writing stops. Quite often I’ll go back to the book late at night when the family’s asleep but by then it’s late and I’m tired and I often wake up with my forehead on the keyboard and akjfhjkadhjahfjkahdalkdflkajdfkajfdklj on the screen.”
So when she’s not falling asleep at the desk, or writing, what does this writer like to read?
“I’m currently reading Jane Thynne’s The Winter Garden which is the second of her Clara Vine trilogy that began with Black Roses. It’s set in 1930s Berlin and is very atmospheric and compelling. I’m also re-reading The Separation by Dinah Jeffries, which is a wonderful novel set in 1950s Malaya. Dinah and I are doing lots of Waterstones talks and literary festivals over the next few months, about ‘Novels Set in the Far East’, and the first of these is coming up soon so I’m preparing for it. If anyone’s interested there’s a list in the Events section of my website, www.IsabelWolff.com.”
And finally, what’s next?
“I’m just at the very early stages with my next novel, which is going to be set in India. My mother was born there, and her parents lived there until Partition in 1947, and so my mind is working along these lines, but I’m afraid that’s all I can say for now!”
(c) Hazel Gaynor
About the book
Jenni loves her job as a ghostwriter – it satisfies her insatiable curiosity about people. And it means she can hide behind the stories of others, and not think about her own life too much…
But when she starts working on the memoirs of Klara, a survivor from the Japanese internment camps in Java, striking coincidences force Jenni to re-examine her own past.
Gripping, poignant and beautifully researched, Ghostwritten, like the huge popular Tenko, sheds light on a forgotten part of history. A powerful story of survival and love, of forgiveness and hope, it will linger long after the last page has been turned.
About the author
Isabel Wolff read English at Cambridge and is a former BBC broadcaster and freelance journalist. A Sunday Times bestseller, she is the author of nine bestselling novels which have been translated into thirty languages, selling five million copies worldwide. Isabel lives in London with her family. Catch up with Isobel at:
Ghostwritten is in all good bookshops, or available online here.