Any writer will recognize this start: as a child, reading and writing were simply the things I always did. At seven, I filled an exercise book with short stories and gave them to my teacher to read at storytime. Thankfully I’ve blanked from my mind whether she paid any attention to such obnoxious behaviour or just continued with Roald Dahl.
I wrote through school, regularly contributing to the school magazine and composing the requisite anguished teenage poetry. But when I went to university, writing seemed the domain of the clever, shiny people and I stopped. In my twenties I wrote half a novel which was, thank goodness, never finished, and started working in publishing, desperate to keep that connection with books in some shape or form.
In my early thirties I moved to the USA and then Dublin for what became a seven-year stint and started writing non-fiction for publication. I couldn’t quite let myself get back to fiction, but at least I’d got the writing muscle back. In Dublin, I had thirty minutes every day between finishing work and collecting my baby and toddler from creche, and I would sit in the car with my laptop and just crack on.
By 2011, we’d been back in England for a year and, as anyone who’s lived overseas will tell you, there’s a sort of relief, a regained energy, that comes of being back somewhere where you’re no longer foreign. The Tory government announced that they were going to sell off some of Britain’s forests, potentially including the Forest of Dean, where I’d grown up. The concept that my formative landscape could be sold off randomly was just unfathomable. I wrote about it for the Guardian and realised that this, maybe, was the book I needed to write. I didn’t want to knock out an angry contemporary polemic, so I started to think about other times in history when this centuries-old forest might have come under threat.
The most obvious answer to this was the Second World War. This was a contradictory time for the forest; it was simultaneously being used as a sanctuary and a resource. GIs stored D-Day munitions in the old mine shafts, evacuees were sent from Birmingham, and a POW camp housed Italian and, later, German prisoners, who were set to work in the forest. The newly-formed Women’s Timber Corps had its training HQ in the Forest of Dean, with hundreds of girls and women filing through to learn how to manage Britain’s timber stocks. At the same time, the forest itself was being literally taken apart as demand for timber – for use as pit props, as replacement masts for ships, for rehabilitation and home-building after the Blitz – increased as a result of the war.
I started thinking about what it might be like to end up in such a potentially alien environment, perhaps initially against your will, and from this the characters in Shelter were born. Connie is a lumberjill whose factory life in Coventry comes to an abrupt end and who is seeking temporary sanctuary in the forest whilst she works out how to move forward with her life. Connie believes the forest is the solution to a very specific problem for her, and she’s determined not to let anything stop that. She’s paired for felling work with Seppe, an Italian POW who has found the first peace of his life as a POW working amongst the trees, far from the threat of his violent fascist father and military life in the desert.
The book took a number of years to write alongside work and small children, and changed shape immeasurably during the course of it. I felt my way through the material with the help of an astonishing writing mentor and then, later, with the editorial insights of firstly my agent, Juliet Pickering, and later my editor at Bonnier Publishing, Eleanor Dryden. I easily wrote 300,000 words to arrive at the 100,000 that have made it into print, but I don’t think any of those 200,000 words were wasted, however much I might wish for the gift of conciseness.
The book being submitted for publication was unbelievably nerve-wracking. I’m lucky to have a number of friends who are authors and they all warned me that it would be awful – and it was. But I was very lucky. The book went to auction, and I quickly recognized that Eli and the rest of the team at Bonnier had an infectious energy and enthusiasm, as well as really clear editorial and promotional visions for the book which matched my own.
Perhaps people always say this too, but it’s utterly surreal to see the book as a finished product. It almost feels like someone else must have written it. Certainly it seems unfeasible that all those hours eking out another thousand words outside my son’s football practice on a Friday night, the edits that came on holiday with me three years in a row, the roll of wallpaper with post-it-notes all over it, ever became a book. But they did, and now my novel about community and determination and home is going out there in the world. It feels so odd, and unbelievably exciting too.
(c) Sarah Franklin
Early spring 1944.
Connie Granger has escaped her bombed-out city home, finding refuge in the Women’s Timber Corps. For her, this remote community must now serve a secret purpose.
Seppe, an Italian prisoner of war, is haunted by his memories. In the forest camp, he finds a strange kind of freedom.
Their meeting signals new beginnings. But as they are drawn together, the world outside their forest haven is being torn apart. Old certainties are crumbling, and both must now make a life-defining choice.
What price will they pay for freedom? What will they fight to protect?
‘The world was alive out here, the scent of bud and blossom in
every breath a stark contrast to the thud of bombs into sandbanks,
or worse, the iron tang of blood.
This was a place where you could hide,
where you could start again . . .‘
Shelter is a captivating and tender novel about love, hope and how we find solace in the most troubled times.
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