When Kelly Corrigan traveled to Australia in 1992, the only job she could find was as a nanny. Instead of just carpools and babysitting, she walked into a household still grieving the recent loss of the children’s mother. To her surprise, she found herself deferring to the wisdom of her own mother, who once said that her father “may be the glitter, but I’m the glue” — a pattern that would become more pronounced years later. This is a story about growing up and stepping up, but most of all, it’s about the great adventure of motherhood.
Take a look at the discussion questions below to guide your book club conversation.
1. As a young woman Kelly thinks, “Things happens when you leave the house,” and books a round-the-world trip to Australia. Do you think that these types of adventures are necessary to gain life experience? Does Kelly’s maxim change by the end of the book?
2. Milly and Martin respond differently to Kelly’s entry into their lives. Why do you think this is? When (if ever) do things begin to change with Milly?
3. Like the characters in the book My Ántonia, Kelly wants to be someone important to Evan. What does she mean by that? Based on what Kelly reveals about Evan at the end of her story, do you think she was successful? Why or why not?
4. During her time in Australia, Kelly realizes that it’s only when she’s away from her mother that she can appreciate her forthright, often unyielding nature and the role she played in Kelly’s childhood. Have you come to see anything more clearly about your own mother over time?
5. Kelly often hears her mother’s voice in her head, offering advice and reciting her maxims as she tries to care for Milly and Martin. Has something similar ever happened to you? Does your mother have rules to live by?
6. What is the significance of Walker the American? How does he influence Kelly’s understanding of life experience?
7. Do you think daughters’ relationships with their fathers are inherently different from their relationships with their -mothers? Does Kelly’s relationship with Greenie support this? What does the fact that Mary kept Kelly’s shoplifting a secret from her father suggest?
8. John Tanner is working hard and quietly to raise his kids when Kelly arrives. How does he change over the course of the book? How would you have tried to help him adjust to his new circumstances?
9. When Kelly works at her mom’s real estate agency, she is shocked to hear co-workers describe her mother as “the life of the office” (page 87). Why is this an important moment for Kelly? How is your perception of your own mother different from her friends’ and colleagues’ perceptions?
10. On page 146, Kelly explains the phenomenon called “Reader Response.” Did you find yourself interpreting Glitter and Glue through the lens of your own personal experiences? Is it possible to read any book without automatically subconsciously comparing it to your own life?
11. Kelly remembers many vivid moments from her stay with the Tanners, including her trip to the beach and Martin’s tantrum walking home from school. Why do you think Kelly still thinks about the Tanners? Why do you think she chose to write this story after her cancer scare?
12. Of all the ideas juxtaposed in these pages—mothers and fathers, adventure and life experience, stepping out and stepping up—which resonate the most with you? Why?
13. On page 47, we learn where the title Glitter and Glue comes from. What do you think of having one parent as the glitter and another as the glue? Is this what it was like in your own family? Was this always the case?
14. Kelly often says that, for her, Glitter and Glue is fundamentally about acceptance, which she calls “the Mt. Everest of emotions . . . hard to get there, hard to stay there.” She defines acceptance as the moment you “actually stop trying to change someone, not because you’ve given up but because you finally realize that their way of being in the world is the right way for them.” Have you experienced this level of acceptance, either as the person accepted or the person accepting?
15. Kelly also talks about the difference between like and love, something she learned through her relationship with her mom. She says she “used to think love was just a whole lot of like but now she sees that you can like people you might never be able to love and you can love people deeply that you don’t particularly like.” Do you have any relationships that fall into either of these categories?
A vivid and heart-wrenching story of the last event-filled years in the life of Richard, Coeur de Lion. Taken captive by the Holy Roman Emperor while en route home – in violation of the papal decree protecting all crusaders – he was to spend fifteen months imprisoned, much of it in the notorious fortress at Trefils, from which few men ever left alive, while Eleanor of Aquitaine moved heaven and earth to raise the exorbitant ransom. For the five years remaining to him, betrayals, intrigues, wars, and illness were ever present. So were his infidelities, perhaps a pattern set by his father’s faithlessness to Eleanor. But the courage, compassion, and intelligence of this warrior king became the stuff of legend, and A King’s Ransom brings the man and his world fully and powerfully alive.
Take a look at the discussion questions below and discuss with your book club!
1. Richard places a good deal of importance on the notion of honor. How would you define Richard’s code of honor? Does he consistently live up to it? Do you have your own code of honor? If so, can you describe it?
2. Richard reflects on his mother’s sixteen years of imprisonment by his father, noting her fortitude in surviving it for so long. Compare Eleanor and Richard’s responses to captivity. What kind of impact did captivity and isolation have on each?
3. Eleanor is approaching seventy years old during the events of this novel. How do you think her age and experience impact her politicking?
4. As a prisoner, Richard observes that “words were his weapons now” (page 239). How does Richard’s battle style, when he is armed with words, compare to his tactics when he is armed with a sword?
5. While imprisoned by Hadmar, Richard gains a new perspective on Duke Leopold’s reasons for leaving Jerusalem after Richard disrespected the Austrian flag. Before hearing Friedrich’s arguments, Richard had never tried to see Leopold’s side. How do you think this new information influenced Richard’s subsequent actions toward Duke Leopold? In a broader sense, do you think this incident impacted Richard’s diplomatic practices? For example, did it make him more open-minded, or more inclined to empathize with his enemies? Can you think of any examples of Richard demonstrating an ability to appreciate multiple sides of an argument?
6. Discuss Pope Celestine’s leadership from Rome. How did his allegiances impact Richard’s fate? What motivates his actions? What is your view on the Catholic Church’s role in the political landscape at this time? Should the Pope have done more to protect the holy crusaders?
7. Eleanor and Hawisa discuss marriage as being “a man’s game” (page 310). Discuss the power dynamics in the royal marriages we observe in the novel.
8. Richard considers himself a devoutly religious man, as demonstrated by his efforts in the crusades. Discuss the nature of Richard’s faith and his relationship with God. Does he always act in accordance with the teachings of the Church?
9. Discuss the rivalry between Richard and John. What do you think of John’s actions during Richard’s long absence? Do you think Eleanor was too willing to believe the worst of John, as he says when she confronts him about his treachery? Did you believe his claims of innocence, as Eleanor did?
10. Compare Richard’s leadership style with that of the other kings and dukes he encounters. In what ways is Richard more or less effective than his contemporaries?
11. Discuss Richard’s relationship with Berengaria. Were you surprised by his infidelities? Is he right to stay with her, despite knowing she will never give him a son, or does he have a responsibility to the crown to produce an heir?
12. How did you react to Richard’s final days? How do you think the author feels about Richard?
13. Richard, though he was King of England, spent very little time in that country. Do you think his actions in Normandy and France were in the best interest of his country, or was he motivated by his personal connections to that land and his hatred of Philippe II?
Kelly Corrigan’s “Glitter and Glue” – now in paperback – is about who you admire and why, and how that changes over time. Read the conversation between her mom and children and see if you can recognize any of these generational differences in your own family!
A Conversation Among the Generations
July 26, 2014
Last summer, the girls and I visited my parents at Wooded Lane. On our last night (of possibly a few too many), we were told to meet in the TV room at 4:55 p.m. to watch a horse race, one of my mom’s favorite things to do, though after fifty-two years as my father’s wife, she has acclimated to all spectator sports (not to mention all sports commentary, e.g., ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption). “Our horse is number seven, Sierra Alpha,” Jammy explained, because Sierra Alpha was trained by her best friend’s grandson. Turns out, our horse ran a strong race to finish second. Things were looking up.
We moved to the kitchen table for drinks (the girls had the sugar-free cranberry juice my mother bought to placate me) and to play a few rounds of Rummikub. Claire, eleven, won repeatedly, while Georgia, nearly thirteen, pretended not to care. We switched then to King and Scum, a card game Tracy Tuttle and I learned from some Sigma Chi’s in college. Hanging over my head was an assignment from Jen Smith, my editor, God love her, who had asked me more than once if I might be able to capture a conversation with my mom to include in the back of the paperback. I explained to her that this sort of thing—introspecting about interpersonal relationships—ran a high risk of making my mom’s skin visibly slither, but alas, I love Jen Smith, not to mention my readers, so I tried. Here’s what happened:
Me [opening my laptop]: So, Ma, I gotta ask you a few questions before we leave tomorrow.
Jammy [ignoring me, talking only to the girls, referring to her black T-shirt that says grandmas gone wild in small rhinestones affixed by a professional grade BeDazzler]: I wore my diamonds tonight. Don’t you like my diamonds?
Claire: I love them. Jammy’s gone wild.
Me: Nice, Ma.
Georgia [looking up from her cell; frowning at my fingers as they skip around the keyboard]: Mom, you aren’t putting this all in your thing, are you?
Me: Yes, all of it. Okay, so Mom, what are some of the differences between my mothering style and yours?
Jammy [eyeballing my laptop]: I don’t use my computer 7/24.
Georgia [laughing]: Jammy, it’s 24/7!
Claire: 7/24! Jammy said 7/24—
Jammy: 24/7! Whatever. Just wait till you get old.
Me: So, yes, okay, well, other than computers and technology—
Jammy: And iPhones . . .
Me: And iPhones, yes. But all that’s my whole generation. What are some of the more specific differences between the way you and I parent?
Jammy [shuffling the deck, ready to be done with this nonsense]: I think you have more highs and lows than I had. I was more even-keeled. More down the middle. I think you’re very easy sometimes, and then at other times you get very worked up, more stressed, more agitated.
Me [deciding whether to push back or quietly take offense]: Okay, interesting. Duly noted. Moving on: Who do you think was more strict—you or me?
Georgia: Jammy is definitely more strict.
Jammy: Don’t say more strict, Georgia. It’s stricter.
Claire: Me too. I think Jammy is more strict.
Jammy: Stricter, Claire. For heaven’s sake, Kelly, do these girls learn grammar in school?
Georgia: We’re on vacation.
Jammy: Grammar never takes a vacation.
Me [ignoring the grammar talk, except to recall with a smile my backup idea for a title, Poetry and Prose]: Really girls? You don’t think I’m stricter?
Georgia [looking at me]: I’ve had Jammy as a grandmother and she’s way more stricter than you.
[My mother and I share a long, surprised look. Absurd, our expressions say in unison. Jammy is a fool for my girls, an absolute bleeding heart.]
Me: Compare me as a kid and the girls now. How was I different?
Jammy: They’re full of it, I’ll say that, but you were very opinionated. You let me know exactly what you thought about everything. Every. Little. Thing.
Greenie [having wandered over, now laughing in agreement]: You were very verbal, Lovey.
[We are all smiling now. I’m still “verbal.” An easy joke among my friends is that where any crowd gathers—a line at Target, say—I’m liable to flip over the nearest shopping basket and speak out on some issue that I’ve been working through, and I’m always working through some issue.]
Claire: I have a question. What’s the hardest part about being a mom?
Me: I hate not knowing what to do. There’s a lot of times that I don’t know what to do. I thought I was going to be more sure—
Jammy: More sure? Good grief. Surer.
Georgia: Oh my God, Jammy.
Jammy: God? Are we going to church? Are we praying now?
Me [addressing Claire]: I thought I would be surer. But then, and this happens all the time, some situation will bubble up and I’ll be totally lost, or torn. Like you’ll ask to go to some concert, or for some expensive flat iron, and I don’t know whether to give it to you or not. I can’t even decide how late to let you stay up on a school night. And I don’t know how to teach you about money, like whether or not you should have an allowance, how many chores, how many bathing suits.
Georgia: More than one!
Me [suddenly really needing to get this out]: And I often don’t know what’s fair to expect of you, like whether I should punish you for losing your Stanford sweatshirt or forgetting to feed the dog . . . I mean, I lose things. I forget things.
[Georgia nods as if she’s been waiting for me to notice this for years.]
Me: I know I have to pick my battles—I get that—but I find it hard to figure out which ones to pick. [To my mom] You knew, Ma. You always knew. You were dead sure.
Jammy: No, I wasn’t. Never. [I am wide-eyed.] I pretended.
Greenie [looking at me]: She pretended. She pretended beautifully.
Me: Wow. I’m stunned.
Georgia: You don’t pretend, Mom. I can totally tell when you don’t know what to do.
Me [still staring at my mother]: You were bluffing?
Jammy: Very ladylike.
Georgia: Jammy, Claire burps 7/24.
Jammy: Very funny.
Georgia: One thing about you as a mom, Mom, you’re very open with us. You’re, like, emotionally open. I can read you. Like, I know when you say Dad and I are going to talk about it, that means you don’t know what to do.
Claire: And you’re very open to our ideas.
Georgia: Oh, I totally disagree.
Claire [to Georgia]: No, she negotiates. Like if we want a new lacrosse stick or an app, we can try to cut a deal.
Georgia: She’s a compromiser, I guess, sometimes. Except when the wall comes down—like when we wanted to watch Step Brothers, and then, no way, you are not open for business.
Claire: Yeah, you have two sides to you. Your right side and your left side. [Cracking up.]
Georgia: Oh my God, Claire.
Jammy: We certainly are praying a lot tonight, aren’t we?
Me [giving the hush-up wave to the girls]: Okay, Ma, did you ever think I would be a writer?
Jammy: Definitely. You loved to write. Even when you worked at United Way, I still thought you would be a writer. You were very expressive. You are very expressive. [Handing Georgia a few plates] Take this over, Sugar.
Georgia: One sec.
Jammy [feigning shock]: Excuse me? You know what I used to tell your mother: Obey instantly, without comment.
Georgia [taking the plates over to the sink]: More strict.
Claire [to Jammy]: Who is more difficult to take care of: us or your kids?
Jammy: Well, I can spoil you girls. With your mother and your uncles, I had to constantly say No. That’s the job. I was the glue.
[I’m nodding. Glitter and Glue was definitely the right title]
Jammy: Being a grandmother is wonderful. [Looking at me, bemused] Shame there’s only one way to get here. [To the girls] You are the glitter of our golden years.
Greenie: That’s what we say, Lovey: Our grandchildren are the glitter of our golden years.
Me: Is there anything I do that makes you think, Oh, she got that from me?
Jammy [flatly]: No. I can’t think of anything.
Jammy: Not my religion, you barely know who Barry Goldwater was, and you don’t play bridge.
Me: Don’t you think I got the whole girlfriend thing from you? The Pigeons . . .
Jammy [brightening]: Yes! There’s something. Definitely. When I see you with Betsy or Tracy or Michelle Constable, I think, She’s a Pigeon-in-Training.
Me: Anything else?
Me: Okay, so how were you different with me than with Booker and GT?
Jammy: I don’t know. I didn’t raise the three of you the same.
Me: Right. So how?
Jammy: I don’t know. You needed different things.
Me: Like . . . ?
Jammy: Oh I don’t know. [Waving me off] I don’t like these conversations. It’s like you watching Bill O’Reilly. I don’t make you watch Bill O’Reilly, do I?
Me: You’re not going to answer these questions, are you?
Jammy: Let’s just play cards. Can’t we just play cards?
I asked her the next morning if she was glad I turned out to be a writer. She said, “Sure, I guess.” Suddenly anxious, I asked her if she ever wished that I didn’t write Glitter and Glue. “Absolutely not. I love that book. I think it’s your best one.” I said, “Well, I would think so. I mean, it’s all about you.” But she assured me that her assessment had nothing whatsoever to do with her portrayal as a tireless maternal genius. She just thought my writing “had gotten a lot tighter.”
After a pause, her hands back in the sink, where there were dishes to be done, she said, “Now can this be over?”
Now this can be over, Ma. Except to include this final photo of a vivacious knockout in her prime, a frank and complicated woman I would have loved to have been seated next to that evening, to have known as a peer, so that maybe it wouldn’t have taken me forty years to appreciate her properly.
When I realized I wanted to write the story of Richard III, I committed to it in a rather extreme way: I stopped practicing law and moved to England so I could do on-site research of the places I’d be writing about. I visited the castles and battlefields of the Wars of the Roses, becoming even more of an Anglophile and obsessive-compulsive about research in the process. The Sunne in Splendourwas published in 1982 and it truly was life-changing. For I was no longer a reluctant lawyer; I was now living my dream: I was a full-time writer. I promptly moved to Wales to research my next book. The result wasHere Be Dragons, which began my love affair with Wales and set the pattern for the next several decades.
I’ve had some interesting experiences over the years as I followed my muse up Welsh mountains, across Yorkshire dales, and onto French beaches. I climbed Conway Hill with a sprained ankle so I could gaze out across the estuary and see what Llywelyn and Joanna would have seen as they looked over at the deserted camp of his enemy and her father, King John. I stared down a herd of cows in search of the battlefield on the Lleyn Peninsula where Llywelyn ap Gruffydd fought his brothers on a hot day in 1255. On that same hunt, I discovered that my plan to have fleeing soldiers struggling in the river had to be abandoned since the water was so shallow a snake could not have drowned in it. But to my delight, I then came upon a sign warning of quicksand bogs. I resisted the temptation to have anyone swallowed up Hollywood-style. I did, however, let two characters blunder into the bog and lose interest in bashing each other until they could get back onto solid ground.
I once convinced a friend to join me in “breaking into” the Welsh waterfall at Swallow Falls so I could see how it looked by moonlight for a key scene in Here Be Dragons; I still remember her muttering “I cannot believe I am doing this” as we found a hole in the fence and clambered through. This same friend and I took three trains to reach the Italian town of Viterbo where one of the most infamous killings of the Middle Ages occurred. Standing there in the piazza, it took little imagination to envision that March morning in 1271 when Simon de Montfort’s sons dragged their cousin from a church and murdered him as vengeance for their father’s death at Evesham.
I have tramped across battlefields beyond counting. I have visited great cathedrals and haunting castle ruins as I chased my medieval spirits along the Breton coast, through the Loire Valley, and to Siena, York, and Paris. And I enjoyed almost every moment of these research trips—all the more so because they were legitimate tax deductions!
Then came Lionheart, my novel about one of the most celebrated and controversial medieval kings, Richard I. That novel dealt primarily with Richard’s role in the Third Crusade. On his way to the Holy Land, he logged more miles than Marco Polo, with stops in France, Italy, and Cyprus along the way. But for the first time, I was unable to visit all of the sites I was writing about. I knew it was not necessary—I’d always known that. Yet it was such an enjoyable part of the writing experience that I felt bereft without it. I was laboring under a crushing deadline though, and could no longer take the time for the leisurely sojourns of the past.
The advent of the Internet has made life much easier for writers of historical fiction. We’re able to find long out-of-print books with the click of a mouse, unlike the old days when we searched dusty shelves in small, secondhand bookshops, hoping to find a gem nestled amid the dreck. It was like going on a treasure hunt, and it could be fun, although packing up the books myself and then lugging them to a British post office to mail home was definitely not. I was relieved to discover that the Internet also provides enough visual imagery to satisfy the most demanding writer.
I found videos of Palermo churches, Cypriot beaches, and the cliffs of Arsuf, where Richard fought and defeated his legendary foe, Saladin. When I began writing the sequel, A King’s Ransom, and was once again denied the opportunity to follow in Richard’s footsteps as he began his harrowing journey home from the Holy Land, I looked to the Internet. I watched so many videos of Dürnstein Castle, perched on a crag high above the River Danube, that I sometimes felt as breathless as those tourists gamely forging up that narrow path to the citadel -ruins. When Richard’s galley was shipwrecked on Lacroma during a storm, I turned to YouTube for videos of Lokrum Island, its name today, and was amused to learn that the beach where he came ashore is now a famous nudist beach. His Ragusa is known to us as Dubrovnik, the beautiful walled city on the Croatian coast that was on my bucket list long before I ever imagined I would be writing of the Lionheart. The Internet came to my rescue again until I was able to get Richard back to familiar ground—to England and France, to the siege of Nottingham and to Château Gaillard, and the cloud-kissed castle he built on the chalk cliffs above the Seine, just a day’s march from Paris.
In writing Lionheart and A King’s Ransom, I belatedly learned that modern technology is the writer’s friend. I felt comfortable writing of places that I’d not actually seen for myself because I’d watched videos that transported me there, at least in my imagination. But the travel urge is a powerful one, and it can be contained by deadline dragons for only so long. I am currently working upon Outremer, a novel set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the twelfth century, and in a few months, I will be climbing to the top of the Tower of David in Jerusalem, walking the streets of the Old City in Acre, and breathing in the dust of the battlefield at the Horns of Hattin. I cannot wait!
When young ghostwriter Jenni Clark agrees to pen the memoir of an elderly farm owner, she expects nothing more than the ordinary, quiet tale of a life well-lived by a woman well-loved. But Klara’s life has been far from quiet; and as she narrates her story of a family ripped apart by life in the internment camps of Java during World War II, Jenni finds herself forced to face her own ghosts, products of a long-buried, devastating childhood secret. In lovely prose, with humor and grace, Wolff creates a riveting tale of love and loss across generations.
Isabel took time to chat with Random House Reader’s Circle about what inspired her and what her research was like. Check out the full conversation here!
A Conversation with Isabel Wolff
Random House Reader’s Circle: What drew you to write about what happened in Java during World War II?
Isabel Wolff: When planning my novels, I always start with what the heroine does for a living, because from this, everything else will flow. Once I knew that Jenni would be a ghostwriter, I had to work out what the story that she “ghosts” was going to be. I decided that it would be a wartime memoir, not of the conflict in Europe, which has been written about so much, but of the war in the East instead. I’ve always been very interested in the Pacific war. I remember, as a child, learning that my parents’ friend Dennis had been a POW on the Burma-Thailand Railway. My mother told me, in hushed tones, that Dennis had suffered terribly and seen “dreadful things,” although she didn’t want to say what those things might have been. As a teenager I used to avidly watch the TV drama Tenko, about a group of British and Australian women interned in a jungle camp on Sumatra. I was moved by their struggle against disease, malnutrition, and the capricious cruelty of their captors. I was also fascinated by their desire to help one another but also, at times, to betray one another. And I’d read A Town Like Alice, set in occupied Malaya, a novel that has stayed with me all my life. So I decided that my ghostwritten story would be a memoir of internment in the Far East. There were many locations in which it could have been set: civilian men, women, and children were interned right across the region, in Singapore, the Philippines, China, Malaya, and Hong Kong. I decided to set the novel in the Dutch East Indies, on Java, where the camps were most numerous. They were also, by and large, the worst.
RHRC: Parts of Klara’s and Jenni’s stories are very painful to read. Were they painful to write too?
IW: They were, largely because I write in the first person and so I have to “become” my characters in order to convey what they’ve been through in a believable way. Klara’s story required a great deal of research. First I interviewed two women who had been interned on Java as children and whose memories of the camps were still vivid, seventy years on. I also read the memoirs of Dutch survivors, whose accounts of the appalling conditions, cruel treatment, and the atrocious train transports were distressing. So I immersed myself in their remembered world of a paradise that had become a living hell, and into this I placed the fictional characters of Klara and Peter and their parents, the Jochens, and the vengeful Mrs. Dekker. Jenni’s story was also painful to write, but in a different way: She is a captive too, though her prison is an internal one of profound remorse at the fatal mistake she made on the beach that day.
RHRC: Was it difficult writing from two very different women’s points of view? Who did you feel closest to, Klara or Jenni?
IW: I didn’t find it difficult because I was so interested in them both. I knew that I’d simply have to inhabit their characters completely in order to summon their memories and feelings as though they were my own. In Klara’s case this meant doing the detailed historical research about her life in Holland and on Java, which would enable me to relate to what had happened to her in an authentic way. I felt close both to Klara and Jenni, because, like them, I have lost a brother, and know all too well their sense of irreparable loss, the feeling that a part of one’s very self has been wrenched away.
RHRC: Klara and Jenni are thrown together by a twist of fate, or by random chance. On the surface they seem to have little in common, but memories play an important part in both their lives. Was memory—its function, its legacy—something that you particularly wanted to explore in the novel? How powerful do you think it can be in forming personalities, forming lives?
IW: It’s true that these two women, one old, one young, seem to have little in common. However, as the interviews progress, they realize that they do. The twist of fate that reunites them is Jenni’s meeting Klara’s son Vincent at the wedding. Despite the mental terrors that Polvarth holds for her, Jenni decides to return, in order to confront the past, and to try and lay to rest the ghost that has haunted her for twenty-five years. So yes, memory is a key theme, particularly how we cope—or don’t cope—with very difficult memories. Jenni has chosen a job that lets her take refuge in the memories of others, because her own memories are a source of such pain. The novel is also about the power of memory, in that we are our memories—the sum total of all our experiences, held in our minds, to be retrieved and reflected upon, making us behave in this way or that. If dementia takes away our memories, it robs us of our personality too.
RHRC: Klara is quite literally a prisoner. Jenni is a bit of a prisoner too, in a prison of her own making. Do you think many people are trapped by the burden of guilt? How does one break free?
IW: Klara has been imprisoned by an occupying force, but Jenni has been imprisoned by her own conscience. She feels completely culpable for what happened to Ted. That tragedy and its legacy have shaped her personality, making her gravitate toward the shadows, concealing herself, happy that few people even know her name. It has also led her to shun family life, because she believes that she doesn’t deserve to have a child. I felt very sorry for Jenni. In real life, perhaps therapy would have helped her come to terms with what happened. But she exists in a novel, and I decided that Klara would help her start to break free of her past, enabling her to view the tragedy in a different way.
RHRC: You describe Cornwall and Java in great detail. Are these places you know well? Are some locations in the novel fictional?
IW: The rubber plantation, Sisi Gunung, is made up, but all the other places on Java are real and are described from my research, and from a trip I made to Java. Polvarth is fictional but is based on the coastal hamlet of Rosevine, where I spend many holidays. Trennick is modeled on the fishing village of Portscatho, nearby. The Cotswold village of Nailsford and the Church of Saint Jude are invented, and I created one or two of the characters that feature in Tjideng. Lieutenant Sonei, Mrs. Cornelisse, Mrs. Nicholson, and the Korean guard Oohara all existed, but I have invented Sergeant Asako and Lieutenant Kochi. I have also transposed the worst punishments from camps Kampung Makassar, Banyu Biru, and Ambarawa to Camp Tjideng.
RHRC: How long did the novel take you to write, and were you consumed with thoughts of the Second World War in the Far East all the time you wrote it?
IW: The novel took eighteen months to write, largely because of all the historical research that I had to do. I was fairly obsessed by thoughts of the war in the Far East. I’d close my eyes and try to imagine what it must have been like to be in a house with eighty or even a hundred other people, with no possibility to be alone, in peace and quiet. I tried to imagine the hunger that prompted these desperately thin women to write out recipes for delicious dishes that they knew they would never get to eat. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have my head shaved, or to stand at tenko for hours at a time with a child in my arms. What these many thousands of women endured is not widely known; I wanted to write a novel that would have their ordeal, and their courage, at its heart.
RHRC: In some ways Shadows Over Paradise is a departure from your previous novels. For one thing, the main thrust of the novel isn’t a love story. Was this intentional?
IW: Shadows Over Paradise is first and foremost a story of survival, and so to have focused on romance would have felt wrong. Having said this, there is some romance—the growing love between Arif and Susan, for example, and the faltering relationship between Jenni and Rick. But the main thrust of the novel is about how women coped in such atrocious conditions, how they kept sane, not knowing where their husbands and sons were, or if they were even alive. It’s also about how they tried to maintain decent standards of behavior when they were living with so much fear, and when every basic comfort had been taken away. As for Shadows Over Paradise being a departure from my previous novels, this is true. The earlier romantic comedies such as The Making of Minty Malone, Out of the Blue, and Rescuing Rose have given way to stories in which I blend present and past. This is something that began with A Vintage Affair and continued with
The Very Picture of You. Shadows Over Paradise maintains that process of change. I very much hope that the readers of my earlier books will enjoy these later, semi-historical novels too.
RHRC: For those who would like to get to know more about Java in the time of the Second World War, what resources would you recommend?
IW: I’ve listed many books on the subject of the Japanese occupation of Java. Of these, I particularly recommend Jannie Wilbrink’s Java Lost, Boudewijn van Oort’s excellent and scholarly Tjideng Reunion, and Ernest Hillen’s moving memoir, Way of a Boy. There are also some very informative websites, notably Elizabeth van Kampen’s Dutch East Indies site, www.dutch-east-indies.com; the East Indies Camp Archives, www.indischekamparchieven.nl; and the Tjideng Camp website, members.iinet.net.au/~vanderkp/tjideng.html.