Interview with Lisa Brockwell about In The Mood
Lisa: What makes a good historical novel?
Laura: I read an interesting quote saying that all history is really the story of now. I think that’s very interesting when you look at the way the history of a certain time changes over the centuries. For example, if you looked at the history of Rome, written, say, by somebody just a short while after, like Tacitus, compared to a history of Rome written now, you can see the differences in how that story is told and what the concerns of the writers are. Tacitus is concerned with the corruption and loss of the Roman ideal, and he was living under a tyrannical and decadent regime at the time he was writing. Whereas more recent histories are focused on the every day life and organisation of Roman society, their technological achievements and their slide into ruin. The concerns of the writer reflect the concerns of the day that they’re writing in. When I think of Rome, for example, I think of America, there are so many parallels. And that includes an interest in the colonial experience of people living at that time, because of my experience of being Australian in relation to the US, now. History is a very revealing document about the time in which it’s written and the person writing it.
I think to write good historical fiction you need to be aware of the point of view that you’re bringing to it. You have to be aware of who you are as a person of today to see that you’re bringing your concerns to how you look at the past and to be conscious of that. And the more conscious you are of that the more successful the it can be.Then you can release the characters from your point of view – from how you think they should have felt and acted for example, as opposed to how they would have. But I also think you can maybe see things in the situation that the characters may not have seen at the time.
Lisa: For me one of the gems about the book is the character of Catherine, who is a woman I recognise and a woman I could be, and I was just wondering, out of all the decisions Catherine makes, did any of them surprise you as a writer?
Laura: It’s very shocking when she goes to Kings Cross and she’s raped and she actually goes back into the bar, pretty much courting another rape. Of course she had been drugged, which happened to women then and happens to women now – but I was shocked by that. I think she does it because she’s in such an extreme situation of built up grief and anxiety, and of loneliness, and also I think being a woman of her time although she doesn’t explicitly think this until some time later, I don’t think she can even quite conceive of that as rape. She thinks she is somehow complicit in it and that she did somehow ask for it. All the way through the writing of the story I’ve been interested in that. That it wouldn’t occur to her to complain about it. At no moment does she think of herself as a victim or as a survivor. In a way it quite helps her to be so black and white about it – it happened, you have to go on. But I think in another way it’s very sad for her because she’s just so totally alone and the consequences of it are so enormous for her life.
And the other thing that surprised me, or that I thought about a lot, was her seeming to not worry about Robert being unfaithful, at all. Because I think – I wondered if I would. And I really don’t think she does. I came to the thought that probably if my husband went away to the war and was in that situation I don’t think I would worry about that actually. Of course, who knows, and I really don’t think you can know until you’re in that situation. But I think that I might not want to know, as long as I knew that he loved me, and the way I would know that is that he would communicate with me. And that’s the trouble. Robert stops writing to her and stops communicating with her and that’s what she holds against him and will never forgive and I really understand that. So that’s how I came to understand that in Catherine as well.
I do think people in extraordinary situations need to cope as best they can. And if your man going to a brothel, or hooking up casually with a woman for a little while helps him cope, I might choose not to think about that. When there’s so much that you’re choosing not to think about anyway I might just add that to the list, if I could manage that. And as long as he came home to me and wrote to me and loved me I might not really think about that too hard. It would be very different once he came home, in peace time. I think Robert is faithful to Catherine in peacetime. Did you?
Yes, definitely. I don’t think he would think about doing that.
And he doesn’t.
One of the other strengths of the book is the way that it so much reflects a marriage, that the structure gives both characters point of view, and really is so even handed about treating them both as real people, and so really getting to the difficult and thorny issues of renegotiating intimacy. A lot of books take one side or the other and you work out who the writer is rooting for and the other character becomes the stereotype baddy. And that doesn’t happen in In the Mood and that creates tension and sadness and real beauty. I was wondering if you found that difficult as a writer, to keep it so even. Were you tempted to side with one or the other?
That comes back to where I got the idea of the book from. That I did love the music of that time so much and that I did understand what that woman who rang in saying the music was so false, was saying. (Author’s note: When I was living in the UK a few years ago, during a radio program commemorating celebrating the music of Glenn Miller, particularly the song ‘In The Mood’, a woman phoned in saying how much she disliked it, because its lightness and gaiety was so out of keeping with the horror of the times.) And so that lead to a debate, really, between two different people. I think I have those two parts in myself. I mean, there’s so much joy to be experienced every day, isn’t there? And in every day things like music and making love and food – there’s so much to appreciate and enjoy and be grateful for. And that’s Robert – that’s what he’s pursuing, he’s pursuing that course with a vengeance.
But then I really do know and understand how if you just push all the sadness away, as Robert is doing, you can become a hard person. You’re hard because you’re actually doing that to yourself all the time – pushing a part of yourself away, and it also makes it impossible for other people to be their whole self with you, because you don’t want to know about their darkness or their doubt, either, and so then you actually can’t be intimate with anyone. So I really understood Catherine’s point of view, and the woman’s who phoned that radio program’s point of view, that much as you’d like everything to be fun and happy and gay, if things actually aren’t that simple, there’s a sort of freedom and respect in acknowledging that and dealing with that.
There’s a theme of recovery from trauma too. Which is something I’m very interested in – that goes with my interest in storytelling, because I think stories have the power to be healing. It is a live debate, if it’s better to talk about traumatic experiences or not talk about them. We’ve been through a big therapy movement that is in favour of going over and over the experience. But now some people think that might actually be harmful.
In those days women were advised when their husbands came home from the war not to ask them about it and to discourage them from talking about it. If they brought it up to change the subject. And women were encouraged to act as though nothing had changed, both in their lives and their husbands lives. It couldn’t really go from further from one extreme to the other!
It’s such a wonderful luxury that our culture has got to the point where we can wonder about those things – the best way to get over trauma, I mean, or be capable of intimacy and connection. Five hundred years ago most people didn’t live long enough to worry about it. Or there weren’t the resources. It’s so wonderful that we’re in a position now to think about it. Some people might see that as indulgent whereas I see that as a real hope for healing, both as individuals and as a society. And I don’t think we know. Religion is concerned with that. It’s a big part of any organised spirituality or practice – how to heal. How to forgive. I think it’s a key question. And I think we need to – I wish we would more overtly and as a society contend with it. Because a lot of the time people just get left alone, or discarded, and then find themselves unable to cope. We lose a lot in losing those people, and we lose a lot in not being able to reconcile all the bad things that happen along with the good. We lose the truth.
One example would be in the romanticisation of the soldier as a hero – it makes us more ready to go to war. It also interferes with the way we conduct our wars – this idea that we can send soldiers into an area as peacekeeping troops for example. I know Australian soldiers have done an amazing job at that, and I’m in awe of that. But we’ve also heard the stories of peacekeeping troops where terrible things happen to the civilian population. I think there’s a real misunderstanding, or a conflicted understanding, of what a soldier is trained to do and what a soldier is. And they can’t be everything to everyone. They have to become people who can kill. And that has a real impact on those soldiers and the people they are among, at the time and forever. I think if we were less romantic about it, maybe we could be more successful in the way we conduct war and the way we conduct peace.
Another example is the breadth of the term war crime, to be any time people inadvertently get killed, it’s now called a war crime. As thought they’re not real guns.
And when I was researching the book it really interested me how torture happened a lot on both sides during the war in the Pacific in World War II. And also killing of prisoners of war. And in a way I think that it’s shocking, but I also think it’s not. There’s only so much you can ask of people before they change. Or they really are – Robert really is too tired. He’s buggered. He wants his dinner. And so he does something that weighs on his conscience forever. I was very interested in the research how often I came across stories like that. And my guess is that if it serves someone’s purposes to now, they might pick on someone and say something like that is a war crime, whereas I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
There’s a romanticisation too in talking about for example, a ‘smart bomb’, or a ‘surgical strike’. There’s this whole myth that war is so in control these days and soldiers are these cool professionals – I would like it if we could be more real about who soldiers are and what war is and how much heroism you can actually expect.
Like the guy in that recent movie, Waltz with Bashir, who was in hiding and survives while the rest of his battalion is being slaughtered, and then felt bad about it afterwards. It seemed like an entirely sensible thing to do.
Like Robert, who cowers and is terrified. Soldiers are just people.
And you want them to be people.
That’s the impossible position they are put into. They need to change as people but we don’t want them to change too much. We want them to be good warriors but then we want them to come home. And there’s a real problem with that that we struggle with as a society. Bob Stumpf, Commanding officer the US Navy’s Blue Angels exhibition squadron said in an interview with Dan Baum, who was writing for The New Yorker magazine at the time: ‘The emphasis has shifted dramatically from how to administer death and destruction to the enemy, to how to get along, and that warrior culture has been severely diluted.’
I think that’s really letting them down in a way, for us not to be more truthful and realistic about what happens in war. We’re choosing the fairytale over accepting as a society the responsibility for what we’ve done in sending them over there. What they might have done, what’s happened to them. One thing about storytelling, about being a writer, is you have the opportunity to offer a different story to the received one. You’re telling a story that everybody knows and can relate to, like the man coming home to his wife, but as a writer you have the power to cast light on shadowy areas of that story, on the areas not talked about, the silences, that are so destructive. Often shame is in those silences, and also vested interests. I wonder in whose interests it serves really, to romanticise war.
I can think of a lot of answers to that.
There’s also a lot of shame around post traumatic stress disorder, and I understand it, because I don’t think it’s easy for any man to say I need help, I need support, I can’t cope. And so it’s not going to be easy for a soldier to say that. One way we could make it easier for them to cope would be if we were all more realistic about war and more true to the real problems and the real history of these things than to some sort of comforting stereotype.
I wanted to ask about – it seems that In The Mood is – as well as being about the war, it’s about big changes that are happening in Australian society. It seems as much about ambition as it is about the war. For Catherine, for Robert, for Lewis. How they deal with ambition is an important part of the book. I was interested in hearing how you think ambition is a part of the book and what the book says about it.
It does seem to me a really important part of life is your work and in doing what you want. I don’t mean doing what you want in some sort of selfish way – even that that term is seen to be bad, or implies selfishness is revealing. I mean if you think you would be a good architect, making it possible for yourself to go to university and practise as an architect. And that – I guess, it’s one of my fundamental beliefs that we all have something to give. A lot of people don’t get to do that. They’re stopped by forces outside of themselves and also they’re stopped by forces inside of themselves. I’m so interested in this as it applies to women in particular, because in Catherine’s day so much wasn’t possible for women and the social changes have been extraordinary since then, particularly in the area of reproductive rights, and rights at work, and I’ve been really surprised as I’ve grown older to see that women still don’t pursue their ambitions – in lots of ways they are still like Catherine. Still not feeling entitled to go for what they want in life, not feeling entitled to fail and to succeed, still unable to or unwilling to fight for a place where they can give what they think they have to contribute to society.
There’s a character, Pam, in the book who is obviously born to be a mother, and loves children and just needs to be with children and it’s interesting seeing her achieve her ambition. And motherhood is an ambition that women are encouraged to go after. But just as I think that’s a kind of gift that some women have, of particularly liking that and being suited to it, I think a lot of women have other gifts to give, and it’s interesting to think why don’t they? I wanted to explore the barriers outside of Catherine to doing that, and they’re not all legal ones. Women actually could practise as architects then. A lot of those legal barriers that were in place for women then – like unfair divorce settlements, and abortion, if you had money, you actually could overcome them. Because of course that’s the big question when women are forced to leave their jobs, isn’t it? Or get pregnant by accident. Where you stand in relation to money. Dependence and money are such important topics for women. And work and money are related, children and money are related. Money is very important in that, but I was also very interested in exploring what were the other barriers inside and outside these characters standing in the way of them getting what they want.
The war was cataclysmic, and this was the case for a lot of people in changing that for them. I know that in Australia and in America a lot of soldiers came home and demanded rights they hadn’t demanded before. And that’s probably because they knew what they’d sacrificed but also because they’d learned how to fight. Lewis does that. Robert does that. I wanted to have Robert – he’s very privileged. He’s white, Anglican, has a wife, has some money and social standing, has a job. And even he has to learn how to fight. I am very interested in social change, but as I’ve grown older I’ve become much more interested in what’s actually inside us that stops us, or that empowers us. Because now women really can do what they want. And yet, I’ve found this just stunning that there’s still just so much talk all the time …
It might be every person’s journey in life to overcome barriers. And maybe it’s not easy for anybody. For Robert, it’s not easy for him, either. Even – you can take the most privileged person and there are going to be things that they are going to have to overcome.
I’m very interested in fighting, and I think maybe … Australian culture just loves everything to be easy and everyone to be comfortable and easy going. And you should never act as if you try too hard or as if you want something a lot or as if you put a big effort into something. Whereas to me a lot of those qualities – if you want excellence you do have to try really hard, and you do have to risk humiliation and failure – I don’t see that how that laissez faire attitude goes with excellence.
And Australians actually are excellent in many areas and it’s a bit of a dirty secret. A lot of Australians are working really hard and taking themselves really seriously. I don’t like that split in the culture that says be like that but don’t admit it. A lot of otherwise capable people fall down into that split.
Like at my school and at university you were meant to do well effortlessly. And it’s such a shame because hard work and drive really does get you somewhere – it’s empowering. And doing nothing and waiting for things to fall into your lap tends not to result in much. I think this particularly affects women. There is something deeply unfeminine about working hard and being driven. That’s the case now as it was then and in the novel Catherine struggles with that. And women have to struggle with that now. It can be difficult for a woman to find the strength to take herself seriously in a lot of situations and there are inevitably going to be people in her life, for example the man she loves, who might well not want her to do that either. There are a lot of parallels between Catherine’s experience and women’s experience today. It’s about fighting.
So this is a war story on many levels.
And it’s about the way women fight, which is in a different way.
That’s shown so well with Pam and Catherine.
And also Connie and Catherine. I think it might be true that you have to fight for what you want. I don’t know that. I could imagine that that’s true.
You have to be ready to fight.
I don’t think you can just want something and just expect to have it all fall into your lap. Even though people love those stories of the overnight success it seems to me that usually people have been working for years and years before they have their overnight success.
I don’t like that Australian myth and I think that the interests that it serves are generally the interests of the status quo, and the interests of the upper class.
Hungry people are …
… unattractive. They might work hard and show you up. It’s just like the racism towards Asian immigrants because of how hard they work.
Femininity and ambition and success and taking yourself seriously and wanting things outside of the home were incredibly complicated back then, and they still are. And I think that a lot of what’s holding women back is somewhere in there. Maybe that’s going to have to be an individual journey, rather than something that can be changed in legislation or even changed on a community level or a cultural one. Maybe it’s going to be a journey that a lot of women are going to have to take on their own, first.
And Lewis is instrumental for Catherine in that journey it seems. He’s so different and takes himself seriously and is so charming and wonderful – I can really see why Catherine fell in love with him, I would have too. And not just because he could get her butter for breakfast! Which during the war must have been quite a thing.
Yes, she likes that just as much as making love!
I relate to that.
He’s just such a captivating wonderful character, and such an interesting counterpoint to Robert. He’s so willing to put himself on the line and be out there. And it’s very interesting that you’ve written a book about the Second World War where the Jewish character is not a victim. I was wondering what inspired you to write about Lewis.
I wanted to have a character who is outside of Catherine’s world, to highlight the particular hang ups and limitations of her world.
Lewis comes from New York. A lot of Jews emigrated to New York in the early Twentieth Century from situations of extreme poverty and pogroms and … a lot of the things that worry Australian society generally are just not a part of that world. They had to come to America and they had to survive and they’d come from centuries of having to do that, and of the broader society hating them, and making up different rules to hold them back, and literally trying to wipe them out and discriminate against them on every level. So for Lewis it’s second nature to fight and it’s natural to go hard for what he wants. Lewis doesn’t have any idea of ‘I’ll act like a nice person and someone else will give it to me.’ Which is the classic feminine tactic, or the tactic that you’re taught, anyway. I’m not sure how effective it ever is. That wouldn’t occur to him. I think he’s very empowered in that way. And Lewis offers that viewpoint to Catherine.
I was also interested in having a Jewish character because Catherine as a woman faces discrimination so I was very interested in having a character who was also discriminated against in a different way. And Jewish people certainly were in Australia at that time. They weren’t seen to be white. Catherine herself is automatically anti semitic. Just unthinkingly so, and she’s only ever once or twice even encountered a Jew.
It’s always very interesting seeing things from the alien’s viewpoint, and Lewis is such an exciting alien. It was important to me that he not be a victim but also that he not be perfect. He is addicted to benzedrene. I think there really is a question in the book how truthful he is. Because he does become infatuated so fast and make such big commitments so quickly I think it is a real question – I’m not sure how much I would rely on him.
Or how much is it the speed, the benzedrene, talking …
Exactly. And also I could really imagine he’s the kind of person who would be in love with you this week and in love with this incredible person he meets next week. And that’s what is so wonderful about him, but I’m not sure that I would want to stake my life on going to live with that man. I’m not sure about that at all. In some ways the most wonderful things about him – like his vulgarity and his complete disregard for all the self limiting niceties of everything – there might be real drawbacks to those things in another time, in another place. If Catherine went to live with him in New York for example. So I certainly didn’t want to present him as a perfect person because I don’t think that he is but he’s an incredibly exciting person and a really generous person.
I also wanted to have a story about a Jewish person set in that time that had nothing to do with the Holocaust. Because just as I think our view of WWII and of the Anzac Myth has been stage managed and wiped clean of diversity and anything problematic, I think that also happened to other ethnicities, like for example, all the black soldiers, the Aboriginal soldiers, they’re just not part of our stories about the war, or all the Gurkhas who fought on the Allied side. So many people of different colours fought the war, so many women. I wanted to have someone who wasn’t part of the white Aussie battler story or the white GI story just as naturally a part of it all as they were. Fighting and being absolutely a Marine, absolutely an American soldier, but also different. Not a grainfed boy from Kansas.
And of course we’re all different. Or if you aren’t, if you really do fit the ideal on the outside and on the inside then you’re very fortunate. I think a soldier from Kansas might well be fascinating to write about. And that’s why Robert’s important too. Because he is a kind of typical Australian soldier. But he’s not typical. He’s an introvert and can’t bear having to be social all the time. And he doesn’t have an ounce of larrikin in him. He couldn’t be less of a larrikin.
I also wanted to write about public relations because most of the famous images from WWII were set up by public relations people in the Forces. They did things like, they cast the photos, and they generally chose white Anglicans. They wouldn’t have more than one person who looked too Catholic, they wouldn’t have a black man, they wouldn’t have someone with a big nose, who might look Jewish. The view of the War that comes out of those iconic images is no accident. It’s been created that way. And that’s important to me too, I want to write about someone different in that story.
It’s really interesting to think about. Because I think maybe that’s why – if I think about the historical fiction that I like, most of it is by women. And that might be that women are more aware, highlighting, looking at the situation and thinking about, as you said at the beginning of the interview, trying to bring some light and some truth to the situation rather than just accepting the picture that we’ve decided to have about a certain era.
And do you think that’s a feminine thing to do?
I think it’s a thing that maybe women writers are more likely to do because maybe they’re fed up with women being portrayed in a certain era as being all heaving bosoms or meek mice.
Women are invisible to historians a lot of the time. But by the same token in many ways women and women’s concerns are still invisible now. And that’s a lot because they’re at home, and they’re in the private sphere, it’s not invisible but it’s private and there are no records left of that.
A writer I love is Ruth Park, she’s a great Australian writer, and she has written again and again – about that period in the first half of the twentieth century – that women didn’t exist as a social welfare and policy concern. So … for example, in New Zealand, when she was very young, during the Depression, she wrote about the different kind of arrangements that were made for poverty relief. She was living among people who were starving, and one of the families couldn’t take in a maiden aunt because they didn’t have enough food to share with her. And so she simply went off and died. And that’s a really tough decision they had to make then. And that was an example of how there was just nothing for women. And it wasn’t talked about, either, or problematised. There was nothing saying women couldn’t have anything. There just wasn’t anything.
There was an assumption by the authorities and the community at large that they would be looked after by families and by men, or manage somehow, in some magical way, and yet that assumption was being challenged everywhere you looked. There were starving women looking for shelter in churches, in libraries, all over the place. But they were somehow just not a part of any social policy or public conversation. When it came to women and children there was simply a silence.
In researching the novel I learned, unsurprisingly, that it was the same in Australia. In New South Wales, for example, men were required to collect their dole cheques in a different town every fortnight. This was in order to keep the poor moving, so that they couldn’t amass in the one place. Perhaps that was to preserve infrastructure in towns and cities but perhaps it was also to ensure they didn’t riot or start to organise politically. The trouble with that, though, of course, was that these men were away from their families. They would have sent money home, or that was the plan, anyway, but in the meantime women and children were left alone and vulnerable to fend for themselves. Ruth Park writes about families being evicted and on the street and their husbands and fathers off in the country somewhere to pick up their dole cheque and unable to be of any use.
When you read of speeches made in parliament about helping the poor at that time, or hostels being set up or relief work being done – there’s just no mention of or provision for women. It’s still often the case. That silence is so hard to enquire into, and so easy to ignore. You have to use your imagination.