Friday, August 19, 2011

Judith Starkston interviews Elizabeth Speller

book cover image The Return of Captain John Emmett Elizabeth Speller Poisoned Pen

I recently reviewed The Return of Captain John Emmett. Elizabeth Speller turns out to be a delightful writer with whom I shared a number of things in common including an interest in the classical world. She agreed to do an interview with me.
The Return of Captain John Emmett is her first work of fiction. She also writes poetry and ancient history. She has three children and a Viszla dog. She writes her books in two delightful locations: a restored shepherd’s hut in an old apple orchard on the edge of a Cotswold valley and in a small cottage on the Ionian island of Paxos.
Here’s our interview:
Judith: You are a classicist and ancient historian. I’m curious what drew you to the period following World War I rather than some part of the ancient world? Do you see any common themes or mood between the post WWI period in England and the Roman Empire of Hadrian, which you analyzed in your book Following Hadrian?
Elizabeth: I think it was a similarly highly disciplined society – with similar simmering discontents – with a fine army and navy and used to the resources and power of an empire. Like Rome, Britain was shocked when it found it couldn’t resolve disputes quickly.
Judith: What ideas or themes were you most interested in developing through your characters? Did you find those ideas arose from your writing as it progressed or were they with you from the beginning?
Picture of the Elizabeth Speller
Elizabeth Speller
Elizabeth: I was (obviously, I imagine!) expressing the terrible and lasting damage inflicted by war on soldiers and on communities, even when war is necessary. I was also interested in shellshock, but I think it was reading a letter from a woman whose officer brother had been shot at dawn which made me think of putting a military execution at the centre.
She wrote to the War Office:
‘My Mother is prostrated, my father is … old and very ill and we do not want him to know. Could you write again simply stating the place where my brother died … and can we hope it is kept from the world?’’
Judith: The idea that intrigued me most in your book was the way in which people who were broken emotionally and physically managed nonetheless to carry on, even if in starts and stops. We often refer to those who lived through WWI as the lost generation, but, of course, England and the rest of Europe did go on. Incorporating this theme into a mystery seems to be fraught with the possibility of becoming too sentimental and unrealistic, which you avoided. If I’m right that this was an important idea to you, talk about what it means to you and how you worked with it in your book.
Elizabeth: Most people did carry on. And most people did survive (though there were almost 1 million killed at a time when the UK had had a total population something around 45 million. Many more were disabled). When I was growing up there was some implicit critique for the stiff upper lip response; my own grandfather was a young officer decorated for bravery and he never spoke of the WWI. But recently studies of PTSD have suggested that for some individuals this strategy works. However, I do think there were a lot of hidden stresses: alcohol abuse, domestic violence, paralyzing anxiety and what we’d now call flashbacks, which the society of the time preferred not to see. Divorce was very rare, cruelty/violence, unless excessive, seen as a private matter.
Judith: I love your poetry. You bring a poet’s sensibility to your mystery writing in the care of your word choice and the precision of description and a number of other ways. Describe your writing process and does your prose process differ significantly from your poetry process?
Elizabeth: Thank you! I have to admit my own heart rather sinks when I pick up a novel by a poet! I tried not to be too lyrical, but to use the right word, or sometimes just slightly more formal phrasing than we use 90 years on, was integral to creating the spirit of the times and I have a love of landscape- rural and urban – which I indulge in my poetry and my non-fiction and novels.
Elizabeth Speller Following HadrianJudith: Any really fun adventures while researching The Return of Captain John Emmett? It must be lovely to work in a period that had newspapers and so much other extant evidence after writing ancient history as you did with Following Hadrian.
Elizabeth: I was almost overwhelmed by material and had to hold myself back from writing ‘Everything I know about 1912-1921’. For my next book, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, which has the vast British Empire Exhibition at its heart, there was even jerky but wonderfully bizarre newsreel of its extraordinary crowds.
In The Return of Captain John Emmett there were some embedded teases: many of the buildings Laurence Bartram sees as something that’s left to represent the long history and continuing solidity of Britain, were, in fact, destroyed in the Blitz in WWII. Also his young nephew, a sign of hope in the book, is exactly the age to fight in 1939-45.
Judith: Is there a question you wish people would ask you about The Return of Captain John Emmett or a favorite story about the novel?
Elizabeth: I quite like being asked if any poem or book inspired me. I did read a lot of war poetry and early C20 novels, but also Philip Larkin’s much later poem MCMXIV recreated a slice of ordinary Britain in 1914. I also often listened to a short piece of music ‘By the Banks of Green Willow’ by George Butterworth, which summed up pre-war England to me. Butterworth was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry but was killed in the Battle of the Somme. 

To read other reviews by Judith Starkston, visit her website at

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