Yesterday we published our review of The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter, the Appetite Book Club choice for July and a Richard and Judy Summer Read 2013.
Joanna came along to Appetite, and chatted to us about the book, her writing process and what she’s got lined up in the future. Afterwards, she kindly agreed to do the same for Adventures With Words, in a little more depth…
AWW: The Sea Change is the story of three female generations of a family, surviving through tragedy and upheaval. What was it that drew you to focus on your female characters so closely?
JR: I don’t think I was drawn to my story because of the gender of the characters – for me, it’s neither here nor there that the central characters are women. The novel is more concerned with the situations that Violet and Alice find themselves in. Violet’s village – the place where she feels most secure – is taken away from her very suddenly during the war whilst Alice finds herself in embroiled in a disaster of a very different kind in a place that is utterly unfamiliar to her. The novel, in a sense, asks the question of whether it is possible to grieve a place in the same way as we might grieve a person.
AWW: Although in some ways Violet and Alice are both victims, they are both incredibly resilient, whereas the male characters of the novel fall by the wayside more easily. Is that something you feel women are better at, an admirable trait, or is it stubbornness?
JR: I think my character Violet is almost too resilient for her own good! By necessity, authors spend a lot of time with their characters and I think, as a result, we come away with a very clear idea of their faults by the time we’re finished with them! Violet interests me because she is incredibly self-sacrificial in the novel. And yet she has weighed her daughter down with her past to the extent that Alice has run away to the other side of the world. By being so resolute in her loyalty to Imber and the people from her past, she actually risks losing the people who love her in the present.
AWW: Some people might recognise the title of your novel The Sea Change from a line in The Tempest. Was it always called this? What does the title symbolise to you?
JR: The novel started life as ‘Your Coming and Your Going’ (I bet you’re glad I canned that one!) then it became ‘In The Wake’ and then, finally, I settled on The Sea Change. It’s a line from The Tempest that describes a drowned body taking on a new life as a coral reef under the water. For me, this symbolised Imber perfectly – a place which, in lying empty for so long, has gained a ghostly new life through nature gradually taking over. More obviously, the title conjures up the image of a tsunami and it also refers to a kind of cultural ‘sea change’ that took place between the 1940s and 1960s – the two decades at the heart of the book. The reticence of the war generations in voicing their experiences, coupled with their sense of patriotism and moral uprightness, contrasts strongly with the care-free ideals of the hippie era. I was interested in what prompted such a huge shift in thinking and the title of the novel is a nod towards that question.
AWW: The novel moves between two fascinating places, Imber, a village on Salisbury Plain, and Kanyakumari beach in Tamil Nadu. Do you feel it’s important to bring your settings to life, as well as your characters?
Absolutely. A lot of my writing is preoccupied with landscape and setting and, for me, the places in the novel are almost characters in their own right. My characters very much grew out of the landscapes I was writing about – whether it was Imber, the world war II ghost town in Wiltshire that was taken by the military in 1943 or Kanyakumari, India, hit by a tsunami in 1971.
In the same way as Imber has persevered as a ghost town against all the forces of war and nature and time, Violet clings on to her home long after she should have let it go. Meanwhile, Alice is a much more watery character – she doesn’t have a strong sense of belonging and finds herself drifting from place to place. The debris-filled post-tsunami landscape reflects something of her own struggle to piece together who she is.
AWW: Had you visited the two locations in your novel before you decided to write about them? What was it that inspired you to connect such contrasting places?
Yes! I always love the research stages of novel-writing because stories often emerge out of very unusual places. I spent six months working in Tamil Nadu where the 1970s sections of the novel are set and I visited some of the areas affected by the boxing day tsunami. I also had the opportunity to watch the army train in Imber on Salisbury Plain – they still use the village today as part of their training for Afghanistan and this was really where I first had the idea to pair the two stories together. I was not only struck by the brutality of both war and natural disaster – the similarities between the two – but also by their paradoxes. Salisbury Plain is a landscape marked by war – it is littered with rusted old tanks and empty bullet cartridges – and yet it also a place where nature has been left to thrive. My tsunami landscape, on the other hand, is destroyed by nature and yet humanity somehow finds a way to rebuild it.
AWW: Violet, the centre-point of the novel, feels inextricably linked to her home village, whereas Alice, her daughter, is always struggling to be free. Do you feel you are more like Violet or Alice; are you an explorer or do you love to be at home, and why?
JR: I relate to them both in different ways. Like Violet, I love to be at home and I have a strong attachment to the landscapes I grew up in. And yet, as a novelist, I suppose I’m a bit of a traveller (in a mental sense as well as a physical sense) – I love stepping into different scenarios and trying to experience them from other people’s perspective.
AWW: Are you working on something new? Can you tell us a little about it?
JR: I am! My second novel involves a volcanic island, a letter chain and a library teetering on the edge of a cliff…I have finished a final draft and I’m very excited at the thought of sharing it with everyone in the future!
AWW: Finally, books are very precious to Violet and her family. What would be your book choice, if everything else had been swept away by a tidal wave?
JR: That is an impossible question! Hmmmm, I think the Bible would have to be one: from a writer’s perspective, it is one of the richest texts on earth – full of vivid narratives, poetry, letters and dreams. Aside from the Bible, it would be a very close call between Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I admire Charles Dickens for the intricacy of his plots and his commitment to challenging the social injustices of the time. And Kazuo Ishiguro is just the most gifted writer when it comes to surrendering his writing to the voice of each of his characters. I also feel Never Let Me Go says something poignant about the fragility and brevity of life and yet it does this in a very understated way.
Oh no, I’ve cheated and picked three! Sorry!
Thanks again so much to Joanna Rossiter for those great, revealing answers.
The Sea Change is out now, from Penguin, in paperback at £7.99.