I was very fortunate to be able to read an advance proof copy of The Dynamite Room, a beautiful and thought-provoking novel set in a Suffolk village during WWII. An 11 year old girl called Lydia is stranded in a large Edwardian house and in the night, sees a soldier enter the house warning of a German invasion. He gives her some rules to live by, but why is he there and is he telling the truth? What follows is a stunning and moving story of two unlikely co-inhabitants who each have their own heart-breaking backgrounds consumed by war. Costa Award-winning author Nathan Filer has described The Dynamite Room as 'Superb. Absorbing, suspenseful and with a beautifully poetic touch' and I couldn't agree more!
Look out for my review being posted tomorrow, but in the meantime, here is a fascinating Q and A with the author Jason Hewitt:
There has been a wide range of WWI and WWII fiction, but The Dynamite Room succeeds in being different. Which literature and real-life events motivated you to write this novel?
I have always had a fascination with alternative histories and novels that start with a ‘what if?’ question. When I first started thinking about The Dynamite Room all I knew was that I wanted to write a WWII novel with a difference, and one where I could pitch two individuals from opposing sides against each other but in an unusual way. Then, in a library, I happened to come across a book called Where the Eagle Landed by Peter Haining. The book looks into the myths surrounding 1940 and whether German troops ever did land on the East coast. In truth this is unlikely but German bodies were certainly washed up on the shore occasionally, usually from shot-down planes or torpedoed boats. The next natural question as a novelist then is: well, what if they weren’t all dead? What if at least one or more of them swam up on to the shore? What then? From that I had the start of my story.
Similarly with the other story lines I tried to unearth elements of the war that I knew very little of. My view was that if they were new and interesting to me, they might be new and interesting to other readers. The sub-plot set in Norway around the battle for Narvik is just one example, and was something I unexpectedly stumbled across when researching another story. World War II-based fiction is such a saturated market that I didn’t just want to add another book to the pile. I wanted to find a story that was different or at least told in a unique way. I’m not sure to what extent I’ve achieved that, but that was the idea.
In terms of inspiring literature, I had read the likes of Sebastian Faulks, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Ian McEwan’s Atonement in the past, all of which must have subconsciously inspired my story in some way. I read a lot of World War II fiction in the process of writing the novel, too, although I try to steer clear of anything too closely related until I have my own story well and truly fixed.
The novel is written in a beautiful and at times poetic way, with the imagery of flowers, nature and the innocence of Lydia in stark contrast to the brutality of war and Heiden's experiences. How has WWI and WWII poetry inspired you?
I’ve not deliberately taken inspiration from the war poets but Rupert Brookes’ ‘The Soldier’ has a particular resonance with me. It is the only poem I can recite by heart and I once had to perform it as an actor. It gives such hope and sadness in the same breath that if you let each line resonate in you it is almost impossible not to cry. On writing The Dynamite Room, I also read Owen Sheer’s novel, Resistance that has a similar subject matter. Sheers is well known for his poetry. In his novel every sentence is simple but exquisitely crafted. It proved to me that you can have a fast-paced story and yet still deliver it with a poetic touch.
I can see The Dynamite Room working well on stage as the claustrophobia of two unlikely inhabitants becoming dependent on each other in a short space of time. Do you have any plans to adapt it into a play?
I would love to see The Dynamite Room on the stage. I think a film or short TV series might be a better outlet though. The challenge for a theatre production would be how to portray Heiden’s backstory that encompasses a number of European locations and a couple of epic set pieces. There is also the challenge of finding an actress that can play eleven-year old Lydia in what would be quite a gruelling role. It could be done though and maybe one day I’d be up for the challenge (not unless anyone would like to offer!). I’m rather into claustrophobic settings at the moment. My first full-length play will debut at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer hopefully. It’s set in a lift and is called – wait for it – Claustrophobia. It couldn’t be more different to The Dynamite Room but there are certainly common links between the two.
I love the title. How conscious were you of the title having multiple meanings while you were writing the novel and at what stage did you decide on a name for the book?
I’m afraid I have a confession to make. It wasn’t actually my title. Throughout the writing process the working title was something else entirely. My agent didn’t like it – and rightly so in hindsight. He came up with ‘The Dynamite Room’. I wasn’t at all sure at first but now I see how perfect it is, relating not to one but two of the main storylines, and it does the job of grabbing people’s attention. (I still need to buy him a drink for that.)
In your Q & A at the end of the book, you mention that you find yourself acting out the roles of Lydia and Heiden to get into the mindset of their characters. How much do you think that being an actor helps you to bring to life two different, but authentic characters?
I think being a trained actor certainly helps create character. You can’t play a role on stage without hunting through the script for clues. You need to know everything about your character to give an accurate portrayal, and if you can’t find out what you need from the script then you at least need to be able to make intelligent guesses based on what you do know. As a writer then, I know that I need to leave these clues on the page, and that everything that happens or is said or done needs to be driven from the characters’ objectives (or what they want and need).
I find that acting out scenes as the characters makes it easier to spot the little details that my characters might do or how they might behave: when, for example, Lydia might pick at something on the floor and flop back on her bed or how she might sit in a chair. Heiden is the character I relate to most, although it was Lydia that clicked into place first. I’ve obviously never been a girl (no, honestly!) but I have been a child. With her it was more a case of trying to remember what being eleven was like, and out of the two characters she was the most fun to write.
There is a playlist featured at the end of the book, which I thought adds real depth and almost cinematic experience to the story. How did these pieces of music help you in writing The Dynamite Room? Do you always listen to music when writing? What other music do you find inspiring?
I don’t listen to music while I’m writing but I often play music while I’m setting up for the day. It creates the right atmosphere, particularly for a book like The Dynamite Room where music is such an important theme. I would listen to swing and popular radio hits of the time. In fact when I drove around Suffolk one week in the summer doing my research I only played 1940s hits in the car. Mostly, during the writing though, I listened to classical music as that’s what Heiden and Eva would have played and been inspired by themselves. Every major character had a musical theme too, that for me gave a sense of who they are. Sometimes I would play these to help me get in touch with them again. I also tend to have a film soundtrack for each novel I write that I have on continuous repeat and that gets me in the mood. For The Dynamite Room it was James Newton Howard’s soundtrack to the WWII film, Defiance. It’s not a brilliant film but Joshua Bell’s violin in it is haunting. For the novel I’m currently writing it’s the soundtrack to the film, Lore, and also The Dark Knight Rises. Don’t laugh. I know it’s an odd combination but it’s working for me at the moment.
I run a book group and will add The Dynamite Room to our reading list, as I think there is plenty to discuss. Which other books do you find yourself debating and would you recommend for future reads for us?
Adam Thorpe’s The Rules of Perspective has been my latest secret find. The novel is set in a German town now overrun by Americans in April 1945. It has two protagonists whose stories slowly intertwine – Heinrich Hoffer who, together with his colleagues, is huddled in the vaults of the town museum, and Neal Parry, an American GI on patrol in the town. It is one of the most rich and beautifully written novels I’ve read and I don’t think I’ve ever come across characters that have lifted so vividly off the page.
Jim Crace, too, is a writer that constantly intrigues me. His novel, Being Dead, is about a couple that return to a beach where they first made love, only to be murdered. It reads like a thriller and yet is much deeper than that, looking at what makes us love and what makes us human. Its intricate description of what physically happens to the body when we die is absolutely breath-taking.
Finally, I’d recommend Mountains of the Moon by I J Kay. At its very simplest, it is the tragic account of a broken life and yet, despite this, it is funny and fragile and blissfully surreal. The protagonist takes on many characters but eight-year old Lulu is a unique literary triumph.
A huge thank you to Jason for taking the time answer these questions and to Dawn Burnett at Simon and Schuster for sending me a copy of the book and setting up this Q and A.
The Dynamite Room is released at the end of March and you can pre-order a copy on the Waterstones website here
You can find out more at www.jason-hewitt.com, follow Jason on Twitter @jasonhewitt123 and on Facebook.com/TheDynamiteRoom