Today, Sunday 7th February 2016, is my first blog anniversay. What better way to celebrate than with an interview with Lindsay Hawdon? Lindsay is the author of Jakob’s Colours, my Book of the Year for 2015. Seldom does a book come along that still resonates and moves the reader so many months after it was first read. Jakob’s Colours touched me in both heart and soul. You can read my review of Jakob’s Colours here. I am utterly delighted that Lindsay has agreed to answer some of my questions about her book to help me celebrate my first year as a blogger. I loved Jakob’s Colours with a passion and was honoured to be quoted in the paperback release of the book, saying ‘it IS the best book I have ever read’.
My Anniversary Interview with Lindsay Hawdon
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Lindsay. I am absolutely thrilled to be able to interview you about your book Jakob’s Colours which I found so affecting that it became my Book of the Year 2015.
To begin would you mind telling readers a little bit about yourself and your journey to publication with Jakob’s Colours?
When I left school my over arching impression of myself was as someone who would love to write but who was so appallingly bad at English that this was not a possibility. So instead of making up worlds I set off to find them, and spent the next three years travelling around Europe, Africa and India. During that time I had many wonderful and hair-raising experiences, which all somehow seemed pointless unless I wrote them down. I began working in Television when I got home, working as an undercover reporter for various films, most notably Britain Undercover, Inside Quarantine where I worked as a kennel maid for six months, secretly filming the truth behind our Quarantine system. But all the while I was writing up my travel tales and slowly with much persistence and many rejection letters I started to get things published. Then aged twenty six I got my first travel column in The Sunday Telegraph. It was called An Englishwoman Abroad, and was a series of small travel tales about things I experienced and witnessed all over the world. It lasted for seven years, stopping only when I had children. Since then I’ve written columns for The Sunday Times – Have Kid’s Will Travel, which featured a year’s trip away, travelling solo with my two young boys, then aged 5 and 8 around S/E Asia and Australia. Last year we did a second trip called The Rainbow Hunters which was based on a story I used to tell them as a child, and which in fact features in Jakob’s Colours. For six months we travelled to seven countries in search of seven colours, the first pigment made by the first colour men for the charity War Child. Travel writing pays the bills but throughout this time I have always written fiction, have had several short stories published and won several competitions and was scribbling away in my spare time on a novel that was to become Jakob’s Colours. I sent an agent the first 20,000 words and her response was delightful. She signed me up before I had finished the book, and encouraged me to finish. A year later the novel was pre-empted by the wonderful Kate Parkin who was then an editor at Hodder and Stoughton and since then it’s all been a dream come true.
I’ve had my fair share of rejections and knock backs but my path to publishing my first book was not one of them.
Jakob is a gypsy; part Roma, part Yenish. How important was it for you to give a voice to the gypsy people from World War 2?
I began this book simply with a small boy running, that was all, and then slowly layers were added to it. In a sense writing is very much about reading too – you write a sentence down, then read it, have an emotional or thought provoking response to that and then write down another sentence. I knew the world Jakob was running from wasn’t a safe one and for a while I very much stayed clear of the second world war because I simply didn’t have the confidence nor felt I had any claim to write about it. But then I started to think of Jakob coming from no home, from having no place to run to, or a place to return to and that got me researching Romany past and present which led me back to WWII. I was intrigued that the stories we always hear about were Jewish ones, because between a half and one and a half million Romani lives were lost by 1945. The exact number isn’t known. The Nazi genocide of the gypsies was only officially acknowledged in 1982 and it was not until 14 April 1994 that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial held its first commemoration of gypsy victims. The silence of this information was what interested me. The Roma come from an aural background, traditionally they do not write stories down, so there are very few accounts in the written word, though that is changing. Then when I started to research the Romany past I realised that for them WWI and WWII were just two moments in time when they had to face persecution, no more no less that anything they had faced before. Afterwards they had no time to linger on the atrocities that had taken place, to pause and claim justice, they were too busy surviving the next wave of persecution that came their way. Certainly they are the forgotten people. The disappeared. Jakob’s Colours is a book about the displaced, and sadly that is still very relevant to today. I suppose in the end what I wanted to do, was to strip back everything, to see what you were left with if you had to face the very worst, as I think they have done.
How did you create Jakob? I know you support the charity War Child. Did Jakob arise out of an amalgamation of children you’ve encountered, is he based on one person you know or is he entirely from your imagination?
I think Jakob is a mix of my imagination and the children I have seen on my travels. Particularly in third world countries, a lot of children sleep rough. They have nowhere or no one to go to and it’s always something that sticks with you, something that is hard to walk away from. But I also see them surviving, and I’m always in awe of how a child manages to do that. I think any reality is possible for them, which means their ability to find solace in things is matched by their imagination. Their inner world is very powerful and because of that they are very much able to live in the present, which I think is a place of great solace when the past is too painful and the future too frightening to draw upon.
You have young children of your own. Did this inspire you to have a child as a protagonist or was there another reason for choosing an eight year old boy?
My boys grew up with me writing this book, and certainly they were a huge influence on the world I was writing about. Some of the lines in Jakob’s Colours came from them, particularly questions about death when they themselves were trying to come to terms with the fact that this was something that would happen to me and to them one day. And because we have travelled so much together I got to see the world again through their eyes. They would play with all number of children in the street and in villages, question the differences between their lives. There is something terribly moving in witnessing a child’s journey through the loss of innocence. A child’s version of the world is not the same as an adult’s. There is space for magic to exist and I wanted that to be present in the depths of hopelessness and despair. A child’s ability to somehow hold on to the desire to live, and run with it.
In Jakob’s Colours, one of its triumphs is the way you appeal to the senses of the reader. How easy or difficult was it to achieve this in your writing?
I think I’m very drawn to the idea that while we are feeling certain things internally, there is this whole world outside of ourselves going on, that has been going on since the beginning of time, and will continue to go on to the end, regardless of our existence or not. We are insignificant against it and there is great relief in that. I think my own senses tend to become very heightened when I’m distressed. It seems to be my way of surviving. To see the very small things and to take note of them. They pull you into the present and keep you safe.
Colour is a vital iterative image throughout. I know you’ve been on a Rainbow Hunter’s trip with your children to search for colour too. Did you set out with the idea of colour as a central theme in your novel, or did it evolve as you wrote?
Jakob came first, but the colours came next. I think I wanted to explore the strength of the internal world, and to see, if you were equipped with a legacy of colours passed down from parent to child, could that endure in a world devoid of colour. We have, from the beginning of time, sought to interpret our surroundings, sought to make colours as bright as the ones we find in our natural world. But the strength of our internal world is often all we have left to help us bear the unbearable. Sadly we are capable of huge atrocities, of turning our world very dark and grey at times, but often through that we also seem to find the very best in ourselves. The colours will out. Mostly I believe that.
I wanted to strip Jakob of everything and to see if it was possible to be left with a world that he could still see some brightness in.
Reading Jakob’s Colours reduced me to tears. How were you affected by what you’d written?
I wanted to approach each scene from a very human place, to explore in the writing if a moment of brutality could be overridden with the love of the people that surrounded it. I wanted that to be what you were left with. Children hold their emotions very closely to the surface, are raw and transparent with them, and through their eyes we can see more than simply the horrors of a scene. We can see the love that endures, from parent to child, child to parent, sibling to sibling.
A few years ago I visited The Killing Fields in Cambodia with my two young boys and it really struck me as we wandered around the place that despite the atrocities that had taken place there, and despite the pieces of bone and tooth that had been washed up from the ground with recent rainfall, that still lay on the path on which we walked, the overriding atmosphere was one of peace and love. I wanted to explore how it was that in those final moments it is not the horror or the brutality of death that endures, but love, perhaps because it is the last thing that we feel when we pass from this world to the next. I think I wanted to see in those last scenes whether it was possible for the strength of human emotion, to outweigh the horror of the scene unfolding around us.
Fiction very much allows us to emotionally venture into places we wouldn’t otherwise dare to go. Fact is too harsh, often for us to risk emotional involvement, but if we are led in a way that is bearable I think fiction offers a space where we can feel deep empathy, see the very worst and best of humanity and be better for it.
I agree Lindsay. I’ve been to The Killing Fields in Cambodia recently and, as you say, there is a sense of peace despite the human remains that seem somehow so prosaic. Fiction does indeed help us cope with our emotions.
In Jakob’s Colours, there are acts of extreme brutality and extreme kindness. If the setting and events took place in 2016 instead of 1944, which do you think Jakob would be most likely to encounter and do you think we have progressed since the 1940s?
Sadly I think not much has changed, but at least we know that it hasn’t and most of us keep on questioning why it hasn’t. Awful things are still occurring as I write. Children are still washed up on foreign shores with no where to run to, leaving unspeakable atrocities behind them. But throughout all of that there are huge acts of kindness and courage. We debate. We petition. We give, because ultimately we are striving to be good. It might be that part of being human is the fight between the dark and the light, and maybe there is nothing really we can do about that. But still we shouldn’t stop the fight of trying. And I don’t think we will. That’s human nature too.
Without giving away any of the plot of Jakob’s Colours, do you believe that pain is the price we pay for love and that it doesn’t have to be the worst thing to die?
I do think pain is the price we pay for love. It’s what you feel when you lose what you love. But I don’t think love dies when we die, and I guess that’s the power of it.
I honestly felt there wasn’t a word out of place in Jakob’s Colours. What was your writing process like and how much editing did you have to do?
That’s terribly sweet of you to say, but I know if I re-read Jakob’s Colours now I’d be fiddling away, cutting and changing things here and there.
At the beginning, I tend to envisage a scene and then start writing, working my way around it as I go. And initially I love the freedom of that, where I can open my imagination up to possibility. Later I have to pull back, draw everything in tightly around itself, and I love that part of writing a book – when I have words safely on a page and like a sculptress can pick and hack away at making a line as I want it. I re-write and re-write and don’t let anyone see it until I can’t see the woods for the trees.
I spent ten years working on the first half it, juggling between looking after my two children and working as a journalist. I wrote when I could, in the evenings, and in strange hotel rooms in far off lands as the boys slept. And then a year writing the second half when I put all other work aside and just put my head down into this book with every free moment.
In terms of research, I tend to do that as I write. I found everything I could to read on Roma culture and history, and also mental institutions in the 1930’s. I also visited several gypsy fairs in England.
This is my first book. I’ve very much learnt how to do it as I’ve gone along, muddled my way through it in every sense of the word.
Readers can see more about your writing and your travels here. How far do you think your travels have influenced your fiction writing?
Certainly I think travel writing means you train your eye to capture detail. You are a spectator, invited in to witness someone else’s way of life, to watch it fleetingly from the ringside.
In terms of Jakob’s Colours, on my travels I have often come across Roma people and spent time with them. In Albania, Kyrgyzstan, most of Europe. I have often slept rough, or taken long treks across difficult terrain, mountains, deserts, forests, so I relied on the memory of those experiences to evoke in my imagination the reality of living a life beneath the stars.
I’ve also seen a lot of people in a lot of lands not of their origin. You see tides of people in strange places all the time; Indian workers in Oman, Muslims in Mali and it very much makes you question how people come to be where they end up. We are like waves, washing one way, then another.
It’s also the wars of a country that we are often drawn towards. We want to know a country’s pain, want to know what the people that live there have experienced and endured, so I’m constantly visiting sites of destruction, but witnessing at the same time, how people survive the very worst and carry on. As an eighteen year old, travelling around Europe in a camper-van for a year, I had been to the concentration camp Mauthausen in Austria, and it had always remained a very vivid memory for me.
I think my travels keep me very heightened and in touch with what it is to be truly human.
You’ve been a writer for some time. How does writing a novel compare with the columns you’ve had in broadsheet newspapers?
A column is much more constrained in terms of freedom of style and length, and I am writing about things that have actually happened so they have a factual constraint too. But you still have to find a way to turn an article into a story, for it to have a beginning, middle and an end. The reader still has to want to read on from that first sentence to the next. With novels you are free to explore anything you want. There are no constraints, just this vast blank page, the prospect of filling it both terrifying and thrilling.
I’m desperate to read more of your fiction. Would you mind telling us a little bit about what you’re currently working on and when we might expect it?
Well I won’t say too much for fear it will disappear into the ether, but it is a story set in the quiet lands of both snow-drenched Alaska and the red deserts of Australia, those places where in the blank canvass of those barren landscapes those on the fringes of life have a space without boundaries to make the world what they want to it to be. I seem to be interested in how people survive great loss, and I wanted to set this story in those lands where reality can be twisted without question or judgement and see where that left me.
I’ll be awaiting it with excitement – but I hope it doesn’t take another ten years!
Finally, Lindsay, I’d just like to thank you again for agreeing to be interviewed. It has been such a pleasure reading Jakob’s Colours and having you on my blog.