Another post rescued from my old blog. In April, fellow author Alex Martin, published Woodbine, book number Five in the Katherine Wheel Series, and I invited her to talk about it – set in a challenging situation slightly different to the lock-down we were then experiencing.
Alex, you’ve created a family in the Katherine Wheel trilogy, following the lives, loves and tragedies of Katy Phipps, one-time housemaid, and Cassandra Smythe, daughter of the manor. Now you are taking the story forward into the next generation with Woodbine. Tell us about it.
Thanks, Thorne, for this great opportunity to discuss my latest book, Woodbine, in The Katherine Wheel Series. It all started in Daffodils which is based around a village I’d lived in and been fascinated by. We had an old neighbour, Harry, who had a wooden leg, and had lived in the village for nearly all of his long life. Harry was close on a 100 year’s old when I met him. Harry was a wonderful raconteur and relished telling me all about the history of the water supply in the village. At first they all shared a pump on the green, then a standpipe at the end of our row of little cottages (Skid Row I called them), then a tap outside between two and finally came the great day when they had water installed with real sinks into their lean-to kitchens inside the house. I thought that would be a great basis for a story and I’d throw in a love triangle to boot.
Thus, Daffodils was born. Little did I realise that the time-frame would drag me, just as it had the villagers, into the global conflict of World War One. Katy Beagle took life and her rebellious spirit took over. A whole cast of characters formed around her, both from her working-class background and those of her employer’s, Lady Amelia Smythe, more aristocratic one. A typical case of ‘upstairs/downstairs’ you might think. But Katy was different. She came back from the Front with a toolkit for cars and ends up opening Katherine Wheel Garage in defiance of all the local laws about gender and class. And so, the saga was birthed. Now I’ve just published Woodbine, the fifth book in the series, which takes the children born to the characters in the first three books, unfortunately for them, into the stormy arena of the Second World War.
How would you describe your characters? Do you have a favourite or love them all equally?
I love to hate some of them! Lady Smythe was deliciously awful to write about, as was Lionel White – not so whiter than white as it turned out. I think it’s easier to write about flawed characters and who is not? There are aspects of myself and everyone I know or ever met in each of my fictional people. I wouldn’t say I love them all, but I can see why they each behave the way they do, and I forgive them – mostly.
Did you always intend to take the story on to the next generation or was it a case of your fictional families nagging you not to let them go?
It was hugely gratifying that readers wanted to know what would happen next and I found I did too. These characters who live in Upper and Lower Cheadle had become as real to me as my own friends and family. I’m not sure who couldn’t leave them alone – me or them.
You have three threads to follow in Woodbine, two in Britain and one in France, dealing with very different situations. Did you find it difficult to balance the drama?
Good question! Lottie is the main protagonist in Woodbine, in essence it is her story, so I was happy to allow her more space. Her story is complicated. She loves the same man as her sister but is rejected by both him and her family after a disastrous legacy and bereavement. She flees her personal demons by going to stay with a friend in France, ignoring all the warning signs about the impending war with the arrogance and impetuosity of youth. There, she is trapped, and ends up in a situation she could never have anticipated.
Ultimately, in the next book, Ivy, Lottie gets completely caught up in the war by joining the French Resistance and has to endure the perils of the D-Day battles in Normandy. Back at home, Al and Isobel, despite being in love, are kept apart by the sacrifices war demands and are distanced from each other. Their love story is compromised from the start and I found that tender and moving – less difficult to write and research than the intricacies of French politics and military strategies by two superpowers!
This is a book set in the early years of World War II. Not exactly an obscure period; there’s a lot of information out there. How much research did you have to do? Pain or pleasure?
I got overwhelmed many times by the sheer volume of research that this story demanded. It was both a curse and a blessing that there is a plethora of it around the Second World War. I know there are many experts on the subject, and I hope I have done it justice, though I think it’s probably impossible to get everything right.
Each of the character’s stories needed a lot of research. I had to learn about the training for Land Girls, and the requisition of stately homes for a start. I ended up flying a simulated Spitfire at the ATA museum, visiting the harrowing Caen War Memorial Museum, wandering around Bayeux, gazing at its beautiful architecture and marvelling at the remains of the Mulberry harbours at Arromanches, whilst wondering how I could ever encompass all this into a book. I drove round the Normandy countryside trying to imagine life there under occupation and the hedgerow battles following D-Day.
Much of what I learned was fascinating, a lot of it was grim and shocking and all of it provoked thought. I can honestly say I have learned a huge amount about human nature through writing this book and the one that follows it, Ivy, which covers the story from 1942 to 1945. Woodbine and Ivy are actually one story but it grew so enormous I’ve had to split it into two manageable sized books.
Interesting times, especially for the launch of a new book. How are you coping with the great isolation? Has the book helped or hindered?
This book has taken me four years to finish, partly due to the huge amount of research it entailed and partly due to some dramatic changes in my personal life which kept me very busy. Now I have no distractions but lots of time to do nothing but write – and it’s hard! There are no excuses to be found anywhere during lockdown. I hope to use the time to finish the next and final book in the Katherine Wheel Series, Ivy, but global events are distracting and distressing to witness and it’s hard not to balance the solitude that every writer craves and needs with the uplift of seeing loved ones and having a laugh with friends.
What comes next?
As I keep mentioning, I’m working hard on finishing Ivy, the sixth and final book in The Katherine Wheel Series. It will conclude the story of the two main families, The Phipps and The Smythes in the most surprising way. In Ivy, all the strands that have been working through the six books will come together and make sense, so that the events in Daffodils will be resolved in Ivy. That’s the plan, anyway. After that, a break will be much needed, and I’ve promised myself I’ll take one! But already I have two more books planned in the Spirit Level Series – of which The Rose Trail is Book One – and perhaps some more personal autobiographical stories I’d like to write – one about the difficult time surrounding the death of my mother and another much more joyful one about the adventure of buying a house in France with my husband when we retired.
And once I’ve done that, I’d like to write some contemporary stories about family tensions. Or not…as I’m so looking forward to reading some unrelated books just for pleasure!
Thanks, Alex. and good luck with Woodbine, which is a thoroughly gripping book in my opinion (including yet another brilliant cover).
And an addendum: I am delighted to say that Ivy, the last instalment of The Katherine Wheel Series, was published in July.