One of the most anticipated and acclaimed debut novels of 2014 is Wake by Anna Hope. A moving and powerful novel, it takes place over the five days in November 1920 that brought the Unknown Warrior from his anonymous grave in France to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey, honoured by the King and his nation. Among the crowd are three women and it is through their interconnected beautifully told stories that Anna Hope presents the impact and trauma of the Great War. Following on from my review of Wake, I am honoured and thrilled to kick off the Blog Tour for the novel, marking its publication last week. Many thanks to Anna for taking the time to answer my questions and to Transworld Books.
Congratulations for Wake, which is an outstanding and deeply emotional read. It’s appropriate that Wake should be published on the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, but what inspired you to write about it?
Thank you so much! I was inspired to write about this period because I was fascinated with women’s fight for the vote. The vote was granted in 1918, and I wanted to know what had changed in those years for women. I was very aware too that the defining tropes of the Great War: the trenches, the mud, the botched battles, the barbed wire, were all from the male experience, but there wasn’t much out there that told about the war from the female perspective. The idea for the structure of the Unknown Warrior came when I saw the graveyards in France, and thought about how many families were left with no body and no grave, and how profoundly distressing that must have been.
You show the impact of the Great War on men, women and families by focusing on the events of just five days leading up to the burial of the Unknown Warrior in London in November 1920. What appealed to you about this particular event?
The burial of the Unknown Warrior was an extraordinary event for all sorts of reasons. In a class-ridden Britain, it was profoundly democratic; this unknown, unidentified body to stand for the many that did not come home from France. It also gave those who had no body or known grave a chance to partake in a funeral. The response was overwhelming – when the train carrying the body arrived at Victoria Station the crowds burst through the barriers and stormed the platform. Such raw grief. Hundreds of thousands of people travelled from all over Britain to witness the body on its procession to the Abbey. I found it incredibly moving.
How difficult was it to put yourself into the minds of these three women and was it difficult to let them go afterwards?
I’d done so much research that it wasn’t too difficult to put myself in the minds of those women. Hettie was the hardest I think, because she has lost the least. It was hard to let them go, but I feel as though I am living with them still. It’s lovely to keep thinking and writing about them in this way.
Wake has a strong impact partly because it rings true for its historical details but also because of the authentic feel of the psychological damage done to these men and women by war. What kind of research did you do?
I read very widely, from accounts of women who lived through the war (Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is widely known for good reason, it’s brilliant) to women’s fiction of the time; I loved Helen Zenna Smith’s Women of the Aftermath. Juliet Nicholson’s The Great Silence was an important touchstone for me, as was Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out. And the poet Robert Graves co-authored a wonderfully gossipy book about the social mores of the time called The Long Weekend, which had all sorts of wonderful snippets of information, from how much dinner cost in a London restaurant in 1918, to attitudes to politics, sex and the arts. It’s a great book. I think I must have read over a hundred titles while researching. I became a WW1 geek!
Which novelists influenced you and what was your favourite novel of 2013?
I’m influenced by all sorts of writers. My favourite writers of this period are without question Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot. I loved the way their work plays with the fracturing of certainties that came in the wake of the war. My favourite books of 2013 were Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which I hadn’t got round to until then. I read them one after the other and then couldn’t read any fiction for months. What a writer! What a mind! I loved them.