Yes, thank you.
Then I’ll begin. Your novel, When It’s Over, is set in World War II. Does the world really need another WWII/Holocaust novel?
Certainly, a lot of fiction is set in that time; it’s such a rich, complex period, and I think it continues to fascinate us. There are so many stories to tell. I am always most drawn to those that show how the lives of ordinary people were impacted by momentous historical events. But I think When It’s Over offers some unique perspectives. First, it highlights the lives of refugees who fled the Nazis and managed to reach England during the war, and the prejudice and xenophobia they encountered. While the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII has become well-known over the past few decades, not many people are aware that the British interned Germans as “enemy aliens;” many were Jews and Communists who had narrowly escaped being interned by the Nazis. Another aspect is the Progressive political movement that swept Britain during the war and which led ultimately to the stunning landslide defeat of Churchill’s party in the 1945 election, right after VE day. As someone in my writing group said: how was it possible that Churchill, the great war leader, lost? That aspect of the war has been largely ignored.
Okay, so what inspired you to write the novel?
After the death of my mother in 2002, a friend of mine, a woman I had known for over 40 years, asked me how it was exactly that my mother had ended up living in England. I started to tell her – and she said: that’s an amazing story! And I realized, yes it is, and I didn’t want that story to die with her death. I had always known the bare bones of what happened to my mother and her family during World War II: that she had left Czechoslovakia just before the Nazi invasion, but her family stayed behind. But there were big gaps in the story, I didn’t understand many of the details, and my mother never discussed the emotional impact of what she went through. So I thought, well I love fiction, I’ll make up what I don’t know, I’ll write a novel.
So you had never written fiction before?
No! I had written professional papers that had been published in academic journals, and I’d read a lot of novels, but I had never taken any creative writing classes and knew nothing about how to write a fiction. So my first drafts of the early chapters were pretty terrible: overloaded with backstory and flowery language! But I started taking writing classes and attending workshops, and receiving feedback and criticism from my writing teachers and classmates, and little by little I improved. In the process, I discovered the joy of writing as a creative endeavor – as well as the hard work.
How long did it take to write?
I started writing it in 2005. I was still working in my day job at the time, and it was a demanding, stressful job which I loved – so my writing happened in the evenings and on weekends or while on vacation. It took me six years to complete the first draft, and then another four to re-write and edit and re-write again.
What was the biggest challenge?
I was starting with my mother’s real story, and I wanted to remain true to that, but I also had to create a convincing, three-dimensional fictional character. As I said, my mother, like so many of her generation, and certainly like many Holocaust survivors, didn’t talk much about her emotions. To create my character of Lena I had to create a passionate young woman who fell in love and had hopes and fears — and I had to imagine all this. So Lena, my protagonist, both is and is not my mother. I also had the hardest time with the early chapters; I wrote and re-wrote those so many times during the revision process, trying to get the right balance between backstory and forward action.
How much is fact vs fiction?
The basic arc of Lena’s story is fact, and those of her immediate family members. There are characters in the novel that are based on my father and my grandmother, and the village of Upper Wolmingham is very similar to the Sussex village in which I was raised. But most of the details are fictitious. The person who is Otto in the novel did exist, but I knew nothing about him, so his character is a complete figment of my imagination. There were in fact eight refugees together in the cottage, but I thought six was the most I could handle. I worked very hard to ensure that all the historical details are correct.
How did you do the research?
I started with an oral history that I had recorded with my mother in the 1980s, twenty years before her death. And then I began to read and research. I read the memoir of one of my mother’s close friends and fellow refugee Richard Seligman, and stole many anecdotes for my novel. Much of the research I did as I went along, digging into whatever background information I needed for each chapter or section. I read books, both fiction and non-fiction, and found incredibly useful stuff online, especially the BBC war archives, in which ordinary people recorded their recollections of life on the home front. The Internet is, of course, amazing. Whenever I had a question: What would their primus stove look like? What did the Warning air raid signal sound like? When did the V2 rocket attacks start? I just had to Google it to find the answer. But there were some things I couldn’t find online. For example, I knew my mother had flown from Paris to London in March 1940, but all my online research stated that flights had been suspended at the outbreak of war in September 1939. It took an in-person visit to a funky little British Aviation Museum near Heathrow Airport to solve that conundrum. And then my father’s life-long friend, Chris Small, told me he had kept all the letters my father had written to him over the years. I travelled to Edinburgh to see him, and came away with a box of my father’s wartime letters. They contained almost no personal information – much to my disappointment—but they did provide extraordinary insight into the politics of the left during the last 2 years of the war, and some of that made its way into the novel.
What was your favorite part to write?
I think what I loved best was weaving together the wonderful historical nuggets I discovered, the little snippets of things I remembered my mother telling me over the years, and the arc of the fictitious characters that I generated on the page. I liked writing the scenes at work: the Food Office and the munitions factory; these are completely fictitious, but I was fascinated by my research into these aspects of the home front, and wanted to find a way to include them.
What do you want the reader to take away from reading the novel?
This is a story about hope and resilience and how ordinary people survive extraordinary times. It’s a good story, with compelling characters, and the reader will hopefully be interested in learning new details about life during WWII. But the novel also raises important issues such as the assimilation of war refugees, the struggle between hope and despair, idealism vs political realism—issues which resonate in the world we face today.
What are you working on now?
I am trying to write my second novel – making slow headway with that, because I am so wrapped up in promoting When It’s Over. But my next novel is completely different; it is set in contemporary California and features a young woman with a new spinal cord injury. It draws on my years of clinical experience as a rehabilitation nurse.
BARBARA RIDLEY was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, which included publication in numerous professional journals, she is now focused on creative writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals, such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review, and BLYNKT. This is her first novel. Ridley lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and her dog, and has one adult daughter, of whom she is immensely proud.