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Nicola Upson interview: ‘Family tragedy inspired my latest novel’

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The heartbreak of the last two years has been poured into a new novel by historical crime fiction writer Nicola Upson.

After being separated from her elderly parents during lockdown and them losing them both just days apart, Nicola felt moved to write about another tragic era when families were forced away from each other.

This time her sleuth, a fictional version of real life Golden Age crime author Josephine Tey, is faced with being alone when her partner Martha is called to Hollywood for work. Meanwhile, the village where they live is descended upon by child evacuees who have left their parents behind in London.

Author Nicola Upson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (56766991)
Author Nicola Upson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (56766991)

Nicola, who lives in Cambridge, says: “It was a terrible time for me when I was writing the book. Neither of my parents were well, they were both elderly. I lost them both, not from Covid but during the Covid period; my dad died and then 10 days later, my mum died too. So that was tough. And although they didn't die of Covid the enforced separation affected them so much, but also, you feel very cheated at the time you couldn't be together.

“I was in Cambridge, and they were in Bury St Edmunds So it's just 27 miles, but it might as well have been the other side of the world really.”

At a time when other crime writers were wondering about how to incorporate the pandemic into their novels, Nicola wasn’t faced with that problem because she was setting her story at the start of WWII. But the feelings of that time influenced every part of the novel.

“The obvious subject matter at the time that it was written, which was in the early days of lockdown, was separation. It was difficult to write about, but very easy to imagine. All the fear and uncertainty of a world on the brink of a war and also the pain of separation. That was very real to us. It made me wonder actually, if there's any such thing as historical fiction, which I thought I'd been writing for 15 years, because the parallels between the early days of the war and the early days of Covid were so strong and they resonate throughout the whole book,” she says.

Author Nicola Upson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (56767004)
Author Nicola Upson . Picture: Keith Heppell. (56767004)

The story of Dear Little Corpses starts on September 1, 1939. As the mass evacuation takes place across Britain, thousands of children leave London for the countryside. But when three little girls step off the train to the ‘safety’ of an idyllic Suffolk village only to disappear, their escape seems to be more dangerous than the city homes they have left behind.

The chaos of war is beginning to sweep across the country, but this particular hamlet is home to author Josephine Tey, who is herself struggling with the prospect of change. So when a cloud of suspicion falls across the Suffolk community she has come to love, the conflict becomes personal, and Josephine is determined to discover what precisely has become of these lost children and who is truly responsible for their vanishing.

Nicola says: “The evacuation was such an extraordinary moment of history, I think when you write books you're always looking for that kind of window in the truth that's just big enough to get your story through.

“The evacuation was such a massive operation. And considering something like that had never been attempted before, it went remarkably smoothly. But as you will read in the book, things did go wrong,” says Nicola.

“Children ended up hundreds of miles from where they should have been; they ended up in Penzance and they were supposed to be in Birmingham; small villages, like the one in the book, had three or four times the number of children that they were expecting. So it was chaos for the period of that first weekend of the war. And it just occurred to me that something could so easily have gone wrong with a more sinister motive than obviously, just simple casualties of paperwork. And so that was the catalyst for the book.

Nicola Upson (56950162)
Nicola Upson (56950162)

“I also felt that we hear a lot about the host villages and how they were completely changed by the children. It was that whole Goodnight, Mr. Tom scenario of the children coming from a city to the countryside and having their lives completely changed in that way. But you don't hear so much about the parents who are left behind to worry. That must have been a terrible decision to make not knowing what to do for the best. Do you keep your children close to you and take the risk with the bombs that you think are coming any minute? Or do you send them away to a safer environment, but not know where the children were going, or which villages they were going to until a few days later? They didn't know if the children were going to a farmer that was going to exploit them or treat them as cheap labour working on a farm. So the whole book became about separation. And obviously, regardless of my mum and dad's death, it was very easy to imagine the agonising about that decision. It felt very, very close, really, and I think all of us can tap into that feeling of what to do for the best.

“While I was writing the book I saw a photograph of a young evacuee, a beautiful little girl, but she had such lovingly polished shoes. And it was just that detail that showed me how much emotion and love was invested into sending those children off.”

The way that gay women's voices to a large extent were silenced in the 1930s makes me realize how many things in my own life I take for granted.

The other major separation that is much closer to home in the book is the news that Martha has been asked to spend some time working in Hollywood. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity but as the couple have only just set up home together it will be a wrench to have that happiness torn apart so soon.

Nicola says: “Somebody said to me the other day they'd like Josephine and Martha to have a bit more fun, which is hard with the inevitable backdrop of a crime novel each time. But I know exactly what they mean. They have been through the roller coaster of getting together. And obviously that was difficult because we live in a very different age now to the one they did then. And so the ability to enter wholeheartedly into a gay relationship was very, very different. And in fact, writing their relationship and the things that have they have to consider and the way that gay women's voices to a large extent were silenced in the 1930s makes me realize how many things in my own life I take for granted. But having said that, they have settled into a period of happiness. They've got the bolthole in Suffolk, which is the place they can truly be together in this book, and I hope that they will get a chance to spend a bit more time there together as the war goes on.

“But reading letters from the period, especially women like them, you realise how much time people who loved each other did spend apart. Distance really was distance then and I think as we come into the war, when we have the travel restrictions, the separations will be even harder.”

This relationship with Martha is fictional but were there strong clues in the real Josephine Tey’s life that she was gay?

“It wasn't explicit, but there's no doubt in my mind,” says Nicola.

Author Nicola Upson is coming to Deal Library Picture: Julia Hedgecoe (56950167)
Author Nicola Upson is coming to Deal Library Picture: Julia Hedgecoe (56950167)

“I've got enough letters and interviews enough conversations with people who knew her well that make me certain that Josephine Tey was gay. She wasn't a person who spent a lot of time anywhere in particular, she was always on the edges of the circles that she moved in. Whether it was her hometown of Inverness, or whether it was the theatrical circles. She was part of it, and yet she was always slightly apart. So, I felt very strongly that I wanted these books, because crime novels are dark, that I wanted to give Josephine not just the kind of lover that I genuinely feel in real life in different times she would have chosen for herself, but also a bit more intimacy and a bit more love. And the series really doesn't shy away from the grief and the loss of crime fiction. It's not just about the puzzles that we love in Golden Age crime fiction. There is a contemporary darkness about them. So I felt very strongly that I wanted regular characters in the book to reach out to each other and occasionally that to be about love, not power or violence or control, which are the standard emotions of crime fiction.”

The real Josephine Tey wasn’t living with her lover in Suffolk during the war, as far as we know. Where do real life and fiction meet up?

“She was very restricted in the war. She was obviously confined more to Inverness and couldn't come to London as much; She went to Europe quite a lot, but that was obviously out of bounds to her for the next period of her life,” says Nicola.

“She wrote some radio plays for the BBC during the war. And I suspect she was plotting that glut of fantastic crime fiction that starts in 1946. Because we're nowhere near the most fertile period of her own work yet in these books. That leaves a lovely canvas for me for the Second World War really. So she will have a life that was different to the ones that she actually led during the war, although not so much a stretch of the imagination that it makes it completely implausible. So I've had to decide how to approach that and it's very much for me, it's the interest of the homefront, really how people we're getting on with their ordinary lives as best they can against the backdrop of what's going on on a national and international scale.”

Dear Little Corpses also has a fascinating cameo from fellow 1930s crime writer Margery Allingham, who is busy turning her home into a station filled with medical supplies.

“ As far as I know, they never met in real life, but they did admire each other's work,” says Nicola.

“And it seems to me that they get on like a house on fire really because they have a lot in common - they are both very present in their books. You know, the thing that we love about them other than their characters and plots is that they are such good company. Both of them have that kind of humanity and wit. And the story it's very much inspired by my favourite of her books, which ironically, isn't a crime novel. It's The Open Heart which was the only nonfiction book she wrote. It was the story of her Essex village in the early days of war. That book just teems with all the wonderful characterization that you get from her novels, and it talks and about her house and how she was involved in the evacuation and and she writes about it with such affection but also with such detachment and you get a real sense of what those early days were like in that sort of community on both sides. I think she comes out of that book as a woman of extraordinary courage, very practical courage, and a great deal of humanity. I think they will team up again, a little further down the series, certainly because it's only because I have such fun doing it.”

  • Dear Little Corpses By Nicola Upson is published by Faber priced £14.99.

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