An author writes a first novel in liberating anonymity. Writing the second, regardless of the fate of the first, is a battle against the writers' demons Expectation and Comparison. My first book, "The Outcast," had the sort of good fortune that caused people to say with raised eyebrows and pitying glances, 'are you writing your difficult second novel? That must be awful. How do you follow "The Outcast"?'
Luckily for me, when I started "Small Wars" I didn't know it was a 'difficult second novel'. It presented itself to me despite myself and demanded to be written. Had I a choice, I would not have set another story in the 1950s, nor had another male central character, nor -- certainly -- had him dealing with psychological trauma. (The anti-hero of "The Outcast" suffers mental distress and I had vowed never to write another anxiety attack.) I should have liked to produce something with a flurry and the words, 'now for something completely different!' But I did not have that choice. Ideas come variously, each in a different way. This one came at me from all sides.
Towards the end of "The Outcast" there is a mention of National Service. Perhaps with that as a starting point, over the winter of 2007 I became preoccupied with the expectations and experiences of soldiers. More urgently, I was distressed by our modern conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan. We see news stories, one after the other, recurring transgressions: atrocities, beatings of prisoners filmed on mobile phones, men returning home maimed and passed over as the political war carries on. It is easy to believe these struggles are new ones, a product of modern life or modern attitudes, whilst in actuality they are as old as war itself.
I had not considered myself particularly patriotic nor naïve about my country, but I realized that I did have an expectation that Britain behave honourably, and that soldiers fighting for Britain would act within the bounds of morality and the law. I wondered how, if I, a civilian woman, felt this strongly, a soldier, a good soldier, presented with a bad war might feel, and how his experiences and actions might affect those around him.
All at once, things began to fuse in my mind: the Cyprus Emergency of the '50s, where freedom fighters launched a campaign of terror against British occupiers; my feelings and thoughts about modern conflicts; the fact that in Cyprus, the officers had their families on the island with them, creating a crucible of conflict and intimacy. A man, his wife, Britain and Cyprus emerged from this mental landscape, and I made the story with them.
In 2007, before "The Outcast" was published, I began work in earnest on "Small Wars," which always had that title, incidentally, as it describes the story perfectly. The story concerns Hal Treherne, a thirty-year-old major in the British Army, and his wife, Clara. It's about honour and a man's soul, as well as a love story about a marriage. In many ways I was writing a love triangle: Hal, Clara and the 'other woman', England, who leads Hal into behaviour and situations of which he is ashamed. The story is told exclusively from the British perspective, which is not to say that it takes the British side. One side's hero is another side's villain; one nation's freedom fighter is another nation's terrorist. Politically and personally I took a cool look down the years at what happened, took no sides and made no judgements; I left those to my characters, who are very much in the heat of it.
The book took two and a half years to research and write. Because of its scale, because I felt so deeply about it -- for a dozen reasons -- writing "Small Wars" was uniquely daunting and consuming. The writing process that began in obscurity and relative peace altered radically when "The Outcast" was published and went from strength to strength. I worked in hotel rooms, airports, and on train platforms, and always the ubiquitous, sharp question, with searching looks, 'so you're writing your difficult second novel then?' They were right: I was.
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