Susan Lanigan’s debut novel, White Feathers, tackles tough issues through the lens of the early 20th century that we still struggle with today … issues like bullying, mental illness, the fallout of war and the impact of stigma. I am pleased to welcome Susan to Great War 100 Reads today to share some reflections about her work.
Why did you write this book?
Susan Lanigan: At first it was simply because I was interested in World War One. Recently I unearthed the essay I’d written for my final history exam in secondary school. It was about the Battle of Verdun and “bleeding the French white”. I’d read about it in a book called Our Own Worst Enemy by Norman Dixon written back in the Eighties and it had fascinated me.
I’d been working on a short story on the theme of the white feather, including references to Bloomsbury poets – Rupert Brooke was an early influence! – but it just wasn’t working. So I began a longer work, and got so pulled in by the twists and turns of the story that I wrote it so I’d know what would happen next. I was researching too, and seeing the dark side of early feminism was fascinating. It’s still a topic that generates a LOT of anger. Don’t read the comments, folks!
Finally – while writing and researching I was struck by the mechanics of mental health stigma and how it helped hold an unbalanced social order together. Stigma is never abstract. It is a concrete, clear act of hatred by a body or individual towards a marginalised group. When I read war physician Andrew Macphail’s scornful remarks – “‘Shell-shock’ is a manifestation of childishness and femininity. Against such there is no remedy.” – I was struck by how it resembled more recent attitudes towards mental illness and “weakness of character”. The heart of White Feathers is the destructiveness of stigma.
What do you hope people will take away from the book?
SL: The sensation of having been immersed in a society gone insane, but also awareness of the small, devastating, individual acts of emotional violence that mirrored the greater calamity. The white feather is exemplary of this. I’ve been told by many people that they were deeply invested in the characters and really cared about what happened to them. I hope their vividness makes their world real to the reader.
Did you know how the story would evolve as you started to write, or did it change as you wrote?
SL: A few things were always going to be in place. The most surprising change was that the character of Christopher was meant to be in just one scene but the online folk liked him a lot and so did I…so he became a major character. He didn’t even have a first name at that stage! Another character had a lot more in the drafts than in the final version. I learned that the most important thing about writing a novel was learning about scope.
Some of the decisions made during the war were so idiotic that I had to stet several times when something utterly implausible actually did happen. Yes the Scottish Highlanders really did pipe their way over the top in the Battle of Loos. I remember sending an email – “Stet on the bagpipes!” Nowadays, they would send a drone…OK, I’ll stop now. <grin>
What was the most surprising thing you learned in the process of writing the book?
SL: With a high-intensity scene, it’s well-nigh impossible to write in a restrained, cool manner and pull it off. It just sounds…wet. You have to dive all the way in. You have to go for broke. I tried writing one scene three different ways because I thought the first was too melodramatic. I realised very quickly – thanks to a friend’s advice – that I’d been right the first time. Elegant prose style can be a distracting vibrato in the middle of an emotive scene. I prefer “singing it straight”.
What is your most interesting writing quirk?
SL: I couldn’t think of it, so I asked someone who is in a position to know. Music, they said. And it’s true. Every character has a soundtrack – Lucia’s naturally is a bit longer since she is the most musical – and I stick in musical references whenever I can. However I have discovered one caveat – First World War propaganda music is uniformly dull to my ears. I can’t bear it any more than Eva could. So I never listened to it while writing the book.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work, that they don’t ask?
SL: No particular question, I just love talking about the characters, minor and major. They are still wandering around my head and I love any discussion about them and their stories! Oh wait, there is one. I love being asked “was X true?”, because it can be hard to tell and I love surprising people with my answers!
Where will your next book take us?
SL: I have a few works in progress. Either immediately after the first one, when minor characters in White Feathers will come into their own. Or twenty years into the future, on the other side of the line, with a forbidden love thrown into the mix. I have also completed a tale set in Ireland in the 1980s involving two daring teenagers and a historical scandal. So, on verra.
Fascinating! Many thanks, Susan, for taking the time to chat about your work. After reading White Feathers, I look forward to your next writing adventures.