The tragedy of twins Esther and Ruth unfolds against the backdrop of WW1 in The Deep, a novella by Canadian writer Mary Swan. She has graciously agreed to discuss her work today with Great War 100 Reads.
Why did you write The Deep?
Mary Swan: Some years ago I heard an interview with the Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan, who was asked a similar question about his books. He talked about ‘the collected tinder in your own heart, waiting for a spark to be thrown onto it’ and I think that’s the perfect way to describe how books come about, certainly how they do for me. I’ve always been fascinated by twins, although — or maybe because — there aren’t any in my family. And I’d been interested in World War I for a very long time too, and read a lot about it over the years, wrote a few short stories that involved the war in some way. Then one day a friend told me about a footnote she’d come across in an essay on a completely unrelated subject. This footnote referred to an historical incident and that was my ‘spark’. I began working almost immediately, with no real idea of what I was going to end up with, and very gradually the fragments of incident and character I was writing shaped themselves into The Deep.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in writing the book?
MS: As mentioned, I’d already read quite a bit about the war, just out of interest, but when I started the research I wanted to do for The Deep and began reading in a more directed way I was surprised to learn how many women were actually involved, and in how many different capacities. That surprise was largely due to my own ignorance, but I think too that as this was more than twenty years ago, there was probably not as much attention paid to women’s war experience generally.
Luckily I was working in a university library and was able to make use of a great interlibrary loan department to track down scores of memoirs and diaries and letters. One thing that struck me in reading these was how many women, though they clearly felt uneasy saying it, talked about how exhilarating it was to be independent and challenged, to find out how much they could actually do. Of course they never lost sight of the horror that was war, and the suffering of the men they worked with, but so many also talked about fun.
Many of these collections also covered the period just after the war, and the aftermath was another thing I’d never thought much about. Like the soldiers they worked with, some women returned with physical and psychological scars, but in addition they were also expected to once again become dutiful daughters and sisters and wives. Many wrote about how difficult they found it, returning to the lives they felt they no longer fit.
What do you hope people will take away from the book?
MS: That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. I knew from the start that I wanted to write about the war with a different focus from many novels I had read. I’ve often thought that everything I write could be subtitled An Exploration, because that’s the only thing that’s close to a ‘purpose’ in writing, for me. As happens with everyone, certain things I’ve heard or read or experienced snag my attention in some way, or create that spark, and because I’m a writer I need to shape those things into some kind of story, and find the language and characters who will tell that story. In the broadest terms, I think it’s about finding connections and though I never have a particular message I want to communicate, the final connection is with the reader, who brings his/her own thoughts and experience and understanding to their reading. That’s the wonderful thing about meeting and corresponding with readers, hearing their reactions and the things that have touched or resonated with them.
What is your most interesting writing quirk?
MS: I don’t know that it’s a quirk, but for me things often start with a sentence, or even a phrase, and because those things tend to bubble up when I’m doing something like walking to the store or stirring a pot on the stove, I scribble them down on bits of paper that go first to my pocket, then to a file folder. Sometimes those sentences relate to something I’m actively working on, but there are always folders that I’m not ready to deal with yet, slowly accumulating scraps of paper until I begin to see how they fit together.
I also often need to somehow physically connect to something I’m imagining — sometimes just acting out a movement or expression, or the way certain words feel when you speak them. In the case of my last book, My Ghosts, a friend gave me an old telegraph key and rigged it up, because I needed to actually feel and hear what it was like to work it. I thought briefly of learning Morse code too, but only briefly!
What question do you wish people would ask about your work, that they don’t ask?
MS: I can’t think of a question I wish I’d been asked, but I can say that what is most gratifying is talking with readers and finding they get something I’ve intended. I don’t mean in the broader sense, as in the question above, but maybe a subtler connection between characters, a suggestive image, an echo. And in a similar sense, there have been times when a reader will recognize something I hadn’t consciously intended, yet recognize is there.
Also, because I often write about the past, I do great deal of research, though very little actually makes it into the books. It’s more a way to immerse myself in another time and place, but it’s always enjoyable for me when questions come up at readings or events and I’m able to talk a little about some of the strange or fascinating things I’ve come across in that research.
Where will your next novel take us?
MS: Except for my story collection, Emma’s Hands, I think of my books as novel-ish, rather than conventional novels. I intended each one to be a unit, but formed from separate pieces that interweave, as in The Deep. In the case of The Boys in the Trees, the different characters and perspectives revolve around a specific crime, while My Ghosts follows a family through several generations. It’s probably too early to say exactly what the next book will be, but lately I’ve been writing separate short stories again, and while they’re varying lengths and set in different time periods, I am beginning to see threads that connect them.
One benefit of this project is discovering great new-to-me writers. I have enjoyed out conversation, Mary, and I look forward to reading more of your works. Thank you so much for sharing your insights, and for bringing an interesting perspective of WW1 to life.
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