Author meets Reviewer: Clare Harvey meets Philipa Coughlan

Article published on February 14, 2018.

Clare is an ex-Army wife and the military world is a theme in her books, but not in a purely dry form of facts and figures. Often using fascinating real-life women interwoven into the plots, Clare adds them into her historical fiction with tense but heart-warming scenes, alongside imagined characters, a big dose of heartache and realistic lives often laced with danger from the war raging around them.

Her debut novel, The Gunner Girl, was inspired by her mother-in-law’s experiences during WWII and it was written while Clare’s husband was on active service in Afghanistan. It dealt with the women defending Britain on anti-aircraft guns and includes references to Winston Churchill’s daughter Mary. The novel won the 2016 Joan Hessayon Award.

Clare’s next book, The English Agent, was inspired by the brave women agents of the SOE (Secret Operatives Executive) who parachuted into wartime occupied France. It includes reference to the real-life Vera Atkins, who was a Senior Recruitment Officer at the SOE and who attended each of the missions in which women took off to land in German-occupied France. These were not just brave women – as the male Recruiting Officer Capt. Selwyn Joseph said, “Women…. have far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men.” This, in many ways, sums up so many of Harvey’s characters.

The Night Raid takes readers into the world of night shifts at a busy and dangerous munitions factory in Nottingham. Two of the women, Violet Smith and her co-worker Zelah Fitzlord, arrive at the factory because of very different but equally difficult past lives. Their independence and hard work is challenged by some of the men they meet and the threat of the night sky bringing German air raids to the city. War artist Dame Laura Knight returns to her home town when she is commissioned to paint the factory girls, leaving her husband and her own conflicts well behind. But will the ghosts of the past catch up with her and will the strength and friendship of these factory girls add a whole new dimension to the artistic world in which Laura lives?

I had heard of Clare’s work and went along to our wonderful (and newly renovated) local library in Beeston, Nottingham, to listen to Clare talk about her last novel, The Night Raid, which is set in the city where Clare now lives with her family, and where extensive research brought her the background to the story. The plot includes some great fictionalised female characters but they are all linked through the real-life artist Dame Laura Knight. Laura worked during WWII painting various military scenes, including munitions factories such as the one in Nottingham around which the women all meet in the book.

Clare responded to many questions from myself (and others) in the audience and provided some valuable insight into an author working alongside her publisher (Simon & Schuster UK in Clare’s case) and the methods she undertakes in her writing to achieve her finished novels. I later discovered we both went to the same Life Drawing class locally (weird I know) but I can also add that Clare is an accomplished artist too!

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What drew you to using Dame Laura Knight within The Night Raid?

I first saw Knight’s work displayed at a local art gallery (Djanogly, Lakeside, Nottingham) and researched her local links. She was born Laura Johnson in 1877 in Long Eaton (a nearby town) and her mother gave art tuition lessons in homes and in a local school in the city. When her mother died in 1893 and her sister had TB, Laura tried to take on the role but was too young at 14 and couldn’t manage. It was difficult and the family struggled financially. But Laura later moved to an art community in Staithes in Yorkshire where she met, and then married, another artist, Harold Knight.  Although Harold was a conscientious objector to the war, Laura worked for the Advisory Committee and was sent to various places in Britain to paint men and women working for the war effort. Her painting titled ‘Ruby Loftus screwing a breech ring’ (1943) seems to be an inspiration and brings the whole novel to life.

 What’s the trick to putting real-life people into fiction?

Clare outlined a BRICKS-MORTAR approach. Build a wall. For The Night Raid there was the real conscription for women in 1941, which included a class element – shown in the novel with Laura as from a higher class, artistic and cultured group, alongside the women working in the munitions factory in Nottingham coming from working class backgrounds and having to deal with poor families back at home and struggles at work and working very long hours in dangerous conditions. There was also the issue of Laura and Harold’s marriage. Apparently, she had once said, “I wasn’t born right”. Did this refer to her infertility, her sexuality or her difficult relationship with Harold? There was no real evidence Laura came to Nottingham but Clare placed her at a site where there had been a Royal Ordnance Factory during WWII.

 Your more recent novels do not use chapters but give a voice to the main characters in sections throughout the book. Why do you use this style?

I see the story in scenes rather than chapters. It is the voices of the characters, whether they are imagined or real-life, using some of the research I have done about their lives.

Laura Knight was an accomplished writer herself and Clare brought some of her books (The Magic of A Line, Oil Paint and Greasepaint). She read one extract from Laura’s autobiography talking about people looking up to the sky watching a real night raid by the Germans when she and Harold were staying in Malvern. She then read from her novel, which very much reflected this scene.

Clare uses a plotting method known as “Save the Cat”, which was often used by Hollywood. There are loads of links to this method on the internet, as well as courses to learn about it if you feel this might be something to help you with your writing!

 Do you choose the front cover pictures?

Clare was very diplomatic but said she didn’t choose them herself. She is guided by the publisher and readers will see a similar theme to each cover. However, they seem to be attracting readers!

 How did you get to this point in your writing?

Clare started writing when her son was young (he’s now 15!). She had three previous attempts at a novel before this deal with Simon & Schuster.

 Which writers inspire you?

Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and Jon McGregor (also a writer from Nottingham!).

 What’s next in the pipeline?

My next book is The Escape. It is set in Germany at the end of WWII. It has two timelines focusing on two women leading to a crossover in the plot and is due out in hardback this summer. There are loads of other ideas I’m working on too – there are loads of fascinating women out there!

At our next Life Drawing class Clare told me she was a bit upset an idea of hers based around a female bomb disposal soldier in Afghanistan had been rejected, but I’m sure she has plenty more plots up her sleeve!

Philipa Coughlan
February 2018

Our thanks to both Clare and Philipa for this fascinating article.

The Night Raid by Clare Harvey
Simon & Schuster UK 9781471161865 pbk Dec 2017


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