An Interview with Helen Humphreys
What inspired you to write about the night the Germans bombed Coventry?
As with all my novels, a number of things came together and inspired the idea. I had been thinking for a while of telling a story that takes place during one night. I had also been thinking about war, and about the war in Iraq specifically. And I had been thinking about art as a redemptive force. When I was researching The Lost Garden, I came across many references to the bombing of Coventry, and while the themes of war and art and darkness were swirling around in my head, I remembered this information and started to explore it again.
What research enabled you to render that dreadful night so vividly?
I wanted to document the experiences of the people of Coventry during the night of November 14, 1940, so first-person accounts of that night were the basis of my research. (I also read eyewitness accounts of the bombing of Baghdad.) I tried to be faithful to the real experiences of the citizenry in the telling of my story. Even though it was an aerial bombardment that the city suffered, I was interested primarily in what happened on the ground, to the people who were caught in the action.
The novel begins and ends at the cathedral. Why there?
The cathedral, whether one was religious or not, was the heart of the city. It was the only cathedral in Britain to be bombed to ruins during the war, and its destruction was a symbolic blow to England. It is also in the very center of Coventry, and because my story is about how the city fell, it had to be, by necessity, at the center of the novel.
Were there in fact any female fire watchers in the Second World War, or was the scene in which Harriet stood watch on the cathedral one of imagination?
There were female fire watchers in the Second World War, but there were no women fire-watching that night on the cathedral roof in Coventry. This is why in the story I have Harriet taking the place of one of the male fire watchers—which was within the realm of possibility. The strange and wonderful thing is that, since the novel has come out, I have met two different women who were daughters of two of the four fire watchers on the cathedral roof on November 14. They each approached me after readings and told me the story of their fathers. Meeting direct descendants of the cathedral fire watchers was an amazing gift.
What traditional male roles did women take on during the Second World War, and were they valued much at the time or only later?
Women took on many traditional male jobs during the war—laboring in factories, delivering mail, driving buses, driving tractors—and though some people objected, the work was supported because it was seen as a necessary contribution to the war effort. Women were simply “doing their bit.“ What happened after the war, when the men returned to their lives and their jobs, was harder for the women, who had experienced a certain amount of liberation in being able to inhabit traditionally male occupations. My first novel, Leaving Earth, was about women pilots in the early part of the twentieth century, and I know from my research that during the Second World War a lot of women held jobs in aviation. After the war they were expected to surrender these jobs, and in extreme cases some women killed themselves because they couldn't bear to be prevented from flying.
What is the significance of Jeremy's color blindness, which is especially interesting in contrast to his artist mother's passion for color?
I needed Jeremy to have a relatively minor physical disability that would prevent him from joining up as a soldier. I also liked the idea of color blindness because it worked so well with the idea of telling a story that occurs primarily at night.
Why does Maeve, who has also known loss, seem better able to deal with it than Harriet?
Harriet's early life was not a particularly happy one. She was not blessed with loving parents or a happy childhood. She suffers from the fear, and the reality, of being abandoned. Her marriage was the one bright thing, and when it was taken away from her she was, understandably, devastated.
And Maeve's loss was not equal to Harriet's loss. Harriet lost her imagined future when her husband died. Maeve's losses were not nearly as destructive, or as central. Harriet and Maeve started out as relatively similar young women. Harriet's loss has changed her irrevocably.
What prompted you to explore the lives of two women who spent most of their lives alone, something that can't have been easy in that period?
My grandparents' generation went through two world wars. A man could conceivably be called to fight in both wars. My grandfather fought in the first war and was killed fighting in the second war. For women the experience was equally devastating. A woman could lose her husband in the first war, her sons in the second. I wanted to show how women's lives were shaped by these losses, and how many women spent a large portion of their lives alone because of this. My grandmother was one of these women, and I lived with her for a time in my early twenties, when I was struggling to become a writer, so I remember very clearly how closed she was as a person because of the untimely death of her husband.
Young Jeremy is a ghostly echo of Harriet's deceased husband, Owen, who was killed in the first battle of Ypres. What was his influence on her?
Harriet had shut down in the years following her husband's death, and meeting Jeremy, and imagining him as Owen, enabled her to open up to life again. I think Jeremy didn't resolve the past for Harriet so much as he allowed a future for her.
What part do you believe art, such as visual art for Maeve or writing for Harriet, plays in healing?
Art is about creation, so it's the opposite of the destruction that was delivered upon Coventry, and in this way it is able to help offset the damage (both physically and psychically) caused by the bombing. It doesn't repair the damage for either Maeve or Harriet, but by making art they are able to place something in the way of that damage.
In your life have you known any sort of connection among people in a crisis similar to that experienced by Harriet and Maeve?
The closest event that I can think of was the ice storm of 1998 in eastern Ontario and western Quebec. In our house we were without power for ten days, and once the novelty of using the camping equipment indoors had worn off, it became very stressful. There was the worry of pipes bursting, and of ice forming on the inside walls of the house. For the people who had fled their houses there was a concern about looting. But for all the insecurity of that time, I also remember how people came together as a community and how much people helped one another out.
What role do your personal memories play in your writing in general?
Like all writers, I use the material of my own life in my work. Not directly, in that I don't tell the story of my life, but indirectly, in that I write about emotions I am familiar with, situations of which I have some understanding. When I write, I like to learn something new, immerse myself in an unfamiliar world, so I am less interested in writing directly from my life experience. But if the story I am telling is to have any credibility, I have to have some emotional understanding of what I am writing about. This is the balance that always needs to be struck when I am working on a book.
Helen Humphreys on Coventry
When I was exploring the idea for Coventry, one of the things I was thinking about was the relationship between destruction and creation. When something has been destroyed, what moves in to take its place? Is art a response to obliteration? Quite specifically, as the city of Coventry fell during the night of November 14, 1940, did memories and stories rise to fill the spaces the buildings had left?
Originally the novel had more of this idea in its pages. The characters reflected on what was happening around them, had associative memories, recalled various anecdotes regarding the city's history. It made sense to me that loss would be balanced with memory and story, and I wanted this balance to be everywhere in the novel. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to accomplish this because the very premise of my novel was also its limitation. The book was set during a night of bombing. The noise from the bombing made conversation difficult, if not impossible at times. So, my idea of having the characters relate to one another with personal stories and historical anecdotes wasn't going to fly. Thus the novel was shaped by its own restrictions. Instead of having Harriet Marsh remember her husband, I had to move her physically to an earlier time and have those memories play out as lived experience. I had to restrict conversation between my characters to times when they were sheltering inside a building and the outside noise was subdued.
A novel is a world, and in writing a novel, an author is creating a particular world. It seems that no matter what story I am telling, the possibilities of a definitive world are equally balanced by the limitations. But it is in this struggle between what is possible and what is impossible that the imagination is charged and the story earns its shape. Just as all failure is its own kind of success, all the restrictions of an imagined world ultimately reveal themselves as freedoms.
The 1919 section of the novel, when Harriet goes to Ypres to discover what happened to her husband, Owen, became, for me, one of the strongest parts of the book. It set in motion aspects of Harriet that would show themselves more profoundly in the main action of the novel. It served to provide a guided tour of the aftermath of war and to foreshadow the ruin of Coventry. None of this would have been shown or described—I would not have written this section at all—if my original idea for the novel had panned out.
In writing Coventry I used many books and accounts that detailed the events of November 14, 1940, but the following were particularly useful:
- The Story of the Destruction of Coventry Cathedral, by Provost R.T. Howard
- Moonlight Sonata: The Coventry Blitz, 14/15 November 1940, compiled and edited by Tim Lewis
- The Coventry We Have Lost (volumes I and II), by Albert Smith and David Fry
- Coventry at War and Memories of Coventry (pictorial records), by Alton Douglas in conjunction with the Coventry Evening Telegraph
- Air Raid: The Bombing of Coventry, 1940, by Norman Longmate
The guidebook Harriet references in the 1919 section of this novel is the illustrated Michelin guide from that same year, titled Ypres and the Battles for Ypres . The letter from Owen Marsh is an actual letter from my grandfather, Dudley d'Herbez Humphreys, who fought in the trenches at Ypres in 1914. References to Werner's Nomenclature of Colours, by Abraham Gottlob Werner, correspond to the 1821 edition published by Patrick Syme.
Web Sites of Interest
About the Author
Helen Humphreys was born in Kingston-on-Thames, England, in 1961. She immigrated with her parents to Toronto in 1964 and spent her childhood in Scarborough. She now lives in Kingston, Ontario.
Humphreys always wanted to be a writer, and decided not to go to university in favor of learning on her own and working at a series of odd jobs to pay the rent. She preferred jobs like pumping gas, where she worked alone, because during the slow times she was able to read. She had a few poems published in literary magazines while still in her teens, and in her early twenties she took the two-year Book Editing and Design Program at Centennial College. For the next decade she worked part-time, overseeing production on two academic journals published out of the University of Toronto, and continued to write poetry. Her first book of poems, Gods and Other Mortals (1986), was published by Brick Books when she was twenty-five. Before this book was published, she says, she hadn't known any other writers and didn't belong to any kind of writing community.
Gods and Other Mortals was followed by Nuns Looking Anxious, Listening to Radios (1990), The Perils of Geography (1995), and Anthem (1999), which won the Canadian Authors Association award for poetry in 2000 and was nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and the Milton Acorn Award for People's Poetry.
After happening upon an idea that wouldn't fit into poetry, Humphreys decided to move into fiction. The novel form was most suited to the layered narrative of a tale, set during the Depression, of two young women trying to break the world in-flight endurance record of twenty-five days. The result was the novel Leaving Earth (1997), which won the City of Toronto Book Award and received international acclaim. Afterimage (2000) was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book and won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The Lost Garden (2002) was a national bestseller and a CBC Canada Reads pick for 2003. Each of these novels was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Wild Dogs (2004), which won the 2005 Lambda Prize for Fiction, was produced as a play by the Canadian Stage Company in 2008 and has also been optioned for a film. Humphreys followed these books with a work of creative nonfiction, The Frozen Thames (2007). Coventry (2008), her fifth novel, was chosen by the Globe and Mail as one of the top 100 books of the year. Humphreys's work has been published internationally and has been translated into many languages. She is currently writer-in-residence for Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.