British novelist Pat Barker, who won the Booker Prize in 1995 for The Ghost Road, the final volume of her Regeneration trilogy, revisits World War I in Life Class.

What is it about World War I that remains so compelling ?

The Great War was the first time most people were made aware of the terrible effects of modern weapons on fragile human bodies. The shock of this still lingers.

Life Class opens just before the war begins, with a trio of young art students at the Slade School of Fine Arts and their real-life professor, Henry Tonks. Who was he?

Henry Tonks was a practicing artist—as all Slade teachers had to be—and a good one, but his real genius was for teaching. Henry Tonks was the Slade, and his high standards and exacting eye are fixed reference points around which the fictional characters revolve.

Why is your heroine, Elinor Brooke, particularly determined not to let the war interfere with her pursuit of her art?

I find Elinor’s resolute refusal to accept the war as a possible subject for art interesting. It sounds trivial and selfish at first, but I think it’s got something to recommend it. It’s rather like W.B. Yeats’s refusal to regard trench warfare as a suitable subject for poetry on the grounds that it involved merely passive suffering. It also has echoes of Virginia Woolf’s concept of war as a purely masculine activity from which women should turn away.

Your fictional worlds are largely dominated by big events. Why do you think so many serious writers today focus more on the self and less on the events that shape society?

I agree that much contemporary fiction is egocentric and introspective, partly perhaps because individual writers typically do not have a sense of connection to major events, which they usually experience as passive observers via television. Contemporary writers who have been born in one society and either voluntarily or as refugees have been transplanted to a different culture find it easier to link their individual experience to a worldwide trend of mass migration and dislocation. It’s no accident that much of the strongest contemporary writing deals with themes of uprooting and transformation.

What’s your next novel about?

My next book will remain in the First World War period and contain some of the same characters as Life Class. It’s set partly in a hospital which specialized in plastic surgery and also employed artists who worked alongside surgeons in the operating theater—most notably Henry Tonks. I’m fascinated by the interface between the arts and medicine.