PW: You obviously share a great deal of your own experience in your books about growing up in Wigton in the postwar years, which gives both The Soldier's Return and A Son of War remarkable authenticity.
Melvyn Bragg: Well, there's a lot of me and my family in it. I was born a bit before the war, and lived there until I was 18 and went off to Oxford, and my parents lived there much longer. My father, like Sam in the novels, did a lot of jobs—he was one of nine children—and eventually took over a pub, just as Sam does in the book.
PW: What kind of a town was it to grow up in? You get the sense, in the book, that in the immediate post-WWII period, in many ways it hadn't changed much in hundreds of years.
MB: I think that's perfectly true. It was small, no more than 5,000 people, but very concentrated, with many of the people living in appalling conditions. It had a rough past, too; some of the men seemed to fight just for the love of fighting, and there were occasions in its history when the militia had to be called in. There were 27 pubs for that number of people, and the one my father took over was the worst; but he pulled it up and made a job of it. It didn't help that my mother didn't approve of drink and on occasion she would harangue the customers. She could have made a wider life; she, too, was part of a large family, and she got a scholarship to college but wasn't allowed to go, like many girls back then. What she did for a living was make copies of men's suits—a lot of people did that in Wigton.
PW: Are your parents still alive?
MB: My mother is; she's 86, and every day, wherever I am in the world, I call her; and sometimes we go back together to visit the old place, on a bus to Keswick. I thought of going back and living in Wigton as a writer, and actually bought a small cottage there, just two rooms up and two down, for a few hundred pounds. and we often used it for holidays when my kids were small. But I never really lived there again.
PW: The son, Joe, in the book, has some strange experiences that scare him; he can't bear to be alone in his room at night. Was that you, too?
MB: Yes, I went off the rails for a time there in my teens—I had weird sort of out-of-body experiences, and they recurred for a time in my 20s—quite terrifying. Later on, in the next book, Joe develops an intense belief in hell. That was the other side of Wigton: there were churches from 12 different religious faiths in the town, and they were very important to the young people; they had youth clubs and big choirs. There were great limitations, but people lived rich lives, as I've tried to show. They went on great journeys, and had great lives.
PW: And have you completed the trilogy now?
MB: Yes, the third book is Crossing the Lines, and in it Joe breaks away from Wigton, as I finally did, and goes off to college. It's coming out in the U.K. soon, and I'm happy to say that the Seavers at Arcade have bought that, too. I've had a lot of publishers here for many different books, but Arcade has been great, and I really think it might work out this time!