Julie Berry’s WWI romance, Lovely War, tells the harrowing accounts of two young couples, whose lives are deeply affected by the war. Besides addressing war, love, and loss, the book covers a variety of other topics and incorporates the unique perspectives of the Greek Gods, who act as narrators. PW spoke with Berry about the daunting task of writing a novel of this scope and complexity, and what she hopes readers will carry away from it.
How did you decide to write a novel about WWI?
I started out wondering if I should write a novel about WWII, the war my parents had lived through, but while doing research on WWII, I recognized a lot of parallels between that war and WWI. People grew victory gardens during both wars, for example. During WWI, people learned how to make sacrifices and then taught their children how to make sacrifices when WWII came along. I became fascinated with WWI and decided to write about it instead.
Did you come across any other surprises about WWI during your research?
There were a lot of small surprises, like how the Spanish flu outbreak was related to the war and how terms coined during WWI have entered into our vocabulary, like trench, associated with trench warfare, for instance. People today still use the phrase “being down in the trenches” and we still have trench coats, of course. WWI lives with us still. It precipitated troubles in the Middle East that still exist. It rewrote the map. It was a catalyst for women winning the right to vote. It set the stage for WWII.
After you found out the basic facts about the war, what came next?
I wanted to immerse myself in the era. I read memoirs by people who had lived through the war. I also listened to many audio accounts, which were wonderful sources. Hearing survivors tell their stories brought the war to life for me; they sounded just like people you’d meet today. I remember thinking, “They’re not much different from me.”
How did hearing the voices contribute to writing the book?
In my book, I wanted to show that people back then are the same as people today. Most videos you see from that era are in black and white and really grainy, making viewers think, “Oh, that was so long ago!” I wanted young readers to know that these people were real. They had the same emotions as we do. They had romances, crushes, and traumas, just like us.
Lovely War is a complicated book with many layers. How did you approach writing it? Did you begin with an outline?
I never use outlines in the beginning. I write a first draft and go from there. I just dove into writing Lovely War. I was still fascinated by the war. How it changed women and how it affected lives were ideas I wanted to explore, but I had more questions than answers at first. I remember pretty early on in the process my editor asking, “At the end of the day, what do you want this book to be about?” and I said, “Well everything!” I had so much going on. The book covers the war, the home front, segregation, persecution, women’s issues and women’s progress, and love and life and death, but to put a button on it all was a struggle. It was hard to home in on the book’s overarching thesis. It took several drafts for me to figure it out, but once I knew what, overall, I wanted to say, it became much clearer how to wrap everything up.
With so much going on in the book, and with the story being so lengthy, how did you keep a handle on everything as you were writing?
Part of what happens to me when I’m writing longer books is that they often start to incorporate multiple voices, which presents a set of challenges and opportunities. How do you keep a story moving when multiple minds are in charge of it? I have to make sure I’m braiding the voices together in a way that works, has a good rhythm, and keeps the suspense up without the reader feeling manipulated. When writing Lovely War, I was able to incorporate techniques I’d used for The Passion of Dolssa. After the first draft of that book, I used a means of outlining and summarizing, utilizing spreadsheets to better see what I was doing. This made it easier to take charge of the raw material I’d created in the first draft, allowing me to see what was working and what wasn’t. Then I could start ripping out chapters, reordering them, and adding new ones.
At the end of Lovely War you tell what happens to each main character after the war. Had you planned their fates before you even started writing or did that come later?
There were some evolutions of the outcomes, some shifting and movement over the course of writing the novel. I couldn’t write a book about WWI that ended with everyone merrily traipsing through fields of daisies. Everybody who lived through that war was going to pay a price of some kind. I had to consider the various ways that price could be paid. There were a lot of changes I made about what happened to the characters after the war, which partly came from writing without a beginning outline or a clear plan [laughs].
What gave you the idea to insert Greek mythology into the framework of the story, using Aphrodite, Ares, Hades and Apollo as narrators?
That happened near the very start of my writing. I knew I wanted to write a love story during the war, so I asked myself, “What’s the best way to do this? What’s the right vantage point to take?” I wrote some beginnings and none really got off the ground until I brought in the Greek gods. I like to say there would be no [protagonist] Hazel without Aphrodite. The Greek gods brought the energy that I’d been looking for, the vantage point to capture the enormity of the war. There were millions of casualties and years of fighting. I needed a wide perspective while still being able to look closely at the impact on specific lives. Nothing less than a godlike perspective was going to get the job done. Once the gods entered, the book became a lot more fun to write.
Although the book’s main themes are about love and war, it is also about music. James falls in love with Hazel’s piano playing before he even speaks to her. It’s Colette’s unique singing voice that draws Aubrey to her. In your mind, how does music connect to love and war?
In my mind, music is one of the things that makes life worth living. It certainly calls forth our deepest emotions. I think when we experience something like war, love, loss or death, words fail us in the end. We have to look to things like poetry, art, and music to do justice to the enormity of our feelings.
The book is categorized as young adult. Did you have teenagers in mind as you wrote it?
Absolutely. I always think about writing for young readers, but I never feel like I’m writing “down” to them. I understand why we have these categories and why they’re important. They’re useful for librarians and booksellers, but I often find myself thinking, “Does it matter?” I write the kind of books I like to read and I’m confident young people are more than willing to meet me there. And if adults also enjoy the books, I’m thrilled.
What do you hope readers carry away from Lovely War?
I hope they love the characters. I hope they care for them as I do. I truly believe that if they do, then my work is done. They have found what I wanted to share, that these people were real and were loved and worthy of love. Any other lessons or historical insights about loss or trauma that are made along the way come from each reader’s interaction with the story and will attach quite naturally to that love. Writing this book was intense and all-consuming. It was both a joyful and harrowing experience to spend time in this period, thinking about what it was like to live through WWI, to see all the horrors then try to create a new life after being so deeply scarred by the war. I offer this book to the world with a lot of love, and hope it means to readers what it has meant to me.
Lovely War by Julie Berry. Viking, $18.99 Mar. 5 ISBN 978-0-451-46993-9