Lucy Strange’s second historical novel for young readers, Our Castle by the Sea, thrusts her protagonist Petra’s family into intrigue at the start of World War II. Strange spoke with PW about her latest novel’s timely message, weaving history with fantasy as she also did in her debut, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, how her training as an actor informed recording her audiobooks, and juggling writing her next novel with teaching and a new baby.
Our Castle by the Sea is a historical thriller. What were the challenges of writing this type of novel?
Writing historical fiction is a wonderful thing, but it’s both a blessing and a curse as a genre. You never have a blank canvas. You’ve got this wonderful kind of background already in your story, which is so rich and offers so much to the plot. But it’s a double-edged sword, because sometimes a plot develops a momentum of its own and it can be quite hard keeping that synchronized with the historical events. That was tricky—making sure everything tied in and that the plot events fit in with the timeline in that first year of the second World War.
Pet’s mother is German and comes under suspicion as World War II approaches. What drew you to write about this kind of conflict? Does it feel timely?
I didn’t intend to write a story with these kinds of contemporary political references at all. It just happened. My original inspiration for the story was a painting of a lighthouse by Eric Ravilious done from the lantern room of the Belle Tout Lighthouse, which is near Beachy Head in the south coast of England in East Sussex. I fell in love with this painting and its sense of perspective and the idea of looking out over the sea. The painting was done in 1939 in the beginning of the second World War. There’s this feeling of looking out over the water and the sense of what is over on the other side of the water.
It began with this painting and I started researching that first year of the war and trying to find my story. I had my perspective, and I had my central character, but I didn’t know what the story itself was going to be. It was at this point that I found out about what happened in the U.K. with what were classified as enemy aliens, citizens from Germany, Austria, and then later on Italy when it joined the war. I had no idea that we had these tribunals and internment camps, that so many foreign national citizens from these countries were rounded up, locked up, put on ships, and sent to other countries.
There’s that famous quote from Winston Churchill that haunted me when I was doing my research. He famously said “Collar the lot,” because of the fear and the anger and the hatred that was being whipped up. And people were terrified. It was only 20 miles across the English Channel in that narrowest point between England and France. Just 20 miles. And people were really frightened that we would be next to be invaded. There was a lack of trust and a lack of compassion. There were 80,000 enemy aliens, and most of them, not all of them but most of them, were refugees. They had come here [to the U.K.] to be safe. And this is what happened to them. And I felt there were parallels there in terms of prejudice and xenophobia and what happens to our humanity and what happens to our compassion in times of conflict, or when we’re encouraged through politics or the press to view a nation as the enemy. I found I wanted to tell about a family that was going to be torn down the middle just as Europe was torn down the middle.
How did you conduct your research for Our Castle by the Sea?
It was by reading some books about the war, and researching online. And I had this lovely resource: there are a couple of historians in the county that I live in, Kent, and they have done all these interviews with elderly residents who had lived through the war on the Kent coast. And that was a really rich scene for me to quarry. The personal experiences of these people are so unaffected and so un-literary—genuine recollections of waking up to find the school had been bombed. And [the oral histories are] quite sensory often as well— they’d remember a particular smell or a particular sound.
How did you decide to set Our Castle by the Sea in this maritime setting and have the family live in a lighthouse?
It started with the painting, but there’s also something about lighthouses. Windmills, as well, weirdly. I don’t know why, but I think it’s possibly partly to do with that sense of going up, up, up the spiral staircase, climbing up into the sky and that sense of the view, the perspective, opening up when you get to the top and then you can see the whole world from up there. There’s a little bit of that kind of childhood magic of climbing up the faraway tree. And throughout history and folklore they are connected with tales of heroism and that sense of them being a beacon of light, a beacon of hope.
You play with time in Our Castle by the Sea. How did you decide to go back and forth in time as you crafted your novel?
I think it’s one of those things that just sort of unfolds. The main story takes place pretty much in a year, autumn 1939 to autumn 1940, and I deliberately didn’t want to do the whole war. I didn’t want to end with peace, because it’s not that straightforward. I wanted to end with the world still being a very complicated place, but with a sense of hope. But we have this unchronological flashing back to the past and her nightmare of the Wyrm, this ancient legend, that is sort of woven through the story. And that was something that was there from very early on.
I love creating stories within stories. In The Secret of Nightingale Wood we have fairy tales that are embroidered through the story, and in Our Castle by the Sea we have this ancient legend about the Wyrm and the Stones. I love the layers that it creates when you have a narrative within a narrative. And I also love that sense, because I always write in the first person, that we have access to the narrator’s thoughts and the character being lost in this imaginative world. And as a reader you get these lovely, kind of surreal moments when you’re not quite sure—is this really happening? Is this happening in her imagination? And that hint of magical realism when you start using legends and fairy tales and they kind of bleed into the real world.
I think magical realism is such an exciting literary genre to play with. And the more real the world is in the story the more effective the magical realism is, because if the world feels very concrete and then you have an element of the supernatural seeping into the story somehow—if it’s done well—then you’ll get goosebumps. And you’ll get this very odd kind of feeling of vertigo where you’re not quite sure what’s real and what's not in the story. I think why magical realism works so beautifully with historical fiction is because the historical elements ground the story in reality.
Your first novel, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, offered a nuanced look at grief. How did you conjure that grief?
It’s a funny thing because I don’t write from personal experience and I don’t tend to mine my own life or experiences in any kind of obvious or wholesale kind of manner. However, when I was writing Nightingale Wood I was actually living in Dubai, in the middle of this big city, and I was really homesick. I missed my family terribly, but I also missed the countryside that I’d grown up in. I missed green because there was no green out there. And I ached for it. For me, and this wasn’t perhaps even something I was aware of at the time, but this homesickness and nostalgia built itself up into this head of steam that poured out into the story. And you’re absolutely right, grief is at the heart of Nightingale Wood, and it wasn’t necessarily grief I was feeling but a sense of loss. And I think that’s what the connection was for me subconsciously.
Congratulations on your Audie Award for The Secret of Nightingale Wood. Given your background as an actor, did you enjoy recording your novel?
I loved it. I absolutely loved it. When I found out that The Secret of Nightingale Wood was going to be an audiobook, first in the U.K., I said, “Can I do it—can I do the narration?” And they said, “Hm, maybe, but you’ll have to audition.” So, I had to send off a recording, a rather bad recording, of me just reading on my laptop. And they said right away, “You can do it.” I would have hated it if anyone else had done it. I don’t know if I’m being possessive but I was so pleased. And I’ve just recorded the U.S. audiobook for Our Castle by the Sea, as well.
But one thing that’s funny is that I tend to write characters with funny voices, and there’s a bit in Nightingale Wood where I describe Moth’s voice for the first time and it’s something ridiculous, like she made the sound of sandpaper on old wood with her strange accent. And I thought when I was reading it, why have I written that? And then in Our Castle by the Sea I had accents to deal with, too. I had Mutti whom I wanted to give just the faintest trace of a German accent; I was aware that she had spent a lot of time living in the U.K. and that she would probably be very self-conscious about her accent as well living in an English village, so it’s very subtle. And I’m lucky my next-door neighbor happens to be a German lady who has lived in this country for over 20 years and so I did borrow and study little bits of her accent as well. So, yes, that’s where the drama school training comes in. And then there’s this scene where she’s having a conversation with the owner of the bakery who’s Italian, and again I thought, why have I done this to myself? So, I would like to apologize in advance for any offense caused by accents. The producer I’m working with said, “Are you going to try to create characters with straightforward voices now?” And I thought, oh no, I’ve done it again with my new book as I’ve got all these characters living in the far north of England, in Cumbria.
How do you structure your writing day?
That’s a very good question because I’ve got a nine-month-old baby now, so structuring the day is not something I’m able to do. It used to be the case, because I teach as well as write, so it used to be that on the days that I’m not teaching I would get up, get a cup of tea, and I would sit there in my pajamas and start writing. I like to start writing almost before I am fully awake, and almost before my inner editor wakes up—I think I might have stolen that phrase from Alexander McCall Smith. If you can start writing before your inner editor wakes up and get that sense of momentum and get going with the story, then you’re going to have a good writing day. That has now gone out of the window because I wake up when the baby wakes up and I’m writing around the edges of the day a bit. I’m often writing when he’s napping. He’s just starting nursery so I’m managing to get a little bit of protected writing time back. His name is Fred and it’s been a wonderful and crazy year. The book [Our Castle by the Sea] is dedicated to him, because in a way the book is about miracles and he’s my little miracle.
What are you working now?
I’m working on a book set in the north of England in the Lake District in 1899. It’s going to be a bit more gothic and a bit more ghostly than my previous two books, so I’m getting to revisit some old favorites like Rebecca and Wuthering Heights.
Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange. Scholastic/Chicken House, $17.99 Apr. 30 ISBN 978-1-338-35385-3