Hi Annabelle! I’m delighted to get the chance to talk to you today about your fabulous novel THE PEOPLE WE WERE BEFORE. As you know, I enjoyed the book immensely. It’s such a sweeping story, taking in the drama of the Balkan conflict in a way that is both deeply personal and yet also far-reaching and informative for your readers. Reading this novel made me want to immediately fly to Croatia, which shows me that you have made the place come alive too. My first question is – what inspired you to write about Croatia and particularly about this period of Yugoslavian history?
Hi Rosanna, lovely to talk to you too! Croatia was the first foreign country I ever visited, although it was Yugoslavia then, back in 1981. We went on a family holiday and went back several times over the next few years. When the war came, I couldn’t believe it was happening in places that I knew and had visited. Seeing Dubrovnik being shelled was so shocking. When the war was over I went back to write a travel piece and found that hotels I had stayed in had been used as refugee camps and that something like 70% of the buildings in Dubrovnik’s Old Town had been damaged. And yet so little was known or understood about the war in this country. When I originally started writing the book, I hadn’t intended to write much about the war; it seemed so awful, and I didn’t want to trivialise it. But the more I read, the more I began to feel I should write about it – that people should know what happened.
So a very personal reason for me for writing about Croatia – what lead to your interest in Cuba? You describe it so vibrantly in LAST DANCE IN HAVANA; is there a personal link, or is it just somewhere had a strong appeal?
That’s interesting, Annabelle, and explains a lot – your feelings and history with Croatia/ Yugoslavia certainly came across.
Some of my books have personal beginnings – for example RETURN TO MANDALAY was inspired by my husband’s family’s experiences in Burma, and when that happens, it’s special. But in the case of LAST DANCE IN HAVANA… I wanted to write about dance, and Cuba appealed because of its long love affair with music and dance and because, like Burma, it has an interesting and turbulent history. I also wanted to use the theme of power and control within the novel and refer to its history of slaves working on sugar plantations there. I used a UK city, Bristol, as the second setting for LAST DANCE because the city grew rich on the profits of the sugar trade. They say – ‘write about what you know’ but in this case it was ‘write about what you want to explore’.
When I found out that the rumba was danced by freed blacks and those still enslaved as a way of celebrating the idea of freedom and relationships between the sexes, I decided to use it both structurally and symbolically within the novel. The rumba is very sensual and I loved writing those dance scenes… I visited Cuba, of course, and talked to people there, to get a take on how they felt about their lives, the political situation, the Revolution. I read around the subject and the country and watched documentaries and films. My favourite book was ‘Biography of a Runaway Slave’ by Miguel Barnett, translated by Nick Hill which is very moving, but I also loved reading the Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta’s ‘No Way Home’ – and watching Acosta in action on the dance floor was pretty spectacular too.
I was very struck by the character of Miro in THE PEOPLE WE WERE BEFORE. He is a flawed and fascinating character and yet I totally empathised with him and his situation. It was so refreshing to read about someone who seemed so real. I wondered what made you choose this 1st person male viewpoint for the book and how you feel about him?
I find writing from a male viewpoint very freeing; I always worry with a first-person female viewpoint that people will think it’s based on myself, or whatever the opinions the character has are actually my opinions. Writing male first-person, that wasn’t so much of a concern. It’s a very intense way of writing, though, and I think because of that I have a real affection for Miro. He’s flawed, he makes bad decisions, he’s not always a good person, but he loves. He really, properly loves; his brother, his friends, his family. And I think that’s why he’s fascinated by the foreign war reporters, Nic and Marian, because they operate on a different emotional plain to him. He tries to be like them for a while, but in the end that just isn’t how he’s built. I love him for that, for being a mix of vulnerability and courage, weakness and strength. Like most of us.
It’s relationships that trip Miro up, in some ways, and I do find the relationships that you create in your books really interesting. You often seem to write about relationships built on misconceptions; on people not actually being the people they might first appear to be and the importance – or lack of – communication. Do you deliberately set out to examine relationship issues?
Keep reading in PART 2…