The detail you provide of life on a 1920s tea plantation is extraordinary – everything from local wildlife to the bedtime and cleaning rituals of the day. The research must have taken months!
I loved entering into a vanished world and learning about the intricacies of lives marked by contradictions: part jaw-dropping affluence, part intense isolation. The initial research took a couple of months of total immersion, but the thrilling part was listening to the crackly recordings of men and women who lived in Ceylon and India in the early twentieth century. Their voices melded together as they spoke of certainties, yet their world was on the brink of change; and while many still clung to the old power-structure, I made my main characters, Gwen and Laurence, more enlightened. I read, watched films, and finally I created the atmosphere of the setting by staying on an enchanting tea plantation in Sri Lanka, complete with flashing fireflies and singing cicadas.
You were born in Malaysia and lived there until you were nine. How much of your personal memory of life there is woven into your story?
The colour and the heat maybe, though more of my memories of life in Malaysia found their way into my first novel, The Separation, which Penguin published last year. This time I based Gwen’s struggle to understand her new unfamiliar world on my mother’s experience of going out to live in the East, at the age of nineteen. My mother couldn’t even phone home and missed her family terribly. I think you either fitted in to the colonial world or you did not, and my impression is that although my mother tried hard, she did not.
Is Gwen ‘of a type’ – did you base her on anyone specific, or on a more generalized idea of the kind of young woman who would have had the determination and guts to make a life (and a marriage) halfway around the world?
Gwen wasn’t consciously based on anyone specific. She is a naive young woman who falls head over heels in love and, like many women, yearns for adventure. She popped into my head fully formed, but I didn’t think of her as being of a type either, other than that she ‘lived’ when opportunities for women were much more limited than they are now. But her new life certainly calls for determination, and she needs guts to face the emotional fall-out of the story. I set her in the 1920s and 1930s because I’m fascinated by the lives of women then, and by how they handled the period of rapid change and unease between the two world wars.
Your writing of this period is so vivid . . . does that betray a secret wish to have lived in such times and such circumstances?
Now there’s a thought! I did love writing the book and would have happily lived in such a paradise, and at a time when life was less frantic. I’d have relished the adventure too, but I’d have made a terrible colonial wife. I’m not very domesticated and would probably have been off riding elephants rather than taking care of my poor husband. What it really betrays is my longing for the East. For the smells, sights and sounds of it. For the feel of it on my skin. And I wanted to seduce my readers with the sense and texture of the place, the same way it seduces me.