Imagining a different outcome to war
This article is from 2007.
Owen Sheers talks to Katie Gould about his latest book, Resistance, surfing, Ted Hughes and women’s shoes
‘Sitting at a desk talking to myself’ is how poet, novelist, playwright and journalist Owen Sheers defines writing. It seems his desk has served him well. His latest work is a radio play about WWII poet Alun Lewis; and a collaboration with composer Rachel Portman on The Water Diviner’s Tale, a song-cycle on climate change for kids at the Proms. In September he’s moving to the States to take up a fellowship at the New York Public Library and to work on his next novel.
To write his debut book, The Dust Diaries, he holed himself up in a caravan in South Wales, intending to write and surf. There were no waves so he remains ‘a pretty mediocre surfer’, but the book – the story of his family’s Zimbabwean past – won him the Welsh Book of the Year.
His latest book and the one bringing him to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Resistance, is set in WWII after the D-Day landings have failed and Britain has succumbed to German counter-attack and occupation. The women of a remote valley in Wales wake to find their husbands have disappeared in the night with neither explanation nor warning. A German patrol moves into the valley on some unstated mission, their commanding officer assuring the women that, contrary to reports of rape and murder by occupying forces, they will not be harmed. So begins an uneasy peace between the women reeling from their husbands’ disappearance and the battle-weary patrol.
‘It had a strange genesis over several years,’ explains Sheers. ‘I first heard about rumours of men with cachets of arms which fascinated me, though it wasn’t so much the war and guns – more it was the secrecy and what that could do in a small community. It was the unknowingness, uncertainty and moral ambiguity of war. Also, the geography of the place; I wanted to write a book set against the Black Mountains. The people living there felt they could extract themselves from the outside world and were trying to exist outside its morals and conflicts. Standing in the valley and thinking about the women, I wanted to write about the absence that could be a presence and that could be a threat.’
Musing on the literary potential of rewriting poetry in shorthand – or Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters in emoticons – we end up talking about the beauty of Manolo Blahniks – a month spent on an internship at Vogue a few year ago having left him with a residual interest in women’s shoes.
Owen Sheers (with Deborah Moggach), Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 17 Aug, 5pm, £7 (£5).