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Helen Carey

Q&A With Helen Carey

3 January 2017

Helen Carey was born in Oxford and lived in London for many years.

Before she began writing she had a range of jobs, including tour guide, army officer and management consultant. Lauded for her ability to engross and move in equal measure, her Lavender Road novels have been published as audiobooks by Soundings Audio. We had a chat about past jobs, her Romantic Novelists' Association nomination and the importance of her local library.

You’ve had various job roles before becoming an author – which was most fascinating and which do you think influences your work the most today?
The best job I ever had was while I was at university. I had studied French and German at high school and in the vacations I worked as a tour guide taking choirs, orchestras, and marching bands from the US and Canada on concert tours round Europe. Not only did I get to meet some wonderful musicians and conductors, I also had to deal with the organisers of all sorts of venues in Europe, ranging from places like the Albert Hall in London, or Cologne Cathedral, to freezing village halls in the mountains of Austria. Once we were even involved with the Blessing of the Lake ceremony on Lake Como where I had to do a speech in Italian, which at that time I barely spoke! It was a baptism of fire, but together with the Anthropology course I was studying at the time, it gave me a great interest in people of all different types and nationalities and how they coped under pressure, and that was useful when I came to write about the Second World War during which people lived in intensely difficult and dangerous circumstances for six years.

Has writing always been a long-term ambition of yours?
As a child I wrote pony stories, and then when I discovered boys I progressed onto writing teenage romances! I loved writing, but university and work soon got in the way. Some years later when I was working as a management consultant, I found myself sitting in a long queue on the motorway on the way back to London from a meeting in Scotland and remembered that I had once wanted to be a writer. I decided at once to have another go and wrote a light romance called the Art of Loving which subsequently was short-listed for the RNA New Writer’s Award.

What is the main inspiration for your WW2 Lavender Road series?
I have always been interested in the Second World War but the real inspiration for my Lavender Road was an old lady I met at a bus stop in Clapham, South London. We fell into conversation and she told me she had lived in the area right through the war. As we waited for the bus at the edge of Clapham Common she pointed out a dip in the grass where a V2 had landed in 1944, then gestured across to the now grassed-over bomb shelters where, as a child, she had often sheltered during the Blitz. Laura was a born and bred South Londoner and spoke of traumatic wartime events with a kind of rough and ready humour and breezy unconcern that transported me back to those extraordinary years.

The bus came along just then, but from that short encounter was born the idea of writing a series of novels exploring the day-to-day ups and downs, highs and lows, of people living in one south London street during World War Two.

How important is research for your novels? Do you think it is crucial to be historically accurate?Detailed research is absolutely crucial for my novels. I like to weave my stories through real events, so I need to be absolutely sure that I get my facts right. I generally start with the real history, both international and local. That involves reading history books and diaries, visiting museums and local history libraries, and lots of online research too. I am always on the lookout for snippets of interesting or unusual information as I like to include things that people might not already know. Once I have decided on my story then I research the various elements in more depth. If I can find someone who actually experienced the things I’m writing about then that’s even better. Historical records are great, but nothing compares with someone telling you at first hand what it was like to be caught in an underground station when a bomb severed the water main, or to crawl through the cellars of a collapsed building searching for a trapped child, or to take a tiny riverboat over the English Channel to rescue stranded soldiers at Dunkirk, or to spend time in an Italian POW camp.

One of the odd things I found about the war is that people who lived through it often talk about it as though it was all quite ordinary. But it wasn’t, it was quite extraordinary and it forced people to show extraordinary amounts of courage and resilience. That’s what makes it such a fascinating and inspiring period to write (and hopefully read) about.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?
There are lots of lovely things about being a writer, the freedom to work at home, the sense of creativity, the lovely messages from fans. But one of the most satisfying things, for me, is when a particular scene comes out in the writing exactly as I had planned it. I also love watching my husband reading my first draft. It is a great feeling to see him becoming completely absorbed, and even better if he laughs (and cries) in the right places!

Can you talk us through a typical writing day for you?
My typical day depends on where I am in the writing process. If I am planning or researching a novel, I lead a relatively normal life of working during the day and socialising or relaxing in the evenings and weekends. Sometimes there are nice little research trips, (recently I spent a few highly enjoyable days with my French cousin researching wartime Grenoble,) or talks to give, lunch with my editor, or even the occasional fancy award ceremony to attend. But as soon as I knuckle down to the actual writing then I work full time, generally well into the evening and often including weekends. Once I’m involved in a story I find it hard to switch out of it to do anything else. Even when I’m having supper with friends or watching a film, my plot lines are always lurking in the back of my mind. I am very lucky to have a patient husband and dog who don’t mind being ignored for days on end!

What are you planning next?
At the moment I am just finishing off Victory Girls, the final novel in the Lavender Road series. Victory Girls will be published in April 2018, and after that, after six years of war, (and writing over a million words in this series!) I am intending to take a nice, long holiday!

After living in various locations, you’ve settled down in Wales. Does the farm life suit you?
I’m not quite sure I have settled down! We came to Pembrokeshire ten years ago to look after my mother who was suffering with Alzheimer’s. I love the life here, the people are lovely, and our house is in a beautiful position overlooking the Irish Sea. From my desk I can sometimes see dolphins playing in the bay. It has been the perfect place to write as it is quiet and much less hectic than London. But I also love city life and now that my mother has sadly passed away, I can imagine us spending more time in London again, or perhaps even abroad. I have a yearning to spend a couple of years in Italy, but that unfortunately might not be quite so easy now we have Brexit looming up on us!

We’ll be distributing your audiobooks around the globe – how does this make you feel?
It’s wonderful! I know already that people all over the word are already enjoying my books. This week I have had messages from readers as far away as Hawaii, Argentina and New Zealand! But now people will be able to listen to them too which is great. There is something about the Second World War which seems to be striking a chord with people at the moment. Perhaps it’s because we are living in a somewhat troubled period now and can take some comfort from how people coped during the war years. That amazing wartime generation lived through the kind of terrible and tumultuous times that thankfully most of us have never had to experience, and hopefully never will. Their well-documented courage, stoicism and dogged humour can perhaps give us hope that when things get very dark, people do have the capacity to rise to the occasion and are able to show tolerance and compassion, even against all the odds.

Have you listened to your audiobooks?
Not all the way through yet. I am saving that treat for a year or two’s time when I have hopefully forgotten some of the details! But I have listened enough to know that Annie Aldington does a marvellous job in portraying all the various characters.

London Calling was shortlisted for the RoNA Best Historical Novel, how did you feel when you heard the news?
Of all the Lavender Road books, London Calling is perhaps closest to my heart because it was inspired by a visit to a military cemetery in Siracusa in Sicily where my uncle is buried. Uncle Basil was twenty nine when he died during the invasion of Sicily in 1943. Amazingly he had survived the disastrous Allied glider landings, but died later defending a bridge. His grave was in the front row of the cemetery. Neat white tombstones stretched in all directions behind him. My husband and I laid flowers, cried for twenty minutes, then drove back to where we were staying. And that night I decided I wanted to write a novel which in some small way would touch on the story of those valiant young men who died to rescue Europe from fascism. So when I heard the news about London Calling being shortlisted for the RoNA Awards I was thrilled! It is always a great honour to be picked out by industry professionals, and it was lovely that in an odd way it was my uncle Basil who spurred me to write it. 

Your titles are made available to libraries in audiobook format. How important is the library service to you and do you have any fond memories you could share with us?
The library service is very important to me, as indeed it should be to everyone. I can hardly think of anything more crucial to civilisation than allowing people access to books. And yes, I do have very fond memories. As a child in junior school I was taken to the local library every week and was allowed to choose two books. Nobody seemed to mind what they were. I chose all sorts of things and it instilled in me a love of reading that I have never lost. I am also very grateful for the local history libraries in London which have given me access to an amazing array of old records from Air Raid Officers’ reports to wartime newspapers. All were absolutely invaluable in helping me recreate the atmosphere of the times. I don’t think I could have written my Lavender Road books without them.

You can find more information about Helen and her books at:

Website: helencareybooks.co.uk

Twitter: https://twitter.com/HelenCareyBooks

Facebook: Helen Carey Books