Book Group Discussion: Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

Our chat for March’s book Letters to the Lost was a busy one, with Iona Grey checking in from sunny Cheshire and her agent, Rebecca Ritchie joining the chat too. We were blasting Glen Miller throughout the office to transport us back to wartime London and delve into this heart-wrenching romance once more. Here’s a round up of all the questions for Iona.

Letters to the Lost Cover ImageOn inspiration… (Emma Crowley)

The story did definitely take on a life of its own as I wrote it, but I’m a minimal planner so I have to admit I only started out with the vaguest of ideas what would happen. The parcel that came in the post was from my lovely friend Abby Green, and it arrived the morning after I’d had a big, miserable epiphany about the book I had been writing, which was set in the Edwardian era, and was completely failing to come together. The parcel contained a signed copy of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and an article Abby had found in a magazine about all the books that had come out on the back of the Downton Abbey craze. The article convinced me once and for all that the Edwardian era had possibly been done to death for the time being, and Kate Atkinson’s gorgeous prose reminded me that writing should be joyful and energetic and bring characters leaping to life off the page – all the things that my miserable effort was failing to do! That day I ditched the old book and wrote Charles and Stella’s wedding scene.

On casting… (Emma Crowley)

I’m so out of touch with film that I’m not sure who I’d cast. Lovely Theo James would make a great Dan, and the gorgeous actress who plays Claire in Outlander would be perfect for Stella.

Charles’s behaviour was totally in step with the attitude of the time, which is absolutely heartbreaking to think about.

On letters… (Kelly Rufus)

The idea of a story told through letters is one that’s always appealed to me, but it became much more real when my godmother died and I was faced with the task of clearing out her house. I discovered a tin of letters and cards and all sorts of other bits and pieces that really intrigued me; it was packed with stories that I’ll never really know now she’s gone. The way these things endure, giving up clues but at the same time keeping secrets, is endlessly fascinating. I think you can say more in a few words in a letter than in a whole swathe of narrative.

On the dual time frame… (Zarina de Ruiter)

I used the dual time frame structure for the novel simply because it’s my favourite kind. I grew up reading books like A Traveller in Time and A Stitch in Time and the novels of a fantastic writer called Nina Beachcroft (mostly out of print now, tragically) in which past and present met and overlapped, and I absolutely ate them up. I love the overview you get from looking back, and the sense of altered perspective: I think it can really heighten the emotional power of a story. It allows you to see how events that happened in the past cause ripples that spread down the years, which I find fascinating.

On setting…. (Emma Macey) becky letters

I’ve been fascinated by WW2 for as long as I can remember, so have been gathering the information I used in the book for a lifetime! I had two grandmothers and two godmothers who used to talk a lot about their wartime experiences, and I picked up details from their stories that it would be really hard to find through other kinds of ‘research’. I must also have watched just about every documentary and drama set in the period, and read every book, so it was all just there, waiting to be used. The war is always an irresistible backdrop to stories because it generates lots of external conflict: the events that conspire to throw obstacles in the way of Happy Ever After. Also the discrepancy between what the characters know, and what the reader knows (in terms of historical fact) provides an interesting contrast.

I visit London reasonably regularly, but don’t have a local’s knowledge of it, which was why I made up King’s Oak! London, and Londoners, suffered so much during the war and each borough bears its own harrowing history from that time, so I didn’t want to play fast and loose with facts.

On character… (Helen Redfearn)

I think creating character is such a fascinating part of the writing process. For me it’s the absolute acid test of whether a book is working or not, and I’d spent a long time writing a book before Letters that wasn’t, with characters that really refused to come to life. I’m not sure what it was about the particular cast that assembled themselves in this book, but their voices just seemed very vivid from the start. I think it really helped that I listened to people talking about the war and their experiences. Those first hand stories, and the voices in which they were told, brought my own story to life.

It hadn’t occurred to me that Jess was a later incarnation of Stella and Nancy, but I really like the idea. All of them occupy a position of vulnerability and disempowerment, but their inner strength enables them to survive.

The characters were definitely made up, though it’s always great when you come across a real face or voice that fits in with the one in your head. (One of my daughters is a great Paloma Faith fan and, hearing her speak one day, I just thought ‘Nancy!’)

Stella and Dan don’t have long together in reality, but they love each other for a lifetime.

On Nancy…

I would have liked her to appear as an old lady in the present day part of the book but  Will’s involvement depended on her having recently died, which was a shame. As to whether she’s selfish or frightened, perhaps she’s a bit of both. Stella calls her ‘a survivor’ and I think this is the key to her character. Fate dealt her a bad hand to start with. Ultimately she’s someone who puts head before heart, and material comfort before emotional satisfaction. I think she learned early on in life that love can’t be relied upon, so she’d rather have silk stockings and tinned peaches!

On Daisy… (Zarina de Ruiter) (Verity Wilde)

The reason for Daisy’s supposed death was because that was essentially the thing that stopped Stella from going after Dan for all those years. Daisy was her link with Charles, and the reason she couldn’t leave him. After the explosion, thinking she is responsible for Daisy’s death makes Stella so bowed down with guilt that she believes she doesn’t deserve happiness, which is what keeps them apart for so long.

richard & meI can’t remember quite how the idea of Daisy’s disability came about: I think it must have been inherent from the start somehow. For the doomed Edwardian book I’d done some research on asylums, so I knew a little about them and some of the terrible things that went on in them. It’s such a dark and shameful part of our history and it laid waste to the lives of so many people, so I wanted to include it. What happens to Daisy is the central tragedy of the book, and (for Stella) it puts her pain over losing Dan into perspective.

The saddest thing for me when I was writing the book was the discovery that what happened to Daisy was absolutely the norm. It would have been very unusual for children with learning disabilities to be brought up within the home, especially in families who could afford to pay for residential care. In that respect Charles’s behaviour was totally in step with the attitude of the time, which is absolutely heartbreaking to think about.

On Charles… 

I initially felt a whole lot more sympathy for him than I did by the end. He was in a horrible, horrible position. Not only was homosexuality illegal (and terribly shameful) in those days, but he also has the additional burden of his religious faith, and the knowledge that God disapproves of who and what he is. He loves Peter and he knows that it’s every bit as doomed as Stella’s love for Dan – and actually more so. He can never have the life he wants, and that’s a uniquely terrible thing to know. However, as the book went on he did get darker and less sympathetic, and by the end he was fairly loathsome. But there’s still a bit of me that feels sorry for him and understands why he behaved that way, and why he died how he did.

On the ending… (Zarina de Ruiter)

I didn’t really have any other endings in mind. I think I knew from the outset that Dan and Stella weren’t going to have a long and happy life together, so actually in some strange way, it made writing their story easier. There was a whole big, intense love story to pack into a few precious days, which made me aware that I needed to make every moment count. I think that was perhaps how it must have felt to live through those wartime years, so it added a sense of poignancy to writing it. Will sums it up when he says ‘Isn’t it enough to know that you’re loved?’ Stella and Dan don’t have long together in reality, but they love each other for a lifetime.

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey was published on 23rd April by Simon & Schuster

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