A Chat with Helen Dunmore
This weekend, I was very pleased to speak with Helen Dunmore as part of WhitLit, Whitstable’s literary festival, now in its 3rd year. Helen Dunmore is the award-winning writer of 14 novels; she won the inaugural Orange Prize, now the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction, and has been short-listed for every prize going. Her newest book, Exposure, is a taut and classy Cold War thriller: I introduced it with a few sentences from her website:
“The Cold War is at its height. A spy may be a friend or neighbour, colleague or lover. At the end of a garden, in the pouring rain, a woman buries a briefcase deep in the earth.” Really, that’s my kind of thriller.
Helen read a bit from the first chapter, which you can hear here on Radio 4, and then we plunged into a conversation on the themes of her novel and how her characters came into being. “Concealment is an art,” one character says, and the novel is ripe with secrets. Everyone is hiding something from someone else – and, often, from themselves. Past identities are hidden – not forgotten, but only put away. Buried, as the briefcase is, but always there beneath the surface. The Cold War is filled with the ghosts of the past war, choices made, alliances formed, enemies who change.
Dunmore’s novels are often centred around wars – both during and after – from the WWI of The Lie & Zennor in Darkness, WW2 of The Siege & The Greatcoat, the Cold War years of House of Orphans and, now, Exposure. I asked Helen where her love of war stories came from, and she commented that her family was a typical one where “no one mentioned the war,” but that she decided to “give up on things not being said”. This Cold War is also one she can remember, and the atmosphere is thick with fog, smoke, fear and suspicion. When we spoke about how the characters came to her, she mentioned that she spent a lot of time with characters before writing, particularly in “exploring a character’s solitude” – how they are when no one else is with them, how they are in their own heads. Before writing, she said she “had to have a sense of them, their voices, how they move, how they think. When their voice is off, you just know it.” “People are deeply marked,” she said, and she is interested in the flaws of characters, in what they hide and why, in how their choices have changed them.
Helen Dunmore’s writing life began as a poet, and she said that the sense of rhythm remained important to her, especially in her prose. “Rhythm is in a character’s speech, how they speak, but also in the pace of a book. Sometimes we want to race through a book, and sometimes we need to be slowed down.” She commented that she hoped her books would have the rhythm of music, with all its cadences and varieties.
On her writing process, Helen remarked that she writes longhand for her first drafts, and then turns to the computer, as her handwriting is so bad. (This cheered me up significantly – as you’ll understand, if you’ve ever seen my handwriting.) She “types like a demon” and writes a lot of drafts. Her top tip is to “leave the work while it’s going well”, so that you won’t have to “start cold” the next day. She writes in a studio, but is not averse to leaping out of bed when an idea comes, and said that her working days are full of variety – that reading, reviewing, researching and thinking are all a part of her life as a writer – that all of them feed her writing life. It was a pleasure to speak with Helen Dunmore, and to read her newest novel. Many thanks to WhitLit and to her publishers, Hutchinson.