About The Author
Pat Barker was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in north Yorkshire and, from the age of seven, was brought up by her grandparents, who ran a fish and chip shop.
She began writing in her early twenties, but it took her ten years to find a publisher for her first novel, Union Street. Eventually, novelist Angela Carter suggested she send it to feminist press Virago, who published it in 1982. Reviews were mixed, with the book's stories of poverty and violence experienced by working class women apparently difficult for some critics to stomach. A film adaptation, Stanley and Iris, starring Robert de Niro and Jane Fonda was released in1989, although Barker states that it bears little relation to her book.
In 1983, Barker was named as one of Granta magazine's Best Young British Novelists in their inaugural decennial list, alongside other emerging literary stars including Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain and Julian Barnes.
Blow Your House Down (1984), Liza's England (1986; originally published as 'The Century's Daughter') and The Man Who Wasn't There (1989) tackled similar subject matter, cementing Barker's reputation as a peerless chronicler of working class life.
She then switched her attention to the First World War, curious about the experiences of her step-grandfather that he refused to discuss. The 'Regeneration' trilogy, which was was based in part on the work of poets in the trenches and the notes of an army doctor, began with Regeneration itself, published in 1991. The sequel was 1993's The Eye in the Door, which won the Guardian Fiction Award, and the sequence was completed by 1995's The Ghost Road, which went on to be awarded the Booker Prize.
Another World (1998) looks at the influence of the Great War on several generations of one family. Her first book after being awarded a CBE in 2000, Border Crossing, also featured dark psychological undertones. 2004's Double Vision saw a new approach to the theme of war, this time in the contemporary setting of Afghanistan. 2007's Life Class was a return to the First World War, in which a Red Cross volunteer's life changes radically on his return from Ypres.
Her new novel, Toby's Room, serves as a companion piece to Life Class (although neither need be read to fully enjoy the other), featuring some of the same characters.
When Toby is reported 'Missing, Believed Killed', another secret casts a lengthening shadow over Elinor's world: how exactly did Toby die, and why? Her search for the truth takes her on a painful journey from Slade School of Art to Queen Mary's Hospital.
In this exclusive interview with Foyles, Pat talks about how the First World War challenged long-held stereotypes of masculinity, the wariness with which those disfigured in combat were treated back home and the perils of being a dachshund in wartime.
Author photo © 2012 Ellen Warner
Questions & Answers
Although you have written about other subjects, World War I is the one you return to again and again - this is the fifth time. What is it that so fascinates you?
The First World War has been called the British Iliad and I think there's a lot of truth in this. It was a period of tremendous shock comparable to 9/11 or Pearl Harbour in the US and that loss of innocence played a huge part in making us what we are today. During that war, too, sex roles and the relationship between the classes were questioned and that makes it an exciting time to write about. In particular the concept of masculinity which had been generally accepted in the Victorian era was tested to breaking point on the battlefields of the Somme and Ypres.
You have written about poets and the war, and here and in Life Class about artists and the war. It seems a cruel irony that a war which they hated gave these people their subject but either took their lives or somehow rendered them redundant once the war was over?
The war did give particular poets and artists a voice and a vision and those who survived found their best work associated with experiences that most people were trying to forget! But this was a passing phase. Today the words of Wilfred Owen and the landscapes of Paul Nash are frequently used to express the pity of war and its devastation of the natural world - and not merely the war they fought in. The language they found seems to have become universal and is equally applicable to the conflicts of the present day.
Your grandfather and stepfather both fought in World War I. How did their experiences inform your writing?
Neither of them spoke about the war. But my grandfather had sustained a horrific bayonet wound which I saw every week when he got stripped off at the kitchen sink for a wash before he went for his night out at the British Legion. My stepfather had been gassed. He was disabled and never worked in all the time I knew him. So there were wounds and there was silence and that silence invited imaginative exploration. Also, of course, the war which had ended decades before was still a potent force in their lives, and in the lives of their relatives. The past wasn't over. It wasn't even the past.
After her brother Toby's death, Elinor paints endless landscapes whose focal point is always somehow his shadowy, barely seen figure, his absence. Do you think speaking, painting or writing about the trauma of war is therapeutic?
It can be, given time. A lot of our attempts to deal with traumatic experience revolve around the discovery of a language - in Elinor's case a visual language - in which to describe it. Anything is better than the wordless unease of dreams and nightmares.
But initially this attempt to voice trauma is likely to make it worse - sometimes very much worse. And there is no guarantee that the attempt to communicate the experience to other people who have not themselves suffered it will work. So if the attempt makes you feel worse and doesn't necessarily help other people to understand, it's not surprising that many men retreated into silence.
How do you combine your historical and fictional material? How nerve-wracking is it putting words into the mouths of well-known figures for which there might not be any specific source material?
Fictional characters are constructed rather differently in a work where real characters play a leading role. In Regeneration Billy Prior is designed to challenge Rivers not merely by what he says but by the sort of person he is.
Is it nerve- wracking putting speech into the mouths of real characters? It's certainly different from writing about fictional characters. You have an obligation to be fair to them and not misrepresent their views. Apart from that, I think fiction is written in an almost trance like state - at least during the first draft. If you became too self -conscious about what you were doing you wouldn't be able to do it at all.
Homosexuality and sexual taboos are parallel traumas to the war in your book. How do they intersect with the war?
The war produced a weakening of sexual taboos in some areas. Knowledge of contraceptive techniques probably became more widespread. But there was also a great increase in paranoid thinking, as often happens when a society is under external threat. Homosexuals were one of the groups who were believed to be a sort of fifth column. Perhaps too the adulation of wartime comradeship, of love between men, raised the spectre of the other sort of love between men - the one that daren't speak its name.
They weren't the only group that fell under suspicion. Shopkeepers with foreign names often had their windows broken. Even dachshunds were attacked!
Henry Tonks, who was both a surgeon and head of the Slade School of Art, has the macabre job of drawing the various physical injuries of the soldiers who came to Queen Mary's hospital in Sidcup for treatment. Have these ever been made public? How much of their experience would the general public have seen or heard at the time?
Henry Tonks's drawings of disfigured soldiers are now being shown in public for the first time. There was an exhibition of some of them in my home town Durham quite recently.
People were aware of facial injuries just as they were of amputated limbs. But integrating the disfigured into society again seems to have been more of a problem. The road between Queen's hospital, and the village of Sidcup had blue painted benches for patients to sit on, and the colour warned passers by that they were likely to see something shocking if they looked that way. One convalescent home in the neighbourhood was asked by the local residents to keep the patients indoors because the sight of them was too upsetting, But many local people behaved with great kindness and the majority of men eventually adjusted to their changed appearance.
Kit Neville, who sustained terrible facial injuries in the war, returns to an old haunt, the Cafe Royal, wearing a face mask that acts as both a literal and metaphorical 'cordon sanitaire' around him. Would this have been the experience of many of the returning soldiers, even those without such horrific injuries?
Very many men felt alienated from normal life while they were at home on leave - which included sick leave. They resented healthy men in reserved occupations many of whom they considered to be shirkers and they hated the fact that some people were making money out of the war, in effect profiting from the suffering of others. For some men it was are relief to go back.
The themes of trauma, survival and community permeate all your novels, including those with contemporary settings. Are they always the starting point for you?
I always start with characters rather than with themes which emerge from the telling of the story, but I agree that surviving trauma is a frequent situation for my characters. At least they do survive and often with a sense of humour and a zest for life intact.