About The Author
Lindsay Hawdon's column, 'An Englishwoman Abroad', ran in The Sunday Telegraph for seven years. Throughout that time she travelled to every continent writing stories about her experiences and the people she encountered along the way. Her blog for The Sunday Times, 'Have Kids Will Travel', followed a year's trip travelling solo with her two young boys through the Far East to Australia. In the autumn of 2014 she embarked on a six-month trip around the world with her two young children. Her project, The Rainbow Hunters, travelled to seven different countries to find seven different colours to raise money for the chairty War Child. [www.justgiving.com/Lindsay-Hawdon].
She has recently returned to Bath, where she lives with her family.
Her first novel, Jakob's Colours, tells the story of the fate of Europe's gypsies during World War II. Spanning, Austria, Switzerland and England and three different time periods, it traces the interlinked stories of Jakob, an eight-year-old gypsy boy, his Roma father Yavy and his English mother, Lor.
We talked to Lindsay exclusively for Foyles about making the transition from journalist to novelist, the silence surrounding the Nazi genocide of the gypsies and how living in the present, can be a place of great solace when the past is too painful, the future too frightening to draw upon.
Questions & Answers
You were a journalist before you wrote this novel. How did the transition come about?
I learnt a lot about writing through journalism but I'm not sure that's the way I've ever seen myself. I didn't study English at university. Have never worked for a newspaper. I simply started travelling at a young age and had lots of stories to tell. But I was very lucky with the travel column that I had with the Sunday Telegraph in terms of freedom to write about where and what I wanted to write about, and the column had quite a literary style to it so that held me in good stead.
I've always written short stories, had some published, had a few do well in certain writing competitions, and I've been writing this novel for a long time. When I got an agent I suppose I felt I could afford to make this book a priority. I think I was too unconfident before that. There was a loud voice of doubt that needed to be drowned out. I learnt to write as a I went along. I don't have a discarded book in a draw. I just wrote a lot, muddled my way through a lot, until in the end, Jakob's Colours became what it is today. What I love about writing a novel is the lovely freedom to explore. There are no constraints, just this vast blank page, the prospect of filling it both terrifying and thrilling.
As its title suggests, colour and the search for colour, permeates the different sections of the book together. Have you always been fascinated by colours?
No, not particularly. But I think, from the very beginning, people have sought to interpret their surroundings, sought to make colours as bright as the ones that we find in our natural world. Certainly during my travels I've seen how important colour is to different cultures and people, how they use them in ceremony, dress, decoration. I wanted the memory of colour to be sustainable even when the outside eye could no longer see it. The strength of our internal world is often all we have left to help us bear the unbearable. As human beings we are capable of huge atrocities, of turning our world very dark and grey at times, but often through that we also seem to find the very best in ourselves. And despite what we do to each other the pulse of the earth beats on. We are insignificant against it and there is great comfort to be found in that. The colours will out. Mostly I believe that.
What made you want to tell the story of the Romany gypsies under Hitler?
I began this book simply with a small boy running, that was all, and then slowly layers were added to it. In a sense writing is very much about reading too - you write a sentence down, then read it, have an emotional or thought provoking response to that and then write down another sentence. I knew the world Jakob was running from wasn’t a safe one and for a while I very much stayed clear of the Second World War because I simply didn’t have the confidence nor felt I had any claim to write about it. But then I started to think of Jakob coming from no home, from having no place to run to, or a place to return to and that got me researching Romany past and present which led me back to World War II.
I was intrigued that the stories we always hear about were Jewish ones, because between a half and one and a half million Romani lives were lost by 1945. The exact number isn’t known. The Nazi genocide of the gypsies was only officially acknowledged in 1982 and it was not until 14 April 1994 that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial held its first commemoration of gypsy victims. The silence of this information was what interested me, how was it that the we knew so little about the fate of an entire race? Then when I started to research the Romany past I realised that for them the first and second World Wars were just two moments in time when they had to face persecution, no more no less that anything they had faced before. After World War II Roma people had no time to linger on the atrocities that had taken place, to pause and claim justice, they were too busy surviving the next wave of persecution that came their way.
I suppose in the end what I wanted to do with this book, was to strip back everything, to see what you were left with if you had to face the very worst, as I think they have done.
Jakob experiences and witnesses so many terrible things, how does he find the strength to go on?
I think because he is very much able to live in the present, which I think is a place of great solace when the past is too painful, the future too frightening to draw upon. He is able to take comfort in the small things. I wanted this to be the legacy that came down from him from parent to child, the strength of that, how you can hopefully equip a child to bear the unbearable. I wanted to explore in the writing, if a moment of brutality could be overridden with the love of the people that surrounded it. I hope that is what endures longer than the horrors of a scene.
You have recently taken a trip to raise money and awareness for War Child, a charity that protects children from the effects of war. Can you tell us about that?
Like Jakob, my two boys and I are currently travelling the globe on a six month trip to seven countries in search of seven colours, the natural pigments made by the first colour-men, the first artists, raising money for the charity War Child as we go. We are The Rainbow Hunters.
So five months in and we have travelled to Kashmir to find saffron yellow, arriving in Srinigar one month after the floods that had swept through the city, still a mess of water-logged mud and silt, people wading knee-high through stagnant pools trying to salvage what they could from the rubble. We went on from India to China, where we trekked to ancient temples in search of celadon green, a mystical glaze that covered the porcelain of the Ming dynasty. In Italy we found cremona orange, a secret varnish that has coloured the Stradivari violins. In New Zealand it was the colour violet, which we found in a lichen that grows on the trees in the fjord land of Midford sounds and in a sea snail, that can weep violet tears. In the red deserts of central Australia we found red ochre in an eerie dried up river bed of the MacDonald Ranges and in Chile, we travelled up to a lapis lazuli mine that lies 4200m up in the high Andes, only accessible three months of the year, in search of the colour blue. We finished our quest in South Carolina in the indigo plantations of Charleston.
The idea began as a story I used to tell the boys when they were little, beneath the covers of pre-night slumber. A somewhat epic tale that lasted for years, where we rode on horses, across deserts and snow capped mountains in search of the stolen colours of the rainbow, very similar to the one Lor tells Jakob in Jakob's Colours. When my novel was accepted for publication, we were able to make the journey into a reality. I had always wanted travel to be part of the boys schooling. I had already taken them on a year's trip around Southeast Asia and Australia when they were 5 and 8. But I wanted this trip to be more than just another travel trip. I wanted the boys to feel they were contributing to something they could relate to. Already they had visited the Killing Fields as I've mentioned and they had seen third world existence, seen children living lives no child should have to live. So on this trip we also wanted to raise money for War Child as we went, through sponsorship, through campaigning.
War Child work in countries that have been devastated by armed conflict and help children suffering the worst effects of violence; child soldiers, victims of rape and abduction, disabled and street children. They provide vital care to a traumatised child and help them to rebuild their lost childhood. Their aim is a world in which the lives of children are no longer torn apart by war. So hence the rainbow. Hence, the hunting.
The telling of stories helps Lor and her children ‘find some semblance of sense in their lives’. Have you used storytelling yourself when working with children who have suffered war and other tragedies?
I have very much used stories when it comes to my own children. It's something to be shared between you, the length and breadth of the imagination, how stories can often mirror the outside world, interpret it in a way that is easier for children to understand.
Why was it important that Lor was originally English? Was it common for gypsies and non-gypsies to marry?
I wanted the book to be both a macrocosm and microcosm of war. Lor's story represents the privileged classes, those who didn't fight, who didn't see war beyond their own shores, who in fact prospered from it. But even they didn't escape unscathed. I wanted to show how war affects each and every one of us, even if it is merely a legacy of guilt passed down through the generations. In Lor I wanted to show the displacement of a privileged person, how easily we can fall, how perhaps the plight of the Roma, or the displaced is not so distant for all of us. And too that she was able to find solace in the things that Yavy had to offer, the world of the present, of the smaller delights of life, which I think in times of great grief or trauma are the things we call upon to save us.
The scenes in the Institution are shocking; what research did you have to do in order to create a sense of authenticity?
Well that's a lovely sigh of relief to know you feel that, because I'm not sure I found it easy to make it authentic. I did a lot of reading, my mother is a psychotherapist, and I think I've always been fascinated in mental health issues, but that particular period of how they dealt with things was very unknown to me and I had to do a lot of research to check that the methods I was writing about were correct. Then I had to build up the human story around that.
The details of what happened to Jakob’s family are revealed only gradually, through allusion and use of recurring imagery. Did you know the details at the outset or were they only clarified as part of the writing process?
I think that was a little of both. A lot was written and cast away. What starts as something can end as something else. I did write the end almost along side the beginning. It was the middle bits that were harder to work out. How to get from A to Z. That part was more organic in a stumbled, first novel, sort of way. I don't think I consciously sat down to write a fragmented novel, but I wanted there to be a pace, a breathlessness, to the story, for everyone to be running from something, and for that to be reflected in the tension of having to piece bits together. The characters are disorientated, and the life of the Roma is often disorientating, as is war. I think I wanted the reader to be disorientated with them, the three fragmented stories only gradually unravelling, rather like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the whole story only revealing itself at the very end.
Do you see yourself continuing with a combination of journalism, novel writing and charity work (not to mention being a parent as well?).
Yes all of that. But I have really loved the process of writing this novel and have already begun the process of writing my next. And of course parenting is just something that runs alongside it all, in a muddled, haphazard, striving to get it right sort of way .