About The Author
Jason Hewitt is a novelist, playwright and actor. He has performed in a number of fringe theatre productions around London, including Great Expectations, Pericles, A Christmas Carol, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear, directed by Jonathan Miller.
He has also spent many years working in the publishing industry as a bookseller and publisher's sales representative. He has read at Bath Literature Festival and appeared on BBC local radio. His first written play will be performed later this year.
His first novel, The Dynamite Room, is a psychological drama set during the Second World War and focusing on the meeting of an 11-year-old English girl, Lydia, and a Nazi soldier. Lydia returns to her rural Suffolk village on a hot day in July 1940 expecting to find her mother, but the house, and indeed the whole village, is deserted. Later that night a German soldier arrives, heralding, so he tells her, a full-blown German invasion. There are, he explains to her, certain rules she must now abide by. He won't hurt Lydia, but she cannot leave the house. Is he telling the truth? How does he already know Lydia's name? And what has happened to her family?
We talked to Jason about what sets his book apart from other World War Two novels and why the war provides such fertile ground for writers; how getting lost in the Norwegian mountains led to the discovery of the eponymous dynamite room and how his neighbours might have responded to the curious acting techniques he employs when writing.
Questions & Answers
What Inspired You to write The Dynamite Room?
The Dynamite Room really was the result of many interests simultaneously coming together. For example, I have a History and English degree and I knew I wanted to write a World War II novel, but it is a well-trampled period for novelists and so I wanted to find a new and interesting angle. I toyed with the idea of an alternative history - what if the Germans had successfully invaded Britain in 1940? Then, in the library at Wimbledon, where I live, I stumbled across a book called Where the Eagle Landed by Peter Haining. It is a book of World War II myths that includes a story about Nazi bodies in the summer of 1940 being washed up on Shingle Street beach in Suffolk and the fear the locals had that some were still alive and loose in the Suffolk countryside. That was it. I had it. This was the start of the story. I wanted to keep the characters enclosed in one space so that I could build a claustrophobic tension. The house, Greyfriars, came from my love of gothic horror. It is a house that is haunted but not in a traditional sense. I then needed to put someone else in the house with my Nazi officer - the most unlikely person for him to be 'trapped' with. From that Lydia was born.
This period inspires a lot of fiction. What sets The Dynamite Room apart from other World War II novels?
Two things. Firstly, it takes the huge, all-consuming expanse of a global war and reduces it to the smallest setting possible - a single house. It is a war story with very few bangs and blasts. Instead, the setting is domestic and claustrophobic, with the tension in the main plot building from the two characters rather than outside circumstances. It is not the war that is the threat but the way war changes people. Secondly, I deliberately chose backstories and secondary plotlines that involved elements of the war that, previously, I had known nothing about. My view was that if they were new and interesting to me, they might be new and interesting to readers too, and also areas that were less well travelled by other writers. The Norwegian Campaign and Eva's plotline in Berlin are examples of this.
Do you think the appetite for World War II fiction will ever wane and if so, why?
I don't think the appetite for Second World War fiction will ever wane. It's a period that provides an endless scope for drama - for heartbreak, tragedy and redemption. What's more, it's a period of immense change, too, whether that is to individuals, families, towns, or whole countries. Nothing was the same afterwards and those five years of such pivotal shift provides endless source material for writers. The challenge is always finding that unique angle or an element of the war years that has not been so well travelled by other novelists before you.
What kind/s of research did you have to do? Were some sections harder than others to get right?
I've got a History and English degree but during my studies I favoured the mediaeval period and didn't spend much time on World War Two, so I started by reading up on the war generally. Then, as the story began to firm up, I focused my reading around the specific storylines. I'm sure if I'd written about the Battle of Britain or the Normandy landings there would have been a mountain of material available. However, I had purposefully chosen elements of the war that had been less well-covered in fiction (such as the Battle for Norway, Pioneer Group 909, or the events in Germany that form Eva's storyline). Thankfully, I practically live at the British Library and managed to find almost everything I needed either there or at the Imperial War Museum. I also spent time in Suffolk, Berlin and Narvik, a small harbour town above the Arctic Circle in Norway. I'm a firm believer that you can't create the atmosphere of a place without visiting it and seeing it for yourself. One afternoon, in the mountains above the fjords of Narvik I got hopelessly lost. It was only by chance that I stumbled across what would become the eponymous 'dynamite room', hidden within the trees. I would never have found that in the pages of a book.
In Lydia you have conjured an extremely authentic young girl. How did you get her voice just right?
For me, the important thing about Lydia is that she is at a turning point in her life, as neither a child nor an adolescent. I made a conscious effort that, given her circumstances, she would try to act like an adult and do the things that her mother might have done had she been around; yet she is still a child at heart and so any attempts to act like an adult would be done with a child's awkwardness. In spite of her best efforts she would slip back now and again into her childish ways. I tried to bear this in mind in everything she said and did. I also looked at other strong, young female characters in fiction, Briony in Ian McEwan's Atonement being an obvious one. On top of this, I'm a trained actor too, so there are many acting techniques that I used to create the characters, not just Lydia. These include finding their physicality or acting scenes out as the character might do. I dread to think what my neighbours must have thought every time they walked past my sitting room window to see me crawling around on the floor pretending to be a scared eleven-year old girl or hiding under the window clutching a dinner knife as if I'm a Nazi officer on the run.
How difficult was it to get inside the mind of a Nazi soldier, and even show him, at times at least, in a sympathetic light?
Heiden, my Nazi soldier, was harder to write than Lydia, despite being of the same gender and a similar age to me. The challenge was that I wanted the reader to never know how much to trust him. For this to work I needed him to be ambiguous without being vague, and for his character to shift and change but in a completely believable way. I've tried to do this through his memories, using them to show how war has shaped him. I firmly believe that we are the product of everything we have previously done and experienced, and that everything that happens to us changes us in some way. This is certainly the case with Heiden. He is my anti-hero and has committed almost every conceivable crime but I still want the reader to understand him and, at times, even be sympathetic. As to how well I've achieved that, well, you'll have to let me know.
Novelist or playwright?
Novelist first, definitely. I've written stories for as long as I can remember. It's just that none of them have been published until now. The playwriting is a fairly new venture for me. I see it as the meeting of two worlds: my novel-writing experience and my actor training. I've had my work performed at a number of fringe theatres in London, and most recently had a pilot for my play, Claustrophobia, at the Bush Theatre in Shepherds' Bush, which was supported by the Old Vic. I'm currently reworking the script so hopefully we'll be putting it on soon! The great thing about acting, playwriting and novel writing is that they feed into each other. Being a novelist helps me structure the narrative arc of a play, whilst being a playwright helps me develop realistic dialogue and keep the writing crisp and uncluttered. That's the theory anyway. I'll let you be the judge of how successful (or not) I've been.
How did the Playlist come about and how do you think it will augment the reading experience?
The playlist that accompanies the book was the brainchild of my editor at Simon & Schuster so I'm afraid I can't take any credit for that. That said, music is an important theme of the book and all the pieces on the playlist are either mentioned in the novel or are pieces that I listened to myself whilst I was writing the story and that helped me to evoke the book's atmosphere. I'd like to think that listening to some of the music while you read the book would add a new layer to the novel, immersing you even deeper into the story.
At one point Heiden says that some men used the war to help them assume new identities, new lives. Do you agree with him and if so, how universal a motive do you think that is?
I do agree with Heiden on this. There is no denying that the war ruined lives. Yet, I also believe that there was a very small minority who take advantage of it. I'm thinking of those men that had already experienced a rough deal in life and where the war offered them a chance to make something of themselves, to prove something about them as an individual, or even to start afresh entirely. With others it offered a bolthole from something in their everyday lives that they wanted to escape from - family problems, financial issues, the list goes on. I don't think this was a universal motive by any stretch of the imagination, but some certainly saw the war as a positive opportunity, and signed up willingly and with enthusiasm.
The little matchstick men make a poignant image that recurs throughout the book. Were they inspired by something in particular, perhaps from your own past?
I'd love to have a little childhood story to reel out at this point but unfortunately I'd have to make it up. I'm not sure where the little matchstick men appeared from, only that, like for Lydia, they were suddenly there in the story. I like to use seemingly trivial items that reappear again and again like a growing trail of breadcrumbs through the story, seemingly unimportant at first and then slowly growing in significance. I also like constructing novels as if they are puzzles so that bit by bit the reader can piece the story together. In my mind I believe it's something that helps pull the reader through. It keeps them guessing and turning the pages.
Do you have another novel on the go?
I'm currently working on a new novel set during the closing days of the war. It's about a man who wakes up in a field in the middle of Europe and doesn't know where he is or how he got there. He tries to find his way home through the war-ravaged wastelands of Europe and - aided by an unlikely group of comrades - pieces together his past as he goes. I'm thinking of it as the surreal love child of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity. Oh, and set during World War II.