Today’s guest on What Cathy Read Next is Rebecca Stonehill, author of The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale. The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale is Rebecca’s third novel and I’m delighted to bring you my interview with Rebecca as part of the blog tour for the book. In it Rebecca talks about secrets, bringing to life the 1960s and her passion for history.
About the Book
1967: Handsome but troubled, Jim is almost 18 and he lives and breathes girls, trad jazz, Eel Pie Island and his best friend, Charles. One night, he hears rumours of a community of young people living in caves in Matala, Crete. Determined to escape his odious, bully of a father and repressed mother, Jim hitchhikes through Europe down to Matala. At first, it’s the paradise he dreamt it would be. But as things start to go wrong and his very notion of self unravels, the last thing Jim expects is for this journey of hundreds of miles to set in motion a passage of healing which will lead him back to the person he hates most in the world: his father. Taking in the counter-culture of the 1960’s, the clash of relationships between the WW2 generation and their children, the baby boomers, this is a novel about secrets from the past finally surfacing, the healing of trauma and the power of forgiveness.
Format: eBook (299 pp.) Publisher: Sunbird Press
Published: 11th November 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction
Find The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale on Goodreads
Interview: Rebecca Stonehill, author of The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale
Without giving too much away, can you tell us a bit about The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale?
This story begins in 1967 with arrogant eighteen-year old Jim, following his painful transition into manhood, with glimpses into his insecurities and what might lie behind them. One night, he hears rumours of a group of young people living in some caves in southern Crete. Determined to see the place for himself, and against the wishes of his oppressive, out of touch father, he enlists the support of his best friend and hitchhikes down to Matala in Crete. Initially, Jim is spellbound by the place and the community of young travellers living there. But as the days go by, his insecurities come to the fore and the very last thing he expects happens: this journey of hundreds of miles sets in motion a passage of healing which will lead him back to the person he most hates in the world: his father.
What was the inspiration for the book?
The setting came first. My mother Elizabeth (to whom I have dedicated the book) spent some time in Matala in her early twenties. I was always intrigued by the stories she told me and the photographs I looked at of these young people standing outside the Neolithic caves, almost looking like cavemen and women! My own travels at around the same age as my mother and Jim had a huge impact on me and I wanted to explore that period we all go through, when we are trying to assert our independence in the world and carve our unique paths, but are often painfully self-conscious and unsure of ourselves. At the same time, I did not want my book to simply be a coming of age story, hence the second half that is set in Crete during the Second World War.
The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale is set partly in the 1960s. How did you go about creating an authentic picture of life in that period?
I read a number of novels set in the 1960s, trawled the internet for information and mined the memories of a large number of people from my parents’ generation who were young people during that time. A couple of people shared their diary entries with me; this was fascinating and helped to bring certain details to life, such as expressions of the time in common usage. I also love music and the novel is peppered with references to songs and musicians. I had a lot of fun reaching out to members of a book group on Facebook I am a member of and asking them to share with me (if they were around then!) their favourite songs of 1967. Music is so evocative and although I was born a decade later, simply by listening to music of this period, I was able to wind back the clock.
In the book, secrets from the past are uncovered. Why do you think secrets are so enticing to us as readers?
I think it’s so interesting what we share with one another and what we decide to keep to ourselves. I am fascinated by words left unspoken and this, essentially, is what secrets are. As readers, we need a force of some kind to propel us through a story: something to find out and mysteries to be revealed. In Jim’s case, he is not even aware that secrets exist. All he is able to sense is that something is wrong, but it is not until he travels to Crete and back again to England to the fate that awaits him that he can start to understand where his discomfort stems from.
One of the settings for the book is Eel Pie Island on the River Thames near London, famous as a location for live music in the 1960s. If you’d been around then, which group or solo artist would you have loved to see perform live?
Funnily enough, I have a playlist on Spotify that kept me company during the writing of the early Eel Pie Island scenes in the book. They are all artists who performed back then on the island, crowds of young people going wild over them. Eel Pie Island is famous for playing host to bands such as The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd (before they were huge names) but if I’d had the opportunity to go to a live concert on the island in the sixties, I would love to have heard some of those less well known bands. Jim and his friends dance to The Yardbirds in my book – I’d love to have joined them. They have such a distinctively Sixties sound and look and their music is very danceable!
Your previous books, The Poet’s Wife and The Girl and the Sunbird, were set in 1920s Spain and turn of the century East Africa. What is it you enjoy about writing historical fiction?
When I write (though not necessarily when I read), I like to inhabit a world that is completely different from the one I live in. Of course, this doesn’t limit me to writing historical fiction, but I am drawn to the questions that historical settings offer: How did people live in this era? What did they wear and what did they eat? How did social norms differ, particularly for women?
As a child, I loved visiting old, historical houses and gardens. I felt as though I had jumped into the pages of The Secret Garden or Miss Havisham’s crumbling mansion. Strangely, I didn’t enjoy history much at school, as it was all about reading text-books and felt rather wooden and dry. For me, history means visiting those places, delving into museums and archives, asking questions and watching films and reading books set in the period. It’s like solving a huge mystery. Even when I went to University, I chose Durham for the (rather shallow!) reason that I would be surrounded by beautiful old buildings. I’ve never grown out of that sense of wonder at the past, one reason why it is such a treat to live in a historical old house in Nairobi.
And what attracts you to a particular historical period?
It helps if I have lived somewhere to pique my interest in its past (i.e. Granada, Nairobi & Twickenham) but it doesn’t just have to be this. A few years ago, I walked past an old meat market building in East London and read a small plaque. It said that in the 18th Century, women were sold on this site by their husbands. This is horrifying! But also fascinating, and I have stored this away for use as a possible future book.
[We’ll watch out to see if that turns up in one of your books!]
Do you have a special place to write or any writing rituals?
I live in an old timber cottage in a suburb of Nairobi and I sit every morning on the wooden verandah to write. People are often surprised to hear that Nairobi can get quite chilly, as the city sits at an altitude of 2000 metres above sea level. Because of this, I normally start the day wrapped in blankets and even a hat and as the day warms up, the layers are removed! I am surrounded by tropical birds and old trees and also, a sense of history as this cottage is one of the oldest houses in the area. I find that mornings are my best time to write. In many ways, this is strange as I am not a morning person at all and find I am far more awake in the evenings. But this dreamy morning state I find myself in must be conducive to writing!
Which other writers do you admire?
There are so many I could mention here! But to name a few: Susan Fletcher, Maya Angelou, Niall Williams, Jo Baker, Jill Dawson, Kazuo Ishiguro and Maggie O’Farrell. I love a combination of beautifully crafted prose and a cracking good story.
What are you working on next?
We have seen so much on the news over the past years of the refugee crisis. These people become facts and figures and we become desensitized to the plight of refugees seeking better lives. I hope to be able to humanize and personalize a story of one family of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, including a historical element that rewinds the clock to the days when this country was considered the jewel of the Middle East. Watch this space!
Can’t wait, Rebecca. Thank you for those absolutely fascinating answers. It’s certainly made me eager for The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale to reach the top of my review pile.
About the Author
Rebecca Stonehill is from London but currently lives in Nairobi with her husband and three young children where she set up Magic Pencil, an initiative to give children greater access to creative writing and poetry. She has had numerous short stories published over the years, for example in Vintage Script, What the Dickens magazine, Ariadne’s Thread and Prole Books but The Poet’s Wife (Bookouture) was her first full-length novel, set in Granada during the Spanish Civil war and Franco’s dictatorship. Her second novel, The Girl and the Sunbird, was published by Bookouture in June 2016. Her third novel, set in Crete in WW2 and the 1960’s will be published on 11th November 2017.
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