Personal link in tale of war

By Linda Hall


Set in 1942 when the world was at war, Jasmine Nights, by Julia Gregson, is a story of a fighter pilot and a singer trying to survive in a world gone mad.

Dom, the pilot, first lays eyes on the lovely Saba with the incredible voice when she comes to the hospital where he is a patient to sing to the soldiers. Although Dom is too embarrassed to let her see his face at the time, when he is released from hospital he seeks her out. They spend a few whirlwind days getting to know each other. However, Saba is cautious with her emotions, she knows you mustn't fall for a fighter pilot because they don't make it home.

She is elated when she gets a role entertaining troops and sets off on a journey that will eventually take her to Egypt and the Middle East. But danger lurks in unlikely corners for Saba as she sings for her pennies.

Meanwhile, Dom can't stop thinking about the beautiful singer and decides to try to find her. The story combines the horrors of war with the sheer will of the young to live for the moment. It's romantic, sad, and a great read.

I asked Gregson about her book - and her writing.

YOU HAVE A LETTER TO READERS AT THE BEGINNING OF YOUR BOOK ABOUT YOUR PARENTS. CAN YOU GIVE US A BRIEF OUTLINE OF THAT?

The letter is about my parents, and how lucky I was to have them. My father, a Battle of Britain fighter pilot, had, by the age of 23, been shot down three times. The third time, he should have died: his parachute got caught in a tree near Canterbury and he was badly burned. He spent almost a year recuperating in hospital. Over half his friends didn't make it. My parents rarely talked about these times.

No one had the time or the inclination during the war to analyse their emotions, and the habit had stuck. But one beautiful June day, I took my mother for her 80th birthday treat up to London. We were walking across Bloomsbury Square en route to the theatre, when she pointed up to a block of flats and said, 'That's where Daddy and I lived when we were first married'. They were 21 and 22.

She then told me in a rush of emotion about the day he was shot down. The terrifying trip in a train across a London in flames; getting lost in the hospital where they were patching him up, amputating his finger. The shock of seeing his handsome face so transformed; the smell of the place. My father was one of the lucky ones, he was treated by the brilliant New Zealand plastic surgeon, Sir Archibald McEndoe, and made a marvellous recovery.

That day showed me how little I really knew about my parents and all this outwardly sociable, fun-loving couple had been through. Later, when pressed for information, my mother, whose habit was always to make the unbearable funny, stressed the laughs they'd had, the dancing, the nightclubs, the kindness of strangers, the songs as well as the awful tragedies. Jasmine Nights came out of a desire to know more.

DID YOU DRAW ON YOUR PARENTS' EXPERIENCE WHEN WRITING THIS BOOK?

Yes and no. Jasmine Nights is partly an attempt to understand my parents but it's not about them. My father was a writer, too, and wrote an amazing long poem after he retired called The Summer of the Firebird, about hanging in that tree and burning and listening to a bird sing, and thinking about my mother. I did use the emotions of that.

My parents were brave and, as they would have put it, "did their bit", but they were no more or less heroic than many young people of that time. Dom is not my father, and Saba, is not my mother. Saba, a wonderful headstrong singer, is pure invention. The war sets her free to discover her gifts, and when she falls in love she has to deal with all the complexities that modern women struggle with: how to balance love with work without sacrificing one for the other.

It is an often uneasily reported truth that many women found freedom in the war. My mother, for instance, worked as a WAAF at Fighter Command, and found the work fascinating as well as dangerous.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOURSELF AND HOW YOU CAME TO BE AN AUTHOR.

I always had a strong desire to write, but left school at 15 after a hit-and-miss education that took my sister and I to 13 schools. My father stayed in the air force, and we moved constantly, from London, where I was born, all over England, Cyprus, Australia. Later, my sister and I had dozens of jobs: nannies in the Australian outback, jillaroos, secretaries (I was hopeless), market research, and for a brief while I was even a model for Hardy Amies in London (boring), all of which I'm grateful for now I'm a novelist. I sold my first journalism story to the Sydney Morning Herald when I was 24 and working as a groom in the Australian Outback. I was asked to ride out with Mick Jagger on the set of the film of Ned Kelly and later wrote about it. Publishing that first story was a lightbulb moment, I knew I had found something to do that would never bore me and that I would never stop learning about. In a moment of madness, I gave up paid employment immediately and starved for a year trying to write and publish other stories.

For the next 20 or so years, I worked as a journalist who secretly wrote short stories. Finally, in my 50s, I wrote my first book, The Water Horse. When my second book, East of the Sun became a best seller, it was a huge and unexpected thrill. I felt lucky simply to be published.

WHAT COMES FIRST FOR YOU, THE CHARACTERS OR THE PLOT?

It's hard for me to separate out character and plot, both are so interwoven in my head, but I do wait for the moment when I can hear how the characters speak.

WHAT MAKES A STORY MEMORABLE?

I read a lot: biographies, classics, modern novels and what I long for in a book is one which holds me in a vivid and continuous dream. I'm impatient with tricks, or with books that have the author standing at my elbow lecturing me on physics, religion or what they have recently learned about neurophysiology or whatever. If I want these things I'll read a textbook. The characters must feel authentic, their dilemmas real.

HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE FINISHING A BOOK?

A glass of champagne with my husband! A walk with the dogs, or a ride on a horse.

DO YOU GIVE YOURSELF A TIMEFRAME WHEN PLANNING A BOOK?

The ideal would be maybe three to six months' research and then a year or so for writing, but, as they say, show God your plans, make him laugh.

THREE TOP TIPS FOR WANNABE WRITERS?

Read a lot - see how the best make it work. write a lot - anything to get you going at first: articles, short stories, letters to friends, a history of your family. Don't beat yourself up if early efforts disappoint: you didn't learn to cook or sew or drive a car without some wobbly outings and burned offerings, so don't be disheartened by failure. You're a work in progress, only show early efforts to those who understand this.

WHAT'S NEXT FOR YOU?

A book partly set in post-war England, and partly in India.

 

Win a copy of Julia Gregson's Jasmine Nights.

Send your name and contact details to regionalfeatures@apn.co.nz by June 21.

- Hamilton News

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