Massive happy hellos to Caroline Lea and her stunning debut novel, When The Sky Fell Apart which has just been released by Text Publishing.
Jersey, June 1940: it starts with the burning man on the beach just after the bombs land, obliterating the last shred of hope that Hitler will avert his attention from the Channel Islands. Within weeks, 12,000 German troops land on the Jersey beaches, heralding a new era of occupation.
For 10-year-old Claudine, it means a re-education under German rule, and as she befriends one of the soldiers, she inadvertently opens the gateway to a more sinister influence in her home with devastating consequences.
For Maurice, a local fisherman, it means protecting his wife at all costs. He has heard the whispers from France of what the occupiers do to invalids like Marthe and he is determined to keep them away from her – even if it means endangering his own life.
Edith, the island’s unofficial homeopath, is a Jerriais through to her bones. She sees her duty as caring for those who need her in their darkest time, but even she can’t save everyone, no matter how hard she tries.
And as for English doctor Tim Carter – on the arrival of the brutal Commandant, he becomes the subject of a terrifying regime that causes the Jersey locals to brand him a traitor, unaware of the torment he suffers in an effort to save them.
It’s over to Caroline where she is chatting about her writing process and the magic of editing. I’ve also reviewed the book too.
I’ve always written, but it took having children to compel me to finish my first novel. Perhaps it was the escapism writing offered, or the fact that motherhood has shown me both that I am a huge control freak, and that parenting is hard (why didn’t someone warn me that my kids would have opinions, or that they might prefer fistfuls of sugar to steamed broccoli?). The result was WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, which was written in six months during my children’s nap-times. Children provided me with a useful time constraint—I always respond well to a deadline—and writing provided me with characters I could control, so that it mattered less when my children drew on their faces with sharpie marker pens.
There were many surprises along the road to publication, not least of which was the amount of criticism writers must be willing to accept. The key is to acknowledge it, struggle back up, dust yourself off and continue to write, ignoring the monkey on your shoulder, babbling that you’re a failure. Writers are masters of self-sabotage. It’s easy to sit in front of a blank screen, paralysed by the idea that, whatever you write, it won’t be good enough. At the other end of the spectrum is the eviscerating experience of writing something ‘good’, only to feel utterly shattered by critical feedback from an agent or editor. All this emotional battery can leave hopeful writers feeling like the end product might not justify the years of tears and crushed egos, but I think that the problem is often that we expect to be ‘good’ too soon: we don’t allow ourselves to write badly.
Bear with me. I’m not suggesting that you send out your first draft of poorly shaped plot, with under-developed characters (I tried this with the first draft of my second novel: the response from my wonderful and longsuffering agent was polite but brutal). But I am saying that good work often starts with ‘bad’ writing, and with forgiving yourself for writing badly, and then being ready to endlessly reshape, rework, edit and redraft. This is where the magic happens. Imagine that you’re a sculptor. The first, roughly hewn block of wood will look be underwhelming. You’ll spend hundreds of hours sawing, chiseling, sanding and varnishing it before you have anything worthy of display. On the other hand, there may be things that remain in your novel through all twenty redrafts: WHEN THE SKY FELL APART starts with a burning man on a beach, and the first sentence, which was the impetus for the whole novel, has never changed: When he was on fire, the man smelt bitter.
Writing and reshaping in this way offers wonderfully rewarding moments: the characters come to life, just as if you were reading about them in a novel someone else had written. You understand their motivations and complexities—such a crucial part of writing a richly-woven story. I love reading novels containing multi-layered characters, with complex emotions and relationships. I came to ‘know’ my four main characters intimately, including great deal of fundamental ‘background’ details, which didn’t form part of the novel, but were important for creating a compelling and believable story.
One of the surprises of publication has been that being an ‘author’ is very different to being a ‘writer’. The latter requires solitary hours spent in the jumbled warren of your imagination. The former demands that you be a social animal, comfortable making small-talk, appearing at festivals and speaking on the radio, before returning to the reclusive and introverted job of writing. Chameleoning between the two is challenging; it’s particularly difficult to drag yourself back down to earth to start writing after a busy public event, particularly as the book you’re drafting will feel like a different world to the published novel you’ve been discussing. It’s easy to despair that the current work won’t ever match the first: the praise of the published book becomes a distorting mirror for the second, which feels flimsy in comparison. At this point, remember that writing is the real job, rather than ‘authoring’; doubts are normal, and redrafting will (nearly always) improve your manuscript.
Final tips for brain-blocked writers:
My verdict on When The Sky Fell Apart:
Oh this book. It’s sad, heart-breaking and it gives the reader a glimpse at how community can come together, even during a war and under terrifying circumstances.
I feel that its message is that you can’t beat the human sprit and determination people have.
These people go through so much within these pages. I grew so fond of each of the main characters.
The plot moves along well and for me, it was hard to predict what was going to happen. The prose in When The Sky Fell Apart is so beautiful and vivid. The setting is wonderfully described. I really got pulled in.
I couldn’t put this book down (in fact, I think I read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. One more page. Just one more page and then ended up waking myself up when the book fell on the floor.)
This was an incredibly well written, extraordinary debut novel. I think I have just found another favourite author.
Caroline Lea grew up in Jersey. She gained a First in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Warwick and worked as a teacher before writing her first novel, WHEN THE SKY FELL APART. She currently lives in Warwick with her husband and two young children and is writing her second novel.
Caroline is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CarolineleaLea