“I suppose in the end what I wanted to do, was to strip back everything, to see what you were left with if you had to face the very worst”
Interview: Lindsay Hawdon
Lindsay Hawdon is a writer of travel, adventure and fiction. On leaving school, she spent three years travelling around Europe, Africa and India, hitching rides and sleeping under canvas. She has since travelled to over sixty countries and writes regularly for The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, the Australian and the LA Times. Her debut novel, Jakob’s Colours was inspired by the lost voices of the Romany Holocaust.
Where, when and how do you write?
I tend to envisage a scene and then start writing, working my way around it as I go. And initially I love the freedom of that, where I can open my imagination up to possibility. Later I have to pull back, draw everything in tightly around itself, and I love that part of writing a book – when I have words safely on a page and like a sculptress can pick and hack away at making a line as I want it. I re-write and re-write and don’t let anyone see it until I can’t see the woods for the trees.
I try to get as many full writing days in as I can, and by that I mean from 9-3pm when my kids are at school, but often things get in the way, and I’ll make up the time in the evenings. When the boys were little I got very used to working late at night because it was the only time available to me and I’m very used to grabbing moments when and where I can, in strange hotel rooms in far off places when we’ve been travelling or in the car on the school pick up when an idea or a sentence comes to me. This is my first book. I’ve very much learnt how to do it as I’ve gone along, muddled my way through it in every sense of the word.
You used to think you could never be a ‘good enough’ writer to tackle a novel. How did your dyslexia diagnosis change this and how does it affect the way you write?
When I left school my over arching impression of myself was as someone who would love to write but who was so appallingly bad at English that this was not a possibility. So instead of making up worlds I set off to find them, and spent the next three years travelling around Europe, Africa and India. During that time I had many wonderful and hair-raising experiences, which all somehow seemed pointless unless I wrote them down.
At twenty four, I had to do a dyslexia test for a job I was researching in television and it was then that I found out I was dyslexic, but by then it didn’t really matter because I’d found my own style of writing and my own way of working. I think at school I was trying to write in the way that I thought one should write, and after I left, I started writing in the way that I wanted to, and because I didn’t have the laws of grammar tied down too firmly, I think I was just freer to explore where the writing and the rhythms took me.
I started sending off travel articles and short stories, had my fair share of rejection letters, but then aged twenty six I got my first travel column in The Sunday Telegraph. It was called An Englishwoman Abroad, and was a series of small travel tales about things I experienced and witnessed all over the world. It lasted for seven years, stopping only when I had children. Since then I’ve written columns for The Sunday Times – Have Kids Will Travel, which featured a year’s trip away, travelling solo with my two young boys, then aged 5 and 8 around S/E Asia and Australia.
Last year we did a second trip called The Rainbow Hunters which was based on a story I used to tell them as a child, and which in fact features in Jakob’s Colours. For six months we travelled to seven countries in search of seven colours, the first pigment made by the first colour men for War Child, the charity for children affected by war.
I’m still really bad at spelling and not at all sure if what I write is grammatically correct. I write instinctively to begin with and then go over and correct things afterwards.
Jakob’s Colours tells the story of a young boy on the run during the little-known WW2 Gypsy Holocaust. What sparked the storyline?
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 WWII. I was intrigued that the stories we always hear about were Jewish ones, because between a half and one and a half million Romany 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.
The Roma come from an aural background, traditionally they do not write stories down, so there are very few accounts in the written word, though that is changing. Then when I started to research the Romany past I realised that for them WWI and WWII were just two moments in time when they had to face persecution, no more no less than anything they had faced before. Afterwards they 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. Certainly they are the forgotten people. The disappeared. Jakob’s Colours is a book about the displaced, and sadly that is still very relevant to today.
I suppose in the end what I wanted to do, 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.
I think I try to approach each scene from a very human place. Fiction very much allows us to emotionally venture into places we wouldn’t otherwise dare to go. Fact is too harsh, often, for us to risk emotional involvement, but if we are led in a way that is bearable I think fiction offers a space where we can feel deep empathy, see the very worst and best of humanity and be better for it. I think I wrote those scenes from the same place that I would respond to a piece of intensely sad music. They move you to a higher plain of emotion that is both painful but also exquisitely alive and in touch with what it is to be human.
How important was it to offset the darker elements with flashes of love and the best of human nature?
In Jakob’s Colours 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 wanted that to be what you were left with. Children hold their emotions very closely to the surface, are raw and transparent with them, and through their eyes we can see more than simply the horrors of a scene. I think any reality is possible for them, which means their ability to find solace in things is matched by their imagination. Their inner world is very powerful and because of that they are very much able to live in the present, which I think is a place of great solace when the past is too painful and the future too frightening to draw upon.
A few years ago I visited The Killing Fields in Cambodia with my two young boys and it really struck me as we wandered around the place that despite the atrocities that had taken place there, and despite the pieces of bone and tooth that had been washed up from the ground with recent rainfall, that still lay on the path on which we walked, the overriding atmosphere was one of peace and love. I wanted to explore how it was that in those final moments it is not the horror or the brutality of death that endures, but love, perhaps because it is the last thing that we feel when we pass from this world to the next. I think I wanted to see in those last scenes whether it was possible for the strength of human emotion, to outweigh the horror of the scene unfolding around us.
Which are your favourite moments in the book?
That’s difficult to answer. I think I very much loved writing the scenes where Jakob is in the cupboard with Marcus, Loslow and Cherub. I loved the task of making a place that was dark and airless come alive with the things those characters held in their heads, exploring the power of their inner worlds. I also loved the gradual formation of this makeshift family, four people who had been thrown together at a difficult time, how they came to rely on each other for love and assurance.
Do you have a favourite review?
The review that meant the most to me was Andrew Miller’s because he is one of my favourite writers, so to have his approval meant an awful lot. I think he writes so beautifully and he’s the sort of writer than when I read his work, inspires and draws me onwards to write better, knowing I’ll never get close.
Your book has three points of view, three locations and three timelines. Did you write these in separate strands or in turn?
They were sort of all written together, but alongside each other and at first I kept them separate and worked at each of them in a linear line, trying to make each build to its own climax and revelation, but then as I started to bring the book together I needed to mix them about, rather like a fragmented jigsaw puzzle with the mystery of what has happened slowly unfolding. We don’t find out what has really happened until the very end and I wanted the layout to be as fragmented as the lives the characters were living.
What do you think is the secret of bringing historical characters to life?
I think it’s mostly about empathy. A person is the same whatever time they are born in. Being human has fundamental traits that stay the same whatever era we are born in. We still feel the same things, so I think it’s just about putting yourself empathetically in the mind set of each character and trying to find the truth of their actions in the things that they do and experience.
How did you find your first agent?
I had a chat with an agent called Charlotte Robertson on the telephone before I set off on our year trip away with a mindset to pitch it as a travel book on my return. We had a lovely chat, she told me not to worry about writing while I travelled, to enjoy the trip and see what came up when I returned. Towards the end of the conversation I mumbled something about the fiction book I was writing and asked whether I might send her some of it, and she politely said that I could, but with very little enthusiasm. I sent her about 15,000 words, and set off on our travels. I didn’t hear back from her for 3 months but then I got this lovely email saying she’d had missed her tube stop because she was weeping and that though she knows she told me not to do any writing while I was away she really thought I should finish this novel. This gave me a huge boost and also gave me faith to put my time into this novel.
When I returned from our travels, Charlotte signed me up before I had finished the book, and I spent the next six months finishing it. I then nervously awaited her response which came a week later and was just delightful. She then sent the novel off to fourteen agents and two days later it was pre-empted by the wonderful Kate Parkin who was then an editor at Hodder and Stoughton. On my second trip away I got an email from Charlotte saying she was returning to the world of sales (I think she’d always missed working as a team – as being an agent is much lonelier). I was really sad when she left as we had been on this very intimate journey together. To lose her was horrid, but we’ve stayed close friends and she’s been so supportive since.
You’re now represented by Susan Armstrong at Conville and Walsh. How did you find each each other?
I’ve only just started with Susan and already I think she is wonderful. She read my book long before I was looking for a new agent and sent me the most lovely message about it so I knew from the outset that she liked my writing style, which is so important in a writer/agent relationship. You want them to be passionate about the work you give them. I chose her because first and foremost I really liked her as a person, she is kind and thoughtful, intelligent and lovely company. As an agent though she has a list of wonderful writers whose work I really admire and love, and the great team of Conville and Walsh behind her. She’s committed and passionate to a job she loves and I really trust I’m in the hands of someone who is going to look out for me. I’d like to grow old and grey in writing with her so we can look back one day and say…remember when?
Did first career as a journalist/columnist help you to write fiction?
Certainly writing a weekly column for so many years teaches you to be disciplined and I think travel writing means you really train your eye to capture detail. You are a spectator, invited in to witness someone else’s way of life, to watch it fleetingly from the ringside.
In terms of Jakob’s Colours, on my travels I have often come across Roma people and spent much time with them. In Albania, Kyrgyzstan, most of Europe. I have often slept rough, or taken long treks across difficult terrain, mountains, deserts, forests, so I relied on the memory of those experiences to evoke in my imagination the reality of living a life beneath the stars.
I’ve also seen a lot of people in a lot of lands not of their origin. You see tides of people in strange places all the time; Indian workers in Oman, Muslims in Mali and it very much makes you question how people come to be where they end up. We are like waves, washing one way, then another.
It’s also the wars of a country that we are often drawn towards. We want to know a country’s pain, want to know what the people that live there have experienced and endured, so I’m constantly visiting sites of destruction, but witnessing at the same time, how people survive the very worst and carry on. I think my travels keep me very heightened and in touch with what it is to be truly human.
How does writing a novel compare with writing broadsheet columns?
A column is much more constrained in terms of freedom of style and length, and I am writing about things that have actually happened so they have a factual constraint too. But you still have to find a way to turn an article into a story, for it to have a beginning, middle and an end. The reader still has to want to read on from that first sentence to the next. With novels you are free to explore anything you want. There are no constraints, just this vast blank page, the prospect of filling it both terrifying and thrilling.
What are you writing now and has the experience of being published affected how you are writing your second book?
Well I won’t say too much for fear it will disappear into the ether, but it is a story set in the quiet lands of both snow-drenched Alaska and the red deserts of Australia. Blank canvas places, barren landscapes on the fringes of life, spaces without boundaries. I seem to be interested in how people survive great loss, and I wanted to set this story in those lands where reality can be twisted without question or judgement and see where that left me.
Caroline Ambrose, April 2016
To find out more about The Rainbow Hunters visit www.therainbowhunters.com