Celia Rees on why she's taking a new direction
I’m probably best known as a writer of historical fiction, books like Witch Child, Sovay, Pirates! and The Fool’s Girl, set in the past with a girl as the main character. This is Not Forgiveness is a contemporary fiction and the main character is a boy.
I did not make a conscious decision to change direction but every book I write begins with an idea and really good ideas don’t occur all that often, so when one does come along, it makes sense to follow it. Ideas can come from anywhere: books, pictures, places, newspapers, conversations. This idea came from a film: Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim.
I’ve always loved the film, the story of two boys and a girl. The boys are old friends and they both fall in love with Kate, played by the captivating Jean Moreau. She is an extraordinary girl, unconventional, a free spirit who won’t be owned by either of them. While I was watching, I suddenly thought, ‘You could update this. Make it now.’
So, this would have to be a contemporary novel, and thus somewhat of a departure, but I’m not one to shy away from a challenge and I could already see these two boys, friends since childhood, now in the sixth form, and the girl who will come between them. She’s like no-one they have ever met before and they will both fall in love with her. What will happen? What will it do to their friendship? What will it do to them?
I started to write, but quickly realised that the book wasn’t working, not because I couldn’t write it, but the relationship between the boys was wrong. So I decided to make them brothers. One younger, one older, both involved with the same girl but the younger one doesn’t know.
The younger boy, Jamie, would be the main narrator. I felt I knew about him straight away, but I had to find out more about the older boy. Who is he? What does he do? When I’m writing historical fiction, I’m interested in how historical events could impact on my characters’ lives – witch persecution, the French Revolution, Elizabethan fear of Catholic spies. In This Is Not Forgiveness, I needed similar events to make the book come alive. On the news, troops were being deployed to Afghanistan, sustaining casualties; people were lining the streets of Wootton Bassett. I decided to make the brother a career soldier. Rob joined up at sixteen and is now in his early twenties. He’s back home after being badly injured and has been discharged from the Army. His physical wounds have healed but he is finding it difficult to cope with civilian life.
Then there was the girl. Who was she? How could I make her different? I decided to give her an interest in radical politics. Anti war. Anti everything. At the time, that seemed a bit ‘out there’. Young people interested in radical politics? Very sixties. Then, suddenly students were marching through London, smashing windows, fighting with police.
I found myself writing and re-writing as events unfolded. I had the three main characters and the connections between them; the web of cause and effect that would mesh them together; the element of risk and danger that would give the story explosive emotional power and make it into a hard hitting, contemporary thriller.
I started writing in response to my students, who said they wanted exactly that kind of book. My first novel, Every Step You Take, begins with a murdered girl and ends with a date rape. So I began my writing career with gritty thrillers for teenagers and I guess you could say, with This Is Not Forgiveness, that I’ve gone back to my roots.