I would absolutely have interviewed Lissa Evans for New Books in Historical Fiction if I had received her book in time, but it showed up on my desk just when I had signed up a couple of other writers. Their Finest is a delightful novel—now a major motion picture, as the book jacket declares—about the UK film industry in the period leading up to and beyond the Battle of Britain in 1940. Do look it up and read it. As the Independent notes, “This is the truest and most enjoyable novel about home-front life I’ve read; it’s touching and hilarious.”
Meanwhile, here are Lissa’s answers to my questions. And don’t forget to check out her website for more information on her and her books, including her social media links.
What drew you to the story that became Their Finest?
Inspiration came from two directions—first, from my abiding interest in the Home Front (everyday life in Britain during the war), which sprang from reading Norman Longmate’s How We Lived Then as a teenager. This chronicled in engaging detail all the difficulties and challenges of the era. What fired my imagination was the idea of ordinary people, trying to live ordinary lives in extraordinary times. Life was tiring, tough, and makeshift, and people had to adapt to the most enormous changes, almost on a day-to-day basis.
The second source was my work behind-the-scenes in television. I was always struck by how important even utterly trivial things seem, when you’re in the sealed environment of a studio. The outside world fades away, and instead you find yourself getting into intense discussions about where, exactly, a bowl of fruit should be placed in a shot or whether the leading man’s tie should be scarlet or maroon.
I had the idea of juxtaposing these two backgrounds; I wondered if, when bombs were actually dropping outside and shrapnel hitting the studio roof, there were still people arguing about whether to remove a comma from a speech, or if a door should open inward or outward. I began to research, and it didn’t take long to find out that the answer was “Yes”! I knew, then, that it was a world that I could write about.
You worked in radio and television. Your main character, Catrin Cole, becomes involved in writing scripts for propaganda films. And let’s just say that the actors cast in these films—magnificent creations one and all, but especially Ambrose Hilliard—are not the blockbuster stars they imagine themselves to be. What was the best part of writing this story?
I think the most purely enjoyable part was writing Ambrose, who seemed to flow from my keyboard as bile flows from a ... well, a biliary tract! To write someone so acidic, so critical, so breathtakingly rude, and so utterly self absorbed was a joy, and inevitably, as I wrote him, I grew to love him in all his jaundiced eloquence. And I wasn’t the only one; when I’d nearly finished the book, I was musing over possible titles with my editor. “What about The Redemption of Ambrose Hilliard?” I asked (not entirely seriously); my editor looked horrified—“No, no,” he said. “Don’t redeem him, you mustn’t redeem him.”
Tell us about Catrin, as a character, and why you made her the center of your novel.
In my previous incarnations, as a producer in radio and television comedy, I spent an enormous amount of time working with writers, most of whom were male; I loved the atmosphere of the “writers’ room”—the banter and the fast exchange of ideas—but sometimes it could be quite intimidating, and when I came to write Their Finest I wanted to explore that world from the point of view of someone new to it.
During my research, I came across several references to female film writers working on wartime films, and the one I found most interesting was a young Welsh woman called Diana Morgan. She was initially a playwright, but was called in to the famous Ealing Studios where she was engaged to write “the love interest” in a (dreadful) film called Ships with Wings. She was the only woman writer on the staff and she said that “you had to be tough.” The love-scene dialogue was known as “nausea,” and “they used to say ‘get the Welsh bitch to write the nausea’!” Nevertheless, she stuck it out (and learned to give as good as she got) and went on to work on many excellent films. She became my inspiration for Catrin, who grows over the course of the book from a tentative newcomer, patronized and exploited, to a fully fledged screenwriter, confident in her own abilities
Your book about filmmaking is itself becoming a film. It’s probably safe to say that this is every writer’s dream. Did you have much input into the film, and how closely did the scriptwriters stay to your original story?
I didn’t want to write the screenplay myself, but I had an agreement that I’d be sent every draft of the script, and I quickly realized that changes in the plot were inevitable; the book is quite long, there are four main characters and a huge story arc—it follows a film from conception to screening, along with a host of subplots—and it’s simply not possible to fit all of that into a screenplay. I thought that the writer, Gaby Chiappe, did a brilliant job; she kept the whole spine of the plot, and much of its heart and humor, while slimming the whole thing down to manageable lengths.
Having said that, it was sometimes difficult to watch as characters disappeared, or became younger, older, or more gorgeous than I’d imagined, but then I would remind myself that I’d written a book about the often ludicrous conceits and demands of the film industry, so I could hardly complain when it happened in real life! And the final result is all (and more) that I could have hoped for.
As a Russian specialist, I’m familiar with some of the myths created by the Stalin regime: the partisan Zoia Kosmodemianskaia, the 28 Panfilov Heroes, and so on. I have to admit that, naïve as it seems, it didn’t occur to me that the British government did the same thing. Is the Dunkirk incident that becomes the basis for the film in your book based on a true story?
Dunkirk was one of the most extraordinary events in the Second World War. A British Army Expeditionary Force (together with a French contingent), attempted to halt the German advance across Holland and Belgium but were themselves rapidly beaten back to the French coast, where they camped among the sand dunes, or queued at the port of Dunkirk, waiting for rescue—with the German army only days away and the German air force directly overhead. The shallowness of the coastal waters meant that only small boats could ferry the soldiers from the beach to naval rescue ships, and a call went out from the British government for any and all small boats to make the twenty-mile journey across the English Channel. Fishing vessels, cabin cruisers, Thames barges and tug boats, some commandeered by the navy but many with civilian crews, aided the rescue, and over the course of three days, a third of a million—yes, a third of a million!—British and French soldiers were evacuated to safety. So what might have been viewed as a defeat (at a dark and hopeless period of the war) ended up being seen by the public as a kind of miracle—a morale-boosting victory for courage and initiative. And while the government didn’t directly promote this viewpoint, it certainly did nothing to quash it.
As might be imagined, there were hundreds of extraordinary individual stories of rescue and heroism, but no official account was written at the time, only odd newspaper articles—so although I never came across a story about twin sisters piloting their father’s fishing boat, it might easily have happened!
What are you working on now?
After Their Finest, I wrote another book set during the war. It’s called Crooked Heart and is about an evacuee and his unscrupulous foster-mother, who draws him into a criminal scheme (think Paper Moon, set during the Blitz!). In the prologue of this book, we meet the evacuee, Noel, who at that point is still living with his beloved godmother, Mattie, in London. Mattie is a former suffragette and is bringing up Noel with splendid eccentricity; she is lost to view early in the book, but she stayed in my head. So now I’m writing a novel about Mattie, set in 1928—a whole new era for me!
I’ve also just had my third children’s book published; it’s called Wed Wabbit, and it will be out in the USA early next year. I think/hope it’s the funniest thing I’ve written so far…
Lissa, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, and I wish you all success with both books and film!