Juliet Conlin’s new book, The Lives Before Us was published by Black and White on 28 March 2019.
Juliet answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about The Lives Before Us.
It’s April 1939, and, in Berlin and Vienna, Esther and Kitty face a brutal choice. Flee Europe, or face the ghetto, incarceration, death. Shanghai … They’ve heard it whispered that Shanghai might offer refuge. And so, on a crowded ocean liner, these women encounter each other for the first time.
Kitty has been lured to the other side of the world with promises of luxury, love and marriage. But when her Russian fiancé reveals his hand, she’s left to scratch a vulnerable living in Shanghai’s nightclubs and dark corners. Meanwhile, Esther and her daughter shelter in a house of widows until Aaron, a hot-headed former lover, brings fresh hope of survival.
Then, as the Japanese army enters the fray and violence mounts, the women are thrown together in Shanghai’s most desperate times. Together they must fight a future for the lives that will follow theirs.
2. What inspired the book?
When I first read about a Jewish ghetto in 1940s Shanghai, it set my imagination humming, and it’s this little-known aspect of wartime history that informs The Lives Before Us. Shanghai – with its legendary, cosmopolitan reputation for depravity – became a ‘free port’ where thousands of refugees fleeing Nazi Europe encountered an almost unbearable climate and a fierce battle for limited resources. It’s in the midst of this never-ending, volatile human tide that my characters find themselves.
Esther and Kitty are characters inspired by real-life testimonials, diaries, essays and my interviews with survivors of the Shanghai Ghetto. I was so immensely moved by these accounts: stories in which survival was only possible through ingenuity, industriousness, solidarity and hope. For me, historical fiction enables a writer to capture something essential about the setting and the times, but also about universal and contemporary experiences. It enables a uniquely different perspective on the present by creating a new but recognisable version of the past.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?
I’m a bit of both. I begin with a general plan of where I want the story to go, because I need some structure to guide me. While I’m writing one scene, I try to plan out the one that follows, so I’m not going off on a tangent. But if the planning is too tight, I can feel constrained, and the words tend to dry up (which is a frustrating experience for any writer). Also, especially when it comes to writing historical fiction, I sometimes come across a fascinating piece of research that may inspire a whole new narrative strand or even a new character. More often than not, the words end up taking me where they want to go!
4. Is there anything about the process of creating a novel that still surprises you?
I have now written several novels, and I am still surprised every time I manage to finish one! When I start out with a blank page, the task ahead – creating some 80,000 words, a whole new world with characters that only exist in my head – seems impossible. Every time! But then I focus on breaking the task down into tiny, tiny steps: just one more word, one more sentence, one more paragraph. I try not to think too much about the enormity of the task until I’m about 100 pages in – for me, this is the psychological ‘point of no return’.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I lead a fairly busy life, so time is always at a premium. I have four children and also work as a freelance translator, so I’ve had to become very efficient at time management. I do make sure to exercise regularly – I live close to a lake, so I go running at least three times a week – because there is nothing quite like back pain to disrupt your creativity. I also sing in an a capella women’s choir, which is a lovely way of switching off and just enjoying myself.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
This would be my idea of hell! I need books like I need air to breath, so I’ll pass on answering this question 🙂
7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
I very rarely get asked about the other people who are crucial to the success of my writing. My name is the one on the cover, but this can conceal the fact that my novels are the outcome of a highly collaborative process. Without a great editor, a proofreader, a fantastic agent, as well as all the others involved in getting a book ‘out there’, my work wouldn’t be half as good as it is. My family provides encouragement and support during the dark times, when I feel things are going nowhere – and they are my greatest cheerleaders when there is something to celebrate. I am enormously grateful to them all!
About the book
It’s April 1939 and, with their lives in Berlin and Vienna under threat, Esther and Kitty – two very different women – are forced to make the same brutal choice. Flee Europe, or face the ghetto, incarceration, death.
Shanghai, they’ve heard, Shanghai is a haven – and so they secure passage to the other side of the world. What they find is a city of extremes – wealth, poverty, decadence and disease – and of deep political instability. Kitty has been lured there with promises of luxury, love, marriage – but when her Russian fiancé reveals his hand she’s left to scratch a vulnerable living in Shanghai’s nightclubs and dark corners. Meanwhile, Esther and her little girl take shelter in a house of widows until the protection of Aaron, Esther’s hot-headed former lover, offers new hope of survival.
Then the Japanese military enters the fray and violence mounts. As Kitty’s dreams of escape are dashed, and Esther’s relationship becomes tainted, the two women are thrown together in the city’s most desperate times. Together they must fight for a future for the lives that will follow theirs.
About the author
Juliet Conlin was born in London and grew up in England and Germany. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and a PhD in Psychology from the University of Durham. She works as a writer and translator and lives with her husband and four children in Berlin. Her novels include The Fractured Man (Cargo, 2013) and The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days (Black & White Publishing, 2017).
*I was asked to post this Q&A to help promote The Lives Before Us. I received a copy of the book but did not receive any payment for hosting this content*