Liz Trenow is the author of The Poppy Factory, In Love and War, The Last Telegram, The Forgotten Seamstress, The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane and The Silk Weaver. Her latest novel, Under a Wartime Sky is published on 21 February 2020 by Pan Macmillan.
Liz kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about Under a Wartime Sky.
Like many of my novels, Under a Wartime Sky was inspired by real-life events, people and places, especially Bawdsey Manor itself. It is an extraordinary place – a gothic mansion with farms, cottages and beautiful gardens, built by a Victorian millionaire as his ‘seaside home’ on a remote stretch of the Suffolk coast.
In 1936 Sir Robert Watson-Watt and his small team of brilliant scientists moved there under the cloak of utmost secrecy to develop new radio direction finding technology – we now know as RADAR – before the feared outbreak of war. Their work is widely credited with being a major factor in winning Second World War but sadly their inventions, and the dedication of thousands of radar operators – many of them women – are now rarely celebrated, and are certainly far less widely recognised than the code-breakers of Bletchley Park.
My book tells the story of what happens when one of those scientists – a brilliant, shy, unworldly physicist from a part-Indian background – meets a cheerful, unambitious, uncomplicated local girl, and how this meeting changes both of their lives.
2. What inspired the book?
My father was a keen dinghy sailor and as children we spent many anxious hours watching him from the shingle at Felixstowe Ferry. Across the river, we could see fairy-tale towers peeping enticingly above the pines, and when the tides were right we would pack buckets and spades and take the ferry over to the small sandy beach at Bawdsey Quay. But the Manor itself, still in the hands of the Ministry of Defence, remained firmly out of bounds, with soldiers at the gatehouse and ‘Keep Out’ signs posted all around the fences.
Several decades later a friend decided, in a brilliant, crazy moment, to buy Bawdsey Manor and set up an English language school there. Over the next 25 years we visited often and fell in love with the place. How could you not? The mansion and grounds are beautiful and remarkable in themselves but with the addition of its extraordinary military role, its radar masts (since taken down) and curious outbuildings, it is irresistible.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?
Somewhere in between. I start with a synopsis and a small group of characters, build a rough chapter plotline/timeline and then set off from there. I love the freedom of running with where it takes me – particularly as I write historical fiction and continue to research people, places and events as I go along, which always turns up fascinating additional plotlines and characters who sometimes even threaten to take over the story.
4. Having been through the publishing process several times, is there anything about the process of creating a novel that surprised you?
Ha ha! What I have learned is that it doesn’t get any easier. In some ways it gets harder, because you have a reputation to maintain and you also become more ambitious and set yourself more difficult tasks and structures. But I still love every minute (well, almost).
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I sing in choirs and do adult ballet classes – I’m very bad at it but it’s great fun! We also enjoy travelling and going to concerts. But what we mostly love – although you could hardly call it relaxation – is spending time with our family: we have two daughters and three adorable toddler grandchildren.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
I’ve got a butterfly brain and love new experiences, so almost never read any book twice – the same goes for watching films and tv programmes – so that’s a difficult question to answer. But words are endlessly fascinating to me. If I was stuck on a desert island I suppose I’d like to have a large dictionary, giving the origins of words! Sorry if that’s a bit of a cop-out.
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?
The question is ‘What makes you write?’ After all, I’m quite a gregarious person and it is a very lonely, selfish, and relatively low-paid profession. But I really don’t know the answer. It’s just a drive that comes from somewhere deep inside me, ever since my schooldays, that makes me want to use the written word to communicate thoughts, ideas, news, entertainment, and develop imaginary worlds and people.
About the book
Bawdsey Manor holds a secret.
1936: the threat of war hangs over Europe. Churchill gathers the brightest minds in Britain at a grand house in Suffolk. Bound to complete secrecy, they work together on an invention that could mean victory for the Allies. Among them is Vic, a gifted but shy physicist who, for the first time, feels like he belongs.
Local girl Kathleen wants to do more than serving tea and biscuits to ‘do her bit’. So when the Bawdsey team begin to recruit women to operate their top secret system, she dedicates herself to this life-or-death work. Kath and Vic form an unlikely friendship as the skies over Britain fill with German bombers. Little does Kath know just whose life she will change forever, one fateful night . . .
Based on the real history of Bawdsey Manor, Under a Wartime Sky is a novel about courage, belonging and hope.
*I did not receive any payment or a copy of the book for hosting this Q&A*