Interview with Juliet Conlin – Author of The Lives Before Us
Peter: Juliet, it was a pleasure to get the opportunity of reading your books, The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days and now the new book The Lives Before Us. I am delighted that we have the opportunity to conduct this interview to ask more questions about your novels, plans and your writing experience. Many thanks for making the time available to answer these questions.
Peter: What inspired you to write this book, The Lives Before Us?
Juliet: When I first read about a Jewish ghetto in 1940s Shanghai, it immediately set my imagination humming – not only is this ghetto a little-known aspect of wartime history but the city of Shanghai, in all its decadent glory, represents the kind of dramatic canvas a writer longs for. It has a legendary reputation as one of the most fascinating, volatile and depraved cities in the world, making for an unforgettable setting for any novel. Here, thousands of miles from home, tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe encountered an almost unbearable climate, desperate living conditions, shocking crime, and a fierce battle for limited resources amid a never-ending human tide. The Lives Before Us took several years to write, not only because the research process was so engaging, but also because I wanted to do justice to the experiences of those who suffered and survived.
Peter: There were 3 main characters in the novel and a wonderful cast of supporting characters, each bringing something unique to the story. Who is your favourite and who was the most challenging to develop, and why?
Juliet: I became attached to all three main characters, but the young Chinese character, Yì (aka Wing), was the most interesting to write. During the period the book is set, the local Chinese population lived and worked in gruesome conditions, and were the ‘lowest of the low’, even though Shanghai was their city. I consulted closely with my Chinese friends when developing Yì’s character, as I wanted to steer clear of stereotypes and create a character that was genuine as well as give a portrayal of the hardships faced by the Chinese living in Shanghai at the time. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but his story made me cry when I wrote it!
Peter: Do you draw on your own personality or those close to you, to create your characters, or do you purely imagine a character for a role? What personality traits did you consider important for Esther and Kitty?
Juliet: I suppose my characters are an amalgamation of personality traits, though I try to avoid giving them traits that are too obviously drawn from those close to me! Ultimately, a character is created not just in the author’s imagination, but also in the reading: every reader brings their own individual set of expectations to a book and its characters, which explains why two different readers can have two completely different views of the same novel. One of the central themes of the book is that of how to retain hope in the face of adversity, and it was important for me to show my characters’ remarkable strength and resilience, albeit in different ways.
Peter: I wasn’t aware of the WWII Jewish immigration to Shanghai before reading your book but I found that aspect really interesting. What research did you do for this book and what was the most surprising and interesting elements you discovered?
Juliet: I spent several years researching The Lives Before Us. I read countless history books, personal testimonials, diaries and journals. I love history, so this was actually a very pleasant and rewarding process. I also travelled to Shanghai and learned basic Mandarin. But probably the most insightful and moving account came from a meeting with a former refugee, Sonja Mühlberger, who was born in Shanghai in 1940 to Jewish parents originally from Berlin. Sonja is a delightful, witty and incredibly smart person, who gave me a personal and invaluable insight into what life must have been like for her parents, in this catastrophic trauma of the Second World War.
Peter: I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau some years back and while there is a sombre atmosphere there is also a sense of shock and responsibility that we can never allow this to happen again. I believe you visited the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai. How did you feel visiting the place, knowing that you were bringing it alive again in your book?
Juliet: The former Jewish ghetto is located in Hongkew, which was one of the poorest districts in Shanghai at the time the novel is set. When I visited, I was lucky enough to be given a tour by a professor from the Shanghai Center for Jewish Studies. This was invaluable, because without it, and if I hadn’t researched the place extensively before my visit, I doubt I would have found the former ghetto area. There are very few remaining traces of Jewish life: the synagogue (which is now the Jewish Refugee Museum), and a couple of details you would miss if you didn’t know they were there, like a Star of David set into the doorway of a private home, or mezuzahs still fixed to door frames. Shanghai is a very modern, forward-looking city, so sadly, many traces of old Shanghai have disappeared.
Peter: There were 2 major incidents involving Japan in World War II – how they entered the war (Pearl Harbour) and how they ended it (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). You didn’t mention either in your novel even though there was an obvious connection to the Japanese control of the region. What was your thinking behind that decision?
Juliet: I’m glad you spotted this – these two incidents are indeed momentous events in history, but my characters didn’t know this at the time. I wanted to stay closely connected with their perspective, and so I decided to just allude to these events. It’s a novel based on historical fact, yet I wanted to avoid it reading like a history book.
Shortly after the Pearl Harbour attack, the Japanese opened fire on a British gunboat in Shanghai harbour before taking control of the city. I allude to this when the Chinese character Yì goes looking for work at the port: he sees a gunfight happening on the river, but he is unaware, of course, what this means. The horrific consequences only become clear later on.
With regard to the nuclear bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my research showed that there were vague, unsubstantiated rumours among the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, but it was only in hindsight that they became aware of the enormity of what had happened.
Peter: I feel that you are a very structured and precise person but do you use story boarding or mapping processes to develop your plots and interactions, or do you go with the flow and follow your instinct and gut feeling?
Juliet: I usually try to get a few thousand words on paper before I commit to a specific plot; very often, stories, narrative threads and characters emerge as part of the writing process. For me, mapping out an entire novel beforehand would feel very stifling; occasionally, a fascinating piece of research pops up, or I might observe an interesting interaction between people on the train and will want to incorporate this into the story. The downside to going with the flow is that I sometimes end up writing myself into a corner and have to delete a lot of pages, which can be very painful!
Peter: Do you use particular software applications or utilities to support your writing activity? For example, Scrivener or Grammarly?
Juliet: No, I am hopelessly old-fashioned in this regard! I even do most of my writing long-hand with a fountain pen before typing it up …
Peter: What are the greatest benefits and restrictions to being a published Author? Do you get involved in finalising other aspects of the book, for example, the cover design, narration and the promotion of the book?
Juliet: I have only ever been traditionally published, so I don’t have any comparison to being self-published. The benefits are that my main task is to write (which is the best bit!) and to leave the rest to others. In my experience, a novel is the result of a highly collaborative process – without an editor, cover designer, marketing, sales and rights staff (and others), the book would be nowhere near the product it is now. My publisher, Black & White, is very open to my suggestions on cover design and promotion etc., but in general, I am happy to leave most of this to the experts and just chime in from the side-lines now and again!
Peter: How much time do you spend on writing compared to promoting your books?
Juliet: Writing: 90 %, promoting: 10 %. As the mother of four children with a day job, my time is very limited, so I have to prioritise. If I had more time, I would certainly dedicate more to promotion, as this is certainly an important aspect of being an author nowadays.
Peter: What authors have you most admired and have had an influence on you?
Juliet: Like most (if not all) writers, I read extensively, and I think all books have an influence to some extent. But I particularly like writers who cross genres, who push the boundaries in terms of language, style and form. Firm favourites of mine include Ali Smith, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Jennifer Egan, Sadie Jones (this list could go on forever…) Even if my writing style is nothing like theirs, I feel I can feed off the way their imaginations work.
Peter: What is your favourite book you’ve read over the last 12 months?
Juliet: ‘Melmoth’ by Sarah Perry. I love all of Sarah’s books, but this is a very special one. For me, it is primarily a moral book, a tale of what it means to bear witness and individual and collective responsibility in the face of evil. I think we need more such books at the moment.
Peter: What advice would you give to aspiring or debut authors?
Juliet: Most writers know the old adage: Read a lot, write a lot. Read widely, read for pleasure and escape, but also read deeply, try to read with awareness. Write as often as you can. Unless you are writing purely to become rich and famous (and good luck with that!) it is a good idea to hone your craft. Once you have a sufficient grasp of the rules, feel free to break them!
There are many talented writers with stories to
tell, but in my experience, perseverance and tenacity are just as important as
talent. All writers will face rejection at some point, but the ones who pick
themselves up and dust themselves off are the ones who shine through. Believe
in yourself: If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will!
Peter: If you had a dinner party and could invite 3 personalities from any period in history who would they be and why?
Juliet: Rosa Parks, as I am in awe of her strength and resilience; Barak Obama, for his sparkling intelligence (and who is a very good writer to boot!); and Catherine Tate, for the laughs 🙂
Peter: Can you give us any insights into any future books or projects that you’re working on?
Juliet: I’m currently editing my fourth novel (title yet to be decided!), which is due to be published in 2020. It’s a psychological thriller that explores, among other things, the complex history of Berlin.
Peter: How can readers learn more about you and your work?
Juliet: I am on social media (twitter: @julietconlin, Facebook: Juliet Conlin, and Instagram: julietconlin) and my website is www.julietconlin.com. I send out a regular newsletter, Notes From Berlin, which I would welcome readers to subscribe to for news, giveaways, excerpts from work-in-progress etc. I love hearing from readers, so do please get in touch!
Thanks for the interview, Peter!
Peter: Juliet, I appreciate you taking the time for this interview. If there are other snippets of information you wish to provide, please feel free. I would like to congratulate you on your wonderful books and I wish you massive success for the future.