The building of walls—to keep those precious to us safe and keep danger out—is as old a concept to humans as oral storytelling; The Great Wall of China may be the best testament.
In her debut novel, Peculiar Ground, out today from HarperCollins, Lucy Hughes-Hallett takes us on a sweeping journey beginning at the Restoration and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The novel, set primarily on an imaginary estate called Wychwood outside of Oxfordshire, focuses on the construction of two walls, the one around the estate and the Berlin Wall. With a rotating cast of characters, from a landscaper to a young girl to a witch, we learn why walls, both physical and metaphorical, will always have a place in humanity.
I spoke with Hughes-Hallett, historian and prize-winning nonfiction writer, about how she suddenly (or not so suddenly) began writing fiction, the way reading influenced her writing, and whether or not she believes history must repeat itself.
You can read an exclusive excerpt from Peculiar Ground here.
The Rumpus: As an American, it’s hard for me to not see parallels between the Wychewood Wall, the Berlin Wall, and the wall my president wants to build along the US/Mexico border. Why do humans keep coming back to the idea of keeping others in or out?
Lucy Hughes-Hallett: I think there’s a very fundamental urge to create a safe space, a home; most animals have that impulse, and humans certainly do—with some exceptions, like nomadic people who perhaps don’t feel the need to settle in quite that way. But most of us do want to have space, somewhere we feel secure and where we repeatedly return. Somewhere we can sleep without fear. And there’s nothing wrong with that desire. It’s completely understandable. It only becomes ugly when that creation of a safe space involves making an enclosure from which other people are kept out. Of course, all homes are that, in a way; no one wants strangers in their apartment.
But when you apply the desire to exclude on a large-scale, it becomes politically very suspect. Certainly, Trump talking about the wall against Mexico got into the news while I was writing the last section, which is set in 1665 when the refugees are pouring out of London to escape the plague. During the time I was writing the first draft, I was consistently seeing in the papers and on television screens the images of people walking through southern Europe trying to get to northern Europe hoping to get to a safer and better way of life. Particularly what seemed relevant to me were the images of people just filling the roads up through the Balkans countries into Hungary. [The roads] were just clogged with people, not knowing where they were going in many cases. And meanwhile, barriers were being put up to keep them out. Some of them were just legal barriers and laws. In some cases they were physical barriers. The Hungarians were building fences along their borders. So Mr. Trump talking about the US Mexican border, he’s not doing anything new or unusual. It’s something that’s very much in the air and perhaps always has been. The Great Wall of China has been there for a great long time. People have always tried to keep foreigners out. There is a very natural desire, once you’ve got somewhere cozy, to keep it to yourself, and equally there’s a very strong impulse for those who are not at such a safe and prosperous place to try and get in. It’s been creating conflict throughout human history.
Rumpus: Did you write the book in a sequential fashion—the way the narrative jumps forwards and backwards in time—or did you restructure it once the narrative was done?
Hughes-Hallett: As you know, it ended up being a five-part novel spread over three centuries, but when I started it I thought I was writing a small and perfectly formed novel set over one weekend. [Laughter] And that was effectively going to be what turned out being part two of the book, which would be a novel set over the weekend in August 1961 when the Berlin Wall went up. I intended to keep my characters firmly in the big house in Oxfordshire in Wychwood, but to have rumors of war and people talking about what was going on in Berlin, but characters wouldn’t actually travel there.
So I wrote that small neat little novel and I had it pretty well ready, but then The Pike won three big prizes and so suddenly I was invited here, there, and everywhere, and I was commissioned to write pieces. I thought, I’m going to put the new book aside and I’m going to enjoy this, so I did. And I think it’s very helpful to put a piece or work aside because, when you come back to it, you see it much more clearly. And so later, when I hadn’t been thinking about the novel and came back to it—turning it over in my mind quite a bit and having a lot of ideas that were triggered by what I’d already written—I realized I wanted to make it part of a much longer book.
Rumpus: In creating those voices and period vernacular in Peculiar Ground, was that organic or did you go back and say, “Well this person wouldn’t say that…” How did those voices emerge?
Hughes-Hallett: Well, the first essential thing with any of the characters is I could tweak their physical appearance. I could change the color of someone’s hair. I could alter their name. But it was in finding the voice that set the character and told me who a person was.
I can remember the moment I was walking upstairs with a cup of tea—my study is at the top of the house—and I composed in my head the first paragraph, the first time Mr. Norris speaks. In the end I cut that paragraph, but I just heard his voice, knew his tone, and once I got that I wrote that section of the book very fast, very easily, because his voice was very congenial to me. And of course it was a difficult one because he is speaking in the 17th century, and real 17th century prose is pretty dense and must have been quite hard for readers to cope with. So he actually speaks more like 19th century English, which has a feeling of being not common but not too remote or difficult. But with the others, it was just great fun to put myself in some other person’s head. I very much enjoyed writing all the passages narrated by Lil, who is very badly behaved and says outrageous things I’d never allow myself to say in real life. So that was liberating and exciting. And there’s Guy, a pretentious young man, very clever, and his voice is way over the top.
Rumpus: Did you struggle with balancing real world events that you were leading up to—balancing the plot with the timing of when things were happening?
Hughes-Hallett: Well, I did one bit of cheating: The Great Storm. There was a great storm in England in 1987, and I moved it to 1989 to fit my plot because I wanted the coming down of the Berlin Wall to coincide with the Great Storm. I actually put that in the author’s note because the first couple of readers said “Was it really 1989?!” But actually, that’s the only bit of cheating I did; otherwise I worked around the historical events. With the Berlin Wall coming down, an event that much has been written about, I didn’t want to write it from the point of view of a politician or a soldier or a bodyguard or even a journalist. It was looming up, and I knew I had to do the “coming down of the Wall” somehow and I was thinking “Which character can I…? Who?” Then it occurred to me that I could write that passage entirely from the vantage point of a young mother in the loo changing her baby’s nappy. I thought, “Okay, this is it! I’ve never heard of it from that perspective, the coming down of the Berlin Wall. Let’s try that.”
Rumpus: Joan Didion famously says in The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And I think stories and storytelling are fundamental to being a human, but also they’re a huge plot point in Peculiar Ground. What would you say is the purpose of stories?
Hughes-Hallett: Well, there are myriad answers to that, and I don’t think any of them is definitive. Of the many things that stories do for us, one is they allow us to live more than one life. Your own life isn’t enough, is it? We all have a very finite time on earth and a finite amount of experiences. Whereas if you’re a reader, you can enter other people’s minds, you can be in direct contact with people who may have lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. You can know what it’s like to be male or female or whichever you aren’t. You can know what’s like to be old if you’re young or young if you’re old. You can know what it’s like to live in a completely different culture and really enter somebody else’s mind. There’s no amount of historical information that can give you access to the consciousness of a person from another culture or from the past in the way that reading really good novel from that place or time can.
Rumpus: Are there books that influenced this book?
Hughes-Hallett: Of course, but there’s an awful lot of them and, in some cases, I’m not even aware. I’ve been reading novels nonstop all my life. I’ve probably read thousands and I think if you’ve been a reader, then your mind is stocked with not exact phrases, but ways of constructing sentences, ways of constructing a paragraph. And one novel I had in mind for the first part, which became the second part, was The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, which is set during World War I. There’s a child observing grownups behaving badly and so I suppose I consciously thought I could do something like The Go-Between. But I was very careful not to reread it. I hadn’t read for at least twenty years, so my memory of it was very hazy. But on the whole, it’s such a mishmash of everything that was in my mind, and I can’t really say, This was an important influence or that was an important influence.
I read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which was partly for detail about the plague but partly also to sink myself into a kind of 17th century mindset. Defoe is a wonderful writer. His prose is actually very clear and I was saying earlier that 17th century prose would be tough for a reader, but a lot of his is very lucid and beautifully readable still. So that was important to me.
I think you learn how to write by reading an enormous amount, so then your memory is stocked with various constructions, various ways of shaping a paragraph, shaping a chapter.
Rumpus: Do you have any books you’d recommend as a companion to yours, even nonfiction? Are there any books you’d recommend if you want more information?
Hughes-Hallett: Defoe’s The Plague Year, that’s certainly one. And a few novels I’d recommend: Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, which is very different from mine. It has a different tone and voice, but is very enjoyable. And I also love Rose Tremain’s Restoration, another historical novel set in the same time period. But in the 20th century part of the story, an author who was much in my mind was Iris Murdoch. I love her novels. When I was growing up, I read a lot of them, so that my memories, particularly of the 1970s, are tied up with my memories of reading Iris Murdoch’s fiction.
Rumpus: I’d have to be an idiot not to notice that history repeating is a central theme. Even certain tragedies repeat themselves, not just in the world but also more specifically in the lives of the people who live in Wychwood and their descendants. So I’m curious: do you believe we’re always doomed to have these events happening over and over again?
Hughes-Hallett: No. I don’t think we’re doomed to anything. I do think it may take effort, but we can actually do things differently. Humans have certain needs. A need for a home, like we were talking about earlier. Those needs, those compulsions, those desires are likely to run into the same problems generation after generation. But I actually think history doesn’t repeat itself. There are recurrent themes, but they’re repeated with variations. Each time there’s an immigration crisis, a threat from outside which is met with inhospitable wall building, it’s different. And I think it’s helpful to notice the big patterns in history, but it’s also important to pay attention to the details, which makes each situation distinct from another.
Author photograph © Jerry Bauer.