In a time when women weren’t allowed to serve as doctors on the front lines, Eleanor Atherton boldly pursues her dream of going to the front lines to help tend to the wounded. Despite what society believes her role should be, Eleanor joins other extraordinary women who are determined to make their own contribution to the war effort.
In today’s interview, Lecia shares about her inspiration for the novel, the most interesting finds she made during her research process, how women like Eleanor blazed a path for women and a sneak peek into her next book.
When did you first come up with the storyline for your latest novel, The Woman at the Front?
WWI is my grandfather’s war and when I was 15 he saw me doing my history homework and said, “You should be learning about what’s important and that’s WWI.”
He told me about how he and his brother were English immigrants and they both signed up to fight for the Canadians when war was declared. They were both at the Battle of Vimy Ridge that was a famous Canadian battle. My grandfather was in the artillery so he was well behind the lines and my great-uncle was right at the front.
My grandfather told me the story and asked me to promise to go over and visit the war grave someday. So, in 2009 I went over with my own family and we found it after a lot of searching and it was just a lovely moment. That’s when I decided that it was something that I’d really like to write a story about.
Since I’m a woman, I knew the story would have to focus on women and when I started doing the research I realized that female doctors weren’t allowed at the front even though they had nurses and ambulance drivers and all sorts of other things. So I thought it would make a much better story having someday buck that trend and actually go there and that’s where the idea came from.
The book is dedicated to your grandfather’s brother, Matthew Greenwell who died during WWI, and to your grandfather who told you his story. Is there a character in the book or a scene that shares Matthew’s story?
Not specifically. Some of the characters are named after my grandfather, great-uncle, and my other great-uncle, Fred. So there is a family of soldiers that have all of their names.
I did sort of wonder what went through my great-uncle’s mind when he realized that he was hit and he was dying. I created a scene in the book where there is a soldier that my main character, Eleanor, knows and the regrets that he has and what he wishes he’d done, and the grace with which he finally dies. That was my tribute to Matthew.
What was one of the most interesting finds you made during the research process?
For all of the things that when were forbidden to do, which was pretty much everything, there were so many important contributions made during that war. There were a lot of medical advancements that were made by women. Marie Curie, the scientist and Nobel Prize winner actually set up her own mobile radiology trucks that went all over the front to teach people how to take x-rays.
Women when they were rejected by the government to practice at the front went to the French Red Cross and were allowed to go to the front and to practice medicine. There was also a female engineer who couldn’t even join her own professional association and she’d invented this incredible pump that pumped the gas out of the trenches. Her pump was used throughout the whole of the war and nobody had ever heard of this woman, Hertha Ayrton. So I found that very incredible, all of the things that women did during the war.
Where did you write the majority of the novel?
Right here in my office which is actually the dining room in the house. My husband also works at and he has the ‘real office’ down the hall with the door and I’m sort of on duty for pet care. We have five cats and a dog, and there’s always somebody who wants something. So, it was mostly written in my office.
Does Eleanor Atherton have characteristics that remind you of yourself/some you know, or is she purely imaginary?
When I first wrote her my agent said needed to be tougher, stronger, and more kick-ass. Everyone wants a kick-ass heroine, and the most kick-ass person I know is actually my daughter. She’s very brave, strong and smart and when decides on a course she goes for it. I’m the opposite, I’m a very quiet, introverted, shy writer and I spend all of my time in my office listening to my characters talking to me. Eleanor is my opposite and it’s very nice for a writer to have a character where they have the chance to step into someone else’s skin and doing things that they wouldn’t ordinarily get a chance to do. Eleanor is my alter-ego.
How do you feel women like Eleanor who blazed a path of their own in a male-dominated society helped pave the way for women today?
Women took over all the jobs when men left. They were allowed to practice medicine at home and work as policemen, firemen, and in munitions factories. They literally did pretty much everything and even the suffragettes were quiet and concentrating on winning the war. They didn’t the vote until 1919 and that was only women over 30. When the war ended and the men came home, the women were told to go back to their place. The government even ran classes teaching women to be better wives, mothers, and homemakers, but the problem with that was a lot of the men were killed and there wasn’t a chance for some of these women to get married, etc.
During the war they were able to go to medical school and train as doctors so I think the contribution that these women made was that they now had something to hold up and say, we can do this, we are capable and we are as effective as male doctors. I think this sort of paved the way for others to accept them and trust them more.
If you had grown up during WWI, what do you think your role in the war effort would have been?
I have always had a fascination with military history and military medicine in particular. I love stories about Vietnam nurses and things like that, but I have terrible math skills. I always wanted to be a paramedic, but I think I would have liked to have been an ambulance driver during the war. That’s where I can imagine I’d fit in well.
What scene was either the hardest or favorite to write?
I always find that the last scene of a book is the most challenging because you want it to be surprising and satisfying and wrap everything up. I always find that takes a lot of drafts to get perfect before it’s right. I hope that readers will enjoy the last scene and just go, “Aah!”
If The Woman at the Front was made into a feature film, who would you want to play Eleanor?
The actress who comes the closest for me is Rose Leslie from Game of Thrones and she was also in The Good Fight. She has red hair and that part shy part very smart attitude in The Good Fight particularly, so I think I would choose her.
What are some of the books that you’re reading right now?
I’m one of those people who reads several books at once, and I fall prey to the sample chapters on Kindle. The ones I’m reading right now are Hornet Flight by Ken Follett which is about the Danish Resistance and scientific discoveries during WWII and also because it’s Halloween and you have to have a spooky book, I’m also reading one called, The Death of Jane Lawrence which is by Caitlin Starling. I also added The Stolen Lady by Laura Morelli to my list. I’m really looking forward to it after seeing all of the pre-promotion and all of the videos that she shot. It looks so good and I can’t wait!
Are you working on your next novel and if so, can we get a sneak peek?
I am. I’m actually doing revisions for it as we speak. I’m overhauling parts that need to be fixed and getting the novel ready for publication. It’s going to be called, That Summer in Berlin. It takes place in 1936 during the Berlin Olympics. The premise of the novel is between the wars the British were sending their debutants over to Germany for a bit of continental polish and also because they wanted to believe that if the upper classes intermarried that there couldn’t be a war and that those classes would prevent it.
The heroine, who is a photographer, goes over and she is sort of pressed into service to help a reporter find the truth behind the Olympic façade that the Germans are actually preparing for war and it requires a great deal of courage and there is a lot of danger and if she’s caught she’ll just disappear.