If the title of Jane Thynne’s latest novel, The Words I Never Wrote, doesn’t snare your interest (as it did me) then the plot of the novel surely will. After Juno discovers a 1931 Underwood typewriter in a vintage shop (in present-day New York) along with an unfinished novel within its case, she decides to make the journey to Europe to discover the secret of the owner of the typewriter (journalist Cordelia Capel) and her sister Irene.
In this interview, Jane shares why she was drawn to the historical fiction genre (and the 1930’s in particular), her writing process and when she first came up with the idea for The Words I Never Wrote.
At what point during your career at the BBC, The Sunday Times and The Telegraph did you start writing your first novel?
Like most writers, I was working on stories and novels from the time I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties in the newsroom of the Daily Telegraph that I completed my first full-length novel, which was set in WW1 and called Patrimony. Almost every journalist in the building was working on a novel when they were supposed to be writing features, so I was not alone.
What drew you to the historical fiction genre in particular?
Escapism, in a word! Don’t we all long to escape to a different period of time? Even though I wouldn’t want to live in Nazi Germany, I’m obsessed with the 1930s; I never get tired of the literature, the art, and the style.
Is there a particular writer(s) that inspires you?
More than anyone, my late husband, Philip Kerr, was the most driven writer I have ever met and whose work ethic was awesome. Living with him was a daily master class in writing. It was incredibly valuable to talk constantly about plotting, pacing, and story-telling. To bounce ideas off each other and share the rejections, frustrations, and isolation that are the reality of an author’s life. I’m lucky to have had that.
Research is one of the most important parts of the writing process, especially when using real people and events in a fictional setting. What do you enjoy the most about researching for one of your novels and how much research do you do before you start writing?
Because my novels have all been set in the period between the 1920s and the 1940s, my whole life is a process of research. I read a lot about that time, especially biographies, but the most fun is visiting the places where I’m planning to set a scene. Often a location can inspire an entire novel. When I was thinking about The Words I Never Wrote, I visited the House of the Wannsee Conference in the west of Berlin. This terrible place where the holocaust was planned is in an exquisite setting by a lake, and as I walking down the leafy road, past a series of expensive villas, I thought how dramatic it would be to shelter a Jew there, right until the noses of the SS.
Before starting a new novel, you map out the plot and often go through several drafts before you have everything just right. How long did it take you to write The Word I Never Wrote?
It took almost two years. But the idea I first had – about two sisters separated by war – had been marinating for much longer. I often got glimpses of scenes I would use, for example, Irene going to Goebbels’s Olympic party, where the fountains ran with champagne, and then just a few years later, sitting in an air raid shelter dreading the arrival of the Russians.
The Words I Never Wrote centers around the lives of three women, Juno in the modern-day and sisters Cordelia & Irene in the past… what was it like creating these characters and seeing how their stories unfold during the course of the novel?
I don’t have a sister, so I’ve always envied the closeness of a sister relationship. Perhaps that’s why I find myself often writing about it. I wanted Irene and Cordelia to be so close that it would take an enormous betrayal to divide them. The two sisters are very different – Irene is reserved, whereas Cordelia wears her heart on her sleeve – but ultimately it is Cordelia who has the bigger secret. Juno is at a crossroads in her relationship – at that moment where you have to commit or walk away – and I think most of us can relate to the drama of that.
Was there a scene in the novel that was particularly hard to write?
Writing about the horrors that took place during the Fall of Berlin in 1945 was emotional. At the end of WW2, the German capital was overwhelmed by the Red Army, whose soldiers were seeking vengeance for the Nazi atrocities. The civilian populace suffered dreadfully and almost a million women were raped. The scene in the novel when the Russians finally arrive at Irene’s house was traumatic to write. But I couldn’t gloss over it.
When did you first come up with the idea of using a typewriter (and the unfinished manuscript) as a catalyst for bringing the stories of the three main characters together?
My husband gave me a 1931 Underwood typewriter that he had bought from a vintage store on Fifth Avenue. As I opened the carry-case, I had a fleeting thought that it would be fascinating to discover something inside. And that was the moment when the frame of my novel arrived!
During the course of the novel, you go between the past (telling the story of Cordelia and Irene) to the present where Juno researches the sister’s story in modern-day Berlin. Is it hard to go back and forth between the past and present while writing the novel?
As you write, you become consumed by the lives of your characters and naturally slip into their worlds, so moving between past and present isn’t hard. But in this novel, more than any other I have written, I found myself thinking about the two characters in the past – Cordelia and Irene – long after I finished it.
Prior to the release of your latest novel, you attended the book launch in NYC. What did you enjoy the most about meeting some of your readers at the launch?
The Words I Never Wrote was like a parallel universe to my own world, so I’m so delighted when readers talk to me and I realize they too have dwelt in that world. I always like meeting readers and hearing what they think and I adore parties, so I loved everything about it!
Since I knew that Jane is currently working on the sixth novel in her Clara Vine series, I couldn’t help but ask a question about the main character of the novel…
Your Clara Vine series features an actress and British spy, Clara Vine. As a lover of spy novels, when did you first come up with the idea for the character, and how has Clara changed since the first book of the series?
I remember reading the diaries of a young British woman who had visited Berlin in the 1930s and had bicycled around town tearing down anti-semitic posters. She came back to England, talking about the situation, and nobody took any notice. I remember thinking how, even after Hitler took over, you might still not realize what was about to come. I decided Clara Vine should come to Berlin in 1933, just as Hitler takes power, and pursue her career as an actress while Nazism is on the rise. Very soon she realizes she is going to have to get involved and becomes a spy for British Intelligence. I particularly wanted to look at the lives of women under the Third Reich, both ordinary women, and the VIPs. As the series has progressed – I’m now writing the sixth, set in 1942 – Clara has grown up, undergone danger, and is missing the love of her life. So she has lost her naivety and had to find a moral core.