Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner 3rd March 2007
Rachel Seiffert has never visited Armagh. Brought up in Oxford, and now living in London, she has never been affected by the IRA bombing. So why has the 36 year old chosen to analyse the life of a young ex soldier who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
It was, she says, the natural follow up to her previous books; which explore the affect of trauma on the generations to come. The first, ‘The Dark Room’ was set in post war Germany. And during the publicity, there was huge emphasis on the need to remember.
“It was about the need to remember the holocaust so that it never happens again. I do think that is important, but on an individual level it can be hard. Joseph – the soldier who killed a terrorist- would not put his problems down to remorse. But it is impossible for him to lead a normal life, and remember.”
But why is she so obsessed with conflict?
“My interest in recent German History is the key,” she says, on the phone from South London. “My mum is German, and my (Australian) father is a Professor of German, so I grew up in Britain speaking German.”
This didn’t endear Rachel to her peers. She was called a Nazi at school.
“At the time I thought, ‘why are people so obsessed with this, it was so long ago?’ Now I realise it was not long at all. People’s fathers might have fought in the war. Certainly their grandfathers had, so I grew up with this strong sense of German guilt.
“In 2002 I was living in Germany, and, after the bombings of nine eleven, everyone was talking about the new terror threat. People would ask me what it was like when the IRA bombed England. ‘How did you live with that?’”
From there, it was a small step to explore what it was like for a soldier serving in the North. The research, though, was extensive.
“You can’t just research a soldier’s life. You have to do a lot more and it took the best part of a year.”
During that time, a psychologist at a dedicated centre set up interviews for Rachel with people who suffered from PTSD.
“Not all of them were military; some were victims of rape or a car crash, but they all said how difficult it is to have a relationship. It was something they could not take for granted anymore.”
‘Afterwards’ shows Joseph struggling with normal life. He falls in love with Alice, a nurse- but cannot, quite, sustain the relationship. And it’s hard for him to hold down a job when his memories send him into episodes of despair.
A painter and decorator, Joseph agrees to help out Alice’s widowed grandfather, David. The two get on well, until David’s painful recollections of his own service days, in Kenya, send Joseph over the edge.
‘Afterwards’ is far from a depressing read. Rachel tackles her subject with such delicacy and understanding, that the reader is rooting for the troubled characters from the start. I, literally, could not put the novel down, and stayed up until two in the morning to finish it. How, though, did she get the balance seamless, so that the research doesn’t impose on the story?
“It’s difficult,” she admits. “Before my son, Finlay, was born, 3 ½ years ago I’d written 50- 60,000 words, and I felt satisfied with that. When you’re pregnant everyone tells you that you will not be able to write again, so I felt pleased to have something to come back to.
“But when I returned to it 10 months later I realised I’d just been writing up my research. I kept a few conversations, and some of Joseph’s memories being stationed in Armagh, but I discarded most if it. I realised the story had not been ready to come out.”
Rachel now has a daughter too. Edie, almost one, is playing in the background as we talk. Has having children changed the way Rachel writes?
“What has changed is that I don’t write about children anymore.”
But why, when so many of her writing peers seem obsessed with motherhood?
“I think I need a bit of distance. I wrote ‘The Dark Room’ when I was still living in Scotland, and I began ‘Afterwards,’ when I was still in Germany. I need that distance to be able to see clearly I suppose.”
What, to Rachel, is the main message of ‘Afterwards?’
“That you should not be obliged to talk about what troubles you.” Even when that makes it so hard for those who love you, and want to understand? “Well that is the difficulty,” muses Rachel. “We have remembrance services and memorials for a reason. It’s a circle that can’t be squared in a way.
“And I do think Joseph and Alice move towards each other during the book. Alice gets an understanding that not everything can be articulated.”
Rachel doesn’t overly describe her characters. Her pared down style; and the way dialogue appears without attribution, has, she says, led to some criticism. Yet this makes the reading effortless, powerfully moving, and somehow exceptionally visual.
This could be due to Rachel’s background in film. Studying drama at Bristol University, Rachel went on to take a postgraduate course in film.
“And some of my friends, who were older, were making films, and I thought that I could do that. When you’re young film making is really exciting. You have loads of energy and you don’t mind working 14 hour days.”
It became apparent, though, that it was the writing side that really appealed to Rachel. And once she turned to novel writing, success was swift. ‘The Dark Room’ was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2001- and Rachel has since been acclaimed as one of ‘Granta’s’ ‘Best of Young British’ authors and one of the 25 women to watch in the Orange Futures Promotion.
After ‘The Dark Room’ – which comprised three novellas- Rachel wrote a collection of linked short stores called ‘Field Study.’ Was that difficult after the incredible accolade of a Booker nomination?
“The overwhelming emotion on the night was this strange relief that I did not win,” she says, laughing.
“The Chairman, Kenneth Baker read out a piece about each book and mine was last. My editor was convinced that meant I had won, and he sat up very straight beside me. When Baker said, Peter Carey, for ‘The True History of The Kelly Gang,’ I was so relieved.
“Being nominated you have it all your own way. Nobody remembers from year to year who is nominated, so you haven’t that expectation. But you can always put it on your book jacket and that is great.”
If the Man Booker isn’t the be all and end all, what is success to Rachel?
“Being able to make enough of a living from my writing,” she says. “And to have enough readers to support myself as I go on. I never anticipated this. I never thought I would be a writer for my living, but these things are important now. I need a sense that there are people who like my books enough to buy another one.”
Afterwards by Rachel Seiffert is published by William Heinemann at 15.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2007