Monika Jephcott Thomas -author of Fifteen Words– about why the two World Wars are such attractive fodder for novelists, filmmakers and storytellers in general?
The obvious answer is because the experiences people had during those times were so out of the ordinary that they are bursting with drama, action and even comedy.
But also, and more importantly, I think, those extreme experiences gave our parents’ and grandparents’ generations something we often call the Blitz Spirit these days – that stoicism and determination to get through difficult times, which marks them out as distinctly different, and I believe in many ways stronger, than our generation; our generation which, in modern day Europe anyway, has been so cushioned from real life and death issues that we seem to have developed a much thinner skin. And although there are many adults and children out there who undoubtedly need and benefit from some form of therapy – indeed my work for many years has been just that: helping the twenty per cent of children in the world who have emotional, behavioural, social and mental health problems by using play therapy and the creative Arts – I am also aware how many of us are so easily knocked sideways by a relatively minor dent in our comfortable ‘all mod-cons’ first world lifestyles.
What previous generations suffered during the World Wars clearly gave them a strength and resilience we can only wonder at. And so wonder we do via books and films, perhaps learning a little along the way as we wonder.
Of course, along with the Blitz Spirit, comes the stiff upper lip, the tendency not to share your feelings, the attitude that to seek help is weakness – and these things, though they sound particularly British, are not solely so. My parents’ and their parents’ generations in Germany exemplified this too.
My novel Fifteen Words is very much inspired by how strong and resilient our parents had to be in the face of such devastation during World War Two, but it is also about how that Blitz Spirit and stiff upper lift left some families unable to repair the inevitable rifts that formed between them after so many years separated, having endured such extreme, tortuous and violent situations; how a safe ordinary life can be so surprisingly hard to stomach after such an extraordinary time.
In the novel, Max and Erika are young lovers, separated by the war for four years; Max a conscripted soldier becomes a prisoner in a Siberian labour camp, while Erika tries to raise their baby alone in a decimated Germany. To compound their situation they are just beginning to reconcile their political and religious differences when they are forced apart: at the beginning of the novel Max is a devout Catholic, Erika an irreligious Nazi supporter. Both find common ground in their medical studies: as a student dissecting cadavers Max can see there is more to life than the spiritual, and as a young doctor falling in love Erika can feel there is more to life than flesh and blood. But as the new world of war engulfs them, Erika’s faith in the Führer is rocked as is Max’s faith in God.
Faith then in all its forms is the subject of the novel. Despite the bleak backdrop of war, Fifteen Words is a story about hope, love and resilience; that Blitz Spirit without which, whatever we think about it and its associated stiff upper lip, we wouldn’t be here today.