Wartime, History, and Scottish Insults: An Interview with Caroline Leech

Article by Joy

I am so incredibly excited for the arrival of Caroline Leech’s YA historical romance debut, WAIT FOR ME. (Okay in full disclosure, I have not only read it already—bookseller perk!—but was honored to have been asked by her publisher Harper Collins to blurb it as well. You’ll see my praise somewhere on the finished copy). It’s a lovely, moving novel, set in WWII Scotland, and we are thrilled to be hosting the WAIT FOR ME release party on 2/7 at 7 PM right here in store. We hope you’ll join us!

And until then, enjoy this interview between me and Caroline in which I ask her about the book, being a Scottish ex-pat, her work in public relations with arts groups, and even her love of opera! (Also, Caroline makes a mean—and SWEET—Scottish tablet candy, just in case you were wondering).

Brazos Bookstore: So what drew you to historical fiction and particularly to the WWII era in Scotland for WAIT FOR ME? What were your concerns about depicting WWII on the page yet still staying focused on the confines of this specific story of Lorna and Paul?

Caroline Leech: Both my parents grew up during World War Two—my mother was evacuated as a child in 1939, from London to the countryside, because of the threat of German bombing, and my father became a soldier at 18 in 1944, following his four older brothers into the Army. My childhood was therefore spent listening to their stories and looking at their photographs. That later developed into a love of reading books set during the war. As a teenager, I loved reading British wartime adventures like COLDITZ, REACH FOR THE SKY, and THE LONGEST DAY, but when it came to writing a book of my own, I found I was drawn to set it on the home-front. In WAIT FOR ME, the teenage daughter of a Scottish farmer is horrified when a German prisoner of war is dropped off on her family farm to work.

The original idea came to me when a friend mentioned that as a boy, her father’s family farm had had German prisoners working on it. Until that moment, I’d had no idea that such a thing had happened, so fireworks exploded in my creative brain and I immediately went scurrying off to research “POW labor used on British farms in WW2”. Soon enough, I could see the story of a forbidden romance blossoming. I decided to set it in Aberlady, a village near Edinburgh, where I grew up in the east of Scotland before I’d even discovered that there had been a POW camp near the village, and that German soldiers had been sent from there to work on the local farms. Later on, once the book had been written and bought by Harper Teen for publication, I then found out that there had even been real-life romances between POWs and Aberlady girls.

The whole story is set during the closing months of the war, and focuses on only a small snapshot of domestic life, far away from the drama of the battlefields and the bombing raids. But those left at home still suffered traumas and deprivations, fears and uncertainties, so I had to find ways of bringing all those difficulties to life for my characters.

BB: Were there any unique challenges to depicting Scottish culture and speech of the era (and in general) in a novel that will initially have an American teen audience?

CL: Well, the temptation to put an author’s note up at the top of the first page saying “WARNING: this book is a kilt-free zone!” was definitely there, but I restrained myself. There is so much more to Scottish history than men in kilts brandishing swords, I promise (with apologies to any OUTLANDER fans out there!). Seriously, finding the balance between using the right Scottish word for something and using the best word for American readers’ comprehension was always at the front of my mind. Luckily, my own kids were well taught to ‘use the context clues’ if they found a word they didn’t understand, and that was how I tried to make sure that no one would struggle to understand the Scottish-isms in the book.

When it came to writing the Scottish accents, the process of pinning down exactly the right voice and natural turn of phrase for each character was one of the joys of writing this book for me. I hope that each of the main characters comes over with a distinct way of speaking, whether they have a Scottish accent, or a London or German one. And even within all the people who share the same Scottish accent, I tried to make sure that each one of them had a slightly different way of talking.

BB: A few Scottish phrases you love that you wouldn't mind teaching us?

CL: There’s a great one right on the first page actually – glaikit (glay-kit) – which means someone is stupid or vacant. It was only reading back through the proofs of the book that I realized that we Scots have some of the best insults!

And then there are more everyday words too. For example, burn/stream, yon/that, lassie/girl, kirk/church, bairn/baby, tattie/potato. And of course, right at the front of the book is an extract from A Red, Red Rose, a very famous love poem by Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

I don’t think I need to translate that for you, do I? Read it out loud to the love of your life, and I think they’ll get the gist.

BB: You've worked in public relations for arts companies and are now a working artist yourself. So... are we artists/writers/musicians a tricky lot to work with? Your general observations?

CL: I have had the pleasure of working with some of the most amazing artists over the years, particularly musicians, and yes, there might have been a few tricky ones. But the majority were wonderful to deal with. Their professionalism means they understand that in order to get a show onto a stage and in front of an audience, there had to be more work involved than just creating the art itself. There are all the administrative, technical and promotional aspects too, and when all the pieces of the jigsaw fit nicely together, the result is pure magic. A big part of my job as an arts PR was to play go-between with artists and journalists, trying to make sure that each understood and respected the pressures the other was under so that we could find a balance between the two. Not that this work was always appreciated. We used to laugh (only a little bitterly) when a performer waved a newspaper or magazine at us, saying “Did you see the fantastic article in here?” without any understanding that said article was the result of weeks, or even months, of our hard work courting the journalist and setting up the piece. I am therefore only too aware that it’s the same with my book, WAIT FOR ME. I might have written the original manuscript, but it has taken a huge team of people—editors, copy editors, proofreaders, designers, typesetters, printers, marketers, promoters, and ultimately booksellers and librarians—to put my story into the hands of its audience. The book might have my name on the cover, but I share the achievement with all of them too.

BB: Also, you've edited a book on the history of Welsh National Opera. How did that happen? Also, opera. It's not something everyone knows. Why do you think that is?

CL: I’ve loved opera since I was a teenager. My parents took me to see performances by some of the world’s major companies performing at the Edinburgh International Festival. If you’ve never seen opera, you really should try it. What makes it special is that it brings together all the art-forms into one single entity—music, drama, literature, visual arts, dance/movement and very often, in contemporary productions, film and video projection. It is the extraordinary collaboration of all these artists that brings the goosebumps, the gasps, the smiles and the tears to me as I sit in the audience. In my twenties, I even had ambitions to become an opera singer, but sadly, I had neither the voice nor the musicality, though I’ve been lucky to have remained involved in the operatic world all the same. My husband has worked in opera most of his career, first as a touring stage electrician, then as production manager for opera companies in the UK. Before moving to the US, we both worked for Welsh National Opera—he was Technical Director and I was the Head of Press and Public Affairs. We moved to Texas in 2007 when he was asked to head up the technical and production department for Houston Grand Opera, where he is now Managing Director.

A year or so before we moved, I become a freelance PR consultant and media trainer, working with all sorts of performance companies and arts organizations across the UK. I was also offered the chance to edit a glossy coffee-table book to celebrate Welsh National Opera, which was published as Welsh National Opera—celebrating the first 60 years. It was a huge amount of work, but I was lucky to be supported by the Welsh publishing company, Graffeg, which specialized in these gorgeously lush, and beautifully designed photographic books. I had my first crash-course in book publishing with Graffeg, without ever thinking that one day I would be using that knowledge to help me get my first novel to publication.

BB: WAIT FOR ME's Lorna Anderson and Paul Vogel have this fascinating forbidden yet very sweet and innocent romance. Tell us a little bit about these two characters and how their love story developed for you.

CL: Looking back, I think that Paul came to me almost fully formed, whereas Lorna grew and changed considerably as all the revisions developed the story further. I knew that I wanted the German prisoner to be almost the opposite of what Lorna thinks the enemy is. He is caring, intelligent, and thoughtful, and someone who hates the war just as much as Lorna. Though his physical injuries were not added until well into in the revision process, Paul’s humanity shone through from the beginning for me, specifically so it could contrast the intolerance and occasionally appalling behavior of Lorna’s family, friends and so-called allies. Lorna, however, proved to have more of a journey to make as the revisions progressed, turning from a naïve little girl into a determined young woman, albeit one who struggles to see what her life could be past the end of the war. Once I eventually felt I had the ‘real Lorna’ at the very beginning of the book, her story arc through to the end felt into place.

It took a lot of work though, and lots of great advice from my editor at Harper Teen. I’ve been interested to see the romance in the book has been described as ‘slow-burn’ by some reviewers, since to me, the connection between the two of them is clear even by the end of chapter one, even if Lorna misinterprets it at first. At the point she begins to see Paul not as her evil enemy, but as a damaged boy far from home, the wall she has built between them begins to crumble.

BB: I know you write a blog about many of Houston's remarkable women. If you had to name two women who inspire you personally (from Houston or elsewhere), who would they be and why?

CL: I began the Inspiring Houston Women blog a few years ago as a way of cleansing my creative palate between two novels. It gave me a chance to look out into the real world for a while, instead of having my head down in a fictional one. Shamefully, I’ve let the blog slip since I was offered my book deal – there are only so many hours in my day – but while it was active, I was honored to interview some amazing women. They ranged from a Holocaust survivor in her late 80s to a 16 year-old girl who raises money to help other teens suffering from the same medical condition she was dealing with herself. There were women working in the arts, social justice, medicine, education, and in the environment, and each one suggested another inspiring woman for me to interview. Having met so many amazing women, here in Houston and back in the UK, it is therefore very difficult for me to name just one person who inspires me since so many women do.

However, as a writer and as a woman, the one who stands out for me is JK Rowling. But before you yawn—doesn’t every writer want to be JKR after all?—I should say it’s as much for the way she has lived her life as for the magical world she created. Even when everything was grim for her, as an impoverished single mother, she focused on the single idea which brought her some light. In doing so, she gave birth to the boy who would become Harry, and who would bring the joy of reading to generations of children (and adults too) who might never have read otherwise. Throughout the years, she believed in herself and in Harry, something which can be hard to for any artist where there are so many people happy to say, “No, you’re not good enough”. And even though she wrote probably the greatest children’s book series ever, spawning a vast commercial industry, she still proudly remains a wife and mother above all else. She lives in my home town of Edinburgh in Scotland, is married to a local doctor, and has steadfastly steered clear of all the cruel dramas which so often come with fame and fortune. She is proactive in social politics, speaking out about matters which affect the disadvantaged and marginalized, and campaigning on their behalf. She gives generously of her time, her name and her money to support organizations who support those people too. And added to all that, she seems to be a thoroughly nice person.

BB: You grew up in Scotland but now live here in Houston. What do you miss?

CL: Great question… well, after ten years in Texas, I still miss BBC radio and television, Marks & Spencer food halls, curry houses and having four distinct seasons each year (sometimes in Scotland, you can experience all four seasons in one day!). I miss walking up hills and driving up mountains, and there being history in every building you pass. I miss that within only an hour’s ride in a car, train or plane, you can be taken to a whole new culture, where they talk with a different accent or even language. Here, I could drive away from home for 16 hours and still be in Texas. And I miss the reassurance of knowing that every store sells Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate.

But, then again, what do I NOT miss? Wet winters (and wet spring, summers and falls too), tabloid newspapers, poor service and paying for drink refills (my kids can’t believe there’s no ‘bottomless cup’ in restaurants over there. Texas has spoiled them!). And proud as I am to be both Scottish and British, it took time away for me to realize how parochial and narrow-minded many Brits can be, even those who pride themselves on being global travelers. I don’t miss that at all, though sadly, many Americans are no better.

BB: What else should we know about Caroline Leech?

CL: What else is there to know? I’m mother to three amazing teenagers – a poet, an athlete and an actor – all keen readers, talented writers and passionate humanitarians. I do most of my reading on audio, so I’m very picky about narrators’ voices, and I could sing you the whole score of dozens of musicals (though I’m not quite word-perfect on Hamilton yet). I often wonder what I’m doing wrong since I never have time to watch the TV series everyone else is raving about, and I regularly shock myself by looking in the mirror, because I see a 40-something woman looking back at me, when in my head I’m still a 16 year-old girl.

 

For more about Caroline Leech and WAIT FOR ME, go to http://www.carolineleech.com/ On social media, you can find Caroline on Twitter and Instagram as @carolinesblurb

Wait for Me Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9780062459886
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Harper Teen - January 31st, 2017

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