Cuppa and a cake with Isabel Wollf – Author of Ghostwritten

A festives feast awaits Isabel!
A festives feast awaits Isabel!

Today we have Isabel Wolff coming over!  We’ve prepared a little festive feast so it’s all very exciting and atmospheric. What a lovely chance to sit with Isabel, talk about her latest book Ghostwritten and delve into a photo album that Isabel has brought with her. She is so passionate about this book , its story and what it means, and how she was inspired.

Hi Isabel!

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Your story is one of heartbreaking memories. How was it to write about such strong yet vulnerable women?

   Both Jenni and Klara are strong because what they each went through as children – Jenni in Cornwall, and Klara on Java – has forged them in the fire.  At the same time, yes, they are very vulnerable because they continue to carry around with them a great deal of pain, and this is what the book is really about – how we deal, or don’t deal, with our most difficult memories.  Klara, being so much older than Jenni, has largely come to terms with her past, although the process of writing her memoir opens up for her the torment she still feels at what happened to her little brother, Peter, during the War.  Jenni has never come to terms with her own childhood trauma, and this has had a huge effect on her, making her someone who seeks the shadows, rather than engaging with life.  I was fascinated by the idea that both women had survived so much, and had found the strength to go on living, yet were still profoundly affected by events that had happened so long ago.  

Java landscape - Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff
Java landscape – Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff

Your sense of place is astounding. What kind of research did you do and how did you react to what you found?

I did a huge amount of research – interviewing two survivors of the Japanese camps – now elderly women – who were interned on Java as children.  Both are in their early 80s, but when they talked about their experiences, it was as though it were yesterday. Listening to their memories, and reading the memoirs of other survivors was very difficult, since they all spoke of being starved, brutalised and terrified.  I also went to Java to get a flavour of this beautiful island so that I could more easily imagine the near Paradise that the Europeans had been lucky enough to enjoy before the Japanese army turned it into a living hell. The most moving experience was going to the Dutch war cemetery in Bandung and seeing the thousands and thousands of white crosses of the civilian casualties of the war.  Seeing the graves of all these women and children, and knowing what they suffered, brought tears to my eyes and made me grateful for the life that I have.

Java train tracks - photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff
Java train tracks – photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff

You’ve said that the book A town Like Alice inspired some of your writing. Why did you want to tell the story of the internment camps on Java?

I wanted to tell the story of the civilian internment camps because it’s been neglected compared to the story of what happened to the Prisoners of War.  Indeed, when we think of the War in the East, we think automatically of the poor POW’s who slaved on the Thai Burma Railway and other monstrous projects, as dramatized in films like The Bridge on the River Kwai Yet few people know that the same number of civilians – 130,000 – most of them women and children, were also captured by the Japanese, and also suffered extreme privation, cruelty and fear.  These were the wives and children of planters, teachers, engineers and civil servants who had been living in the region. With no time to evacuate them, they were rounded up and herded into atrocious camps where for three and half years, they struggled to survive.  I wanted to write a novel that would focus on their courage and their ordeal.

Women bowing - from Isabel Wolff's photo album
Women bowing – from Isabel Wolff’s photo album

Talk to us about your fascination with Java during ww2

I could have set the novel almost anywhere in the region but chose Java because that was where the internment camps were the most numerous: they were also, by and large the worst.  Java had been the centre of what was then the Dutch East Indies, and so most of the prisoners were Dutch.  As a writer, I realised that what happened on Java would make for a stronger story, because the fight for survival there was even harder than in other parts of the region, and indeed thirteen thousand of them died from starvation, neglect and disease.  

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You’ve really placed both yourself and the reader in the characters heads and amongst some of the most exotic yet horrifying settings. It’s very raw and emotional prose – how did you conjure so much from your research? 

 If the readers feel that they’re in the heads of my main characters it’s probably because Ghostwritten is written in the first person.  I did this partly because I love the directness and emotion of the first person voice but also because the novel is about the writing of a memoir, and so Klara’s story has to be first person too.  I put her reminiscences into their own chapters and, in a way, the novel, ‘Ghostwritten’, becomes Klara’s finished book.  Much of what happens in the novel is horrifying, yet Ghostwritten is, I hope, redemptive, because it’s a story of survival.  It’s about women being pushed to the limit of human endurance – standing for hours in the sun to be counted, being worked half to death, being slapped or beaten for failing to bow to the guards, trying to keep their children alive on one cup of rice, per person, per day.

 

Cornwall  - where Jennie meets Klara and the story begins....Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff
Cornwall – where Jenni meets Klara and the story begins….Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff

The setting of Cornwall – why did you choose this one and did you intend such a peaceful place to further highlight the horror of Java?

   I chose to set the present day story in Cornwall because there’s something Paradisal about Cornwall too – it’s the perfect place for a happy family holiday.  But for Jenni, that holiday turned to tragedy.  The novel moves back and forth between Cornwall and Java, and I felt that the beauty of Cornwall would provide a bit of relief from the horrors of the camps.  For Jenni, it’s a struggle to go back there – she vowed she’d never return; but in doing so she at last has the chance to lay to rest the ghosts of her past.

Thank you so much Isabel for popping over and discussing your book. A truly remarkable read and it was such a pleasure to meet you!

You can meet  Isabel on Twitter – @IsabelWolff     and via her website – http://www.isabelwolff.com/

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Ghostwritten – Java and Cornwall – Isabel Wolff

ghostwritten book

A chilling and extremely moving account of what could have and probably did happen in Java during WW2 . Have a box of tissues to hand. The writing as well as the events described will move you to tears.

Story in a nutshell

Jenni is a ‘ghost’: she writes the lives of other people. It’s a job that suits her well: still haunted by a childhood tragedy, she finds it easier to take refuge in the memories of others rather than dwell on her own.

Now she has an exciting new commission – she is to write the memoirs of a Dutchwoman, Klara.  Klara was a child in WW2 and was interned in a camp on Java during the Japanese occupation.

Jenni and Klara begin to work together and as they do so Jenni begins to examine her own memories of her own past. Will the ghostwriter be able to put her own ghosts of the past to rest too?

Place and setting

From Cornwal, via the Death Railway to the island of Java and the many sites of the internment camps and jungles
From Cornwall, via the Death Railway to the island of Java and the many sites of the internment camps and jungles. The author mentions on her website that  one of her parent’s friends had been a POW on the Thai-Burma Railway – Death Railway and the inspiration for the novel had come from this and her childhood memories of the TV show Tenko amongst other things

The novel has a remarkable  sense of place, since the place is as much a character here as anything else. From the peace and calm of Polvarth in Cornwall – based on Rosevine –  and transports you right to the heart of the tropical heat of Java. The blistering heat, ‘mountains swathed in jungle’ and the dangers….

Java landscape - Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff
Java landscape – Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff

Klara remembers how her mother first described it to her, to try and make her feel at home –

My mother told me, before we left Holland, that we were going to live in a faraway land that was warm and colourful – ‘an earthly paradise’.

There is a lot of history and harrowing facts woven into this story too. Not to mention the smallest detail with a huge impact –

Jasmine and my mother were always cleaning because in the tropics, mould and mildew would take hold very quickly….Every week we had to disinfect the floor or the insects would move in”

However there are moments of childhood wonder – which gives a wider picture of the amazing life on the island before the trouble started –

My earliest memory is of the little Tjik tjaks, dainty beige lizards that used to run along our living room walls.They were caled Tjik-tjaks because that’s the noise they made.

Very different to the story set in  Cornwall but all the more fascinating perhaps because of it. Cornwall is beautifully evoked however – whilst Polvarth is based on Rosevine,  Trennick is based on Portscatho. Nailsford in the Cotswolds is fictional as is the Church of St Jude’s.

Cornwall  - where Jennie meets Klara and the story begins....Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff
Cornwall – where Jennie meets Klara and the story begins….Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff

Booktrail recommended!

Isabel Wolff will make you cry-in a good way I hasten to add but this is a very poignant and moving account of life in a Java internment camp and it doesn’t make for very easy reading sometimes. There are real moral dilemmas, heartbreaking decisions and two remarkable women telling their stories.

The dual time line is ideal for the telling of this story – two parallel stories of a two women who have suffered hurt and loss. The ghostwriter certainly had a tough job and this book gave me new respect for what these writers actually do.

The relationship between Jenni the writer and Klara who is elderly and has decided to share secrets that she has only decided to share now. I could only imagine how this must have been a strange and moving experience for both women in different ways. Having said that the difficulties Jenni had when travelling to Cornwall and facing up to her own issues is also well explored.

However it is Klara’s story that is of course the main focus and for me the most harrowing and hard to read story that evoked so many emotions – very realistic and very hard to accept that it happened. There is so much emotion wrapped up in these scenes that you feel as if you are imposing on someone’s grief – but Klara is telling you the story that she wants to tell, has to tell and I for one felt privileged that she had seemingly chosen me to tell it.

The relationship between the two women and the end of the story – well I won’t spoil anything but this definitely had an effect which lingered.

Tuesday’s travels – Bali

 

Today we launch a new post where we will feature a short piece by a fellow lover of books and travels. Tuesday’s travels has come up as we are often asked to feature or talk about certain books and places and so we thought why not learn about your opinions and your experiences? The more the merrier! We haven’t been everywhere although it is not through lack of trying. So, we welcome today Sharifah who loves to travel, read and write about it! Here she talks about travelling to Bali having read this –

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Elizabeth Gilbert’s book ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ fired up the travel monster in me with her vivid and colourful stories of her soul searching journey through Bali, India and Italy. Italy was out of my budget, India a bit too chaotic for me but I was sold on her idea of Bali as the calm, peaceful and serene paradise. Of course, being a huge beach lover, seeing the beautiful pictures of Bali beaches only served to reinforce my determination to set off on this journey.

However, far from being a relaxing holiday, it was actually my most tiring trip of which I got to spend only 3 hours by the beach out of my entire 4 days there. Acting on impulse, my group had signed up to do river rafting, snorkelling, cycling down the mountain, shopping and exploring the village of Kuta where we were staying.

Our hotel room faced local residential areas so we were able to see the locals performing daily activities such as washing dishes or clothes by the river or even fishing right outside their homes!
Our hotel room faced local residential areas so we were able to see the locals performing daily activities such as washing dishes or clothes by the river or even fishing right outside their homes!

While Elizabeth found love and serenity among the people and villages, Bali was a place for me to test my fears and my boundaries. Despite my lack of confidence, I survived a 3 hour cycling trip down Mt Kintamani to Ubud. I felt emotionally and physically drained at the end of the session but I was able to appreciate pushing myself in this way much later.

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At the top of Mt Kintamani before cycling down to Ubud

 

It was also in Bali that I had a mishap during my rafting adventure and almost drowned. This will certainly be one memory that will be hard to forget.

Being in Kuta itself, I cannot help but feel the commercialisation of the area with the booming tourism trade. Just by travelling away from these areas though, I am reassured to feel the heart and soul of Bali and I believe this was what Elizabeth had tried to put through in her book.

I know for sure that I will be back, for my time there was certainly too short to fully enjoy Bali. This time though, I’ll definitely make sure I make time to be a beach bum to make up for missing out on it previously. Perhaps then, I will have time to hunt down Ketut, the medicine man, in search of my own life direction, just as Elizabeth had done.

Kuta Beach
Kuta Beach

Thanks to Sharifah Nur from http://lifetomyfullest.com/

Where have you been? What have you read? Send your inspiration to info (at)thebooktrail.com and feature on Tuesday’s travels! Right we’re off to Bali – well via the book anyway 🙂