Thriller set off the A12 in EAST LONDON
Novel set in post WW2 Germany – plus author interview with Jason Hewitt
7th February 2016
Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt, novel set in post WW2 Germany.
We are pleased to bring you our review of the book, plus a truly excellent and informative interview with the author, Jason Hewitt.
First the review:
Devastation Road is a great if sombre read, featuring an unlikely but intriguing trio of characters. It is set in Germany in the immediate aftermath of WW2 with millions of people from all over Europe freed from the camps and trying to make their way home. It is an enormous refugee crisis, very reminiscent of what is now going on as people flee wars in Syria and Afghanistan… except that these refugees in 1945 are trying to get back to their homes, not move to a foreign country. But the images of long lines of walkers along the railway tracks are the same…
The trio are Owen, a Brit who wakes up in a field with no memory, Janek a young Czech searching for his brother, and Irena a Pole with a young child and a story. First Owen is joined by Janek, and then Irena, as they trek through Germany – Owen on his way home, the others we are not quite sure where they are going. Owen when we first meet him has no memory – this gradually returns over the course of the book, as he begins to recall details of a love affair. His lack of memory is disorientating – and very scary. They walk for weeks before ending up in an allied camp near Celle in northern Germany. Their experiences along the route are harrowing and distressing.
Devastation Road is a book about the resilience and fortitude of the human state – how people survive against all their odds.
It is book I thoroughly recommend. It will certainly make you think about what is happening today on mainland Europe.
Tony for the TripFiction team.
And now the interview with Jason…
TF: Devastation Road is a very timely book. What parallels, and what differences, are there between the mass migrations of 1945 and those of the present day?
JH: The most glaringly obvious parallel for me has been in the images that have been broadcast. We are all familiar with pictures from the end of World War Two, of roads clogged with desperate people all trying to get to safety, or lines of them following railway tracks with tired children in tow, but to have images so strikingly similar beamed live from around Europe to our screens – particularly at the height of the refugee crisis in September – has been shocking. Just as in 1945 the international response has been slow and rather muddled, with the same quibbling between countries as to what to do about it, who to help and who not to help, how much to spend and who is going to foot the bill. In 1945 the US picked up most of the expense, and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency was formed to organise food, shelter, medication and then repatriation home. Similarly today charities are doing what they can but the collective response of most European governments, in my opinion, leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, the mass movement of people at the end of the Second World War at least had an end in sight. Once most of those freed from the camps were somehow returned home, or had been found somewhere else to live, the crisis would largely be over. Our current situation is considerably more complex. None of these people are returning home. Instead they are all looking to set up home in a new country, with all the political, economic and social knock-on effects that this entails. Furthermore, there seems to be no end to the haemorrhaging into Europe. There will be no solution to this current crisis until the whole of the region around Syria is made stable, and that, at this present time, sadly seems almost impossible.
TF: With Owen, Janek, and Irena, you have created a pretty unlikely trio of travellers – each with his / her own motivations. What drew you to each of them?
JH: The first image I had of the novel, before I even knew the story, was of a man waking up in a field, his memory in tatters, and not knowing where he was or what had happened to him. It later seemed to be a fitting starting point for a novel that is, in part, about the human cost and absurdity of war. It’s hard to consider the Second World War now with fresh eyes because we all know so much about it but I wanted to see if I could somehow remove our collective knowledge and see the events again with all the bafflement and disbelief that people would likely have experienced at the time. I worried at first that Owen was too ordinary but, of course, it’s the everyman about him that I hope gives the story its heart and shows how so many ordinary people got dragged into the conflict. He stumbles through Europe as if he is stumbling through a dream, trying to make sense of a war that he remembers practically nothing about, whilst all around him Europe is waking up, too, to what it has done. Naturally, there is more to Owen than meets the eye so his journey is just as much about the journey to find himself as it is for him to get home.
After writing my debut, The Dynamite Room, I became interested in forcing the most unlikely characters together and seeing what happens. Janek interested me because he’s right on the line between still being a boy and becoming a man, which gives him more complexity, but also because he speaks almost no English. I thought it would be fun to see how two very different individuals thrown together could form a friendship without the use of a shared language. It also adds another level of frustration and of the surreal to Owen’s situation. Adding Irena to the mix obviously provides more entanglement to the relationships but I didn’t want her to be a stereotypical female. Instead, psychologically, she is the strongest character and the one that most drove her own story forward. She stepped onto the page and seemed to plot it herself. Whilst Janek brings hope and energy to the novel, bounding around like a lanky puppy, and Owen brings the story its heart, Irena is the survivor.
TF: In both Devastation Road and previously in The Dynamite Room you have written about WW2. What makes you, I believe you are 42, fascinated by this period before your time?
JH: I love the fact that it’s a period that evokes such strong feelings and offers storytellers everything that any good drama requires. Every person living at that time was irrevocably changed by the events of the war and that provides a dramatic arc for every character you create, regardless of who or where they are. However, the war is such a well-trammelled period for novelists that the trick is to find a new take on it, and that is something I tried to do in both novels. On a lighter note, I’ve also become rather obsessed with 1940s culture (the clothes, etiquette, literature, and music). I wonder if all this nostalgia for the period that is currently in vogue – blitz parties, the resurgence of swing dancing, vintage clothing, etc. – stems from the fact that in the dark days of our recent economic crisis we are desperately looking back at previous dark hours and trying to revitalise that joie de vivre that still somehow existed during the war years.
TF: You clearly carried out a great deal of background research for Devastation Road – witness the seven pages of Author’s notes at the end of the edition I read. Even though this book is a work of fiction, how important was it for you to make it as historically accurate as possible?
JH: Yes, my Author’s Note at the back of the book was actually a bit of a last minute decision but I felt that it was important to make clear a couple of instances where I’ve knowingly bent the truth but to also put the events of the story in some historical context. I have no intention of providing a history lesson but, in both my novels, I have looked for historical events within the war that I (and hopefully my readers) did not know much about. For me making the story as historically accurate as possible, therefore, is vital. It’s a crude example I know but if Owen suddenly fished out a mobile phone it would instantly tip the reader out of the story, it would lose all credibility and so would I as a writer. I also think it would be a huge disservice to all those who lived, fought and died during the war. If I’m going to plunder their histories for stories the very least I can do is get the facts right.
TF: As well as a novelist, you are also a playwright and an actor. Which of the three do you prefer?
JH: Novelist. Definitely. I love writing plays and the recent London run of my play Claustrophobia was a real thrill but with playwriting the writer’s words, story and meaning are interpreted many times – by the director, actors, designers, even sound and lighting – before they are then interpreted again by the receiving audience. It’s the cultural equivalent of Chinese whispers. Novels are a lot more direct. What the novelist writes on the page their audience receives. Plus, in a novel you have the space and endless opportunities (without any budget constraints) to create a world that is so much more complex and multi-layered than you can ever hope to achieve on the stage. That said I’m a very sociable person so I love the collaboration required with putting on a play. I’ve not actually acted for quite a while – you could say that I’m a ‘resting actor’ – but I do miss it so hopefully – who knows! – maybe I’ll be on the stage again soon.
TF: How do you write? Do you plan a story in detail before you start, or do you just sketch it out and then let the writing process take over?
JH: Normally I’m a big planner. I can’t help myself. My novels are very intricately plotted so I have to plan them quite considerably before I start writing them so that I make sure that all the clues, threads and themes weave in and out coherently and that the story isn’t going to swell out of control. This can make it a bit stifling though when I come to write it so with my current work in progress I’ve tried to be a bit more relaxed about the whole thing. I’ve planned in detail the first third to get me going but after that I’ve just got a few main plot points to guide me forward and a vague ending. I’m hoping this will give my characters a bit more room to evolve and develop as they see fit. Who knows, perhaps they might even spring a few surprises on me.
TF: When do you write? Do you try and work fixed hours each day? At what times in the day are you at your most creative?
JH: At the moment I’m working on a first draft. On a clear and ideal day I’ll work from 9 till 4 then go to the gym and then, if I’m not out in the evening, maybe do a couple of hours light research and catch up with emails. I have days when I run workshops at the British Library too or are there doing research, so I try to juggle my time around that. Even if I’ve got other non-writing commitments I always make sure that I do a bit of work on the novel at some stage every day, even if it’s just jotting down a few notes. It keeps it fresh in my mind. When I used to work in publishing I would write in the evenings but now I’m more productive in the morning. By the time it reaches lunchtime I’ve usually ingested too much caffeine and I’m starting to get fidgety so answering emails, logging on to Twitter, or even mopping the kitchen floor is beginning to look like an appealing distraction.
TF: What, if you can tell us, will the subject matter be for your next novel?
JH: Fingers crossed, it’s a ghost story set in Cumberland in 1947. I can’t tell you much more than that other than I’m learning a lot about sheep.
A big thank you to Jason for answering all our questions so eloquently!
For more books set in Germany, click here