Interview: Felicity Shoulders on “Small Towns”
– Tell us a bit about “Small Towns.”
“Small Towns” takes place in France in the wake of World War I; it’s the story of a particularly small and sheltered child growing into a young woman, and of a middle-aged man trying to retreat into the world of his childhood.
I’ve never set a story in France before. My family is part French and we have strong ties there, but our relatives live in the Massif Central to the south, a long way from the Western Front. I decided when I was drafting the story that I’d write no sentence for which I couldn’t imagine the equivalent in French: essentially, I was translating it into English as I wrote it. This was a bizarre, experimental process for me, and I wasn’t sure how the result would strike people. My first readers were all non-French speakers though and the language just seemed appropriately old-fashioned to them, so I forged ahead and it seems to have succeeded.
– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
Years ago I read a story by Angela Carter called “The Lady of the House of Love.” It’s about a British soldier on leave in Europe encountering the last scion of a vampire line. While Angela Carter wrote many modern fairy tales herself, this particular story implies strongly that World War I was the end of magic, and I immediately, perversely, wanted to write a fairy tale set in the aftermath of the Great War. I had an idea that the protagonist would be literally small, but not much beyond that.
That idea remained in the back of my mind for several more years, until I was reading about some World War I battles on Wikipedia. I wasn’t doing research, just reading about battles in which my great-grandfather had fought. I was struck by British aerial photographs of the village of Passchendaele, in Belgium. They showed the village before and after the fighting there, and in the second photograph even the roads are barely discernible. The fields, the trees, every feature blasted away. That image gave me the opening paragraphs of “Small Towns” and enough of the story to start writing.
(Here are the wikipedia photos of Passchendaele which Ms. Shoulders references, if anyone cares to look: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Passchendaele_aerial_view.jpg )
– What kind of research, if any, did you have to do for “Small Towns?”
I haven’t written a lot of historical fantasy, and this is the oldest setting I’ve tried: with more recent settings, I can do things like call up my grandmother and interrogate her about how they disposed of trash in Oregon in 1946. With this, I didn’t have any cheats.
I did a lot of photographic research online, looking at archival photographs of French and Belgian towns. I looked at pictures of women and girls and their clothing especially, since Fleur and her mother are seamstresses. I read up on the changes in fashion, in France in particular, over the period of the War.
Trying to research the life of civilians and especially refugees in France during the war was frustrating: my Oregon libraries didn’t have a great deal of information on the topic, and general books about World War I tended to focus their French homefront chapters more on the politically relevant topics of dissension and pacifism, and military matters like munitions manufacture, than on the probable experience of a displaced family. I found enough references to sketch out the Jaillets’ stories, and that was enough: the story is, after all, set after Jacques’s return home, not during his exile.
– Was this story personal for you in any way?
My great-grandfather lied about his age to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force at 17, and saw a lot of action. Canada was in the war from the beginning, of course, and the stories I heard from my family had some contrast with the stories of the American experience of the Great War, but fundamentally, the war was still “Over There”. I wonder about the recovery, what it’s like to be a “homefront” that’s not far from the warfront. I wondered about the lives of people who weren’t in the war, but were still scarred by it.
– Would you say that “Small Towns” is typical of the type of fiction you write, or unusual?
Unusual! Most of my published fiction is near-future science fiction with a social bent, and much of my unpublished work is mythic fantasy. While there’s a fable element to “Small Towns”, the voice and language isn’t the language of myth, and the setting is real and researched in a way much of my fantasy deliberately isn’t.
– What are you working on now?
I’m revising a novel draft. It’s near-future science fiction, very far indeed from Fleur’s world, but perhaps still about the limitations of the body and striving to define the life you want.
“Small Towns” appears in our Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.
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