Wednesday 21 March 2012

"Damaged people do damage" : an interview with Celia Rees

So here's Celia Rees herself to talk about her latest YA thriller 'This Is Not Forgiveness'.  Having heard her read aloud from the first page or two of this book while it was still a work in progress, I knew it was going to be a real page-turner, and so it has proved - but as always from Celia's hands, a thriller that gives us much to think about.  On to the questions! 
"This Is Not Forgiveness" is a firecracker of a thriller, but it’s also a love story - a vicious triangle of a love-story. And I can’t help noticing that the story you chose to talk about for ‘Fairytale Reflections’, the Welsh legend of Blodeuedd, the maiden made of flowers, is also the story of the disastrous love of two men for one woman. Is there any connection?

The starting point for the novel was François Truffaut’s, Jules et Jim. In the film two young men, who are close friends, fall in love with the same woman, played by Jeanne Moreau. She is a wild, free spirit and completely unconventional. Both of them try to shape and control her, but she keeps breaking any hold either of them have on her. This folie a trois has unavoidable and tragic consequences. The story is set before and after the First World War but I started thinking, ‘You could update this. Make it now.’ Whenever I have an idea like that, I begin to collect things – songs, poems, pictures, other writing and references. I came to Blodeuedd and the Mabinogion through The Owl Service, Alan Garner’s re-working of the legend. As soon as I made the connection, it seemed some kind of validation. Blodeuedd is one of my favourite stories from the Mabinogion. There are two sets of men involved with one woman. Math and Gwydion who create her from flowers and Lleu and Gronw who are rivals for her love. My story is not a straight re-telling at all, but the myth has resonance within my story and this means that the roots are deep. That there is something archetypal, universal about it.

Two of the three main characters are predators. At the very beginning of the book, the heroine Caro sits in a bar despising everyone and ‘picking out victims’, an occupation ultimately echoed by Rob, a soldier and sniper invalided out of Afghanistan. Only Jamie, Rob’s younger brother, seems innocent. Yet you don’t demonise any of them. How deliberate was that?

I always saw Jamie as being a bit of an innocent, bearing witness. He has been described as naïve, as if to be so is a bad thing, but he is naïve in the way of most teenagers in that he has yet to venture out of the tight circle of his own concerns. Caro sees him as the Tarot Fool. The Fool is an innocent in search of experience. He is full of wonder, visions, questions and excitement but he doesn’t know where he is going and is often depicted as standing on the edge of a precipice. Caro can see this, but she is blind to her own self delusion or to exactly what is going on with Rob.
I did not want to demonise either her or Rob.
I don’t want the reader to be able to judge them or dismiss their actions. That would be too easy. There are reasons for the way they behave. Damaged people do damage. I like making the reader re-evaluate their judgements about character, re-assess.

Caro is fascinated by glamorous, articulate female terrorists like Ulrike Meinhof. She continually pushes the limits, sees how far she can go. Would you say that she and Rob are attracted to violence because it makes them feel alive?

My first motive for giving Caro an interest in radical politics was to make her different from other girls. When I first pitched the idea, it was met with some scepticism, in a ‘radical politics, isn’t that a bit ‘60s?’ kind of way. Then came the Stop the Cuts Demos in London and the associated street violence and suddenly it was OK. It struck me that Caro would be a girl who would want to take it a little bit further. She is also clever and would do her research. She would arrive at the Red Army Faktion and Baader-Meinhof in a couple of clicks of the mouse. Once there, she would fall in love with them. Brilliant, beautiful, as glamorous as rock stars but doomed and destined to die for their cause. They have exercised a fascination for artists like Gerhard Richter and film makers: Uli Edel’s Baader-Meihof Complex and Andres Veiel’s recent If Not Us, Who? They exercise their lethal magic on Caro, too.

TINF is pretty strong stuff! Was there any passage that you found particularly difficult to write?

I found the end hard to write. I always knew how it would end, but when I came to writing it, I found it difficult to do.

I'm not surprised!  It's a wonderful book.  Thankyou, Celia!

This Is Not Forgiveness, Bloomsbury, £6.99 


  1. Oooh! I'm in the middle of another book at the moment, but THIS IS NOT FORGIVENESS is sitting on my kindle, waiting for me. Keen to read it. THE FOOL'S GIRL was so good.
    Love the way, with the kindle, you can carry a full bookcase around with you, so you never have to suffer withdrawal.

  2. Celia is a pretty fearless writer, always nailing down honesty in her books. This will be a genuine young adult book.Thanks for the interview.

  3. Very difficult to write I would think - and real courage to tackle it. Look forward to reading it.

  4. These questions were searching and not easy to answer, but I wouldn't have expected less from Kath Langrish and it is a real privilege to be able to talk about the book in this kind of way, author to author, so I thank her for the opportunity. And the wonders of Kindle, eh? Sue Price now has the book!