What inspired the idea behind The Light At The End Of The Day?
I knew I wanted to write about my family in Poland in the 1930s and 40s. They were vague ghosts to me, and my grandfather, Jerzy, spoke only rarely about them. I couldn’t figure out how to approach the various stories and branches of the family history, until I started focusing on the Polish paintings of the family- some of my great grandfather Ignacy by Witkacy, and one by Jozef Pankiewicz, called Portrait of Girl in a Red Dress, which is of my great aunt, Josepha. Once I started focusing on that painting, I became inspired by the idea of it coming to symbolise a whole lost world. That set me off on the path.
Can you tell us what the research process was like for the book?
I was very grateful to receive a grant from Arts Council England to travel to Krakow to explore the city. I took my Dad along, and we visited the two family homes there- the Wasserberg home, where my grandfather grew up, and the Oderfeld apartment, where Josepha and my great grandmother Karolina lived. I spent time in the city exploring the synagogues and memory walls, and went to the Jewish cemetery to lay stones on the family memorials. Above all I was there to see the painting of Josepha in person. That was an extraordinary visit. The team at the Museum Narodowe in Kielce was incredibly generous with their time, and I had a long talk with the museum director, Robert Kotowski, about the painting, Pankiewicz and Josepha (he’s an expert on the latter, having written his own book about her.) Apart from that incredible research trip, I spent a lot of time in the Shoah Foundation archives, looking for stories and details. I read many accounts of Krakow in the months, weeks and days before the invasion, and the accounts of refugees, among them Michael G. Kesler. I returned to important books like Ordinary Jews by Evgeny Finkel and The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn. Another invaluable resource was the film Saved by Deportation by Slawomir Grünberg.
If we looked at your internet history, what would it reveal about you?
Currently, that I spend a shocking amount of time on Twitter and Netflix (though I think that’s forgivable at the moment— I’m writing this as the UK is still in lockdown) and that I have itchy feet; I’ve spent a lot of daydreaming time on Google Earth recently! I wandered around Montmartre the other day. What else…that I love poetry; I try to send my partner a poem every day, so I’m always looking for new ones, which I usually find via Twitter or The Poetry Foundation. Also, to be honest, that I’m a hopelessly nosy gossip. I used to love problem pages as a teenager and I’ve never grown out of it. I love reading about people’s messy lives and the muddles of relationships; I often procrastinate on the brilliant Captain Awkward or the advice columns of The Guardian (Annalisa Barbieri is the wisest.)
What are you hoping the reader will take away from The Light At The End Of The Day?
Even though there is naturally so much about the book that is about grief and loss, I hope there is a feeling of hope and redemption in it, both in the generation that comes after the main characters, who we meet briefly, and in the strength of love between the family and others. There are characters at every turn who are selflessly good, who try to help, who perform small acts of kindness that really matter. Despite all the dark places this story took me to, I really believe in humanity and I hope that comes through in the book. Although I wasn’t consciously thinking about this as I wrote the story, now that it’s finished I realise I was also, in writing about the refugee experience, hoping to speak to what’s happening in the world now. To remember that every refugee once had a home and a life that was ripped away from them, that at every step they have to come to terms with the shrinking likelihood they will ever go home, or that if they do, it won’t be home anymore.
For previously published authors – does the creative process get easier for you with each book?
I wrote this book more quickly than my first novel, Foxlowe, but in many ways I found it much harder. I was anxious about how to approach this story and what felt like a huge weight of responsibility to get it right. I was crippled by that for a while, and also felt quite constrained by family history. In the end, I fictionalised to a great extent, fusing together different stories, changing ages, names, fates. Once I did that I relaxed into it more and took ownership of the characters. I essentially had to apologise to my family ghosts and ask them, with respect, to let me get on with telling this story my way. Light isn’t about Josepha or Jozef Pankiewicz, it is a story of characters I have created. I don’t know if book three will feel any easier! I suspect each book brings different challenges and joys. Certainly, on days I was struggling with Light, it was helpful to look at Foxlowe on the shelf and remind myself I did actually manage to finish a book once!
How does it feel to hold your book in your hands for the first time?
Very strange and wonderful! I haven’t actually held Light yet, though I have a proof copy, which is still exciting. I have a beautifully childish glee at seeing my name on the spine of a book, at realising that dream. I hope that never goes away.
What was the most challenging part of writing The Light At The End Of The Day?
Apart from the anxiety I mention above, I really made life hard for myself by going outside of my culture, language, and time! I had to learn a lot about what how a family of this class, religion, city, would live, speak; what this world really was that was lost, beyond the glimpses I had from my grandfather. But I had to do that in such a way that the characters felt authentic without turning them into ciphers, and without those details ever getting in the way of the storytelling.
How did you come up with the title for the book?
For a long time, the novel had the working title Portrait of Girl in a Red Dress, which is the title of the painting that inspired the story. My wonderful editor Anna Kelly and I both wanted a more poetic title, something that captured what we felt the spirit of the book was. The Light At The End Of The Day entwines the painterly quality of dusk light that the characters Alicia and Josef bond over with the hope I mention above.
What is something that has influenced you in a major way as a writer?
I draw from all kinds of things: books I love and admire, of course; film, visual art and sculpture, podcasts…and I have different influences for different projects, so the Joni Mitchell album Blue was important for Foxlowe, and I rediscovered the poem There Is A Gold Light In Certain Old Paintings by Donald Justice just as I was figuring out what I was trying to say with Light. More generally, regarding how I see writing and its place in my life, the books Bird by Bird and The Artist’s Way have been big influences.
What are the easiest and the most difficult parts of your job as a writer?
I love that elusive sweet spot in a project where I suddenly feel I know where it is going and how to get there; I’ve stopped agonising over how to tell the story, is it a load of rubbish, will I ever finish it… there’s been a turning point for me in both books where the story has revealed itself, I know the characters, I can feel my way through it and I start to trust myself and the book. I’m not the kind of writer who has it all planned out in advance (I have really tried!) so the most difficult part for me is everything before that moment: having confidence to keep going, trusting that it will work. Writing this I realise it’s inevitable that at some point the opposite will happen, and I’ll come to realise a project isn’t going to work and I will have to abandon it: I suppose that’s a question of confidence and trust too. I’m just starting something new, so we’ll see!