"Stories are far more important than facts": Bryony Rheam on researching and writing This September Sun
Looking back on my debut novel, This September Sun, I am conscious of how ambitious a project it was. It is a long book and it took a long time to write, but it also needed a fair amount of research. Researching the past, even if it is only the 1940s is not as easy in Zimbabwe as it may be in a place like Britain. There are not many books either written about or set in the time. Those that are, tend to be political history which, although relevant to a certain degree, are often rather tedious to read. Film coverage is not that easy – actually it is fairly impossible – to come by and I had to rely on newspapers in the archives and interviews with some now quite elderly people.
The former are fascinating. I could lose myself all day in old newspapers. They speak of fundraising balls, teas and fetes. They advertise luxury accommodation at hotels with porters and cars meeting each train, film reels at the cinema, a list of who’s in town and who’s staying where and groceries, goods and clothes that were impossible to get in ration-strapped Britain. There is also news about the war and the small ads include the inevitable death notices of young men lost in battle.
As a child, I loved listening to both my grandmothers talk about their lives and the places they had been to. Most people like to talk about themselves and I found a lot of elderly people very amenable to talking about their lives. Many related hardship and loss, but there were also stories of parties, lovers, New Year celebrations and life in general during the War.
What emerged was a picture of a fairly hedonistic time. On the surface of it, colonial society was fairly bland and conservative. Yet the undercurrents of change and insecurity are evident. The War, however far off it was on the other side of the world, gave life that unsteady edge. Moral values were challenged by the War: the absence of those who went off to fight and the added presence of soldiers from afar. The RAF base in Salisbury brought in an influx of men who no doubt appeared more exciting and worldly wise in comparison to the average Rhodesian. Salisbury was still a small place then and it was generally quite safe to walk around at night. With parties going on on a regular basis, it was quite common for young servicemen to walk into a party off the street and ask if they could join in.
One lady told me how common it was for young wives to have affairs. With their husbands gone for two, sometimes three years, it was inevitable that they may find comfort in the arms of another. There were many soldiers who came home to find they had children who couldn’t possibly be theirs but, as I was told, they were often accepted without much questioning. Perhaps the war also allowed for a reciprocal forgiveness, for who knows what those soldiers themselves got up to abroad.
From these anecdotes and pieces of information, I was able to get a number of ideas for Evelyn’s story. Sometimes, just a little snippet such as a description of the boarding houses that many young, single women lived in, was enough for me to develop into something more. I was very conscious of not getting any of the historical details wrong, but I was also aware that a lot of the information was subjective and that memory can be inconsistent with fact.
There are those, I am sure, who will shake their heads and declare the times were never like that at all and that’s why I am glad I can turn to them and quote my sources. It is also interesting to see what people remember. One of the questions I asked the people I interviewed was whether they could remember a scandal or a murder or anything particularly exciting that happened and every time I got a ‘no’, but what would then subsequently emerge are the very stories I was looking for.
In This September Sun, one of the characters tells a story about a family who lost four of their sons during the war and how, because of this, the fifth son was not sent into active combat, but kept as a trainer in the Air Force. Tragedy struck when he was killed in an aircraft accident and his parents lost their sixth son. This story is actually a true one told to me by one of the people I interviewed. I didn’t use all the information I was given. Some I thought fit for something else further down the line. Ultimately, I learnt more from my ‘real-life’ sources than I could have from any book. People have a way of bringing the past to life in an interesting and inimitable way. Stories are far more important than facts.
First published on the Parthian Blog 17 November 2014