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Keep calm, and carry on writing: Clare Morrall interview

Clare Morrall finished her latest novel while undergoing chemotherapy. Danuta Kean finds her ready for the next challenge

Clare Morrall leaps up to greet me. “You probably don’t recognise me,” she says lunging for my hand, while I pretend I just hadn’t seen her. She has been waiting in the reception of The Blue Coat School, the exclusive Birmingham prep where she teaches music. I’ve met her before, but today I didn’t recognise her because the glossy black bob she has worn for years and which is always commented upon by profile writers has been shorn off. “I had lymphoma and the chemo…” Her voice trails off and she self-consciously touches her grey crop. “I hope this doesn’t look too harsh.”

“Harsh” is not a word I would associate with Morrall, whose wry, eloquent novels about outsiders have delighted readers since she arrived on the literary scene with the Man Booker shortlisted Astonishing Splashes of Colour in 2003. Her conversation is peppered with laughter and witty insights about teaching, writing, and her past, troubled, year; words and ideas tumble over one another, eager for expression.

As we climb the stairs to her classroom – an oblong box dominated by light, violins perched against the walls, and a piano, keyboard open ready for the next pupil – I try to cover my awkwardness. Not that she seems to mind. She talks of the cancer with a stoicism and cheery disdain that reminds me of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” spirit displayed in her latest novel, After The Bombing, which shifts between the blighted spring of 1942, as Hitler unleashed the Baedeker revenge attacks on five of Britain’s most historic cities, and autumn 1963, in the optimistic months before Kennedy’s assassination. It is a potent evocation of the war on the Home Front and its emotional impact on the young people who survived it.

As the bombs drop on Exeter, a group of robust teenage girls with names like Giraffe and Curls scurry from their dorm in Goldwyn’s Girls’ School to a bomb shelter from which they emerge to find their world destroyed. Twenty years later we meet Alma, one of the girls, now an unlikely music teacher at the school, at odds with the ambitious new headmistress Wilhelmina Yates, also an orphaned survivor, though by the Coventry bombings. What follows is as much a tale about identity and survival as it is about the impact of national trauma on individuals.

Over lunch brought up from the school canteen, Morrall explains her inspiration: “After my mother died we were sorting out her house and found a lot of letters written to my father. Amongst these was a wonderful letter from four girls who had been evacuated from Plymouth and came to stay at the halls where he lived.” An academic, her father had taken the girls into his all-male hall of residence in much the same way Robert Gunner does in the novel. “He talked about them as children, but from the tone of the letter it was clear that these girls must have been about 14 or 15,” Morrall gives out a low chuckle as she thinks of her father – a man so straight he wore a jacket and tie to the beach – dealing with a group of girls bursting with curiosity and hormones.

As we talk, children’s laughter drifts in through the window. They are exuberant, unleashed from classrooms on the first sunny day after months of rain, high spirits frowned upon in the wartime Britain of the novel. The world Morrall portrays, though, is not without its humour and warmth. This is the world of making do and rather than seeing it as repressed, Morrall wishes there were more of it about today. “I do like the formality,” she confides. I wonder if this is a reaction to the unrelenting pressure of her recent illness, but she bats away the question, saying: “There is a lot to be said for the stiff upper lip and controlling our emotion.”

I suspect the tough year has made her less tolerant of the fashion for emotional incontinence, which turns the death of a celebrity into an excuse for a self-emolliating pityfest. In this I find Morrall refreshingly at odds with our age, preferring to stick to facts, not feelings. Chemo was “a pain”. Though she marvels at how she coped, she refuses to indulge herself: “When you think about it, loads of people do this: disasters strike and life isn’t easy, but they get on with it. People are, I think, more resilient than they realise.”

However understated, the picture she paints betrays a huge emotional burden. “I can’t understand how I did that and got up these stairs,” she concedes after recounting how she tried to work at the school and on the book during her chemotherapy. The nearest she gets to self-pity is when I mention her critically acclaimed previous novel, The Roundabout Man, about Quinn Smith, the reclusive son of a famous children’s writer – modelled on E Nesbit – and star of a bestselling series of books. “I was quite proud of The Roundabout Man and never really got to talk about it because it came out when I was ill.” She scoops up a mouthful of roast beef as if to stuff away the emotion.

The Roundabout Man was Morrall’s first attempt at historical fiction, mixing a contemporary narrative with one set in the 1950s. It paved the way for After The Bombing. Why the move to the past? Morrall shifts uncomfortably in her seat. “I didn’t think I would be good enough to write about the past,” she says. With the contempt of the practiced teacher, she regarded such doubts as a sign of laziness. “It’s easy to be lazy and stick with what you know,” she adds. “As soon as I think that I am not quite good enough and won’t give it a go, I think, actually, I should because it’s lazy not to.” I can imagine her saying the same to gifted pupils.

Her doubts were fixed on one thing: language. “It was a huge worry because I was aware that there are people still alive who remember the period,” she explains. “Being precise about language almost drove me mad,” she adds. Words evaded her: she couldn’t find a wartime equivalent for “cool” so used nothing; she struggled to find what contemporaries called the Home Guard; and every reference to “I have no idea” was struck out because it is a modern expression.

Her dedication to authenticity has paid off. The novel resonates with the age without straying into Five Go Mad in Dorset parody.

Her next book, she says, is a secret. Already 150 pages in, she has changed key elements of the narrative and feels nervous saying more in case she changes it again. As we walk to my taxi I press her about it once more: “No, no, I just do not want to say.” She laughs, touches her grey crop, and smiles at me. “Ah, but I know it will be good,” I reply. This time the awkwardness is hers. I shake her hand and she turns back to the school. We are both smiling thinking about the future.

Danuta Kean is books editor of Mslexia. She can be followed on Twitter, @Danoosha

Extract from After the Bombing by Clare Morrall (Sceptre, £18.99)

‘There are women everywhere, in loose trousers or knee-length skirts, solid lace-ups, their hair tied back in headscarves. They’re clearing pathways, bringing some order to chaos …. They must have been there for most of the day and their efforts seem futile amid the mountain of destruction, but they don’t look defeated. One woman is singing a Vera Lynn song softly, under her breath, as she wields her broom.”