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Helen Dunmore Interview: Secrets, Love and the Cold War

29/01/2016 11:49 | Updated 27 January 2017

As a depressed and lonely 15-year-old, I bought a copy of Cosmopolitan, and attached to the cover was a novel: Burning Bright, by Helen Dunmore. Except for school set texts, I had never read literary fiction before, and was amazed by how beautiful the prose was, how perceptive the characterisation. The story of 16-year-old Nadine, abandoned by her family to the clutches of sinister older lover Kai, was so well-written it left me captivated. Cosmopolitan may have featured the book partly because its protagonist was a teenage girl; in doing so, they made this teenage girl, and possibly many others, long to be a writer.

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Over the next two decades, though I read and loved many other literary novels, Burning Bright remained my favourite book. I composed an ineptly-written five-star review of it, gifted copies of the book to friends and family, and enjoyed working my way through the rest of Dunmore's novels, which were never less than expertly crafted. So last month, when I discovered that Dunmore had a new novel coming out, I asked if I could interview her.

First, I was sent a copy of her new novel, Exposure. A brilliant spy thriller set in London during the Cold War - the era in which Dunmore grew up - it follows the lives of the Callington family, Simon and Lily and their three children, whose lives change forever when Simon is asked by an old friend to collect a top secret file. Just when you think you know where the plot is going, events take an unexpected turn, and there is a fantastically gripping scene near the end where you hold your breath, hoping goodness prevails. I read the book in one sitting, relishing every carefully chosen word. Dunmore is a poet as well as a novelist, and as with Burning Bright, the prose in Exposure is simple yet exquisitely beautiful.

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I can't remember being nervous before an interview before, but as I head down to the Penguin Random House offices, I feel a sense of trepidation. They say never meet your heroes - but it's clear the person who wrote that hadn't met Helen Dunmore. Warm and wise and funny, she is thoughtful and perceptive too: she asks me how my journey was, whether I want to sit in a different seat, and senses that I want to check whether my recorder's working at the start of the interview.

Dunmore would have been eight years old at the time Exposure is set. 'I think you remember a great deal from those years,' she says, 'and I felt I could create an authentic atmosphere. I do remember very vividly, for example, the Cuban Missile Crisis; I remember the whole sense of the Cold War. It was so pervasive as an atmosphere when I was growing up, particularly the sense that the bomb was there and the world might end. I wanted to have in Exposure the feeling that all the adult characters have lived through a war and been very affected by it.'

'We know that Giles has had what they call a "good war", but clearly also was a horrific war,' she continues. 'We know that Lily has come to London as a child refugee and has left behind everything. It was very important to me in terms of Lily's character that when she's growing up, everything that a child should expect from her surroundings is not there. Normally with a little girl in the street, you want to look out for her, people smile... instead of that, there's an atmosphere of dislike or hatred, and even though her parents try to shield her, she becomes aware of it. And I felt that that early experience is formative for Lily and it makes her the woman she is. And it is why, in a very extreme situation when she has to fight for her family, for herself, for her life, she has got resources there. Because in a way, she's been there before - she's been in mortal danger.'

I ask about the older children in the novel, Sally and Paul. Did Dunmore's recollections of her childhood help her write them? 'I think so, yes - and also to create the Sixties atmosphere, which was very different from now. The houses, the cold, the zone of heat around the fire and the stove, the coal... people didn't have that much, and they didn't expect to. They didn't expect to necessarily have a fridge, or a television, certainly not central heating. People walked a lot, people were probably physically more resilient, more robust. [The war is] not that far in the past, and it's shaped the present.'

'I wanted to get that mixture of optimism and almost greyness,' she explains. 'People are trying to build a new society... there's the NHS, free school milk, free orange juice, and there are a lot of stereotypes about women's lives, but yet Lily is a working woman. And then we also have a much more stratified, hierarchical society. We've got an establishment which is very powerful, and really, it's hard to imagine now what a tremendous shock, say, the Profumo affair was. For ordinary people to realise the corruption... things were kept from people, there was no Freedom of Information Act, no social media... it was probably a much less equal society in many ways.'

Three of the characters in Exposure have same sex relationships. Is Dunmore heartened by the rise of gay rights, and the advent of equal marriage? 'Absolutely. One of the things I wanted to show there was the fear that people lived in, because homosexual acts between consenting adults were still illegal. Everything has moved so far in such a short time, and what I wanted to show was how a lot of people had to hide a lot of their identity for one reason or another. At one point, Simon asks Giles, "Acknowledge me. Why can't we do anything in public? Why can't we show any affection or tenderness?" And then he abandons the relationship, because he thinks "I can't live like this".'

'But for Giles, I wanted to show that it was love,' Dunmore discloses. 'It's a relationship he's never forgotten and has always been important to him. And at a crucial moment, he remembers that it wasn't just a passing fling or a youthful relationship... For me, the exposure is on many levels: bringing things into the light, and stripping things off, so the title is quite many-layered. It's driving the story all the time, the tension, the plot, but it's also "can you live with what is exposed? Can you live with the self that you're seeing?"'

She talks about the heroine, Lily. 'I think that Lily changes a lot during the novel. For me, a novel is ideally a process of transformation for everybody, and Lily does change. She has a lot of barriers: she's quite self-contained, she's not a confider. She has her close friend Erica, whom she loves, but even so, Erica would like her to be a little more open, and her fellow schoolteacher also. Lily is quite guarded: she's learnt to be. Her mother has taught her, before she was ten years old, "You don't speak German. You don't say this, you've got to be this, you've got to close down" and she's done it. Those are formative years, and if you've been a refugee, you've had to escape, you've had fear, you've had parents who are trying not to frighten you but are obviously very frightened themselves, then that's going to mark you. And it's hard for her not to be guarded and keep her secrets, very hard.'

Which character from Exposure does Dunmore identify with the most, and why? 'It has to be Lily,' she confesses. 'Because I felt I was so engaged with her. She was enormously important to me. But also [secret agent] Giles: I felt for Giles a great deal. When you first meet Giles, he's drunken, gross, almost looks like a buffoon... but you get to know him, and I hope that in the intimacy of the novel, you get to understand him, and in the end to feel for him. There are tragic aspects to him, but he's full of vitality, and he's got a very lively mind, so he gives a kind of crackle and a spark to the novel that I wanted. He has got an edge to him, which makes him very enjoyable to write about.'

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Has growing up in the Cold War influenced Dunmore's views on nuclear deterrents? 'I think it probably did do, because certainly when I was younger it seemed to me monstrous and beyond belief that a button could be pressed and millions of lives could be obliterated in that way. But I think what we have seen, more recently perhaps, is the resurgence of horrific agonising ground wars such as we're seeing in Syria now, which I think people thought wouldn't happen so much. For a while, they thought the bomb would deter all that, but that hasn't turned out to be the case - it's turned out that you can have both life-destroying engulfing ground wars, and you can have the fear of nuclear war.'

'So it hasn't worked out quite as people have expected, I don't think,' she muses. 'But I think the fears that people have change in every generation, and probably the fears that people have now are different. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, although I was a child, I can remember so clearly that sense of menace - and everybody was talking about it, the fact that it could happen, America and Russia could go to war, and that would be the end of us. People would talk about four minute warnings, and "what would you do in the four minutes?" and I don't think they do now. Do you think they do?'

Not so much, I say. I have wondered whom I would call if I found out the world was about to end, but it's not specifically with regard to nuclear war. 'No. It isn't that focused on that one thing,' Dunmore agrees. 'Maybe part of that is just we've got used to the idea of such destructive weapons, when before it was horrifically new - there'd never been such a thing before.'

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Going back to Exposure, she says 'I very much wanted that sense of menace to be there, and that people feel fragile - they feel the preciousness of their own lives and their own family and their own friends, and what can they do? They can protest in Trafalgar Square in the sunlight, but of course they don't realise they're being watched and photographed and followed up. I wanted to make Erica this activist - "surely we've got to do something, we can't have this, we've got to change things" - whereas Lily, who probably has had more experience of evil, respects Erica, but also thinks "you're not going to change everything".'

We discuss surveillance in our society. 'Remember [in Exposure] it's not that far on from the Second World War, where people were always being talked to about the risks of opening your mouth,' Dunmore reminds me. 'Enemies could be anywhere, and even a casual little bit of information could be put together as part of a jigsaw puzzle. "Be like Dad, keep Mum," and all that kind of stuff. People were very used to that idea of language being potentially dangerous. People are coding what they say, and they're also assuming different personae.'

Every character in the novel is keeping secrets, aren't they? I ask. 'They all are,' Dunmore confirms. 'Sometimes for good reasons. Even the children are keeping secrets. They've read the newspaper about their father; they hide it. They are listening at doors, listening through the floorboards, as children always do - it's desperately important for them to know what's going on with the adults. They're keeping secrets from their mother, and then they develop their own life that she doesn't really know about.'

We talk about the Callingtons' marriage, where Lily finds it in her heart to forgive Simon. Does Dunmore think people are less forgiving these days, and more willing to give up on marriages? 'Certainly social attitudes have changed completely, and the stigma and the difficulty of divorce. The Divorce Reform Act made a huge difference. Women were financially in such a difficult position, because a lot of women didn't have work that was well paid enough to support a family. Also I think the whole narrative was about 'working at' a marriage. It's interesting going back and looking at magazines from the period and advice columns - the narrative is, "you've made this commitment - it's going to have rough patches, but that's what you've got to work at". I think that's equivocal, because in some cases it led to a great deal of unhappiness, people trapped in marriages where they were not happy, but then sometimes - as with Lily and Simon - they both decide that there's so much there, there's enough love.'

Though our time is up, I could carry on listening to Dunmore all day. And as I walk back through the frosty Pimlico streets to the tube station, I feel warm inside. I wish I could go back 20 years, revisit my depressed 15-year-old self and tell her, "It's all going to be OK, you know. One day you'll be a writer and you'll get to meet the author of your favourite book, and it'll be everything you hope it will. And she'll write a novel that's even better than Burning Bright."

Exposure is published today by Hutchinson, priced £16.99.