Scots novelist Karen Campbell made her name with the Anna Cameron series of police novels before publishing two critically acclaimed contemporary dramas: Rise, set against the backdrop of the 2014 independence referendum, and the refugee story This is Where I Am.
Now the graduate of Glasgow University’s Creative Writing Masters programme has turned her hand to historical fiction with The Sound of the Hours, a powerful tale set in the final stages of World War II around Barga, the Tuscan hill town to which many Scots Italians can trace their roots.
Published in July by Bloomsbury, Campbell’s latest work tells the story of Frank Chapel, one of the black American “Buffalo Soldiers” who played a pivotal but long-underplayed role in the liberation of Italy, and Vittoria Guidi, a young Scottish-Italian woman caught in the middle of an occupied town and a divided family.
Karen, who will be talking about her new novel at this year’s Islay Book Festival, spoke to the festival’s Angus MacKinnon about how her latest work came about and how it fits into her eclectic writing career.
A wealth of history unlocked
Angus MacKinnon (AM): The Sound of the Hours is your first novel set outside Scotland and it is played out against the sweep of momentous historical events. It feels like quite a departure for you, and I wondered if that was a conscious choice to go in a different direction?
Karen Campbell (KC): I don’t think that with any book I’ve ever written, I’ve thought beforehand, “Where will this take me?” I’ve just always followed the story. With my earlier books, because they were set in the world of the police and I had been a police officer, it was writing about things you know and getting things off your chest. With each subsequent book I have kind of just thought, “Wow, this is something I want to know more about.”
AM: So what got you into this period of history and this “Scottish town” in Italy?
KC: We were in Barga on holiday with friends. The guy, Sergio, is Scottish-Italian and his family are from that area. One day we took a walk up to Sommocolonia, a hilltop village near Barga which is very important in the novel. Basically we went up for the nice view but there was a war memorial there to a Buffalo soldier and I was immediately intrigued. And from that, it unlocked this whole wealth of history that I knew nothing about – all of the story about Italy coming out of the war and then Mussolini being released by the Germans and the king being on one side with the Allies and Mussolini and the Germans being on the other.
I knew Barga was the most Scottish town in Italy and thinking about it [in] that period it really intrigued me that your loyalties could be split about seven different ways. You maybe had family in Scotland who were being interned by the British government, but you felt you were Scottish and Italian. And then your town was liberated or invaded by a variety of Germans, Brazilians, Americans … how do you navigate that, how do you survive that?
AM: So how long did the research take?
KC: Obviously I don’t write historical fiction and I don’t think I will do it again (laughs). I did so much research that I found myself beginning to commit that cardinal sin of showing off how much stuff you know. I was like, “Oh God, I know how they made shoes out of old rubber tyres and parachutes, so I’d better put that in!” It took about four years in all and it probably took me as much time to edit the story down as it did to write it.
AM: The experience of black American troops in WWII is one of your main themes. How did you go about researching that aspect of the novel given that it is only in recent years their contribution has begun to be fully recognised?
KC: With the Buffalo Soldiers, there was so much negative historical stuff you would find that was tainted with racism … many military figures are on record as saying the “black man” did not have the stomach for the fight, that they would run away. But then necessity drove the fact that the military just needed bodies for cannon fodder out there. And there was political pressure too. The term “Buffalo soldiers” had first been used in the 1800s. I think reactivating the Buffalo name for this new segregated division was a way of creating a history and tradition that maybe encourages people to put their lives on the line.
But the whole thing was structured in a way that white supervisors were always in charge. You could never have a black captain, or whatever that would be, above, say, a white lieutenant. They would actually demote black officers so they’d never be above a white officer.
So I thought I needed to take my sources from as close to the horse’s mouth as I could get and I read a whole bunch of biographies and autobiographies from people who had served as Buffalo soldiers. I thought that was going to be the most accurate way of getting into somebody’s shoes.
And really the basis and inspiration for my story was that the people of Sommocolonia and the wider Barga area wanted to commemorate these men; they wanted to put up a statue to their bravery. So that is where I took my lead from in terms of deciding what the truth was.
“A cup or a cone, hen?”
AM: The whole Scots Italian experience of WWII is another big subject.
KC: Yes, I had a whole other character whose story I wanted to tell but just couldn’t (for lack of space). The internment (of UK-based Italian nationals) on the Isle of Man and the sinking of the Arandora Star (a ship carrying interned Italians and Germans to Canada), that could have been a whole other novel and I had to just rein it in. I was in danger of creating a Game of Thrones-type saga, which wasn’t what I wanted to write.
AM: The two teenage sisters at the centre of the novel, Vittoria (Vita) and Francesca, were born and raised in Italy but from their family connections to Scotland they have a very marked Scottish side to their identities.
KC: The thing that struck us most when we were in Barga was when you’d try, in halting Italian, to ask for “un gelato per favore” the woman behind the counter would break off from speaking Italian and ask, “Ye wantin’ a cup or a cone, hen?” … as broad as that.
So of course then you go, “Where are you from?” And she’d say, “Oh from here, but my mum or my dad was from Paisley.” And that happened all the time. People learn to speak English in a broad West of Scotland accent because that is how they hear it.
That Scottish identity is just very apparent – there is a Celtic supporters club in Barga and things like that too. In Vita’s family, not only is her dad from Scotland, but also there is that real friction between her mum being a fascist and proud of it, believing that Mussolini is their saviour, and the dad being West of Scotland socialist.
So it felt to me that the sisters might feel the two identities more sharply and clearly defined. Although their parents loved each other there is a definite sense that as war progresses, sides have to be taken and there is a real sharpening of where those edges are.
AM: You started writing after spending six years in the police force, which you entered having done a French, English and drama degree. You must have been the only drama graduate on your training course?
KC: I wasn’t the only drama queen, certainly! We had a bank manager, a nurse, it was a real diverse bunch. My husband, who I met on the course, had been in the Royal Navy. One of the main drivers when I started to write was that I wanted to try and write a book that showed the diversity within the police because anything I’d read or seen on telly tended to be quite stereotypical – you know, white, working class, not very enlightened, drinking problem. And it wasn’t reflective of the police force I’d worked in.
AM: So did you go into the force thinking, “This seems like an interesting job but what I really want to be is a writer”?
KC: Not at all. I did it because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I found that studying English, because I loved books, was not the best way to build your future career. By the end of it, it had kind of scunnered me. Studying something that you love maybe takes some of the magic out of it. So I felt quite restless for something practical as opposed to something cerebral, and also my parents had both been in the police so I knew that no two days would ever be the same.
AM: Did the writing start while you were still in the police?
KC: The writing happened properly after I had left the police and I was at home with two young children. I found I had room for creativity again. Doing shift work really takes it out of you and I hadn’t even really read very much when I was in the police. It was very all-consuming. And when I came to apply for the Writing Masters it meant that I had a portfolio for myself and that was what I submitted.
AM: And that led to the four Anna Cameron novels. Do you think you might go back to writing about the police?
KC: I think I got it out of my system. I wanted to use those four books as a way of shining a light on what the police is really like, for uniformed cops in particular. Dealing with things like cot death and being the place where the buck stops. By the end of the four books, I’d done that and I was no longer part of that world.
AM: What’s next?
KC: I have actually finished another book. This one, The Sound of the Hours, has been the longest one to write and research. i don’t know if it was an antidote to that but I wrote the next book in about three or four months. It is quite a short novel but it just came out. I was thinking all the time about the characters to the point that I didn’t want to leave them where I’d left off and I had to keep going back. It is set where I live here in Galloway. I wanted to try and somehow explore how it might be to be homeless, but I wanted it to be in a rural setting.
AM: The Sound of the Hours has a very cinematic feel about it. It is quite easy to imagine it as a movie. Is that something you are conscious of as you are writing?
KC: Of course, I would absolutely love it [to be made into a film]! There has been a wee bit of interest but nothing has come of it as yet. There’s loads of stuff about France and the war but very little about Italy and the war that I am aware of. With the Scottish-Italian element and the Buffalo Soldiers, it felt to me like a fresh story. That whole Italian front feels like a very untold part of history.
So it’d be an absolute dream if it happened but it doesn’t affect how you write the story at all. If I did worry about that, or about who is going to read it or even what kind of book this is, how it is going to be marketed, what shelf it is going to go on … to me that would always stymie the story.
Time to write
AM: You mentioned that doing the Creative Writers Masters at Glasgow University got you into full-time writing. How did that help you, and do you think you’d be a writer now regardless of whether you did that course?
KC: That is a really good question because sometimes you get people who can be a wee bit, “Oh, writing courses are like sausage factories for writers.” Personally, I don’t think I’d have been a writer without doing the course, but I don’t think it shaped me or told me a way in which I should write. For me, writing is a solitary thing, especially when you are starting out. It is almost like a guilty secret. You don’t tell anyone you are doing it. So once you get accepted on the course, it is validation. And then when you are on the course you are workshopping pieces, you are having to write more regularly. You start to normalise the process and you are with other people who also do it. You have a couple of years and space to mess about and experiment and see what it is you want to make.
When I did it we were so fortunate: Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard and James Kelman were the professors. I don’t think I ever sat through a workshop that was “Here is how to write a novel.” It was very much sitting at the feet of great writers and listening to how they worked while doing tutorials and things with other people. It allowed me to hone my own voice by trial and error and gave me the space and time to do that. And also to write more words. I started to build up from short stories something that became a novel and I don’t know if I’d have had the confidence or the encouragement to do that on my own.
It was important, I guess, to myself to say that my writing was good enough to make it worth taking a bit of time and care over. The course gave me that space to do that in the hubbub of daily life, working and having young girls. In a way it allowed me to say, “Right, girls, mummy is writing now.” Because I had to do it for uni – that was allowed.
Get your ticket for Finding the Spark, a creative writing workshop with Karen Campbell on Sunday 1st September at Islay Book Festival 2019!