In conversation with... Cecily Blench

Hi Cecily! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Long Journey Home! Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you! The novel follows the stories of Kate and Edwin, two English friends who meet in Rangoon, Burma, in 1941, just before the Japanese invasion. They become separated and Kate must flee on foot to India, along with many other refugees. In trying to find Edwin, she realises that she has also spent years trying to outrun the past, and that the only way to lay the dead to rest is to make peace with the living.

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing the book or did it take an unexpected turn as the characters grew on the page?

A: I had no idea where it was going! I began with the city of Rangoon (Yangon), which I visited in 2013, and imagined a young woman living there as war approached. I found the plot developing organically as I wrote. I really admire writers who can form a plot before writing, I hardly ever knew what was coming next.

What kind of research did you have to carry out while writing this novel? In general, is research something you enjoy or a simple means to an end?

A: I read everything I could find that related to Burma and India in the Second World War. There are some excellent history books that cover the period, in particular The Evacuation of Civilians from Burma by Michael D. Leigh and Exodus Burma by Felicity Goodall – they enabled me to map the route my characters take, and to fill in the rich details of the world they inhabit. My grandmother’s wartime diaries – she was an army nurse in India and Burma – were very helpful too. I also spent considerable time in the British Library’s India Office Archive, reading the first-hand accounts of people who took the journey. I like research but I often wish I just knew it all already! I begin writing and then find a gap in my knowledge and have to pause to read about it – it’s quite a stop-start process. One day I’ll learn to do all my research in advance.  

If this novel was going to be turned into a film, who would you cast in the roles of Kate and Edwin?

A: Possibly Jamie Bell and Hayley Atwell, but I’m open to persuasion! And I’ve always known I wanted Dev Patel to play Rama, one of the other major characters – I had him in mind as I was writing.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: A scene near the end of the book, which involves the sea, was based on an experience I had in Burma in 2013, and it was one of those magical parts of travelling that you remember forever. I wasn’t sure how to end the book and then I remembered that experience, and suddenly the whole scene and even most of the exact wording appeared in my mind. It embodies the note I wanted the book to end on – hopeful and exhilarating.

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: The book is around 100k words and in the course of writing I wrote and deleted around another 70k words. At one point there was a whole extra plot line about a soldier – I liked it but I felt in the end that enough has been written about the military side of the Second World War and that I wanted to focus on the stories of civilians – European, Indian, and Burmese – who were caught up in a conflict they had no say in.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: It’s a spy thriller! It’s also set in the Second World War, but in Europe and the Middle East. It’s a lot more ‘plotty’ and the tone is quite different. I’m becoming a more confident writer so it’s been a lot of fun.

What are you reading at the moment?

A: Spain by Jan Morris, The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton, and dipping into Mandalay, MiMi Aye’s wonderful Burmese recipe book. So much to read, so little time!

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: Thus far I haven’t felt too pressured, but I imagine that may lie ahead once people start discovering my book. The internet in general is a huge distraction for me, so I’m trying to be more disciplined about writing time. But interacting with readers is important and I’d never want to discourage people from reaching out – my lack of discipline is my problem, not theirs!

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: There isn’t a magic formula for writing a book – or at least, if there is, no one has let me in on it yet. You just write a bit, and then another bit – in my case completely out of order – and put them together and edit and tear your hair out and lose hope and find it again and write a bit more and delete and edit and eventually you have something that looks a bit like a book. That’s my experience; yours may well be different. (And if you find a magic formula, let me know.)

Thank you for your time!

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