Scene from In Darkness. Photograph: Jamin Marla Dichant
I enjoy visiting book groups. I love the informality of sitting on a sofa with my stripy socks on show in a room full of animated people whose reason for getting together once a month is to talk about books. There is something very heartening in the effort that people put in to make the reading of books a social event rather than a solitary one. Every book group I have visited so far has been meeting for years and it is fascinating to see how much books unite people, even when they vehemently disagree. There is solidarity in being devoted to books, in making proper time for the power of words.
It fascinates me, too, to hear people talk with familiarity and insight about a group of characters that for so long lived entirely in my head. It intrigues me to discover which characters appeal and the reasons why. One woman told me she felt sympathetic to the character of Dominic in The Beautiful Truth because ‘I was married to him.’ A male reader identified so closely to the wartime story of Krystyna that the experience of reading became in his words ‘hallucinogenic.’ This feels like such privileged information.
When writing as my characters, however, I never think of how readers might experience them. The characters need to convince me first, and if they don’t, if I’ve been lazy in my animation then I nearly always have to delete them. This is different from killing a character. I really have to psyche myself up to arrange the death of someone I become close to even though that is only in my mind. I feel no compunction in taking out characters that haven’t yet become anyone. The deleted ones quickly turn to dust whereas years later I might still think of a character that for some reason had to die.
My point about book groups is that they remind me what my characters are for. At my last book group visit, one of the ladies asked whether I ‘deliberately’ made the opening scenes of Hotel Juliet and The Beautiful Truth hard-hitting. ‘Did you want to grab the reader’s attention by shocking them?’ She admitted that she had found both openings tough to read, and there were murmurs of agreement.
Hotel Juliet opens with my character Max waking up in his hospital bed after his left leg has been amputated following a shooting. I describe the hospital scene, the smells, the sounds, the images from his internal point of view. I do not describe the amputation itself because Max would not have been awake to witness it. I do not describe the wound or go into detail about his pain, but still many people have remarked on the starkness of this opening: one review called it ‘grisly.’ I have wondered whether it was too brutal, but too brutal for whom? My character has lost his leg. He is in agony not only physically but also mentally. He has suffered his deepest loss. In order to be faithful to his experience (not my own feelings about it) I must not flinch from describing it exactly how it is for him. That is my first duty if I have any business writing fiction. If I can’t face my characters’ worst experiences and record them plainly then I cannot truly get inside them.
That answers the question I’m often asked at book groups: How do you get your characters to seem so real?
The opening scene of The Beautiful Truth has been described as ‘brutal’ and for this I make no apology. It is impossible to write a novel about the occupation of Poland during the Second World War and not emerge with a narrative that shocks and stuns people. Poland survived near annihilation not just in the Second World War but several times in history, and I wanted to show how refusing to give in to brutality strengthens the spirit. The determination not to yield was the one clear value that kept the Polish people united throughout the resistance.
I never intentionally write to disturb people: there are plenty of authors who do write brilliantly about the darker side of human nature, but my work moves in another direction. What compels me is the human impulse toward dignity no matter how desperate the circumstances. I have learned a lot from film makers who have dramatised the Second World War. Studying powerful films such as Roman Polanski’s The Pianist made me appreciate just how much research goes into making a period film look and feel authentic.
In Darkness, Agnieszka Holland’s film about an opportunist Polish sewer inspector, who shelters for payment a group of Jewish people hiding in the sewers of occupied Lvov, is without a doubt shocking. The claustrophobia of enduring for longer than a year dark, choking, filthy rat-infested conditions without light or clean air or adequate water or food is so convincing it is difficult to watch, but the images that will stay with me are not the darkest. When I think of the film, I see the characters and not the conditions. I see their desperation; I see their courage; I see their loneliness, their greed, their need, their fear and their determination; I see them trying to live decently in the most inhumane of places.
I watched this film only a few weeks ago and still think about it. It is more than a film about the Second World War – it goes much deeper than that. It is more than a story (based on true events) of survival. It asks a bigger question: how should we treat one another when it is easy to exploit? The turning moment in the film comes when the central character Leopold Socha is told by the leader of the Jewish group that there is no more money left to pay him. He hesitates. The Germans were offering rich rewards to Poles who turned in Jews and it would have been easy for Socha to make on this situation.
He reaches into his pocket and hands over some money to the astonished leader. ‘Pay me next time and make sure the others see you. I don’t want them to think I’m doing this for nothing.’ Risking his own life, he returns time and again with food and water to keep ‘his Jews’ alive even leaving his daughter’s confirmation to rescue his charges from rising flood water which prompts his wife to leave him. His self-interested acts are transformed into acts of altruism.
Why does he change so radically? Not because he wants to be good or unselfish, but because he understands that in being true to his responsibility to other human beings he has found dignity.