Launch: Liz Harris’s Hanoi Spring
INTERVIEW BY TRACEY WARR
Liz Harris is the author of fourteen novels. Her latest book, set in 1930s Hanoi, has just been published and is the third in her series, The Colonials.
How would you describe Hanoi Spring and its themes in a couple of sentences?
It is Historical Fiction rather than Historical Romance. Its theme could be described as the importance of being true to yourself and doing what your heart tells you is right, even if it puts you at risk.
1932 in Hanoi is a pivotal moment in Vietnam’s history. What attracted you to using this setting for your novel and writing about the French colonialists living there?
I set the first two books in the series The Colonials in India during the time of the British Raj – Darjeeling Inheritance, set on three tea plantations in the eastern Himalayas, and Cochin Fall, set in South India in a spice-trading port in the state known today as Kerala.
I felt drawn to find out about French colonialism. This meant I would be travelling to a different part of Asia in my novel, which was an exciting thought. And in person, too. I was lucky enough to go to Vietnam just before Covid reared its ugly head, where I was able to research the novel first hand.
While I was there, I saw the striking yellow-ochre buildings where the French colonials lived during a rule that began in the mid-1880s and lasted until 1954. I walked along the boulevards they’d walked and I learnt how they’d gone about their daily life. I explored the native quarter with its narrow alleyways and open-fronted-shop-lined streets, and I saw, even today, how the French presence years ago had impacted on the life of the Vietnamese.
I picked the year 1932 because I knew there’d been uprisings against the French in 1930 and 1931, and that these had been successfully put down, and I knew also that Ho Chi Minh was somewhat off the scene until 1941. As I didn’t want to write a novel about uprisings and political movements, although I intended to use them in the substance to the story, I decided that 1932 gave me the clear space I needed in which to tell my story of two families, and of the man who was a friend to both.
How did you research the prison and the Old Quarter to create convincing pictures of them?
I spent some time in both the prison and the Old Quarter, took photos in situ and bought books about them. The visit to the prison, known today as the Hanoi Hilton, was horrifying. It depicted graphically the harsh way in which the French imprisoned the Vietnamese, and one felt, even today, the strong sense of claustrophobia that would have oppressed the shackled prisoners.
However, this wasn’t the first instance of brutality shown by one nation towards the nationals of another that I’d seen on my trip. Before going north to Hanoi, I’d stayed in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, which has wonderful examples of French colonial architecture. While there, one of the places I visited was the War Remnants Museum. The atrocities depicted there were beyond anything I’ve ever seen. It was the first time I’d ever been moved to tears in a museum. This time, though, it wasn’t the cruelty of the French towards the Vietnamese, it was the brutality of US servicemen towards their Vietnamese captives.
Neither of these experiences has coloured what I feel about the French and the Americans. I lived in the US for six years, and love America, just as I love France. I know the Americans and the French to be delightful people, kind and thoughtful. What the two museums show vividly is that war brutalises people, irrespective of race. No one involved in a war, in whatever capacity, escapes unscathed.
Did you carry out interviews or read memoirs to help you create the lives of the colonial wives?
I’ve read extensively about growing up at the time of the British Raj, and about marriage and the woman’s role in the family. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the many colonial women, such as M.M. Kaye, who put their experiences down on paper.
On the occasions when I couldn’t find out what I wanted, I was aided enormously by contacts I made as a result of an appeal for help. For example, while researching Hanoi Spring, I came across the name of Linda Mazur, the author of Hidden Hanoi Houses, and read the praise for the talks she’d given, and for her guided tours of Hanoi. When I contacted her, she sent me the notes for one of her walking tours about French colonial architecture. My novel has benefited from her input, and I’m extremely grateful to her for her kindness.
Which character challenged you the most?
I think I’d have to say Lucette Delon. This is because she carries on her young, newly married shoulders a lot of the information thrown up by my research, information I couldn’t ignore. But at the same time, I liked Lucette enormously, finding her to be a warm, appealing young woman, and I wanted the readers to like her, too, and to identify with her. It was a question of getting the balance right. I hope that I succeeded.
Which research book have you pulled off your shelf most often?
It’s difficult to come up with one title because my research books vary according to the novel I’m writing. For example, Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea, by Jeff Koehler, was at my side throughout my writing of Darjeeling Inheritance. The novel is set on three tea plantations, and I needed to learn everything I could about the process of growing tea.
Perhaps, though, when I take into account all three novels in The Colonials, the book – well, two books – that I’ve used most frequently, to which I’ve had recourse for all three novels, are Women of the Raj, by Margaret MacMillan, and The Raj at Table, by David Burton. I’d highly recommend both to anyone setting a book during the Raj years.
What is your next project and how far advanced is it?
A second edition of The Road Back, first published in 2012, will be published on 1st August with a stunning new cover. Following that, In a Far Place will be published on 1st November. When The Road Back was published in 2012, I had 31 letters from readers, several of whom asked me what happened to Peter Henderson, the missionaries’ son. In a Far Place is Peter’s story.
What is the last great book you read?
The Visitors, by Sally Beauman.
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