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How Alice Winn found inspiration for her debut novel in school newspapers from WWI

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Alice Winn's new novel, "In Memoriam," there's a line that one of the two main characters keeps saying to the other. Gaunt is the more guarded and taciturn of the two. When asked how he's doing, he's prone to replying with a terse I'm fine, but Ellwood knows better. And so again and again, he pushes Gaunt - I know you're fine, but are you all right? These two young men are friends, boarding school classmates, then soldiers together, fighting for Britain in the trenches of the First World War. And along the way, in this remarkable debut novel, they fall in love. Alice Winn, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALICE WINN: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: I want to begin with the moment in which Gaunt and Ellwood become lovers because this was a century ago, and it was illegal for two men to be lovers. Explain what attracts these two.

WINN: Gaunt and Ellwood are very close friends, and they both believe their love is unrequited. Within the boarding school which they attend, there are these sort of secret, obscure rules around homosexuality, where it's sort of OK to experiment as long as you do it very quietly in the dark and no one ever finds out. And Ellwood makes full use of this allowance to experiment. Gaunt feels too passionate about Ellwood to be able to experiment in any way, so he comes off, to Ellwood at least, as extremely, you know, straight - not that they would have used those terms in 1914. And so neither of them believe the other one could possibly actually be in love with them.

KELLY: I quoted that line - I know you're fine, but are you all right? - because it's such a kind thing to ask, and it's so intimate. It's what I want someone to ask me when I'm snappy and saying I'm fine. It speaks to the love between these two, and it also made me wonder whether you fell a little in love with these two as you were writing them.

WINN: Oh, I sometimes describe this book rather sentimentally as my whole heart. I really, really loved all the characters so much. And I think Gaunt is someone who is very, very good at presenting a brave face, and he doesn't seem to have very many people who are interested in him. He doesn't have many friends. And Ellwood is handsome and glamorous and rich and charming. And so he has so many people who are interested in him, but Ellwood is really the only person who is going to sort of pry deeper if Gaunt is trying to conceal a negative emotion. And I think one of the things I really liked about their friendship is that it's a very kind one. It's not competitive or angry. Most of the time, it's one in which they both really genuinely want the best for each other, and then that becomes more complicated by both the war and then also, of course, by the eruption of their romance.

KELLY: Well, let's go to the war and to the front lines. There is a letter that Gaunt writes to Ellwood. It's dated the 29 of April, 1915, somewhere in France. And I need to warn people - it is graphic. It is violent. His descriptions of the front can be hard to listen to 'cause you let us glimpse how terrified he is. Would you read a little bit?

WINN: Of course.

(Reading) And then more Algerians came flooding by. Some were only choking, but others were coughing up scrambled bits of lung. Their lungs were melting inside them and drowning them. They scrabbled at their throats. I have tried to keep things from you, Elly. You are so fresh and clean, and I did not want to be the one to open your eyes. But I must write. I must describe. I must tell you about the man I saw trying to claw open his own windpipe without seeming to realize that he was missing a hand and was only succeeding in smearing the blood and tendons of his blasted arm all over his blackening face. I stood as he pressed by, and I thought, why are you at Ypres? Why are you not sitting in a courtyard in Algiers eating a ripe orange?

KELLY: Alice, when he's describing a gas attack, is that what's going on here?

WINN: Yes. Yeah. The Second Battle of Ypres is when the Germans first used gas, and it was illegal. It was against the rules of conduct. And so one of the things that Gaunt feels when this happens is he's just so shocked because it's breaking the rules. And I think that's something that you see sometimes when you read contemporary literature from this time period - is people are astonished that the rules are all being broken. And it's so sad to me to watch that. And, you know, it's war. Of course all the rules are being broken.

KELLY: How did you prepare to write this - to describe this? Did you visit World War I battlefields in France and Belgium?

WINN: You know, I didn't. I would have loved to. I just read. I read very widely. And the inspiration for the book was the school newspapers from my old school. I read all the school newspapers from 1913 to 1919, and I became completely obsessed because these school newspapers were written by the students for the students. And they started off in 1913, 1914 as these funny, irreverent school newspapers with, you know, silly poems and stories. And then the war breaks out, and the boys are so excited. And they can't wait, and they all enlist. And they start writing letters back from the front, where they talk about, you know, how fun it is not to have to wash.

And then they start dying, and it's the boys left at school who have to write the in memoriams - the obituaries - for their dead friends and brothers. And these in memoriams change in texture as the war progresses because they begin - you know, in 1914, it's all about, oh, we envy him - his noble death. And then, as the war goes on and they realize it's not going to be done by Christmas - it's just going to carry on and on and on - they become so achingly sad and vivid. I just - you know, I was completely lost in this world.

KELLY: Well, and I want to jump in and note you reproduced this. You used that to tell the story. Tucked in between the chapters are all of these lists, you know, as though they're from the boarding school that Ellwood and Gaunt attend.

WINN: Yeah. And I wanted to get across that feeling of - you, the reader, are scanning the list to see if the characters you care about have survived or not...

KELLY: Yeah.

WINN: ...Because I think it must have just been such a terrible way to find out about acquaintances and loved ones.

KELLY: There have been so many books - so many words written about the First World War. What would you want readers to take from this one?

WINN: I love so much of the literature of the First World War. So I find this question difficult because it's hard to imagine my book being in the same ranks as books by people who were there.

KELLY: But you must have thought you had something to add.

WINN: Yes, I think it - fundamentally, it's a book about wistfulness and about complicated sort of nostalgia because I think Gaunt and Ellwood - they live in this little, idyllic bubble, where they never have to interact with anything ugly or violent. They benefit from empire without ever having to see any of the negatives. And so they're kind of both a little bit in love with that world - that version of the world that never really existed. And then the World War tears apart all semblance of that false world. And so I think that was something I thought I hadn't necessarily seen in other works that I had read about the war.

KELLY: Alice Winn - we've been talking about her debut novel. It's titled "In Memoriam." Alice Winn, thank you.

WINN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elena Burnett
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.