Alice Winn stated that the current world we live in is the remains of the first world war.
Alice Winn, who is 30 years old, wrote the popular book In Memoriam which centers around the forbidden romance of two boarding school boys during World War I. The book has already won the Waterstones debut fiction prize this year and is currently a finalist for Waterstones book of the year, with the winner being announced on November 30th. Historian Peter Parker has praised the novel, describing it as “horrifyingly visceral” and noting the author’s ability to capture the complex emotions of the two main characters. Winn, who was raised in Paris and received her education in England, speaks to me from her residence in Brooklyn.
When did In Memoriam originate?
While procrastinating online, I stumbled upon my old school’s student newspapers from the early 1900s. Reading articles about debating societies and cricket written by these young public school students was surprisingly enjoyable. As the war broke out, their excitement was evident. Many of them eagerly enlisted and wrote letters back to their friends, expressing their joy at not being forced to bathe. However, as they began to die, the tone of their letters changed drastically. Unlike most World War One literature I had read, which was written in the late 1920s and reflected on the terrible trauma that had been processed over ten years, these articles were written by teenage boys for other teenage boys who were experiencing an unimaginable tragedy. These articles deeply affected me and inspired me to write my novel, which poured out of me in just two weeks. The editing process took a year and a half.
How did you handle the battle scenes?
I perused Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, a profoundly brutal and detached account of warfare from the perspective of a German stormtrooper. Each page is filled with graphic depictions of maiming and death in various forms, which I meticulously recorded in a small notebook. While this was a habit I had with all the books I read, Jünger’s memoir contained the highest concentration of detailed violent deaths. I simply transcribed them – every horrific event experienced by a character in In Memoriam was based on a firsthand narrative from World War I, so I was not glorifying violence but rather recounting historical facts.
How about the gender?
My male friends who identify as gay or bisexual were kind enough to read my writing and offer valuable advice: “This particular thing may not accurately reflect my personal experience…” I followed their suggestions closely, but I also studied literature from the same time period. The most beneficial book I found was The Loom of Youth by Alec Waugh, the older brother of Evelyn Waugh, who was expelled from Sherborne School due to a homosexual incident. In the novel, written when he was 17 and on his way to fight in World War I, there are subtle references to homosexuality and its unspoken rules at the time: it was acceptable to experiment as long as one was popular, discreet, and still intended to marry a woman.
Is there a difference in reader response to the novel between the UK and the US?
In the UK, World War One is often used as a selling point, while in the US it is seen as more of an obstacle. In the UK, the remnants of World War One are deeply ingrained in our society and many view it as a pivotal moment for the empire, making it a dominant presence in our collective consciousness. The success of In Memoriam in the UK reassures me that my strong connection to English culture is not unfounded, despite being American, Irish, and having grown up in France, England, and America, which can make my sense of identity feel uncertain.