NOTE: Beneath the end of the Q+A, you can find the cover and details for Julia Winter's debut novel "The Brexit House".
1) First of all, let me congratulate you on a smashing debut that deserves to be in the spotlight for several different reasons. What urged you to choose such a controversial main theme such as Brexit that still divides Britain into two opposing battlefields? Do yourself have a firm stance, positive or negative, regarding the British people decision to disentangle themselves from the main European core?
J.W.: Well, I really want to stress that one of the things novel sets out to explore, in equal measure, is why ordinary people voted for or against remaining in the EU.
That said, I do actually have a firm stance on Brexit, myself. I’m afraid Brexit is a coup perpetrated on the British people by international moneyed interests and that aim of those who brought it about was to deregulate the British economy so as to make it easier for international capital to exploit and make money out of us. Anyone who has read Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ will know that similar experiments have been carried out on various populaces since World War 11. But I think Brexit was possible, and that the Brexiteer propaganda took the form that it did, because of historical and traditions of exceptionalism in English culture, (and perhaps Anglo-Saxon culture in general), which the Brexit lobby successfully tapped into in order to achieve their aims. So, Brexit happened on two levels: on the planning level, and on the level of how it was presented to and experienced by ordinary people.
Personally, I am entirely committed to the European project. I have lived in Greece for a year, Italy for three years and Poland for thirteen years. If anyone had told me back then that the UK would leave the EU, I would simply not have believed them; later, when Brexit happened, it felt like someone had robbed me of my identity. But it’s precisely because I have always felt - so European, that when Brexit happened, it became so important to me to understand why anyone in my country would have voted to leave the EU. And why they did, is one of the things that I tried to examine in the book.
2) In your novel, there are two different elements combined that enhance the reading experience as a whole: the brilliant characterization and the ubiquitous bits and pieces concerning Britain’s modern and medieval history. What was your prime concern when writing the book? To focus on the characters as three-dimensional human beings or to offer keen insights regarding contentious historical events?
J.W.: To be honest, what really pushed me into writing the novel was that to me it seemed that Brexit propaganda was exploiting patterns of thought which dated back to the 16th century reformation, and the 17th century civil war in England, which were revolutions in English social and political thought, and which are still fundamental to English culture. And yet, no-one seemed to be pointing this out. What really disturbed me was that these very same huge revolutions in social and political also provided basic principles and ideals shared by most Remainers. In other words: both Leavers and Remainers seemed to be drawing on the same traditions yet drew radically different conclusions from them about what England is or should be. I began writing it in order to try and work out how this could be. The characters were really vehicles to this end, at least initially. But I never wanted to just write an essay. I really, really wanted to try and show how attitudes and thought patterns that reach far back into history are really alive in everyone’s lives today.
Also, well, the story is about an inheritance battle between two sisters. Inheritance conflicts are in fact, incredibly common between siblings. And it seems that they are often really not just about the money, but about conflicts over who is more important; about who deserves more and why. At risk of sounding pretentious, it seemed to me that an inheritance battle was the perfect setting for a book about Brexit, because essentially this is what Brexit is: an inheritance battle about what the state is, what it is for and who it belongs to. Unforgivably, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all been dragged into the conflict as well, without their voices ever being heeded
3) The relationship between the two sisters, Cecily, and Victoria, is fraught and oozes barely concealed resentment dating back to their childhood years. Did you craft these characters based on actual people that you’ve met in real life or are they just figments of your imagination? Is the morphology of their rapport perhaps loosely grounded on your own personal experience(s) with other family members?
J.W.: I wouldn’t want to bring my sisters into this without a voice but suffice it to say that I have two sisters and neither of them is anything like either Cecily or Victoria! But relationships between women in general are complex and operate according to codes of language and behaviour that we learn as girls, from a very young age, so it really wasn’t difficult to create the dynamic between Cecily and Victoria
4) I was stunned by the way you link the historical evolution of certain religious institutions such as the Catholic and the Anglican church with the current socio-political reality in Britain, discerning connections, and continuity with the eye of a keen historian. To what extent did your educational background (MA in History) shape your writing style?
J.W.: I think my background in history is probably fundamental to the story as it’s really all about history: personal history, family history, national history. What I learned at university is just how closely related - and cross-fertilizing - political and religious thought have been throughout European history; what I’ve learned since then is how much of all that so very much alive within the way we think today
5) You make references to quotes by iconic figures in the country’s political and cultural past such as Winston Churchill and William Shakespeare among others. Do they reflect your own personal influences that, in parts, shaped your understanding of the world in general as well as the issue at hand (Brexit)?
J.W.: Winston Churchill is a figure whom Brexiters have tried to claim as their own, as some kind of proto-Brexiter. The fact that they were successful in doing for this for quite a while is incredible, and testimony to the Brexiteer’s enormous hold over the media, as there is, in fact, ample evidence demonstrating that Churchill supported - and was indeed one of the founding members of - the European project. The time The Brexit House was set, in summer the 2019, was probably about the peak of the Brexiteer’s success in this respect, and that’s why the character of Cecily is at pains to point out Churchill’s European affiliations.
I’m not particularly a Shakespeare fan, personally, although in the UK, Shakespeare is obviously a person of enormous stature: an icon, in fact. He’s mentioned in the book mainly because of one quote about knowledge and ignorance, which seemed to throw light on the writings of John Foxe, who has, in fact, had arguably even more of influential figure than Shakespeare himself, on English culture.
6) Can you name a single character in the novel that feels closer to you in terms of spiritual/ emotional structure and behavior? For some unfathomable reason, as I was reading, I felt inclined to think that Cecily would be closer to what is commonly called your “alter-ego”. Did I get it completely wrong?
J.W.: I guess Cecily - together with her husband - more or less represents my views on Brexit, but she is really meant to represent something broader: a middle-class left-wing Remainer type, in general.
7) “The eternal Us and Them. It was as if the human mind came with a Manichaean opposition already programmed in as if we were born with two head-in-the-hole cut-outs in our minds”. Do you find this splitting into two a human law that is applicable to all societies diachronically?
J.W:. Well, I’m not a sociologist or a psychologist, but it does seem like it sometimes, if you look at how humans bond most easily in opposition to something or someone, or the way societies across the world define themselves in opposition to some kind of ‘other.’ It seems good and bad are just very fundamental organizing concepts in the human mind
8) At one point, you write: “every Brexit-related word was in itself a landmine of contention”. Do you think that this provided a fertile literary ground for your story and dialogues to unfold with such intensity?
J.W.: Brexit took up and repurposed words like patriotism, sovereignty and democracy. I mean Leavers appropriated these words and redefined them. For example, the advisory referendum on the question ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ (With no more details than that) was won 52:48 by the Leavers. Most democrats would think this result required the prime minister to pursue the very mildest of possible Brexits, given that nearly half of voters wanted to remain. Yet after the referendum, Brexiters claimed that the very extreme version of Brexit that Prime Minister Teresa May defined, was ‘the will of the people,’ even though it entailed, for example, removing British people’s right to free movement and leaving the single market, both things that Leavers had repeatedly assured voters, during the referendum campaign, would never happen. In this way the Brexiters redefined democracy and this redefinition was swallowed entirely by most of the media and, consequently, much of the populace. I remember complaining about the extremism of May’s Brexit to a friend in 2017, and her responding, ‘But the leavers won: that’s democracy.’ It began to be orthodoxy that to question the terms of any kind of Brexit the Brexiteers in power should choose was somehow undemocratic.
And perhaps yes, the social anguish created by the fact the English cannot really talk about Brexit, because there is no agreement on the meaning of essential words, is perhaps fertile literary ground, as when characters have strong opinions and emotions but can’t talk about them, it gives the writer an excuse to wander around inside their minds.
One of the things about the book which I didn’t actually plan - it just happened - is that in the course of examining Brexit the book unearths so many really quite explosive issues, such as race, class, religion and intersections between them. These are, of course, the things that we find most difficult to talk - or, in fact, even think - about. But the characters do think about them, and we get to hear their most secret opinions, some of which they would never - in fact, could never - say in public.
9) Tell us about your future writing plans. Are you currently working on a new project or are you taking a break from writing?
J.W.: I am currently trying to write a feminist novel, about how the patriarchy socializes girls and boys differently from birth and about the patriarchal economy. I would also like to write a novel about post-communist Poland, where I lived for 13 years, but that is a more difficult project and I haven’t yet found a way into it.