Recently we were able to have a chat with the Costa Biography Awarding-winning author Keggie Carew. Her book Dadland is her story of her trying to recapture her father's past as his memory is failing, going back to his time as an undercover guerilla agent during the Second World War. The book is available to purchase here.
So how would you describe the book to someone who’s not familiar with it?
Keggie: It's complicated. Its part detective story, part biography, part history book, part family memoir, but it ultimately is a parallel in opposite directions. As my dad leaves his past, I'm retrieving it. I'm reuniting with him in youth as he loses his memory. It’s a huge journey through the twentieth century with a front row seat in some shady areas of British history. Going through the end of spats, and war rooms, and he was a rule breaking maverick guys so he got himself into lots of trouble, and he was a brilliant dad and a terrible husband to my mum. But it's a very intimate, candid family portrait, that starts in the Irish War of Independence, and goes... just wherever I want really.
The book is filled with a lot of historical context, do you think it's quite important for people to like recognize those parts of history?
Keggie: Of course, I do, especially now. My God, you know how history repeats itself. My dad left a letter to his grandson, which I tweeted recently because it seemed very specific about what was going on with all the migration, and people’s feelings about foreigners. We need to remember stuff and it's easy to forget it, and we find ourselves in the same positions that we were 70 years ago, in some instances. I mean Germany in the '30s was a scary place, but they didn't quite know where their road was going, but we do now, and that's not isolated. There are lots and lots of horror stories.
I mean at the moment we've got climate change happening, and the world turning a blind eye to it. We're in the biggest mass extinction of other creatures, we don't want to know about that.
With my book is you can't skim it. It doesn't work if you skim it, you have to read it properly, and then the history makes sense, and it becomes fascinating. A lot of things are not my particular subject, but when I got into them and started researching it, it was absolutely gripping. Because it was filled with all these psychological games going on.
My dad at 24 jumped out an airplane in the middle of the war with two other guys and a radio. And behind enemy lines in Germany and had to live on his wits. That must have been amazing! Because they were reaching their potential. It must have been incredible, and then to come back to post war Britain with very conservative people, my dad wasn't a conservative person at all. To try and work his way through that after having survived and thrived in the jungle was pretty extraordinary.
The book is quite densely packed with information. Did it take quite a lot of work to put all that together?
Keggie: Yeah. I did. I almost went mad during it. I mean that, I'm not supposed to say things like that, because I'm supposed to encourage other people to do likewise. It was hard, but also brilliant. I loved the research side of it, and I got deep into the National Archives. I also liked the obscurity of it. So I was looking into some of the secret documents, and finding obscure books about the Burmese resistance, and the communists, but actually, that was interesting.
What I found incredibly difficult was going into my parents’ private letters and things like that. Those that died by the end of writing of book. My mum had died before I started it, and my step-mother. And I couldn't have written this book if they had been around, because I wanted it to be honest. It was hard looking at my parents’ happiness, and then knowing what happened, it was tough.
One of the things as a reader I found with me was what CS Lewis said, "You read to know that you are not alone." I wanted my book to work in that way so that other people that were in difficult family situations or complex ones could relate to it. I wanted it to be incredibly candid without being sentimental.
Throughout the book you juxtapose stories of your father in the past with more modern anecdotes. What do you think that demonstrates in the book?
Keggie: It was instinctive to structure it this way. It was the way I felt the story would work. Because I was breaking rules, I was doing chatty anecdotes amongst some serious history. I felt it reflected a kaleidoscopic way that we all think. That built a picture in the way that I experienced it, rather than in a biography format that I find tremendously boring. It was a way to cut through the boring bits. There were interesting parts of my dad’s life, and in our lives. I needed to stitch it together in the way I experienced it, and the way I reflect on it.
Do you think doing a lot of research you had done re-contextualized what you had thought before?
Keggie: Yes, definitely. I knew dad had done some amazing things because we had, from very early on, from child to youth, had colourful stories about how he'd outwitted somebody in some situation, but they were anecdotal. As a child, I didn't put the jigsaw together. But because dad was the way he was, we didn’t realize he was in such incredibly important positions in history.
We knew that he knew Mountbatten and we knew that he knew Aung San Suu Kyi’s father because he talked about when he was assassinated, it was a huge thing in my dad’s life when that happened, and just before Burma got their independence. Going back to the drop zone where he landed in France really brought it alive to me. I fell off my perch when I saw that he knew Patricia Highsmith, he never mentioned that. And he just lived in the present. He liked to tell stories that were funny, and made him look smart. No, not made him look smart, it was all about the stories to him. He was very Irish in his nature.
How have people responded to the book?
Keggie: Winning the Costa biography award has helped to get it out there. Some people think "oh, that's not my type of book, I won't bother with that." Or they think it's all about war. Then they read it, and go "Oh my goodness, it's all about family, and it’s all about relationship, and it's about war, and all these things." I've had some lovely feedback from people who have read it. That obviously makes me happy. That’s why we do it, it to communicate. I’ve been really pleased.
It's such a personal book, you don't know how it goes until people that don't know you read it. I've laid myself open and honest about stuff. You have to have a bit of a thick skin. Overwhelmingly nice things have been said to me about it. It took an awful lot of time to get it right. I wanted it candid, and I know it's dense, but I also wanted it spare, like about when my dad died. I didn’t want to start wallowing in anything, but I wanted to keep it universal and intimate at the same time. It took a while and I hope it's done it, I think it's done it.
In trying to keep it both universal and intimate, did you run into challenges trying to achieve that?
Keggie: Yeah! That's what the crux of writing is about. It’s about getting it down to its essential things, and whatever is not essential gets chopped out. I wanted my character in there, that's part of dad’s character as well, his character was the most important thing I wanted to get over. I was going through the experience firsthand. It wasn’t a biography about somebody I didn’t know. It was communicating to people I didn't know. It was hard, but it was worth it.
(The book is available to buy here)
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