Discovery of Great War soldier’s diary leads to new idea – Swansea Bay News
An acclaimed Swansea author known for his ‘scary’ content has been inspired from beyond the grave to write his new novel.
Rebecca F John, who saw her first novel, The Haunting of Henry Twistshortlisted for a Costa First Novel Award in 2017, has her great-great-uncle to thank for inspiring The Empty Greatcoat.
Set during World War I, the muse arrived in the form of a diary, written by his late ancestor, Francis House, detailing his military service, including his involvement in the bloody Gallipoli campaign.
Explaining how she came into possession of the unique handwriting, Rebecca said: “The diary was written shortly after the war, and I became aware of it as a teenager when my aunt found it among a tattoo load in the attic.
“My family aren’t big readers, but I immediately wanted to pick it up and devour it. I have read and reread it.
“It is a handwritten diary of about 10,000 words in total, which traces his time in the army at age 15, in 1907, until he was sent home just before the end of the war, with pleurisy, meets a woman, marries and has a son. This is the end of his journey.
Rebecca, who grew up in Pwll, near Llanelli, and is now based in Swansea, stayed true to the diary’s narrative with a few embellishments to keep the plot of the novel flowing smoothly.
She said: “Essentially the novel is the story of what happened to him, it’s almost true.
“It takes place almost entirely on Anzac Cove and begins with Francis having followed his friend, Berto, to Gallipoli because he has wronged him and wants to apologize to him. This is the pretext that he is leaving Malta, where he is doing his training – the army wanted Francis to stay in a training role, but he insisted on playing an active role.
“From there it’s about the fights and what’s going on with him internally. He’s trying to find his way to manhood. He is very young, 23 years old.
The diary offers fascinating insight into the dangers of life on the front lines.
An excerpt describes his first night in the fox hole that took him weeks to dig.
It took weeks to complete my shelter. The first night I slept in it, I woke up thinking someone had touched me. Having no correspondence and not receiving an answer, I went back to sleep. In the morning, when I got up, I found a Turkish ball next to me under the blanket. A search found that he penetrated my blanket and touched me.
Like so many soldiers, Francis hesitated to write about the true horrors of war.
Rebecca said: ‘I had this story, which Francis had obviously written, but as I saw it with old neighbors of mine, who had fought in World War II, they talked about it to a point, then touched on what we would consider the important parts.
“That’s what Francis does, he goes to this point where he talks about landing on Gallipoli beach, and going through the shallows, and then he gives you a rushed page of everything there happens, and then it’s on to the next thing.
“I know he was really dosed with opium because of the pleurisy, which allowed me to introduce the speculative element. How confused would he be? How much would he be living in his own mind at that time?
This provided Rebecca with the perfect opportunity to use her skills.
“I would describe my writing as historical and speculative, and chilling to some degree. I always find myself writing on the edge of reality, that place where our real, outer, physical life meets our imaginary life.
It’s obvious that Francis wrote the diary for his son, and it was this thirst for audiences that struck a chord with his great-great-grandniece, Rebecca.
She said: “There’s a point, about halfway through, where he casually writes, ‘I trust my reader to believe.
“It made me want to tell his story, because this newspaper had been left without readers and he obviously wanted it to be read. I thought, ‘maybe I can provide that for him.’ It was then that I realized that I had found the basis for my next novel.
In accordance with the unexplained, Rebecca, despite her undoubted research skills, was unable to uncover anything about Francis and his son that was not mentioned in the diary.
She said: “I don’t know anything beyond the point at the end where he says, ‘I am now the father of a beautiful son, Michael Francis, who I hope, after hearing how his father tried, will say ‘I, too, will try’ and in so doing will gain a just reward in success and happiness.’
“That’s how he signs the diary – and I couldn’t find any sign of his son or what happened to them afterwards.
“I thought I could trace them through censuses, but I couldn’t find anything at all, which in some ways is probably a good thing because I wasn’t imposing reality at the end of the novel.
“They were all so far away from me – Francis was born in the 1890s – so everyone is long gone. All I have is a few photos and some birth certificates, I don’t have to do anything else.
“My great-grandmother Lily, who was Francis’ sister, was English and she moved to Swansea. The fact that the diary must have been in his possession before it ended up in my possession makes me suspect that there was no one left on Francis’ side of the family.
There was a certain pressure and responsibility to tell such a personal story correctly, as Rebecca admits.
“I really messed up writing this novel a few times – I tried to write it in different ways. Initially, I put it on for decades and tried to get everyone involved in it. family, but it didn’t work. I tried a few things, but I don’t usually write that way. I usually have my structure set.
“It was the pressure – wanting to do a good job for the sake of someone who’s actually been through it. I say in a note at the end of the novel that I hope I’ve done it justice. I hope that he will be happy.”
When it comes to publishing, the Swansea University MA creative writing graduate could have relied on her growing literary reputation – stories from her debut collection of short stories, Clown shoeswon the Pen International New Voices Award and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award – for finding a major publisher, but she chose a different route for this particular novel and published it through her own publishing house. newly created independent publisher, Aderyn Press.
The 35-year-old said: ‘I could have tried to sell it but as it’s really personal I thought it was a good article to publish in my own publishing house.
“There are a lot of talented writers and great books out there that just don’t fit the big publishing mold. For me, they needed a place to go. That’s why I created Aderyn.
“I already have four books lined up without even opening submissions. I couldn’t because there were so many manuscripts to read only from people I’ve been in contact with over the years through of writing events, festivals, and social media. And they’re all absolutely awesome. I’m honored that they’re willing to tell me their stories.
The Empty Greatcoat (Published by Aderyn Press) is now available.