BARBARA Lamplugh was approaching her 50s and years deep into the world of journalism and travel writing when she decided to move to Granada with her mind set on one thing: writing a novel.
The result was her debut work of fiction, Secrets of the Pomegranate—a love letter to the city that gave Lamplugh the freedom to write from a sun-soaked terrace and resulted in an unflinching story of two sisters in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings. Lamplugh spoke with The Olive Press about her novel, first published in 2015, as well as her own experience since moving to Spain in 1999.
Your novel is both a family drama and a story about Spain – its history, language, culture. What made you want to combine the two?
I’d already written a kind of memoir about my own experience of moving to Granada. Publishers and agents had praised my writing but pointed out that it was an overcrowded market. Some wanted me to poke fun at the ‘locals’, which I refused to do. So I decided instead to incorporate some of what I’d learnt about life in Spain and in particular Granada into a novel. I realised how different the reality was from the impression given in tourist guides and the impression tourists often do take away with them when they merely visit the city. I wanted to convey the undercurrents of racism and sexism, for example, and the divisive politics, but also some of the positive factors: the warmth of the people, the magic of hidden places rarely discovered by casual visitors (this may no longer apply with so much information available on the Internet and social media). I needed to find a plot, a story, as the vehicle to convey this background.
How did you get the idea to write this book?
It took more than one attempt at a plot but in the end I hit on the idea of two sisters as the main protagonists – Deborah who has lived for many years in Granada and is intimately involved in its life and culture, and her sister Alice, firmly grounded in England with no understanding of Spain. The novel opens with the March 2004 terrorist attack on trains in Madrid, in which Deborah is caught up. When a tragic event, whether a natural disaster, an accident or a violent act like this one happens and many people are killed or injured, I’m always struck by the randomness of who falls victim. Life is so precarious, sometimes dependent on minute decisions or pure chance, as when Deborah and her friend catch the fated train by the skin of their teeth. Everything that happens has consequences and in my story, there are unforeseen consequences for Alice, who fears that a long-held secret will be exposed, with life-changing consequences for her. Deborah’s relationship with Hassan, a Moroccan, enabled me to explore the difficulties and potential misunderstandings in cross-cultural relationships as well as the attitudes of others towards them. I wasn’t suggesting that racism is exclusive to Spain (or Granada); Alice is also swayed by strong preconceptions and prejudices that she is forced to challenge. Another thread is Deborah’s research about the role of women in Moorish times and misconceptions about the treatment of women in Islam.
Why did you choose Granada, instead of say Madrid, as the setting for your novel?
Granada was the city I knew, it had been my adopted home for nearly fifteen years (at that time). I could write about it authentically with an insider’s knowledge. Also, I felt that Granada’s history (as the last place in Spain to fall to the Christians) had a particular impact on people’s attitudes towards Arabs, a lingering racism that I encountered even in some educated people.
Was your experience in coming to Granada very similar to Deborah’s? Why make your book a novel and not a memoir?
I drew on my own experience of coming to Granada as background but Deborah’s story is not my own. She came much earlier than me and with her young son, whereas I came alone. Our personalities are completely different. Nor did I have a Moroccan lover, no Hassan in my life! Sadly, no Paco either. Secrets of the Pomegranate is a novel, not a memoir.
How did you create such poignant characters?
I’m glad you found them poignant. Like most authors, I create characters from my knowledge and experience of human nature. I’ve lived for quite a long time (!) and been privileged to have people share intimate aspects of their lives with me, including when I worked as a counsellor. All this has helped develop my empathy.
Are there any characters from the novel that specifically reflect people in your life? That is, is Hassan real?
None of the characters is based on a real person in my life though I’ve drawn on certain aspects of real people I’ve met, for example, some of the people who lived in the caves above my house in Sacromonte, where Deborah’s son Mark lives. I would never use real people directly. Hassan is entirely fictional.
Why intersperse the book with diary entries?
Deborah is the central character and she’s in a coma when the book opens, having been seriously injured in the train bombing in Madrid. In order to represent her point of view, to give her a voice, and also to give a focus to Alice’s fears of discovery of their secret, a diary seemed the best means. Deborah is the kind of person who would write a diary and it enabled me to tell her story from when she first arrived in Granada in 1985.
Sex seems to be both a source of power as well as a source of confusion for Deborah. You’re very up-front when it comes to sex in your novel. Did you find that difficult to write?
Sex is always difficult to write well. I’d hate to be nominated for the Bad Sex Awards! I think in general, when writing about sex, less is more. However, Deborah is a sensual person and sex is an important part of her life. It would have been strange for her not to write about it in something as intimate as a diary. Mark’s sexual encounters are lighter in tone. I think they help bring him alive and also add humour.
Deborah’s story seems relatable—universal—in many ways. Was there any part of you that wanted to bring her back from the coma?
I must admit, I was sad to kill her off, but it had to be done. In fact, I’m always sad when it’s time to say goodbye to my characters after months or years of living with them every day.
To find out more about Lamplugh and her writing, please visit www.barbaralamplugh.com
Writing in Spain: How author Barbara Lamplugh left behind the UK to find success as a novelist