The Making of a Novel – Under the Almond Tree

When I came into this world and my parents were trying to decide on a name for their first-born, I almost ended up being called Lara, rather than Laura, thanks to Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago being popular in our house at the time. As a child I remember watching the film many times and being entranced by the train and the landscapes as it tracked across the Siberian plains in the deep snow. I was a keen reader from a very early age and by the time I was twelve I could be found engrossed in reading War and Peace or Anna Karenina – these worlds that Tolstoy created drawing me in.

There are some who say that the Russian soul is similar to the Irish soul. Perhaps this is true. There are many writers whose work I admire, but I find myself coming back, time and again, to Tolstoy who captures the very heart of his characters and who speaks so widely of our world.

Growing up in Northern Ireland during the 1980s and 90s, as a child and teenager I was affected deeply by the political and religious divisions in my home country, and I looked outward early on. Reading was an escape, as was learning other languages, travelling, discovering other cultures and connecting with people from backgrounds different to my own. I have always been interested in how conflict shapes lives, in the resilience of the human spirit and the ways in which books can be a bridge to connect us, how they can build understanding and strengthen empathy – enabling us to look at life from perspectives different to our own.

I wrote on and off over the years, mainly short stories and plays, but I also found fulfilling work – working for youth and human rights charities, often in an international context, connecting to and learning about the wider world. I became particularly interested in girl’s education and the difference education makes – eventually working as Global Girls Fund Director, supporting 10 million girls and young women around the world.

But the writing kept calling me back. In 2008, I spent two weeks travelling by train East to West with my then boyfriend, now husband. We would waken in the mornings to new landscapes rolling by outside and I was struck by the history we were passing through, and the idea of the train tracking back and forth – that East and West were not separate, polarised entities as we tend to think, but rather all one continuous land surface which borders, peoples and ideologies have criss-crossed over the centuries. This became something I wanted to explore. Writing about Afghanistan therefore enabled me not just to write about what it would have been like as a young girl to lose a route through to education and freedoms, but to also write both about the Soviet legacy in the region, and to examine the fall of one ideology and its replacement by another – the communist influence being replaced by the Taliban. In the novel, Napoleon, the Keeper of the Samovar and travel companion to the storytelling narrator Samar (her name evocative, meaning ‘evening conversations’ like those shared on the train), has his own stories too to share – and this conversation back and forth between the two characters is important in the telling of the wider story.

Travels in Central Asia brought me back to Doctor Zhivago and Tolstoy – the Russian influence and history evident everywhere in language, architecture, even road signs, and gradually I began to see a way through to exploring the ideas I had been gathering up.

Many things inspire a story – sometimes an image, an idea, an emotion, a place, different people, pieces of music, art, a news headline, a book – but all those disparate threads come together in an alchemy of the story’s own making and give life to the unique world of the novel. In the end a writer will be drawn to explore the issues that most interest and concern them at a particular point in time – and so it was with Under the Almond Tree.

Over the years I have also met inspirational people from many different countries – including those who have left behind their home countries – sometimes through choice, often because they had no choice. I have chaired events on conflict and refugee stories from around the world, and I have read accounts and other novels also exploring these same issues. I have talked with many people, and tried to understand what these experiences must be like.

If you look at the numbers the stories become overwhelming – over 21 million people worldwide are refugees – many of them children, over 65 million people are displaced worldwide according to UNHCR estimates. Places like Afghanistan are being forgotten about – we have moved on to other crises. We are becoming resistant to the suffering of others. We are failing to learn from the past. I wanted to challenge that resistance in this story.

What has always impressed me most is the resilience of the human spirit to overcome loss – the ability to begin over, to hold on to hope and love in the face of terrible suffering. That resilience is something I have witnessed in others in my own travels, and it is what I wanted to capture in this novel.

While I know no one who has undergone all of the experiences that the storyteller of the novel survives, I do know that these things happen in our world and we should speak of them, and that it is through the particular fictions of a novel that we can sometimes glimpse universal truths. Hannah Arendt said that it is only by writing of our world, speaking of it that we can humanise it, understand it. I believe that to be true. So for me, while this is may be a story of the past, it is also a story of the present, and of the power of the imagination to sustain us. It is a universal story about how conflict shapes lives and the ways in which the human spirit responds to such crises. This to me, now as much as ever, feels important and worth writing and reading about.