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The Big Lie

Julie Mayhew

In The Big Lie, author Julie Mayhew explores how different our lives might have been today if the Nazis had won World War Two. In this world, the government can decide what career you should have; who you can be friends with; even if you can have a baby.

Jessika Keller, a 'good girl', is friends with rebellious Clementine who encourages her to question everything she takes for granted. When Clem stages a final and dramatic act of rebellion, Jessika's life takes a different turn which truly opens her eyes to the lie she has been living.

We asked author JULIE MAYHEW to tell us more about THE BIG LIE.

Q: You trained in acting and journalism. How did you move into writing novels?

A: I did my degree in journalism because I knew I wanted to write but I come from a family where it was important to get a 'proper' job so journalism was something I could do for a living. I wanted to be a football journalist but when I did my degree I realised that wasn't what I wanted to do; I was writing magical essays rather than the who, what, where and when of journalism, so it was a hint that I was in the wrong place.

I got involved with students on the script writing course while I was at university and starting acting in their scripts. This led to an acting career but I realised I still wasn't getting what I wanted mostly because of the terrible scripts available to me as a woman; your characters often didn't even get a name, you were just the wife or the girlfriend, and invariably there was nudity and it would end up with you being attacked or dead by the end of act one. I also found that the women in these plays weren't funny, they were nags, so I started writing my own funny plays with a friend. When I began listening to Radio 4 I thought I'd try to write a play for radio. Now I write afternoon dramas for Radio 4.

I went to lots of writing courses and workshops at festivals so I kind of built my own MA in creative writing and during this a story started to emerge, which became Red Ink. I wrote Red Ink as a book for adults; it was my agent who thought it was for teenagers while I thought it was too shocking for that age group. So I came to write for teenagers by not writing for them. I am very interested in that period in one's life because that's when you can change your views so dramatically.

I also think The Big Lie is the kind of book I'd have wanted to read at that age so I'm writing the books that were missing when I finished with Sweet Valley High and Judy Bloom. At that age I wanted to know what the adults were up to, what relationships were really like, what they say to each other, but I didn't want very adult books so I'm writing books that give young people a peek behind the curtains.

Q: The book begins with Jessika describing an incident at a pop concert that happens much later in the story. Why did you decide to be begin the book at this point?

A: I start all my books with the voice of the main character and both Red Ink and The Big Lie are written in the first person. I think that comes from my acting background, I like characters I can talk through. Writing through Jessika's voice about this incident gave me the first three chapters of The Big Lie. From this point, the story leads up to what happens during the pop concert at Trafalgar Square.

I decided to focus on a pop event because I'd been really interested in what had happened when certain bands or singers headed up foreign events, like Madonna in Russia or artists performing behind the Wall. I wondered how they handled it in those countries? I also found that having a pop band in the story was quite useful for this book because it showed the adoration that young girls have for pop stars which would have been at the same level of adoration for Hitler at the time.

I also started to wonder, if this was happening now, who would rebel and who wouldn't? You like to think you would be brave but if you wanted to keep your family safe, in all probability you'd keep your head down and not try to attract attention.

Q: What made you decide to take your inspiration from history for this novel?

A: The idea for the story actually came from my seven year old son who asked, what if the Nazis had won the war? Well, everything could have happened and when I looked into it I realised that no one had written a book with this alternate history for young adult readers.

This was the second book I've written and it was the quickest book I have ever written; I started writing it in September 2013 and finished it six months later in April 2014.

I wrote it while I was writing another book, a huge, sprawling and dark Russian epic, set in the Caucasus which is quite an adult book that is set in a real world that I had to get to know, and maybe The Big Lie was a response to this because it was fast-paced and immediate.

Q: How much research did you need to do into this period?

A: I did lots of reading before I started writing it, books like Anne Frank's Diary, and I found out more about historical events like the Battle of Britain because I needed to know where were the chinks in our armour; how and where could the Germans have defeated us? I visited the Wiener Library which had a lot of magazines and books from the time which I featured and they often helped to spark ideas. I didn't want to write a history book though, I wanted to write something that is also about now.

Sometimes doing a lot of research can hold you back but in this case helped drive the book forward. I had watched a documentary about the girls and boys in Hitler's Youth which included some people talking about being involved in those groups. They talked about how their childhood was wonderful, they went camping and built things; it gave them a massive sense of purpose. They would later learn that they were involved in something quite sinister although they didn't realise that at the time. You do feel sympathy for them, that their childhood is so clouded with this realisation. As a child, what your parents tell you is true and if you then as a teenager realise that you've been conditioned to believe in something that is bad, then it's quite awful.

I found that I wanted to explore how the things in your past can come back to haunt you. I was fascinated about being in denial and how you make up different stories for others to make your life okay. Jessika talks in the past tense because of that sense of people having to justify what they did, to make it okay for other people, and themselves, to hear. In the book Jessica is explaining, justifying herself.

Q: You unveil the world that Jessika lives in bit by bit until we come to realise its full horror. Was that a difficult process to get right?

A: There was a lot of healthy push and pull between me and my editor about what to show and how much to tell; I was reminded that I still needed to explain it while I wanted people to feel a little like they didn't quite know what was going on, which is how Jessika feels. My natural inclination was to not give away a lot at all.

I wanted to make it feel very normal when Jessika talks about her world because sometimes when you're reading books that have a lot of history in them or they are set in different worlds, you can hear when the writer is trying to propel you in that direction, but if it's normal to you, you don't feel the need to point it out. Jessika doesn't feel the need to point out that if women aren't seen as good 'breeders' they don't get to have a baby, so I'm trying to make the world feel normal and to almost condition the reader that it feels normal, just as the regime has done to Jessica.

Q: How women are treated is a big part of The Big Lie, for example, the way authorities control who can and cannot have a child. Do you feel that the way women are treated by society today is still problematic?

A: The way that the Nazis treated women and their bodies was awful. But today we subtly control women and how they look; we put them on the covers of magazines and circle their fat bits. How we treat women and their bodies is also awful, just in a different way.

We also have this embedded 'lad' culture. I remember feeling it when I was younger and finding myself correcting very subtle things in society, when people say things like, 'that's such a girl film' when there's no such thing. Why does there seem to be a shame in something being more targeted at a girl? Why is 'such a girl' a derogatory term? It's the subtle day to day things in the book that are interesting to explore because that's what happens and we do it ourselves.

I also wanted people to think about whether they speak out about things. I know I was scared to do that as a teenager, it's not a confident age to be. Yet earlier this year we had Mhairi Black, a 20 year old politician, standing up and making everyone think. I felt horribly guilty that I hadn't stood up in the same way but we all have the ability to vote and engage that way; the world might be a better place if we all acted and engaged.

Q: In the story Jessika dips into relationships with women - which gets her into trouble with the regime - as well as with men. Do you deliberately avoid giving her an all-consuming relationship?

A: Jessika's sexuality is quite fluid in the story and I think it was in response to how many books have characters who are totally in love and their relationships are never just fun. These relationships are always deep and meaningful but I wanted to have a relationship that was fun as well as passionate. I don't really define Jessika's sexuality, it's fluid, and there's a difference between sex and love. Jessika has sex with one character but has love for Clementine.

Q: Jessika is a keen ice skater - has that sport also been part of your life?

A: I started ice-skating quite late in life, I couldn't have skating lessons as a child but always thought it would be a wonderful thing to do. I skated with my sons for fun when they were little and I started to really enjoy it and was naturally okay at it; my husband and I are quite sporty and he beats me at everything except ice skating.

When Jessika needed a skill I thought ice-skating would work for her because it is quite a solitary sport. I've also just written a short film about ice skating and how adults often return to it late in life. It can be quite a dangerous sport, so people are living safely but challenge themselves on the ice.

Q: Is sport your escape when you're not writing?

A: At the moment I'm enjoying gardening. I'm hopeless at it, I seem to kill lots of things and I have no idea how to stop the bugs. But I like that you can't look at your phone while you're gardening, which is wonderful because sometimes you feel stuck to your mobile.

I'm nostalgic about the time before we started to text, when talking on the phone was the way to communicate, and in my stories I have to remove mobile 'phones; for the drama to happen, people need to meet and interact. I feel I was privileged to grow up at a time when I could do my degree without the internet!

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