Novel's Young Narrator Tells Family's Story

Author Matthew Kneale discusses his new book When We Were Romans, the story of a mother and her two young children who flee London to stay with friends in Rome. Kneale wrote the book from the point of view of a nine-year-old.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Nine-year-old Lawrence and his sister Jemima and mother Hannah don't come to Rome as tourists. They've escaped from London because his mother is worried that their estranged father may be stalking them and come down from Scotland to do them harm. So they pack up a few clothes, a few toys, Lawrence's hamster, and they drive to Rome where Lawrence's mother has some old friends and feels safe, for a while. "When We Were Romans" is the title of the new novel by Matthew Kneale, author of several novels including the best-selling "English Passengers." He joins us from the BBC Studios in Rome. Mr. Kneale, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MATTHEW KNEALE (Author, "When We Were Romans"): It's great to be here.

SIMON: How do you write like a nine-year-old?

Mr. KNEALE: I was very lucky. My parents, crazy though this sounds, actually hung on to various of my old schoolbooks from when I was that age. So I had a look at those, and that helped. I think it also helped that I first came to Rome, where I now live, at about that age. And it made a very strong impression on me. I really liked it. So I could sort of remember how I first saw the city.

SIMON: And why did you decide to write a novel in the voice of a nine-year-old? A novel, we should explain, if it wasn't plain, is obviously treats some very adult themes.

Mr. KNEALE: Yes. I think it was really quite an interesting approach to fiction to have something important, something dramatic, narrated by somebody who doesn't necessarily understand it very well. Because their view on it, somehow they're going to miss some of the points. And I think that will draw the reader into the story because they're more alert to what's going on in some ways than the narrator themself.

SIMON: To try and set the story a bit, the family goes in flight from London as we said, driving to Rome. And you become aware during that journey - which I must say in some sections is just kind of a fun old car trip, but at other sections, it's quite distressing. And young Lawrence really feels like he's the little man of the family. He says at one point as they're driving, we're like a secret army now. Nobody in these cars knows what we're doing.

Mr. KNEALE: Yes. No, I wanted very much that Lawrence shouldn't be a sort of cute child. I wanted him to be a character who's trying to control a situation which is, actually, as it proves, really beyond his control.

SIMON: Let me get you to read a section of this book so we can get an idea of Lawrence's narrative voice. The family hasn't been in Rome that long, and their mother is taking them around sightseeing.

(Soundbite of novel, "When We Were Romans")

Mr. KNEALE: (Reading) Mum said we would go to the Coliseum next. So I thought, oh, yes, hurrah! Because that was where they had lots of gladiator fights. But then Jemima got annoying. She said, I don't like this road with its old stones. They're slippery. She said, I'm staying here. I tried to help. I said, come on, Jemima. Stop being such a big fat lazy. But it didn't work. She made her biting face and shook her fist at me. Mom looked tired. She said, all right, lambkin(ph), I'll carry you. So I thought, oh good, that's all right then. But then the queue was really long. And when mum asked how much the ticket cost, she said it was better from the outside. She said, let's have an ice cream, instead. I was annoyed. I said, but I don't want an ice cream. I want to go in the Coliseum. But she got them anyway. Mine was strawberry. So we all sat on a wall. When I ate it, I felt a bit better actually. I didn't mind so much about the Coliseum after all.

SIMON: You know, there are some lovely scenes of particular wonderful moments of spontaneity and sharing between mother and son that I think is a treasure. Staying up all night on watch together. They're worried that the father is going to come in the middle of the night, so they stay up all night and watch television.

Mr. KNEALE: Yeah. I mean, that's one of the things I wanted to bring across, is that it's quite a tricky situation, or an alarming story. But at the same time, I wanted to bring across the fact that, actually, in some ways, they're having a great time, too. Children are very versatile. They can find, I think, happiness in places that maybe us older people couldn't really manage so.

SIMON: At some point, the mother of the family becomes worried and begins to see signs that perhaps her estranged husband is stalking the family, and she becomes quite fearful. And then at some point, you begin to wonder if the signs add up.

Mr. KNEALE: I think we get a - I hope people will get a sense that something is going on here which isn't quite right at all.

SIMON: The fulcrum of the story goes from the family's apprehension about the father finding them to the reader's concern that the mother might just be daft.

Mr. KNEALE: Yes. She's got some real problems. That was one of the things that interested me about the child's narrative point of view is that he is going to be drawn - he is really just going to see his mother as perfectly reliable and fantastic regardless of any evidence, regardless of what's going on.

SIMON: Yeah. And again without giving away any plot points, his mother does the right thing for the family in the end.

Mr. KNEALE: Yes. No, in fact, I felt, I wanted very much for her to be an admirable mother. She's only - all she's doing is trying to look after her children and protect them. The only villain, really, in this story is that she doesn't see the world as it is. People who've read the book sometimes are harder on the mother than I expected people would be.

SIMON: I don't want to press this too much, but are there some similarities between people who are paranoid and fiction writers?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KNEALE: Definitely. Yeah, definitely. I mean, the fact is, people who are paranoid, their real problem is they're thinking most of their days about things that aren't necessarily there. And that's exactly what fiction writers have to do to make a living. The only difference is that fiction writers, one hopes, are slightly better at tuning out occasionally from what they're thinking about that isn't there.

SIMON: Your mother, I have read, wrote the - and I hope I pronounce this correctly - the Mog, the cat books.

Mr. KNEALE: That's right, yeah.

SIMON: I love those books.

Mr. KNEALE: Right.

SIMON: With a big orange cat. We read the books to our children.

Mr. KNEALE: They're great.

SIMON: They're classics in Britain.

Mr. KNEALE: Yes.

SIMON: You, in a sense, grew up with a mother that was accustomed to inhabiting the minds and even the voices of children.

Mr. KNEALE: Yes. In fact, she wrote three autobiographical novels, and the first of which is about her childhood. She was born in Germany in the '20s. Her parents were Jewish, and she left in 1933. So, that was her story. In fact, my father wrote as well. He wrote screenplays. So, my grandfathers both wrote. So I think, in a way, I was doomed.

SIMON: Mr. Kneale, thanks so much.

Mr. KNEALE: That was great. I really enjoyed it.

SIMON: Matthew Kneale. His new novel is "When We Were Romans."

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: OK. We get the idea. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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