On Tuesday August 4th 1914, the citizens of Belgium read the news that most had been dreading. “Germany violates the neutrality of Belgium . . . Belgium will defend itself by all means,” ran the headline in Le Soir, the country’s main French language daily.
The country of 7.5 million people played a pivotal role, not just as the main theatre of war during the battle for the Western Front, but as one of the main catalysts for the outbreak of the first World War.
In the weeks following the Sarajevo assassination, the issue of Belgian neutrality hung over events as the main European powers formulated their response to the unfolding crisis.
Britain had been committed to protecting Belgian neutrality since 1839. The Treaty of London recognised Belgium, which had declared its independence from the Dutch in 1830, as an “independent and neutral” state.
The treaty, and subsequent pacts, committed Britain to protecting Belgian neutrality if its sovereignty was violated.
Positioned between the English channel and Germany, Belgium was strategically important for Britain. But Germany’s intention to launch a Western offensive through Belgium as outlined in the so-called Schiefflen plan, formulated by the German military chief general Schiefflen in 1905, pushed the issue of Belgian neutrality directly onto the political agenda in the weeks following the assassination. If Germany was to declare war, Belgium was first in line.
The question of how far Britain was committed to Belgium – and indeed France – preoccupied Westminster in the run-up to war, with the Cabinet divided over what a “substantial violation” entailed.
In Belgium, as throughout Europe, newspapers were filled with news of the impending war, the government well aware of Belgium’s vulnerability. Throughout the 19th century, the constitutional monarchy had become a prosperous, industrial nation, helped in part by the burgeoning empire in the Congo established by King Leopold II. But while it was advanced economically with a sophisticated armaments industry, its military capacity was well below the relative levels of the other European powers, a reasonable reflection, perhaps, of its status as a neutral country.
Belgium passed legislation in 1913 designed to double its mobilised strength from 180,000 to 340,000, but conscription was limited to a 15-month term and the army was woefully unprepared in comparison to neighbouring powers, a reality of which countries on both sides of the war were well aware in the run-up to war.
On July 24th , the day after Austria-Hungary presented an ultimatum to Serbia, the Belgian government announced that, should war take place, it would maintain and uphold its neutrality. King Albert I, who was also commander in chief of the Belgian army, mobilised the Belgian forces.
On August 2nd 1914, Germany issued an ultimatum to Belgium. It requested Belgium to allow German troops to enter its territory, on the pretext that France was about to invade Belgium.
Within 12 hours Brussels had replied: “The attack upon [Belgium’s] independence with which the German Government threatens her constitutes a flagrant violation of international law. No strategic interest justifies such a violation of law. The Belgian Government, if they were to accept the proposals submitted to them, would sacrifice the honour of the nation and betray their duty towards Europe [. . .]The Belgian Government are firmly resolved to repel, by all the means in their power, every attack upon their rights.”
Albert immediately appealed to the three “Triple Entente” powers to honour their commitments to Belgian independence. On August 4th, as German troops moved across the border, Britain officially declared war on Germany.
The conquest and occupation of Belgium proceeded swiftly. The first key battle ground was the town of Liège, just 50km from the German border. The battle began on August 5th with the German army bombarding the heavily-fortressed town, using heavy artillery. The siege lasted until August 18th, much longer than the Germans had anticipated.
Namur, the next major town along the river Meuse in southern Belgium, was next to come under attack. The Belgian troops were ordered to withdraw to the heavily fortified port city of Antwerp, where the Belgian government and king had based themselves.
Brussels fell on August 20th as the Belgian troops moved westwards towards the so-called “national redoubt” at Antwerp, a reference to the ring of forts encircling the city. From there the Belgian troops launched various “sorties”, but by November most of the country had been occupied and German focus had switched to the Allied battles along the Western front.
In parallel to the military occupation of Belgium in the first weeks of the war, the widespread killing of civilians occurred, a development that had a hugely significant impact on the Allied response to the war in its early days. Almost immediately reports emanated from Belgium of random, gratuitous killings of civilians, causing outrage in Britain where it helped to galvanise support for the war, and more significantly in the US where it provided an important moral justification for US intervention later in the war.
Posters and advertisements depicting heroic Belgium were used as powerful tools of enlistment and of propaganda. The so-called “Rape of Belgium” became a contentious subject after the war, with Germany denying claims of widespread killing. But Belgian civilians were undoubtedly subject to appalling suffering.
The burning of the town of Dinant and the gruesome murder of 674 civilians on August 23rd , allegedly in an act of reprisal, is still deeply ingrained in the Belgian collective memory, 100 years after the war.
Whatever the truth of those early weeks of the war, the occupation of Belgium became one of the main justifications for Allied involvement in the war, but tensions remained between the Belgian and allied forces. The country’s suspicion that France and Britain had delayed sending support to Belgium during the first month of the war persisted, though arguably the courageous defence of Liège by Albert’s troops delayed the German advance, and possibly prevented Paris from falling to the Germans.
But for most Belgians – millions of whom fled the country during the war – the abiding memory of their country’s involvement in the war would be the appalling bloodshed that took place in the fields and trenches of Flanders.
Tom, what made you want to work with Hannah?
Hannah understood what I was trying to do in the stories, and she was frank and clear about how she wanted to publish them. We share a lot of the same ideas about publishing – that the writing has to speak itself; that hype for hype sake is not just pointless, but also off-putting; but, at the same time, you still need to put the book out there with confidence and brio. It was clear that the stories – and my writing – meant something to her, and that she wasn’t just taking a punt on them in the hope that one day I would write a bestselling novel. I knew she wasn’t going to let this book get buried.
Our phone call was actually quite short compared to the ones I had with other editors. Hannah was energetic and to the point. I liked that she was passionate in her praise, but that she also felt that more work needed to be done. I felt I had taken the stories as far as I could on my own, and I needed to be pushed. She rightly said that the collection needed one more story.
Writing aside, I just felt that we could work together. She just gets “it” – whatever “it” is, and she’s sensitive to the nuance in things. And I can’t underestimate the opinion of Tracy Bohan, my agent. She held Hannah in high regard, and she felt that we’d work well together. As a debut writer, there’s a bit of blind trusting going on – you’re trusting an agent, and an editor is trusting the agent’s judgements of you, and we’re all trusting that we’re all going to deliver on what we’ve said we’ll deliver. In this instance, I think it worked out well.
Hannah, you wrote eloquently about why you wanted to publish Tom’s collection, why you wanted him on your list. You said the two of you had a funny conversation on the phone – how did you convince Tom that Faber was the publisher for him?
When Tom submitted the stories he also submitted a few sentences on what he wanted to write next. At that stage, the idea was to write a novel about a substitute goalkeeper. I wanted to speak to Tom on the phone to let him know that I don’t know anything about football and that, if this mattered to him, I wouldn’t be the right person to take on his work. I was struck by his very thick Welsh accent, far more pronounced than my own. He made me laugh and we clicked easily and he said he didn’t mind at all if I didn’t know the difference between a striker and a midfielder, that it wouldn’t be that sort of novel. I think we had an instant connection, two people from south Wales, living in self-imposed exile.
Tom, did you set out with the express purpose of building a collection of stories?
Not really, no. In my mid-20s, I spent three years writing a novel and it was pretty crap. It was lifeless and timid, and it suffered from my not having a proper concentrated blast with it. So after finishing the novel, I felt I needed to give my writing more time and focus, and I applied to do the MA at UEA [University of East Anglia].
There are a lot of myths around “studying creative writing”, but my main motivation was to have a year in which I allowed myself the permission to write, a year where I would apply real pressure to the writing. Short stories are my first love, and once I got on the MA, I made it my ambition to just try and write as good a short story as possible.
And once I began to set my work in Caerphilly, my writing seemed to improve. The characters suddenly had things to do, places to go, a real world to inhabit. The aforementioned crap novel had actually been set in the town, but I had been afraid to commit to a sense of place. I think it was a youthful fear of doing something well-worn: writing about the place you’re from. But I got a bit older, and I just loosened up. Once I’d written four or five stories set in Caerphilly, I thought I might have the makings of a collection.
But it was only when the stories were almost finished that I started thinking about the ways in which they’d actually cohere. I wanted variation in tone and character and point of view. As regards the town, I spent a lot of time thinking about the ordering of the stories – the best ways to reveal Caerphilly, which jigsaw piece to put down first. As I say, point of view was important to me – I wanted the characters to interact within the same spaces as each other, but to perceive those spaces differently – because of their circumstances, state of mind or just their own personality. This wasn’t the expressed intention when I was writing the stories, but when I was tidying the collection up, pulling it together, the issue of modulating perspective became a project in and of itself.
Hannah, you’ve said it really is true that it’s difficult for a collection of short stories to make an impact – that short stories are always a harder sell than, say, a novel. Besides getting your colleagues to read the work, what did you do to convince them that publishing Tom’s collection was a good idea?
I didn’t have to work very hard to convince my colleagues. I shared first with another editor, Lee, who texted me that evening and said that he thought Tom was a rare talent. He agreed we should go for it. Then I sent it to the other departments and found that lots of people shared my enthusiasm. There wasn’t much discussion around the challenges of publishing a single story collection. I think they were excited about such an original new voice. We have many established great literary writers at Faber. The challenge – and perhaps the most thrilling part of the job – is to find the next generation of great writers.
Tom, I get the feeling from what Hannah has said that the stories were extremely polished before they were submitted to publishers. Did you have any early readers or informal editors?
There are a couple of people with whom I exchanged early drafts, and then a few others who I sent later drafts to. When I find someone whose own writing I admire and whose sensibilities are similar to mine, I do all I can to start sharing work with them. (Lisa Owens, who I met at UEA, read and critiqued every story in the collection; her own novel [Not Working, Picador] comes out in April and it’s brilliant.) A big part of sending writing to these friends is that it forces me to be critical of the work down to the very last millimetre. I might think I can get away with something, but as soon as I hit “send”, I’ll know what my friends are going to pick up on – there’s really no place to hide. And as soon as I do send the file off, I can begin editing it again, begin another draft.
But that’s not to diminish the very solid and practical feedback I receive. With some friends, we’ll literally exchange track-change edits, or send a thousand-word email to each other; we meet in person and we discuss the writing – and I gain an awful lot from critiquing their work, too. But there’s something about acknowledging “the reader” which gives me an extra kick to go back to the areas that I know aren’t fully working.
And to go back to the MA for a moment: the level/intensity of feedback I got from my group and tutors was really important. Donald Barthelme once wrote that no one needs to study creative writing, but that the workshop environment can treble your speed of progress – and I really felt that.
Hannah, is there a difference in editing and publishing a debut writer as opposed to a writer more established?
There’s nothing more fun than publishing a debut. Everything from the acquisition onwards is charged with a sense of optimism and possibility. There seem to be far greater opportunities in the media for a first-time writer, and the trade are always ready to hear about a book that might be the next big thing.
Tom, all of the stories in the collection (except, of course, All the Boys, which takes the body of Caerphilly to Temple Bar) are set in Caerphilly. Were you ever worried that the work was too geographically particular to find a publisher? Are there stories that aren’t set in Caerphilly that didn’t make their way into the collection? Or did you ever try any of them anywhere else?
The thought that they’d be too geographically particular never crossed my mind. While the setting is important to the collection, I felt that the stories had to stand for themselves, and that each was “about” more than the setting. I think living in Ireland had made me confident in the idea that you can set your fiction in a small place and – so long as the writing is strong – the work will have a resonance with readers from beyond the town or country. The MA was also reassuring: in my group there were writers from South Africa, Colombia, Brazil, the States, Scotland, England and Ireland, and none of them (to my face at least) expressed any concerns about it being too particular.
As for setting them elsewhere: no, never. I was more inclined to writing stories without explicit settings (or rather, internal domestic settings: a kitchen, a living room) than set them in a different place. I have to know a fair bit about somewhere in order to write about it. This is especially true when it comes to speech and dialogue; it just doesn’t seem authentic otherwise.
Hannah, as you know, Tom is currently the editor of one of Ireland’s most exciting literary magazines – the Stinging Fly. Did his experience have an impact on the editorial process (ie was he better at receiving notes, sticking to deadlines)? And how did you usually approach your edits? A long letter? A lunch?
Tom brings a lot of awareness about how the industry works to the process, which has been mostly useful. He also knows the value of notes, having given so many to emerging writers via Stinging Fly. He was responsive to my comments. We did the edit in person in my office, I think, probably followed by a drink.
Further down the line, his experience of how things work, particularly in Dublin where the book has found many readers, proved very helpful. And he really knows how to organise a great launch party!
Tom, can you tell us how editing the Stinging Fly affects the way you look at your own work? Do you think you go harder on yourself because of it? (Or maybe you find looking at other people’s work reassuring?!) Were there big or surprising differences between the way Faber works and the Stinging Fly?
I was made editor of the Stinging Fly in early 2014, by which point I’d already written the book. But I had been working with the magazine for a few years before, so I was certainly bringing that experience to bear on my own writing. When I was assistant editor I was reading submissions – and that’s such a privileged position. I’ve said before that it’s like tapping into a collective unconsciousness – you see the same concerns and the same stories coming up again and again in different ways. But you also see the recurring tropes and the recurring cliches and the recurring mistakes. As a writer that can be encouraging and discouraging – you see that certain stories really do have a resonance, but you also see the typical trajectories that most stories take and sometimes you realise that your work isn’t as unique and original as you’d confidently hoped.
With Faber, the lead-in time to publishing was longer – they needed the book in a finished form a lot sooner than we necessarily would at the Stinging Fly, but despite the difference in scales, the principles were the same: let’s make the book as good as we can make it. I had heard horror tales of some London publishers: that they no longer edit; that they don’t know who half their authors are; that they steal your wallet when you go to the bathroom, but Faber were – and continue to be – brilliant to me.
Hannah, at the end of the collection, I felt like I knew Caerphilly, inside and out. I could draw it out on a sheet of paper – but I’ve never been there. You have – you grew up only 15 miles outside of it. How and why was this important to you?
I read a lot of fiction on submission with generic metropolitan settings. Small-town America feels like familiar territory for fiction too. But I don’t read many debuts set in small UK towns. Any writing that sets out with that sort of specific interest appeals to me. By specific, I mean where the writer is going to take me into a world they know more about that I do – be that a zoo, or a small town or a submarine.
The idea of a story collection set in Caerphilly definitely had an appeal for me given my childhood in Cardiff. South Wales doesn’t turn up much in contemporary fiction. There was something comfortingly familiar about them, particularly the dialogue, which is rhythmically distinct and different to English dialogue.
Tom, did the two of you ever argue? Were there any of Hannah’s notes that you disagreed with strongly? Anything you changed that you regretted afterwards or vice versa?
I don’t think Hannah gives herself enough credit for what she does as an editor. She has an uncanny ability to hone in on what’s not working in a piece and then just express that clearly without being proscriptive. The classic question of “showing or telling” also hovers over editors, I think. Should they “show” the writer what’s not working, or should they “tell” them what to do? Hannah’s way was gentle and personal; she was responding as a reader: eg “I don’t don’t get why this is story is about these three particular characters; I want to know more about the character here; I wasn’t convinced by the narrator’s voice; the ending for this one isn’t quite hitting home.”
And she was also very good at pointing out the things she really liked – especially small things in the prose that I hadn’t realised were going on. I think a writer needs to hear when something is working, otherwise they’re prone to just chopping it out.
But we really didn’t argue. There were a few occasions when Hannah asked a question of a section and it’d be up to me to decide how I responded to her question. From being an editor myself, I understood that there are different levels of feedback – there’s the “You should really change this” and then there’s the “I’m just checking you realise you’ve done that…”
Beside the ending of Fugue, the third story in the collection, Hannah had written “Wow…” the ellipsis itself was a question, almost a WTF? I laughed and told her I really didn’t know where the ending came from, but that I just felt it worked. It’s still my favourite of all the endings.
Hannah, what part of editing do you like most, or feel like you’re best at?
I would say that editing – when there is enough time to do it properly, in silence, with no pressing deadlines – is my favourite part of this job. It’s during this close and concentrated reading and the conversation that follows, that the foundation of a relationship with the writer is established. You’re in this together after all.
Editors have to do so many other things these days – reading a huge number of submissions often under intense time pressure, sending out proofs and finished copies, getting together plausible cases to persuade colleagues about an acquisition, adding category codes and key words to databases, staying in touch with agents and on top of trade news and meeting booksellers and bloggers, hand-selling to anyone and everyone they meet.
In contrast, the quiet, solitary task of editing is extremely satisfying.
Tom, what’s the best thing about working with Hannah?
Writing-wise, it’s the confidence and passion that she brings to the work. I come away from our meetings feeling like a better writer. And person-wise, she’s just hugely generous, supportive and empathetic. I trust her and I feel very much looked after.
And, Hannah, what’s the best thing about working with Tom?
The best thing about working with Tom is that I get to spend time talking to, drinking with and texting back and forth with one of the kindest, funniest, most emotionally intelligent people I’ve met.
And, finally, Tom: can you give us a hint on what you’re working on next? And has Hannah seen any of it?
It’s a novel, and I’m literally about to send Hannah the opening now. As soon as I type the final full stop here. Any minute now. Any minute.
Thomas Morris is from Caerphilly, South Wales. He was educated solely through the Welsh language until the age of 18 and, in his teens, trialled at Cardiff City and played Welsh League football. He studied English and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. Dubliners 100, a short story anthology he devised and edited, was published in 2014. He lives in Dublin, where he is editor of the Stinging Fly magazine.
Hannah Griffiths has worked in publishing for more than 20 years, both as an agent and an editor. She is a publishing director at Faber and Faber. Her list includes Max Porter, Eimear McBride, Stewart Lee, Miriam Toews, Barbara Kingsolver, Francesca Kay and Deirdre Madden.
Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus) and head of literature at the Arts Council
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris is published by Faber, at £12.99. The series will conclude with a podcast discussion with the author; Martin Doyle, assistant literary editor of The Irish Times; and Sorcha Hamilton, to be recorded at a live event in the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thursday, January 28th, at 7.30pm.