I’d like to welcome back B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Barbara Lamplugh today to talk with me about her book, Secrets of the Pomegranate. Please be sure to check out my previous interview with her about a life as a writer.
Barbara was born and grew up in London, studied in York and then moved to Shropshire. Her writing career started in the 1970s, inspired by a life-changing overland journey to Kathmandu in a converted fire-engine. This trip was followed by a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway and several months backpacking around Japan and SE Asia. Her two travel books, Kathmandu by Truck (1976) and Trans-Siberia by Rail (1979) were the result. Another new experience – motherhood – came next. With two children to bring up, her extensive wanderings came to an end but she continued to write, turning instead to fiction. She has written several novels, though Secrets of the Pomegranate is the first to be published.
Her day jobs have included working as a librarian (her first career), as a project officer for Age Concern (inspiration for one of her earlier novels), running a Volunteer Bureau and, briefly, recording milk yields on Shropshire farms. She trained as a counsellor and worked in a voluntary capacity for two local organisations. At the same time, she was writing articles for various magazines and newspapers, including The Guardian and Times Educational Supplement.
In 1999, she fulfilled a long-held ambition and moved to Granada in Spain. Having trained to teach English as a Foreign Language, she soon found work, a place to live and new friends. A job as English Editor followed, along with some freelance editing and translation. After a few years, she found her dream job as a regular Features Writer for Living Spain magazine, to which she contributed around a hundred articles over several years on topics as diverse as garlic, machismo, the life of a lighthouse keeper and the nightmarish experience of being trapped at an all-night drumming festival.
Her novels have always focused on ordinary people rather than the privileged or exotic. Working in the community and meeting people from all walks of life proved to her that everyone has stories to tell and that the most fascinating and unexpected are sometimes hidden behind a seemingly conventional exterior. Almost everyone has secrets – some that may never be revealed, others that are only revealed to a select few, but by their nature, secrets are always subject to discovery and, as in Secrets of the Pomegranate, may be catapulted into the open by a dramatic event.
She is currently working on her next novel, set during and after the Spanish Civil War.
Please tell me about your book, Secrets of the Pomegranate.
Set in Granada, Spain, Secrets of the Pomegranate is a contemporary novel about two sisters and the secret that binds them. Deborah, a spirited and adventurous Englishwoman long resident in Spain lies in a coma after being caught up in the Madrid train bombings of 2004. Her sister Alice flies out from England with 9 year-old Timmy – and more on her mind than whether her sister will live or die. As Deborah’s 20 year-old dropout son, Mark and her Spanish partner, Paco wait in anguish for signs of a recovery, Alice unearths her sister’s diary, terrified of what it may reveal. When Deborah’s Moroccan ex-lover turns up at her house in Granada, the truth can no longer be hidden and Alice must cope with the life-changing consequences of discovery. Through the eyes of the two narrators, Alice and Mark, along with extracts from Deborah’s diary, her colourful and sometimes controversial life is revealed.
The novel’s context, a highly topical one, is the continuing ‘war on terror’, which makes Islam and its followers everywhere subject to suspicion and prejudice. Granada is a particularly relevant setting for the story. Eight centuries of Moorish rule and the long struggle between Muslims and Christians have left a legacy of racism against Arabs that tourists attracted to the city’s Moorish past are often unaware of.
It’s a novel that does not fit easily into any set category or genre. Readers say it’s a page-turner so some might class it as a thriller – a genre defined by Wikipedia as giving the reader ‘heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.’ It has a feminist element and a political element. But above all, it’s a human story about love and loss and about the tensions in relationships – between sisters, between lovers and between mothers and sons.
Will you give me an example of the cultural difference and prejudices rooted in Granada’s long history of Muslim-Christian struggles for power?
Granada was the last city in Spain to fall to the Christians and for many decades there were battles in the border towns between Christian Spain in the north and the last strongholds of Muslim Spain in the south of the country. Many of them still have defensive castles while across the countryside there are watchtowers, some Christian, others Muslim, that give testament to these battles.
Although it took place hundreds of years ago, an element of this long-lasting conflict still seems to linger in the blood of Andalusians, rooted perhaps in a hereditary fear of being conquered again, however improbable that may be. This manifests itself in the spread of ludicrous rumours and a climate of suspicion and antipathy towards immigrants from North Africa. An example in the book is the local opposition to a mosque in the Albaicín and the abuse Deborah receives for having a relationship with a ‘Moor’, the word ‘moro’ being highly pejorative. Yet many Andalusians of today are descended from Arabs or Jews.
Inevitably, many aspects of the culture are still in evidence today, reflected in the language, the food and some of the customs as well as in more physical elements such as the irrigation systems and the architectural heritage. I find it ironic that the legacy of the Moorish civilisation in Granada and other Andalusian cities is fully exploited as a draw for tourists and yet racism against Muslims is very apparent. However, I’m not suggesting it is unique to Granada or Spain. Alice is also prejudiced.
Please tell me a little about free-spirited Deborah.
Deborah, whom I see as the central character of Secrets of the Pomegranate, is a passionate woman with strong beliefs and a strong personality. Arriving in the Albaicín district of Granada with baby son Mark, she has the confidence to immediately throw herself into local life without caring too much what others think of her. Her partner Paco tells Mark that people either love or hate her, and Mark agrees. She will not hesitate to involve herself in a cause she believes in or stand up for people she feels have been wronged. She can be fiery at times and liable to offend others by expressing her views without reservation or tact. At times she can get carried away by enthusiasm, as she does with her research about women in Moorish Spain. She is also passionate in love and a devoted mother.
Is there a character in your book you relate to in any way?
I relate to Deborah more than Alice because a substantial part of our experience overlaps (for example, moving to Granada’s Albaicín as a woman alone) and we have some attitudes and opinions in common. However, our personalities are very different and I’ve never had a relationship with a Moroccan. Nor, unfortunately, do I have a Paco in my life.
Although I relate most to Deborah in terms of our common experience, I’m fond of all my main characters and admit to having a special soft spot for Mark.
Please tell me about Hassan.
Hassan is a Moroccan journalist whom Deborah meets in Granada. They embark on a passionate love affair that lasts for several years. He is cultured, well educated, knowledgeable and a great storyteller, a quality that both Deborah and Mark appreciate. Although he has a Muslim background and some of his attitudes derive from the culture he grew up in, he is not religious. His volatile temperament in confrontation with Deborah’s fiery nature makes theirs a somewhat tempestuous relationship. He loves Deborah deeply but is prone to jealousy and rage.
What is Alice’s relationship like with Deborah?
Alice and Deborah have very different personalities. Alice is quieter and less confident. She has always felt in the shadow of her older sister, whom she sees as more interesting, more attractive and more intelligent. However, Deborah thinks otherwise, admiring Alice’s many talents, such as her practical skills and ability to play the piano, her caring nature and her patience. They do not always understand each other. Until the birth of Timmy, their lives had taken very different directions, Alice’s being much more conventional, and inevitably this resulted in them growing further apart. However, once Alice has Timmy, the link between them is strong and they draw closer again. By reading her sister’s diary, Alice’s view of Deborah changes as she comes to know her sister rather better.
What is some of the research that went into your story?
Having lived in Granada for many years, I didn’t need to do any research about day-to-day life here. I talked to friends who lived in the Albaicín in the 1980s when Deborah arrived, in order to find out what was different in those earlier years (I moved here in 1999). However most of my research was, like Deborah’s, about al-Ándalus and the role of women during the centuries of Moorish rule.
For those of you who don’t know, what is al-Andalus?
Al-Ándalus refers to the Muslim civilisation that ruled in Spain from the 8th century till 1492. Deborah develops a fascination for al-Ándalus. She is amazed to learn how advanced they were, how far ahead of anywhere else in Europe in just about every field – agriculture, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, architecture and much more. Her discoveries lead her to embark on research focusing particularly on the role of women, which was rather more liberated than it is in many Arab countries now. One of these women was Walladah, a well-known 11th century poet who defied all the conventions and insisted very publicly on the right to take whatever lovers she chose. Women worked as teachers, doctors, copyists and in other professions, and participated in the shuras, the councils that took political decisions. Al-Ándalus was also notable for being a civilisation in which Muslims, Christians and Jews enjoyed a mostly peaceful coexistence.
Deborah’s researches form another, though more minor, strand of the novel.
What do you hope readers come away with when reading your story?
I like reading (and writing) novels that hook both the emotions and the brain so I hope my readers will engage emotionally with all the main characters and be moved by the story as it unfolds. I hope also that they will engage with the moral dilemmas facing the characters and find food for thought in the issues raised. As a bonus, I would like readers to learn something about life in Granada, both now and in history. But above all, I hope they enjoy reading Secrets of the Pomegranate.
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A Message from indieBRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Barbara Lamplugh who is the author of, Secrets of the Pomegranate, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Secrets of the Pomegranate, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.