I recently received a copy of a new wartime saga called “The Lumberjills: Stronger Together” by Joanna Foat to review. It is a well written, enjoyable novel about a group of girls from different backgrounds who joined the Women’s Timber Corps. What impressed me more is that this book is Joanna’s first work of fiction – and what a fabulous non stop page turning debut – but Joanna has written a non fiction book about The Lumberjills, has spoken to more than 60 former Lumberjills and has spent 10 years researching her subject. That’s amazing! So, I’m really pleased to welcome Joanna onto the blog….Hi Joanna!
Hi, my name is Joanna Foat. I am an author, speaker, environmental communications consultant and love adventures in the great outdoors.
“The Lumberjills: Stronger Together” is your debut novel – a historical novel based on the Women’s Timber Corps, a mostly forgotten division of the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War. What inspired you to write a novel?
I remember the day I first heard about the Lumberjills when I was working for the Forestry Commission. I was sitting at my desk in a wooden hut at Alice Holt Forest looking out the window at the birds and passing deer, while researching stories about women in forestry. When the woman at the other end of the phone said there were thousands of women working in the forests felling trees with an axe and saw during wartime and they were called Lumberjills, a shiver ran through me.
I thought, how come I’d never heard of them? I have to find out more about these women. I knew that only a few, if any, could still be alive. At that moment, I realisedI had to meet these women. Once I had tracked them down and heard their extraordinary stories, I just knew I wanted to write a book about them. I felt it was such an important story to tell about strong women. And if I didn’t, it would be forgotten forever.
Were there any aspects of writing your novel that surprised you, either by being harder or easier to write about than you expected (considering you have written a non-fiction book about the Lumberjills also)?
First, I absolutely loved doing all the research, travelling the country to meet those inspiring Lumberjills, visiting museums and trawling through archives. Discovering these wonderful pieces of history was just like a hugely rewarding treasure hunt.
There was a big difference between writing the non-fiction and a novel. Non-fiction is like a collage of newspaper cuttings, old photos, letters and words from interviews. You find the best stories and curate them to create a big picture.
Whereas fiction is like a broiling witches cauldron swirling with emotion, people and places. You have to make the fire first and then start adding all the ingredients, keep stirring, tasting, smelling and simmering for a long time and hope the magic spell works. It feels like a much more dynamic process and so I found writing a novel much harder.
I was terrified of writing dialogue to begin with. But that was because I hadn’t done enough character development. After spending a lot of time of getting to know my characters, I could tune into them quickly and now I can hear their voices speaking to me as I write.
I love the different characters in the story – feisty bohemian Keeva, the cockney East Ender Rosie and wealthy Beatrice were my personal favourites… do you have a favourite character? Which characters or storyline were the hardest to portray?
I had a lot of fun writing Beatrice, putting words into her mouth that made me wince or squeal with laughter. You can have a lot of fun making your characters misbehave. I want to have more mischief in my next novel.
I found Keeva the hardest to portray because she was such a moody teenager and I couldn’t get a lot back from her. She frustrated me. I even asked her once what she might do in a particular situation and she gave me a withering look and shouted at me, stop trying to put me in a box. She is so fiercely independent. I suppose I had my answer in one way. But I still felt none the wiser. I understand her more now.
Hypothetically speaking, if “The Lumberjills: Stronger Together” was made into a film, who would you love to see portraying the characters, especially Keeva, Rosie and Beatrice?
If ever there was a great comparable to what The Lumberjills film would be like. It is A League of Their Own. I love the great mix of female characters, backgrounds, shapes and sizes. Real women. Grubby, muddy and misbehaved. There’s plenty of unknown actresses out there who need a break – this could be for them. The Lumberjills acted out by rising stars. I love that idea.
Have you always wanted to have a career in writing or did you have other aspirations?
No. I didn’t really have aspirations as a child because I was so shy. Maybe I would have been a dancer. But I certainly wouldn’t have said that I wanted to sit still and write. Although I did write my first book age 10, which was 33 pages long and about a hard done by pigeon. I thought if I could get people to care about a pigeon, that would be really cool. I loved writing it but my older sister said it was rubbish.
Movement and sport are forms of self-expression and give me a sense of freedom and confidence. I discovered I wanted to write about that. I want to write how the Lumberjills muscles ached, what it felt like to cycle 20 miles before work and how strong they had to be felling trees all day long in the forest. My Dad bought me an axe for Christmas one year. So, I am sure, if I’d been alive in the 1940s, I would have jumped at the chance of joining the Women’s Timber Corps.
Are you a bookworm? What is your favourite genre and/or authors? Kindle or actual book?
I wouldn’t call myself a bookworm, more of bookbird. I fly from book to book and sometimes don’t finish them. I love physical books with beautiful covers. A kindle doesn’t do it for me. I love the beauty of the myths and legends in Madeleine Miller and how nature thrums through every word in Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdad Sings.
Is “The Lumberjills: Stronger Together” available to purchase worldwide?
Yes, The Lumberjills is available worldwide and selling well in UK, US, Canada, Australia, and France.
Personal now – what outfits and shoes would you normally be found wearing?
I used to find myself on a muddy walk or doing the gardening in a heeled pair of boots and dress. So now I prefer wearing jeans, a green top and Converse. In fact,most of my clothes are Lumberjill green.
Do you have any favourite shops or online sites?
I have been brought up on charity shops and loved hand me downs from my friends and family. I have a fascination with Anthropologie. But I’m more likely to buy from Depop.
What’s next on your clothes/shoe wish list?
A pair of beautiful leather hiking boots and some running leggings. I am tempted to buy myself some dungarees too, Lumberjills style. Oh, and can I add in a vintage axe accessory here too? ;0)
Boots or Shoes?
Boots. Shoes seem too small and flimsy and most of mine are high heels. As a teenager I wore Doc Martins and some German Army boots I bought from an old Army Supplies store. I still have the latter over 30 years later.
Links you would like to share e.g. website/facebook etc
insta and twitter @jofoat
It was brilliant to chat to you Joanna! I love trees too and I spent a happy childhood climbing up trees and making dens in the patch of Epping Forest close to my home in East London. I live in a rural village now surrounded by woods. I loved your novel – it was just pure escapism . Thank you Ben for the review copy of Joanna’s novel.
All photographs have been published with kind permission of Joanna Foat. (Pinterest photo by Linda Hobden).