Interview with Pat Barker, author of the Regeneration Trilogy

AM: Your Regeneration Trilogy consists of three novels about World War I. Were you always interested in the topic and, if so, what was the first book that you read on the subject?

PB: Yes, I have always been passionate about World War I; oddly, it was the poetry that first moved me—Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon—not the great fiction, such as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms or Ford Madox Ford’s No More Parades.

AM: Were you initially familiar with the Great War because of a relative’s involvement?

PB: Yes. My grandfather led a company that fought at the Argonne and suffered thereafter from shellshock—what we would today call PTSD.

AM: As your interest increased, did you travel around the Somme battlefields?

PB: Yes, I visited all the sites and museums in the Amiens area and even drove up to Belgium to visit Passchendaele.

AM: Did the graveyards overwhelm you?

PB: Completely. I could hardly grasp the number of gravestones.

AM: When I am visiting the graves, I always think of Rudyard Kipling, his role as the head of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the appalling irony that his son lost his life in France.

PB: I wept often on those trips.

AM: What made you think of the theme of shell shock, or, as Elizabeth Samet calls it in her book about teaching literature at West Point, the “soldier’s heart”?

PB: Of course, it was partially my grandfather’s troubles, but my interest was larger than that: I was absorbed in medicine and read some of the case studies of Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, the psychiatrist at Craig Lockhart War Hospital.

AM: Your including historical characters like Rivers, Sassoon, and Owen in your novels strikes me as a brilliant move.

P.B. I became obsessed with the topic of shell shock and the fact that some doctors treated with disdain the soldiers returning from the front with nervous disorders and called the men “cowards” to their faces.

AM: Appalling. And the wives! Think of Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier and the horrid way his wife treated him, as unmanly and a loser . . .

PB:  . . . and the extraordinary bravery of the men, the officers particularly, who were the first to be killed going over the top.

AM: Your using that last phrase reminds me of the many poignant poems, fiction, and memoirs about that culminating moment.

PB: Yes. I think Edmund Blunden’s memoir, Undertones of War, is the best at describing what it was like to lead one’s men over the top.

AM: What was the most challenging aspect of recreating the characters, so to speak, and giving them dialogue?

PB: I was sensitive to not distorting the characters in personal as well as untruthful ways.

AM: Are you referring to the homosexual allusions in several of the books?

PB: Yes, that issue, of course, and also reimagining the inner life of the great Rivers.

AM: He was stunningly intellectual, honest, and caring, which characteristics must have been daunting.

PB: Very—and also trying to portray the real Sassoon on the throwing-away-his-medal gesture and actually invoking his belief and determination that the war had to stop.

AM: Thank you so much for talking to me. I am so disappointed that we are out of time. Many questions linger . . .

PB:  . . . another time will present itself. War will always be with us . . .

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