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Lighting the Way: Emma Carroll on the Inspiration Behind Letters from the Lighthouse

Posted on 16th May 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'The lighthouse - that word, that image - changed everything.'

Our Children's Book of the Month for May, Letters from the Lighthouse is a classic mystery set during wartime on the Devon Coast. Its author, Emma Carroll, has already proved herself adept at turning her hand to any genre; with such delights as the ghostly tale Strange Star and the fairy tale classic In Darkling Wood. However, writing a novel set in the Second World War was proving more of a challenge, until, she explains, a lighthouse showed her the way.

Cover Image: The Lighthouse at Start Point

The title came first, as titles sometimes do. ‘Letters from the Lighthouse’, all in one piece, just like that, so sure of itself I had to write it down straight away

What I’d had until this point was just the vaguest idea for my next book: an ‘evacuee-from-London-Blitz-goes -to -Devon’ narrative. A sort of Land Girls meets Carrie’s War, except they’d both been done before. The lighthouse- that word, that image- changed everything. It did, quite honestly, guide me towards the story I wanted to write.

Ask a small child to draw a lighthouse from memory, and its impressive how many can do it, even if they live miles from the sea. There’s something iconic about a lighthouse: a romanticized notion of safekeeping from the storm. The first documented lighthouse was built at the mouth of the Nile in at Alexandria in 300BC.

Remains of a Roman Lighthouse at DoverRemains of a Roman Lighthouse at Dover

The Romans also were prolific lighthouse builders: you can still see the remains of one at Dover Castle today. Since then lanterns, torches, bonfires, towers have all been used over the centuries to warn ships of land or hazards ahead. By the early C19th century, with huge increases in shipping, lighthouses became more vital and more numerous. No longer privately owned they came under the jurisdiction of Trinity House in 1836 (whose London headquarters were bombed in the Blitz in 1940).

During WW2 lighthouses on enemy bombing routes were turned off at night and/or painted in camouflage colours. A military painting owned by the Imperial War Museum shows the lighthouse at the Lizard, Cornwall painted in mottled beiges and greys so it blends in with -rather than stands out from- the surrounding sea and landscape. Though this deterred the Luftwaffe – a bit- many lighthouse keepers and crew lost their lives during the war, from direct hits or getting to and from their stations in hazardous conditions.

As a writer this was my way in: a lighthouse, its function compromised because of national security, is at the heart of my WW2 story. The lighthouse in question, at a fictionally named Devon village called Budmouth Point, is loosely based on Start Point, the southern-most tip of Devon which sticks ruggedly out into the English Channel [cover image].

When the first draft of ‘Letters’ was with my editor, I re-read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, and saw how both deal with grief- often the loss of a parent or an ending of an old way of life. The lighthouse in each is a powerful symbol of hope; this is partly how I’ve used it in my story too. For me a lighthouse is also about adventure, about living somewhere strange and ‘other’ which, in a story that also features evacuees and refugees, is a seam running through ‘Letters’.

A friend told me Edgar Allan Poe wrote an unfinished short story about a lighthouse, and did I know Robert Louis Stevenson was pretty obsessed by them? I didn’t- but I get it now, completely.

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