In 1940, 11-year-old Beatrix is sent to America to escape the bombing in London. Beyond That, the Sea follows Bea and her two families across continents and decades as they experience loss and search for love in the aftermath of World War II.
Celadon spoke with author Laura Spence-Ash about her enchanting debut novel and her process for creating realistic characters that readers will never forget.
Celadon Books: Congratulations on such a beautiful debut novel! What led you to write Beyond That, the Sea?
Laura Spence-Ash: Thank you! Over 20 years ago, I read an article in The New York Times about a group of British adults returning to the States to see where they had spent time during World War II when they were young. I was fascinated by this — I was aware that children in London were evacuated to the country, but I hadn’t known that children were sent so far afield and often traveled alone. My children were young when I learned about this, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the way this would feel to a child, and how this decision might impact the rest of their life. I was also interested in how this would feel to the adults and to the other children in the families, both those sending their child away and those bringing a strange child into their home. I then did some research, including reading a memoir by an evacuee who, coincidentally, had been sent to the same small town in Massachusetts where I went to high school. Suddenly the place came into focus for me, and everything else grew out of that.
CB: The story is told over several decades, from the 1940s, when 11-year-old Beatrix is sent to America on a ship, through the epilogue, set in the 1970s. Why did you decide to tell Beatrix’s story over such a long period of time rather than focusing on a certain moment of her life?
LSA: I’m always interested in how fictional characters change over time. I like thinking about incremental change, about how characters slowly shift into a new way of being or understanding, and I also like to be immersed in a character’s life over a large swath of time. In this novel, the decision to send Beatrix away is the inciting incident but it is also the big thing that happens — the rest of the book essentially explores the aftermath of that decision. I kept thinking of it as a pebble thrown into a pond — the novel is formed by the circular ripples that develop from the impact, that move outward and diminish over time. If I had focused on a certain moment in Beatrix’s life, I think the novel would have lost that sense of scale and time.
CB: Although Beatrix is undoubtedly the book’s heroine, all of the main characters lend narration and their own perspectives to the story. Which character did you feel the most connected to while writing?
LSA: I suppose Beatrix is closest to my heart, but I identify with and am charmed by all the characters. While Beatrix is both the center and the spine of the book, the other characters fill out her world and help us to understand who she is. When I first started working on the novel, I thought Beatrix would be one of three narrators, with William and Gerald, the two boys in her American family, telling part of the story as well. Over time, though, I found myself wanting to learn more about and hear from Beatrix’s parents, Millie and Reg, who are left behind in London, and Nancy and Peter, who treat Beatrix like the daughter they never had. While this is Beatrix’s story, it is also very much a novel about family — about the family you grow up with and the family that you create.
CB: Beyond That, the Sea is firmly rooted in history and place, but it’s also a tender coming-of-age story. What themes did you set out to explore in the book?
LSA: I was primarily interested in exploring identity, family, and loss. For much of the novel, Beatrix is struggling to figure out who she is and where she belongs. Beatrix’s struggle is unique, of course: Spending five formative years in another country, with another family, would naturally lead to displacement and confusion. Almost all of the characters wrestle with identity, though. I think this is universal — we are all constantly assessing who we are and who we want to be, both within our families and in the world at large. And loss is ever present in this novel, too, although Beatrix bears the heaviest weight: She is without her parents when she comes to the States, and then she leaves the Gregorys behind when she returns to England after the war. One theme that I didn’t necessarily set out to write about but which is threaded throughout the novel is love. It is there in all its many forms: romantic, familial, filial, and platonic. I think it’s hard to write about family — or perhaps write about these two families — and not write about love.
CB: Which authors and books have inspired you most over the years?
LSA: I love quiet books that focus on characters, rather than plots, and feature ordinary lives and quotidian details. Both of Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful collections, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, contain stories that I have read again and again. I think her prose is beautiful and insightful, and her characters so well-drawn. Brooklyn and Nora Webster, by Colm Toibín, are exquisite portraits of women coming into their own. Although William Trevor is primarily known as a short story master, his novel Fools of Fortune is one of my favorites. It is a gorgeous, slim novel, an intimate and tragic love story which spans decades and is set against the backdrop of the Irish War of Independence in the early 20th century. And more recently, I fell in love with Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. Another gem-like novel, it is a beautiful study of a coal merchant in 1980s Ireland, and it ends on such a note of grace.