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Interview: R.V. Bayley talks about Barefoot

R.V. Bayley was born and raised in Nelson. She studied history at the University of Otago and later completed a Master of Creative Writing at the University of Auckland. Barefoot, published by Eden St Press, is her first novel. She received a Creative New Zealand/NZSA Complete Manuscript Assessment award in 2020. Excerpts from the novel were longlisted in the First Pages International Prize 2020 and shortlisted in the NZSA New Zealand Heritage Literary Awards 2021.

Tell us a little about Barefoot. The story opens in Wellington in 1939. It’s a hot summer’s day at a church picnic. Adelaide watches as a girl is rescued from the river and resolves to meet the unassuming hero of the moment. After a claustrophobic, strict childhood, John Brunner is Adelaide’s chance for a new beginning.

But trouble in Europe is brewing and Adelaide’s delight in her new married life is overshadowed by the declaration of war; John’s sense of duty sees him enlist and he sails for Egypt. When his first letter arrives, a foreign, exotic world is brought to life. John’s letters become Adelaide’s obsession, turning her house from marital home to a literary shrine of love and longing. Until the letters stop coming.

What inspired you to write this book? In 2003, I was working at a wedding in a synagogue near Harrods in London. After setting up the tables, I remember sitting down in a cloakroom to wait out the ceremony, before I had to serve at the reception. I pulled out my WH Smith exercise book and began writing down this image I had in my head: Mrs Brunner, standing in the hallway, was rubbing her hand where the wound used to be. The story changed a lot over the years, with characters coming and going, but the final version still has Mrs Brunner with a scar on her hand.

What research was involved?

As the novel is set 80-100 years ago, a lot! Much of it was about the 25th Battalion in 1940 and 1941, especially in Egypt and Libya, but also about life back in New Zealand during WW2. I also had to find out what childhoods were like in the 1920s and 1930s and what the Trentham area was like during this time.

Of course, the Internet was invaluable with great resources like The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945, New Zealand Electronic Text Collection - Te Pūhikotuhi o Aotearoa (Victoria University of Wellington Library) and Papers Past (National Library).

But also primary and secondary resources at institutions like the Alexander Turnball Library, Auckland War Memorial Museum Research Library / Te Pātaka Mātāpuna and the Kippenberger Military Archive, National Army Museum – Te Mata Toa. The Canterbury Fly Fishing Club and Wellington Tramway Museum also kindly helped me with details.

What was your routine or process when writing this novel?

Stephen King’s writing routine is famous and I can only sigh with envy at that level of commitment and diligence. I have no routine at all – that’s probably why it took me nearly 20 years from start to finish!

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Well, the book is set mostly in 1939-1942, so any music from that era. You can’t really go past ‘In the Mood’. Or maybe ‘Cheek to Cheek’.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Tough question. Maybe someone like Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People, Where the Crawdads Sing) for Adelaide and what about Bradley Cooper for John? A touch of Hollywood glamour – but not sure how they would get on with the Kiwi accent!

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

Definitely the research. As a history graduate, reading the official reports, the soldier’s books, letters and diaries, seeing photos with handwritten notations on the back, holding original telegrams in my hands - it was completely addictive and I often forgot about the actual writing!

What did you do to celebrate finishing Barefoot?

Honestly? After an almost 20-year journey, a sigh of relief and a pat on the back.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I finally read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. I sometimes read the big prize winners and feel underwhelmed. But this delivered the perfect combination of a great story and beautiful writing. Couldn’t help but shed a tear or two.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Now that Barefoot is out in the world, just seeing where it takes me over the next wee while…

I have plenty of ideas for the next book – I just need to channel my inner Stephen King and get cracking!


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