Julie Berry explores passion and destruction in her latest historical YA novel, Lovely War.
I love a World War II novel, but it’s so refreshing to see a World War I story. And for American readers, this is far off our radars. What made you choose this time period?
My grandmothers were teenage girls during WWI, so they would have been contemporaries of Hazel and the main characters in the story. I found myself thinking, now why did WWI start again? And it’s murkier, it’s more confusing. We talked about it last in high school history, and we haven’t talked about it since. I’m really drawn to stories that are less known and moments in history that we might overlook.
How did you decide to weave in the mythology and have Greek gods narrate?
I kept wrestling with the questions of a vantage point. How can you write about something as enormous as this war and encapsulate something of its enormity while still having an intimate relationship with one or two or three mere mortals?
When you focus in on one girl, you gain intimacy into her heart and mind, but you forfeit anything she can’t see or experience. I just really wrestled with who was in a position to show how big this war actually was. I knew I wanted to tell a love story and a war story. And I thought, what if there was a way for love and war personified to tell this story? I realized, we already have love and war personified . . . and they’re lovers! My feeling is there is no Hazel or James without Aphrodite and Ares. We can’t know them unless we see them through those divine eyes—there’s no other way. My belief is that they are absolutely the creations of their divine creators. This wasn’t a stunt, so to speak. I couldn’t find Hazel until Aphrodite revealed her to me.
I’m sure that changed the whole game!
It was a hard book to write. I was determined that I wasn’t going to create events that didn’t really happen in the war. So to construct a story and attach it to real historical events wasn’t simple, but I absolutely felt that these gods carried it in their capable hands. They were in control, and that sounds hokey, but it’s kind of true! [Laughs]
Your novels often explore how violence can upend communities and young lives in particular. With this book, did you find any fresh angles that you hadn’t previously explored?
It’s funny you say that. Why do I keep writing stories where war and conflict keep happening? I’ve never lived in a war—I’m not sure why I keep going there! Maybe it’s partly because I grew up hearing about my mom’s and dad’s experiences living through the wars. I think that there is something about a war that strips away everything you thought you knew about who you were and what was important. There’s this dramatic recalibration of priorities, both for the individual and for a community and society. I guess artistically that moment of truth really interests me, where the complacencies of life are no longer possible.
The romance in Lovely War feels so universal—everyone remembers their first love. That’s a powerful topic to write about.
From your lips to god’s ears—any god! [Laughs] I wanted to write a young adult novel, but the war aged everyone who was involved in it. I just found that no matter how old you were, when your life was touched by this war, you grew up overnight. So I wondered about how that would translate into a YA novel—this sort of sobering, aging aspect of the hardships and the horrors of the war. And ultimately, I just had to say, well, it is what it is. A lot of teens have to grow up overnight.
This book is so powerful. I’m curious what you hope readers will take away from it.
My hope is that I can offer characters and a story so compelling that readers will really open their hearts to them and feel those experiences in a new way. I think if we can see ourselves in the past and realize that, just like us, our forebears were doing the best they could with a really hard time, it creates a kind of empathy and a kind of healing.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a review of Lovely War.