Behind the Pen: Libby Cone, author of War on the Margins

This week sees the exciting release of War on the Margins by Libby Cone. Well written and engaging, War on the Margins is an important novel, because it not only sheds light on the level of suffering that was inflicted upon the Channel Islanders during the Nazi Occupation of WW2, it also provides an archive for a number of important historical documents from the period.

Libby Cone No stranger to RobAroundBooks, I actually reviewed (and enjoyed) War on the Margins back in November 2008 when it was still a self-published work. Eight months later and courtesy of Duckworth, War on the Margins enjoys its release as a fully fledged publisher-backed novel, and I couldn’t be happier.

As much as I like War on the Margins though, it would be a bit pointless for me to completely review it again. I will say briefly having seen it, that the new Duckworth edition is a marked improvement on the original. On an aesthetic level the cover is much more appealing, but more importantly for me a problem I had with the original has been fixed. My gripe centred around the fact that the historical documents and communiques were presented verbatim in the main body of the story. I felt that their length to some extent interrupted the flow of the story, and at times everything just seemed to mingle in. Duckworth have fixed this ‘problem’ simply and elegantly – they’ve used a different typeface for the official documents. Problem solved, and although the documents are still presented in the body of the narrative as before (which makes sense because they are an inherent part of the story), they don’t seem to interrupt to the same extent as they used to.

So going back to what I could do to mark the Duckworth release of War on the Margins, and I came up with the idea of interviewing the novel’s author. I put it to her a few weeks ago and Libby kindly agreed to it. So today I get the delightful opportunity of presenting to you the writer behind War on the Margins. Sit back and enjoy a virtual sit down with Libby Cone:

Rob: War on the Margins began life as your thesis project at university before being adapted into a novel. I understand it was your advisor Professor Davis who gave you the words of encouragement to take things further. What was it about your original thesis that impressed him so much?

Libby: Well, first of all, he was the one who warmed to my idea of writing my thesis as a work of historical fiction. I think he liked the writing I had done for smaller assignments, and he was probably not looking forward to going through yet another long and depressing nonfiction thesis about the Holocaust. I was probably going to write a pretty straightforward nonfiction treatment; I had not thought about doing it in terms of gender or any other interesting angle, because the facts were interesting enough.

Rob: Now that War on the Margins has been published, I assume Professor Davis is delighted?

Libby: Oh, yes, he is! I keep him posted. I’m extremely grateful to him.

War on the Margins by Libby Cone Rob: War on the Margins is of course based largely on the real-life diaries of artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. How did you discover these diaries, and what was it about them that made you want to use them so extensively in your work?

Libby: I had not heard of Cahun and Moore before starting the project. They were given brief mentions in some of the sources I consulted. Jewish Lesbian Surrealist artists in the Resistance? If I had invented them, I would have been accused of exaggeration! I was able to get their letters and other materials from the Jersey Heritage Archive; much of the material is available online. Their story speaks to the hidden power of art and the gifts we receive from those considered marginal by the dominant culture.

Rob: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore both feature in War on the Margins of course. But there are other characters in the novel who come across as just as well rounded i.e. Marlene, Peter, Mrs. Richardson to name but three. Are any of these characters based on real people?

Libby: Peter is based on the many unfortunates captured all over Europe and brought to the Islands to do slave labour for the Germans. I felt it very important to develop his character. So many of the enslaved prisoners died on the Islands, and most were never given a decent burial. When I visited the underground tunnels in Jersey that they built, I kept looking at the trowel marks in the concrete and thinking, “the hand of a slave made this, and he probably died here.”

Mrs. Richardson was a real person. The local authorities actually were alerted to capture her and turn her in for failing to register as a Jew.

Marlene is a fictional character; I just needed to add one more character to the list to propel the story along and to develop the theme of marginality. Most of the characters were real people; Marlene, Peter, Mary Drummond, and Pauline Barrett are composites. People really did try to intercept mail from would-be informants. People really were sent to Ravensbrück and killed for hiding escaped slave labourers. There really was a woman, the lover of a German deserter, who barely escaped execution.

Rob: You acknowledge that you had a lot of help from the Jersey Heritage Trust. I presume they are in full support of your fictional account of the Channel Islands Occupation?

Libby: I don’t know if they ‘support’ it or not; it’s just their job to curate and distribute the archived materials. They have been wonderful in answering my requests for documents.

Rob: Aside from the artist’s diaries, there are a lot of original wartime documents reproduced in War on the Margins. Did many of these come directly from the Jersey Heritage Fund or did you source them elsewhere?

Libby: The documents came from the archive. The BBC and German Overseas Radio broadcasts I described were from various sources who collect the broadcasts on CD’s. I also used three diaries written by people stuck on Jersey during the Occupation, Nan Le Ruez, Leslie Sinel, and Dr. John Lewis. I tried to cross-check everything that wasn’t a primary source. I could have written about more people, but I couldn’t corroborate their stories. Fortunately, I didn’t have to write the thesis with footnotes, but I could have.

Libby with her cat Rob: Before Duckworth took up the rights for War on the Margins, the novel was self-published. As most writers know, it’s notoriously difficult getting most bloggers to even glance at a self-published novel, yet you credit your success at getting picked up by Duckworth as a result of you having ‘aggressively marketing War on the Margins on US and European blogs’. So how aggressive did you have to get Libby?

Libby: After coming across an article in the Observer by Jay Rayner about the ascendancy of bloggers in our culture, I took note of the literary blogger he mentioned. I emailed her and every other blogger listed on her site, asking if they ever reviewed independently-published (it sounds better than ‘self-published’) books. I did not get the impression that most bloggers won’t look at indie stuff. About half of them responded, and maybe two-thirds of those reviewed it. I kept looking for more bloggers, both in the US and the UK. I’m a very stubborn person, and when I get an idea, I don’t let it go. But I’m not obnoxious about it. Not everybody wants to read or review your book, not everybody likes it, etc. You have to accept that.

Rob: As well as a writer Libby, you’re also a full-time radiologist. How do you possibly manage to fit both of these time-consuming vocations into your life?

Libby: I’m actually part-time now. My last full-time job ended when our practice broke up after only a year. I was not up for preparing to ascend yet another ladder to partnership, so I wound up doing locum tenens. It helps that my husband and I don’t have kids, we don’t have a television, and we don’t hold impossibly high standards for housekeeping!

Rob: Finally Libby, I’ve heard it on the grapevine that your next book is about a blind kid growing up in colonial Delaware. What can you tell us about that?

Libby: I don’t remember where I got the idea! I surf the Web quite a lot, and somehow I found out about a short-lived Mennonite colony in Delaware whose founder died when the second Anglo-Dutch war came to the mid-Atlantic region of North America and towns like Niew Amsterdam and Niew Amstel became New York and Newcastle. His blind son wound up in an area of Philadelphia known as Germantown at the end of the seventeenth century. I’m interested in identity and its fluidity. In occupied Jersey, Jewish citizens were re-classified as aliens. In the Colonies, people who had always considered themselves Dutch suddenly became British. It’s fascinating.

Libby, on behalf of everyone at RobAroundBooks I thank you wholeheartedly for your time, and I wish you every conceivably success with War on the Margins.

So remember folks War on the Margins is released this week by Duckworth (details below) and is available (no doubt) in all good bookstores.

Duckworth Publishers | July 2009 | £12.99 | HARDBACK | 256 PP | ISBN 9780715638767

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


  1. Loved the interview! And I am glad to know Libby is working on another book (one with a Dutch angle to it!). I will definitely be on the lookout for it once the publishing date draws near.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      Glad you enjoyed it Myrthe, and I’m also glad I managed to offer up a nugget of news that someone didn’t already know about 🙂

  2. Sounds pretty interesting indeed. Will check it out.