Ask the Author: Helen Simonson

“I'm always happy to talk to Goodreads readers. I welcome the chance to answer your questions so please fire away!” Helen Simonson

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Helen Simonson Hi Claire. Thanks for writing. I'm always here to answer questions and engage through the questions tab. I love Goodreads! I don't currently use the friends feature as I'm a bit of a Luddite and try to keep my social media simple. I'm super accessible though - including on direct email at and I even Skype with book clubs (free of course). Do let me know how Major Pettigrew turns out! Best regards, Helen S.
Helen Simonson The Ministry of Utmost Happiness from Arundhati Roy and Louise Erdrich's La Rose top my books to read in a hammock this summer. When it rains I like old Agatha Christie mysteries with damp yellowing pages and I plan to reread Three Men in a Boat (published in 1889) by Jerome K. Jerome just to laugh for the umpteenth time about holiday expectations versus hilarious reality.
Helen Simonson Dear Kailey, Thanks for the kind words. I think friendship and the willingness to put someone else's needs ahead of your own are at the heart of true love. As to what makes the heart of writing about love? I think it's about looking at whether the love described can withstand real challenge and real sacrifice. Sometimes love may even need to be set aside in the cause of duty or other pressing moral imperative. I would never treat love as some shallow romance. It's about what remains when the roses and confetti are left drying in the wind.
Helen Simonson Hi Jim. I never start with particular themes. I start with the tiniest of images - a woman looking out at the Sussex marshes from a hilltop; the town of Rye, glowing in the last fingers of a sunset - and then I wait for a person, a character to walk into my head and into the story. Sometimes themes are not apparent to me until after the book is printed and other people find them. A reader in an audience had to inform me that I wrote well about the theme of grief in Major Pettigrew (who knew?). I think a writer is interested in many themes and ideas, but must firmly push them to the back of the mind and write the concrete particulars of the lives of characters instead. Themes will emerge organically but if one tries to begin with a grand theme, one risks the book being heavy as lead. For my next book I'm laughing at the idea of ex-pats (British and American) trying to remake village life in their own image in the south of France. I'm busy trying to see who lives there and what they are up to today - and when themes emerge (such as remaking foreign locations into something familiar!) I give them a quick look and then set them aside. Hope this helps explain. Of course this got my younger son into trouble in high school English class when he boldly stated "My mom says writers never meant to put themes in their stories!" Oops...
Helen Simonson At an elderly relative's funeral I was confused to find the deceased was one of five brothers - who I had never met. Who were these mysterious men who looked so like him and why did we never speak of them?
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Helen Simonson Dear Sussan,
SPOILER ALERT. Just warning my readers before proceeding. Agatha Kent was inspired by a Kipling story "The Gardener" in which an aunt who raised her nephew visits his grave in a World War One war cemetery and the gardener says revealingly (as in the epigraph to my epilogue) "come I will take you to your son.' I wondered who the woman in Kipling's tale really was. Like her, Agatha's 'nephew' may be more to her than her friends suspect. Agatha's fiancé died on his way to their wedding - and she was shipped off to her sister's house where, a few months later, her sister had Daniel. I enjoyed knowing more about Agatha than my readers and it informed how I wrote about her - and her attitudes. But at the end of the book it seemed to me that the women were all 'mothers' with a mother's burdens and that biology almost seemed inconsequential in the love and sorrow felt by all. By the way, such secrets of birth continue in my book. Celeste's child will have Daniel's name. Best regards, Helen S.
Helen Simonson Dear Sarwat,
Congrats on the B.Ed and pursuing your masters in English. I have a BSc. (Econ) so I also missed out on a bachelors level English education. I may not be the best person to advise you but I would say the shortest way to enrichment is to ask your current professors for reading lists they may have for undergraduate English classes. Then pick and choose what you love. I enjoyed studying the great Russian writers during my MFA and of course I love all British Lit from Shakespeare onward. But there is also an infinite field of global literature and you should not feel bound to study the 'Western canon' if it doesn't appeal. In the end, enrichment comes from reading what you love, as I'm sure your fellow Goodreads readers would agree. Good Luck, Helen Simonson
Helen Simonson Dear Lindsay,
UPDATE: I'm coming to Bethesda on Saturday April 22 at 4pm at the Bethesda Library. Come and meet me if you are in the area!

Previous answer: Nothing on the calendar right now but stay tuned. Something may get set up shortly. Check my Facebook Events page for updates. I'm also very happy to visit book clubs and library groups via Skype so I hope you'll keep that in mind folks - wherever in the world you are. I'm in Darien CT this Thursday if anyone is in the neighborhood? Best regards Lindsay, Helen S.
Helen Simonson Dear Hannah,
An author is merely someone who has been published. I prefer to think of myself as a writer - that's the real vocation. I write full time though I have occasionally taught a creative-writing class. Many writers teach to support their families or have other careers. Trollope was a postman I think? I was a stay-at-home mom for many years which gave me some time to write. You should think about how you will support yourself during the years it may take to become published (took me 15 years). When I'm under contract to write a book I have a responsibility to meet my deadline but my publisher is very nice about it. Being a writer requires you to be responsible mainly to yourself. If you don't want to complete a book no one is going to push you into it or weep for the missed opportunity. You have to be driven, persistent and self-motivated to choose this path. I did not major in English as an undergraduate. I studied economics and politics instead. After taking a few writing classes in the community, I began to attend writers conferences and then pursued an MFA part time. Education in the field can focus you on your craft and build a community and structure around your writing but it is not a prerequisite. I think the best education for a writer is to be an incessant reader. That is very hard to do in today's technology and social media world but if you can turn off the Snapchat and read a book instead you will find it hugely nourishing as a writer. No reading experience or writing class is ever wasted I think. Regardless of publishing success or failure, good reading and writing skills are super valuable. Fiction writers don't report the world and the human experience, they seek to explain it, one book and one little bit at a time. We contribute to society by writing stories that allow people to step into another person's shoes. We raise issues and inspire empathy. We open up the world. I also like to contribute a good laugh now and then. I am only a very small and humble member of the great community of fiction writers but there is always room for more of us. I hope you pursue your dream of becoming an author. Best regards, Helen Simonson
Helen Simonson You will be surprised to find that my favorite couple comes from the detective noir genre. I love Bertha Cool and Donald Lam who run a detective agency in the 29 books written by Erle Stanley Gardner between 1939 and 1970. What I always adored is that portly Bertha Cool is the boss! How amazing it was to me as a teenager to see a woman in charge, and not a young 'dame' at that. If you want to meet Bertha and Donald, try 'Top of the Heap' or my favorite 'Some Women Won't Wait' in which Bertha and Donald go to Hawaii.
Helen Simonson Dear Adriana, Beatrice was initially a problem for me. I was unsure how to make her different and not just some caricature of a 'strong female heroine who love books'. Finally I realized that Beatrice has no money. I remember being a young woman with no money myself, and as I sat quietly and sort of talked to Beatrice about how money restricted her, about how her father's family held her back, I began to see her very clearly as a real person. As I researched my book, women just like Beatrice kept popping up in Edwardian times, making their way in the world without husbands or resources. Henry James' secretary, Theodora Bosanquet, who worked for James for many years before going on to become an Association Director and a novelist herself, became an inspiring model. Her book, Henry James at Work, was recently edited by Lyall Powers to include an essay on Theodora and more excerpts from her diaries. This gave me fascinating insights into the life of a working woman from the era.
Helen Simonson Dear Sue, I have trouble with first person. Somehow it feels too much like I creep in to the character. I prefer a little distance, both in character and setting. You'll note that I live in Brooklyn, NY but write about the rural England I remember so fondly. Close third person - where I am on the shoulder and in the head of the character but still an outside observer - is my preferred perspective. But never say never...
Helen Simonson Dear Jessica, Of course I'll be signing books. It's the most fun part of being an author and somehow my wrist never gets tired of scrawling my name on my books! I hope to meet you and your fiancé. A book reading is a very good date night - I make my husband take me to them all the time! Hope to see you at Malaprops on the 21st, my publication day.
Helen Simonson Happy 4th to you too, Penny. My second as a citizen. Having dual passports allows me the luxury of being thoroughly a New Yorker and Brooklynite while remaining so very connected to the Rye and England of my youth and family. We are both rich in countries Penny!
Helen Simonson
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Helen Simonson Dear Janis,
I really enjoy books and authors from before World War II as well. Though I must tell you I think there are many fabulous contemporary authors writing fascinating historical work (Chris Cleave's Everyone Brave is Forgiven?) and I urge people like you and me not to miss out on contemporary authors who are writing new classics (I just finished Edna O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs which deals with refugees, the war in the former Yugoslavia and contemporary Ireland). But to your question: I grew up reading the classic books you like and they are distinguished by an intense vocabulary and often lyrical description. They and I exist in a sort of pre-Hemingway garden of overflowing language. In addition the subject matter is sometimes overly concerned with the lives of the privileged but that means the books largely stay out of the gutter. I'm not a fan of viewing the world from its grubbiest margins. Perhaps we have this in common? I set out to write the sort of book I would choose to read if laid up in bed with the flu. And since I had run out of Somerset Maugham's I just had a go at writing one myself. It was an interesting creative process to write a book that feels like it might have been written in 1914 but at the same time present the characters in a a clearer way than would have been possible at the time. For example, books and authors of the pre war era could not speak of being gay and it was important to me to allow my gay characters to be more obvious - but not to an extent that the book would not feel authentic to the time. I hope the book holds up for you as you get further in. DO write and let me know. I'm available to readers here and through email at and on Facebook and Twitter (all of which I can barely manage being so pre-Hemingway!).
Helen Simonson Thank you Diane. I'm so thrilled to hear you could not stop reading! Yesterday I sat in my sunny garden under an umbrella and worked on my third novel. I have a very long way to go but it felt good to be diving into a new story. No promises on how long it will take me but it certainly motivates me to know that readers are waiting for me. Have a wonderful summer. Regards, Helen Simonson
Helen Simonson Hello A. K. Yes, I love Rye because I spent my teenage years there and was enthralled by its sense of history. The cobbled streets, the half-timbered houses, the stories of smugglers and fishermen. I spent all my Saturday job money in the local bookshop where I bought the local authors - Henry James, E.F. Jensen, Radcliffe Hall...I was just back there on book tour and am off again in a few weeks to appear in a Rye documentary. I recommend you return and see how wonderful the restaurants have become! Best, Helen
Helen Simonson Thanks for writing Becky. I think the whole world can be explained in a small town and I often think more truth about human existence can be found in the average 'women's' story than in all the big war and politics epics. In my view, even Kings and generals are largely driven by whether their bunions hurt! It was important to me to show the horrors of war but not to forget that above all, the horror affects our domestic life. We are left to pick up the pieces. Glad the story worked for you. I'm already at work on a third book but no promises as to when it will be done! Best wishes, Helen S.
Helen Simonson Oh, here is the question. Yes, you are very insightful. Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen. Somehow its theme of duty, and love delayed, resonates with me in a world where romance is too often about wildly breaking all the rules for a dash into the sunset. I think love is above all about a deep and abiding friendship and that takes endurance. Well spotted among the many literary influences at work in The Summer Before The War.

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