Interview with Jacqueline WinspearPosted by Goodreads on July 8, 2014
Maisie Dobbs series. What was that like?
Jacqueline Winspear: It's really terrifying putting a new book out into the world at the best of times, but when it's something quite different—and I don't know how many times I've had to put on my Facebook page, "You know what, this is not another Maisie Dobbs," because people still think it is. Someone even read it and said, "I'm looking forward to another book in this series." But it's not going to be a series; they're done. So, yes, it was different, though the time period is similar, I think the voice is different and definitely the fact it's not a mystery and it's not part of my series. So there's always a risk in that. But I really wanted to write it, and luckily my editor knew I really wanted to write it.
GR: What was your inspiration for The Care and Management of Lies?
JW: Many years ago when I was working in academic publishing—I guess I was around 26—one of my friends asked if I wanted to help at a stall at Portobello Road market. One weekend I went to some jumble sales to look for stuff to sell, and I picked up this copy of The Women's Book. It was a very thick, heavy book and falling to pieces, but I was transfixed because I always like to look at inscriptions, and this one had been given to a young woman on the occasion of her wedding, which was one month before the outbreak of the Great War. I just thought, "What on earth happened to these people?" I've always liked old books on household management, partly because they come from a time when everything was so structured. The Women's Book will tell you where to seat the king if the prime minister is present and how to black a stove or find the best things at market, but there's also quite a significant section on women in the workplace. It was really what you'd call the "new woman" in the early 1900s. It fascinated me, but more than anything it stayed with me: What happened to this young woman? And it became a story. I also looked at it from another perspective, being given a book when life could be so very structured and then suddenly life itself was thrown asunder. What does that mean in the lives of individuals who are caught up in the chaos? But I wanted to tell the story in my head long before I ever believed I could be a writer.
GR: Was the book deliberately timed with the centennial?
JW: There was a point when I knew I had to write it, and the centennial was coming up, so it was kind of a no-brainer. Frankly I think that's one of the things that helped my publisher to decide whether to support me on this. Because a lot of writers with a series—their publishers go into hives when they want to do something different, and I was very, very lucky because my publisher was incredibly supportive. In fact, I even had other writers of series, actually a couple—without naming names—of incredibly well-known writers say to me, "Oh, my God, I would love to do something different, but my publisher won't hear of it."
GR: How was this different from writing a mystery novel?
JW: When I first sat down to write Maisie Dobbs, I didn't even think, "I'm going to write a mystery," I just wanted to write a story that was in my head, which is why when the reviews came out, they said, "Jacqueline Winspear has been very innovative," I thought, "Ooh, that's interesting." Then my publisher sent me to a conference for mystery fans, and I came home and said to my husband, "Do you know there's actually a method to writing mysteries, a way you should do it," and I said, "Do you think I should do that?" and he said, "No, love, just leave it as it is." So even though my books are not always structured as a mystery—I certainly don't write whodunits; I write more "whydunnits"—there is a certain arc to the story, which is through chaos to resolution. And so this was different; it was more like a series of smaller arcs. I almost had to condense the feeling of writing a series into a novel, and maybe I'm sounding a little bit iffy about this, because frankly I didn't know what I was doing! I just had to follow my nose. These are the scenes that I want to have, and this is the narrative, and this is the story I want to tell.
GR: Maisie Dobbs was shaped by her time as a WWI battlefield nurse, and obviously this book is about the Great War. What do you think draws you to this period in history?
JW: I think there's a curiosity about war and what war does to people and how war stays with you. As one of my characters says in my second novel, Birds of a Feather: "That's the trouble with war, it's never over when it's over, it lives on inside the living." I'm your typical baby boomer: Our grandparents were impacted by the First World War, and our parents were impacted by the Second World War, so you grow up knowing things about them because of that. My mother has a fear of enclosed spaces because she had her whole house basically fall on top of her when she was 17 years old, and that lives with you. My dad, who passed away a couple of years ago, was raised in a very quiet household because his own father was shell-shocked. The other reason I've always been drawn to that period is that it was a period of such change, and I love the idea, particularly with my series but also in The Care and Management of Lies, of taking characters on the cusp of great change, people with a certain background, a certain way of looking at the world, and thinking, "How did they go through life as these changes were happening?"
GR: Goodreads member Alex writes, "I particularly love the titles of your books. At what point in writing a novel do you come up with the title?"
JW: Generally when I start a book, I know the title, I know the beginning, and I know the end. I always have my last scene in mind, and it's like the green light. With The Care and Management of Lies, the title came up at the beginning. I have a collection of old household management books, and in a lot of them it's at least the title for a chapter if not the whole book: The Care and Management of the Modern Home, The Care and Management of the Kitchen. So The Care and Management of Lies just seemed to fit because at the heart of it there was going to be this big lie between Kezia and Tom, keeping their present together alive through their letters as they're both thrust into—he into the most aggressive environment and she into her own aggressive environment. So that was where the title came from.
GR: I was fascinated by the recipes that Kezia makes up for Tom—fried rabbit with sultanas, lamb's liver with wild garlic. How did the theme of food occur to you?
JW: I was reading a lot about emotional nostalgia in the Great War, and it was really evident that food is absolutely an emotional flashpoint. I realized it was something I could get into creatively, and I could really touch the emotions in characters with food. I had looked at photographs, and I'd seen inscriptions about how men shared their letters, particularly when they were about food. Nowadays the military knows that food is so important to the morale of the troops. It's not just calories in and calories out, which is what they worried about in the First World War.
GR: There's one point where you describe the rats on the battlefield eating the innards of the still-dying soldiers. How did you approach communicating the realities of war?
JW: I read a lot of books, a lot of memoirs about more modern wars, and some of the more raw accounts of the First World War, because one of my questions to myself was, "What does it feel like to go to war?" In fact, a lot of war is boring, and a lot of it is absolutely harrowing, and there's a very fine line you walk to give a sense of war without being so raw in the writing that you alienate people. I didn't want to make them think, "Oh, my God, this is so disgusting." So they get the picture and they know I'm not sugarcoating it, but I don't need to go overboard.
GR: You've written all your books in California. Is that strange to write from such geographical distance or does it help with a sense of perspective?
JW: It absolutely helps, and it helps on several levels. I think the key is that I'm not distracted by everyday life in Britain now. I'm completely detached and can more easily immerse myself in the Britain of the past. The challenge is seeing that Britain of the past authentically rather than through some kind of rose-colored, Downton Abbey-shaped glasses. And of course my books absolutely predate Downton Abbey, but you still don't want to be seeing just that. Yes, there was a certain element of the population [who lived that way], but you know what? I'm going to show you the other side as well.
GR: Are you working on a new Maisie Dobbs book?
JW: I am, I am. It's going to be published in 2015, and the title is A Dangerous Place.
GR: Goodreads member Celeste asks, "Are there plans for Maisie to continue her career into WWII?"
JW: No comment. You'll have to read the book!
GR: Goodreads member Kelly Porter writes, "I love the Maisie Dobbs series. I am drawn to her strength, calm demeanor, and her ability to read people. How much of you is in Maisie?"
JW: I'm not very much like Maisie, I'm afraid. I would say that very little of me is in the character.
GR: Who are your favorite authors?
JW: This is hard. I have loved so many authors, but here's a smattering in no particular order: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck. More recently here's a short list of authors whose books I would always read: Susan Howatch, Terry Tempest Williams, Jojo Moyes, Alan Furst, Rennie Airth, Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Smiley, Kate Atkinson. And I love those Canadian authors: Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood. I also love to read poetry. Those contemporary poets whose work I keep close at hand include David Whyte, Mary Oliver, Jane Hirschfield.
GR: Can you describe your average writing day? Do you have any interesting writing habits?
JW: I don't have rituals, I compose directly to the laptop, and I don't have a set number of hours in a day—though as a professional writer, each day is a working day. Here's a typical day:
Rise early-ish (5:30 - 6 a.m.)
Write for a couple of hours
Walk the dog (she's not an early riser) for about an hour
Have breakfast (oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts)
Write for about another four hours
Stretch and wonder if I should be taking a joint supplement
Go to stables and ride my horses
Come home, shower
Write for another couple of hours
Remember I haven't had lunch, so have great big doorstep slice of toast with marmalade and a cup of tea
Catch up with daily "admin"
Cook dinner and watch a movie with my husband, then read. Or I skip the movie and just read. My reading consists of my "work reading" and my "pleasure reading."
Fall into bed, usually with a quick prayer of thanks for giving me so many things to do in my day that I truly love.
GR: When you first had the idea for Maisie Dobbs, did you ever imagine you'd end up writing 10, 11—however many books it will be—in the series?
JW: Absolutely not. I shocked myself, actually. When I opened The Care and Management of Lies and saw all those books there, I actually cried, and I'm not really one of those crybaby people. But I am awed by my fortune in that regard. And when I say my fortune, I mean my fortune to be able to do something that I love. When I was younger, writers to me were people on little pedestals on my bookshelves. And now to think I am a writer, it's such a privilege to be a published author. And that's why I would never allow myself the indulgence of writer's block. I live in a country, and have always lived in places, where my right to write what I want is a given. As far as I'm concerned, it's as good as it gets.
Interview by Catherine Elsworth for Goodreads. Catherine is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for the UK's Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph for 13 years and was the Daily Telegraph's Los Angeles correspondent from 2004 to 2009. She has also contributed to Tatler, Stella, and Condé Nast Traveller. In 2012, she was a semifinalist for the 21st annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize for fiction.
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