The Summer Before the War

The Summer Before the War

by Helen Simonson

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Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “A novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal . . . a delightful story about nontraditional romantic relationships, class snobbery and the everybody-knows-everybody complications of living in a small community.”—The Washington Post

The bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand returns with a breathtaking novel of love on the eve of World War I that reaches far beyond the small English town in which it is set.

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST AND NPR

East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.

When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.

But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.

Praise for The Summer Before the War

“What begins as a study of a small-town society becomes a compelling account of war and its aftermath.”Woman’s Day

“This witty character study of how a small English town reacts to the 1914 arrival of its first female teacher offers gentle humor wrapped in a hauntingly detailed story.”Good Housekeeping

“Perfect for readers in a post–Downton Abbey slump . . . The gently teasing banter between two kindred spirits edging slowly into love is as delicately crafted as a bone-china teacup. . . . More than a high-toned romantic reverie for Anglophiles—though it serves the latter purpose, too.”The Seattle Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812983203
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 62,535
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Helen Simonson was born in England and spent her teenage years in a small village in East Sussex. A graduate of the London School of Economics, she has spent the last three decades in the United States and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Simonson is married, with two grown sons, and is the author of the New York Times bestselling debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. This is her second novel.

Read an Excerpt

 

Reading Group Guide

A Conversation with Helen Simonson
Random House Reader’s Circle: In your highly anticipated second novel The Summer Before the War you transport readers to the small Sussex town of Rye. It’s the summer of 1914, right before the start of World War I, when everything is on the brink of change. What was life like at this time and why did you want to set your story at this moment?
Helen Simonson: I think of Edwardian times in terms of advances in technology—-the telephone, motor car, invention of electricity and flying machines—-and of a loosening of Victorian strictures producing a blossoming of culture and progress. It’s a society rich in writers, poets, and women’s movements for social justice and for suffrage. It’s a historical era in which I always thought I could live well. However, that assumes I would be wealthy. Life was still hard for folks without money. Even in a town like Rye, outdoor toilets, cold water, and coal—burning stoves would have been the norm. Female teachers earned less than factory workers. Education beyond elementary school involved fees, as did medical care. There were still workhouses for the poor, and diseases like rickets and tuberculosis were rife. The more I researched, the more I realized I should try to include some of this reality in a world we associate more with garden parties and elegant hats.
RHRC: You have a very personal connection to Rye, a town rich with literary history. Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, and E. F. Benson all lived and worked nearby. What does Rye mean to you and when did you know you had to set your story there?
HS: I lived near Rye during those influential coming—of—age teenage years, and much of my Saturday job money was spent at the local bookshop, where a special bookcase held the works of these “local” writers. Rye is such an extraordinary and ancient town that even the fish—and—chip shop is housed in a fifteenth—century building. For a girl raised in a modern subdivision, moving to Rye was like being dropped into history. For me Rye fairly hums with echoes of its past. Publishing my first book gave me the courage to try to bring the world of Edwardian Rye and its writers to life. I did not know whether I would succeed, but I knew at least that it was a setting I would be happy to live in for months and years.
RHRC: In this novel you write about love, family, class, ambition, and social and gender injustices. Everything is magnified by the war. Why was it important to explore these themes?
HS: In this book I wanted to explore what people think is important to build in their lives and what proves to be of real value when it is actually put to the gravest of tests. Does love remain? What does success or independence or family really mean in the end? And how will we weigh our ambitions and dreams against our duty and our compassion when all is falling apart? What does a war destroy and what does it burnish in the fire? These are timeless questions we still ask today, and I hoped we might learn some lessons from a small piece of our history.
RHRC: We’re instantly drawn into the lives of your characters. It’s hard to choose a favorite because we’re rooting for everyone (well, almost everyone)! Did you find yourself relating to one character or relationship in particular?
HS: I’m closer in age to matriarch Agatha Kent than to young teacher Beatrice Nash, but I remember being young, and none too wealthy, and so I identified very much with Beatrice’s fierce struggle to be her own woman. I related to Agatha both in her long and close marriage to John and in her love for her two nephews (I’ve been married thirty years this year and have two grown sons) and I am not afraid to admit that I have served on my fair share of ladies’ committees! I had the most fun, of course, writing Mr. Tillingham, the famous American writer with his assured sense of his own literary value. I hope readers will love him in all his obnoxious ego!
RHRC: As in Pettigrew, the quintessential English town becomes the stage on which entrenched tradition, class, ignorance, family ties, and love play out. You’ve said that “the whole world can be explained in a small town,” and you use humor to illuminate and process the absurdities of war. Can you elaborate?
HS: I think life is a comedy of manners and that people are generally much the same in their ambitions and their prejudices. While in my last book I explored how people might be similar across divides of ethnicity and culture, in this book I set out to discover just how much of ourselves we might recognize in the denizens of a small English town in 1914. For me, war just concentrates and highlights this theme. Humor then becomes indispensable in holding up to scrutiny the generals and the politicians who might forget their own fallibility while demanding our blind patriotism. Who was not educated and moved while laughing at M*A*S*H? And if you haven’t seen Monty Python’s World War I skits, you should go immediately to YouTube. In some of the small absurdities I present about England going to war, I hope to make readers laugh and reflect at the same time.
RHRC: At the heart of this book is a love story—-a few love stories, actually. There’s love between spouses and friends, new loves and old ones. There are relationships that transcend social and cultural barriers. Why was it important to explore these relationships? How do these relationships grow, adapt and survive?
HS: Love has a funny way of sweeping aside prejudice and breaking down barriers. The ability to love is perhaps our most redeeming quality. It transcends time, politics, and even religion. As my characters struggled to love in difficult circumstances I hoped my readers would share their joy and their pain and come away reflecting on the place of love in their own lives.
RHRC: Let’s talk about your strong female characters. You’ve given us two inspiring heroines in Agatha Kent, a sharp—witted force for progress, and Beatrice Nash, the town’s first female Latin teacher, who faces numerous challenges. Two women at very different stages in life, from different backgrounds and with different ideals. Why do we connect with both?
HS: I had to do some quiet sitting and thinking about how I as the writer could be loyal to two women at such different stages in their lives. In channeling Beatrice I was forced to revisit myself as an awkward young woman, and it was an eye—opening experience. I think we forget to look back at where we came from. I was glad of the chance to be kind to my younger self and to recognize her achievements while chuckling at her failings. Agatha was an immediate connection, though I am now laughing, because she has failings I did not see in first writing her, and that’s surely a function of not seeing my own flaws.
RHRC: Speaking of women, how did the war affect the position of women in society when men began to enlist? How challenging was it for women to do any work of importance, especially during the war, when men controlled almost everything?
HS: As a novelist and not a historian, I can only remark on what resonated with me during my research. The war effort in the U.K. seemed to be built almost entirely from scratch, and so it was funny that the vast efforts of Britain’s women were still initially considered “amateur” while men received official credit. The Voluntary Aid Detachment and the Red Cross, for example, were staffed by full—time female volunteers who left their families for the dangerous work of nursing. Women raised funds and set up mobile first—aid stations and canteens, and were laughed at even as the troops in transit to the front gratefully accepted hot tea, food, and medical attention. Large efforts such as the national system of War Relief Committees and Refugee Aid were all nominally headed by important men, while the bulk of the work was done by the ladies. Only as the dearth of men became more apparent did Britain realize it had a resource in its women, and so they began to fill in at munitions factories, on the buses, and even in quasi—military messenger services such as the one Alice Finch sets up.
RHRC: What was the research process like for you? What did you find most surprising about this time in English history? And when was it time to leave the research behind and listen to the characters in your head?
HS: Writers are lousy and distracted researchers, but I’ve always loved magazines, and my most compelling research experience was sitting in the British Library’s periodicals section and paging through original copies of Country Life and The Lady for 1914 and 1915. The war was not telegraphed on the front pages as in the news-papers, but it began to show up: in recipes for economical Christmas puddings and how to make do without a meat course at dinner. And of course it also made it into the social columns, when notice of engagements and marriages began to be replaced with the words “was to have been married” as Britain’s finest young peers began to fall in the trenches. And the more I researched, the more I became aware—-and surprised and horrified—-at how much the war galvanized the cause of women. In 1918, British women got the vote—-as a thanks for their work and presumably to make up for the lack of available husbands. They got to wear pants and drive buses and eat in the street and go abroad without a chaperone . . . and though at the end of the war most of the paid work went away, women were never going to go back to the strictures under which they had lived before.
RHRC: In Pettigrew, you wrote about contemporary England. In The Summer Before the War, you take us back to 1914. Is it more of a challenge to write about the past? How was writing this novel different from your first?
HS: As a child, what I loved most about books is that they take us to places and times we can not visit ourselves. I wanted to be shipwrecked on a Pacific atoll and to join an expedition to the planet Mars; and I wanted to time travel to the past and the future. As an adult I am still fascinated by the power of fiction to stretch the imagination and to transport us. Casting about for a setting for my second novel, it struck me that perhaps I was now qualified to attempt a bit of transporting. Of course, it was much harder work to try to fully research the time period, and then to set all the historical notes aside and allow the story to emerge on its own. I tried to transport myself back in time, and I hope readers will feel they are walking beside me in Edwardian Sussex.
RHRC: Helen, you published your first book at age forty—five. Tell us a little bit about your life before writing and the moment when you knew you had to become a writer.
HS: I was in advertising for a while, and then I decided to become a stay—at—home mom. I was looking for some small intellectual escape from the diapers and baby—gym sessions when I stumbled into a friend who said he was writing his screenplay. I remember being very taken aback that an accountant would dare to try to be some sort of writer. But then I realized that this is America, where everyone is -allowed “a dollar and a dream,” as the New York Lottery used to promise. The next day I signed up for a beginner fiction class at New York’s 92nd Street Y. It took me many years of struggle before I published my first book, and though I wanted to be a writer from that very first class, I don’t think I believed I would be one until I saw my novel in a bookstore.

1. An important subject in The Summer Before the War is women’s lives: their role and limits, and how women work within and against Edwardian strictures. Do you think we can take any modern lessons from these women’s lives?

2. Beatrice and Celeste both idolize their fathers. However, are they both betrayed? Do all the characters place too much trust in father figures? Do you think this a useful metaphor for England as it goes to war?

3. Why do we love the Edwardian era so much? Is it the gentility and supposed innocence of the age? Does this attraction remain for you after reading The Summer Before the War?

4. The author presents two strong women in the characters of Beatrice Nash and Agatha Kent. How are they similar and different? Why do you think the author chose to present both voices?

5. Who is your favorite character and what draws you to him or her in particular? Whom do you dislike in the book, and does he or she have redeeming features?

6. The author has said she thinks the whole world can be explained in a small town. Did she succeed at that in this book? What do you think can or cannot be described and explained within such a setting?

7. Though The Summer Before the War is set in Edwardian En-gland, did you recognize elements of your own town, city, or -social circle in this novel? Could the good ladies and gentlemen of Rye only exist in England, or are such characters found everywhere?

8. Why are books about war so compelling? Do you agree with Beatrice that no writer can ever write about war in a way that will prevent it? Is it a valuable topic anyway?

9. Did The Summer Before the War change what you knew or how you thought of the First World War? How so?

Interviews

Everybody Is an Outsider: Helen Simonson on "The Summer Before the War"

We're living at the speed of light, it seems, in this era of the Internet, of everything, whether there really is an app for that. A touchscreen, a tweet for customer service, a swipe for deliveries and pickups — practically no need to exchange a spoken word with another human being. Ever. What better refuge, then, than a book? Slow down and settle in with characters hiding themselves behind studied, proper manners. Characters bursting with foibles and fortitude. Characters whose actions and behaviors reflect our messy modern lives. Slow down and settle in with an emotionally resonant story that frames the universal — the search for love, for belonging, for one's own identity — against the specific: an English country village, 1914, the summer before the Great War changes everything.

Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War shares the gentle wit and small-town terrain of her bestselling debut, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, which readers and booksellers alike are still talking about years after it was first published and featured in our Discover Great New Writers program.

Simonson sat down at Barnes & Noble's Upper East Side store to discuss her work with Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge, as well as the New York Times bestsellers My Name Is Lucy Barton and The Burgess Boys, Abide with Me, a national bestseller, and Amy and Isabelle, which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for first fiction. She's been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in England. Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including the New Yorker and O, The Oprah Magazine.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. — Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers

Elizabeth Strout: Really, Helen, when I read this book, I just thought: How did she do this? How did she do this? Can you ever so briefly tell people what the book is about?

Helen Simonson: This is a love story of late Edwardian summer. A young schoolteacher comes to town to become the Latin mistress at the local grammar school, and this is considered quite scandalous, because Latin is a proper subject and therefore should be taught by a man. She's taken under the wing of local matriarch Agatha Kent, who pretty much runs the town, but she runs it from inside society and from within the confines of a loving, long marriage. And Agatha has two nephews. One is a rising young surgeon, and the other dreams of becoming a poet. So the book is really about their dreams and ambitions, these young people starting their lives, but of course we the readers know that a horrific war is coming, and that pretty soon everybody is going to have to reevaluate what's truly important in their lives.

ES: What was the impulse behind your diving into this area?

HS: I think I am very drawn to Sussex, which I spent my teenage years in. It's sort of my emotional home. And this particular town, my hometown of Rye, is very ancient and it's also very literary. Henry James lived there, and Radcliffe Hall and E. F. Benson, Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolf just down the way. So these are the writers that I grew up with. I think I always had them in my mind. I was very into Henry James. When my first book was accepted for publication, and my agent said, "You're going to be a published writer," I remember I was so overwhelmed I couldn't find my way out of her office. I was sort of beating at the walls to find a door, and was sort of disgorged onto a busy Soho street, and I seemed to see the town of Rye rise up in front of me, I seemed to be standing on the Sussex hilltop with Agatha Kent, looking over this sort of toy landscape. I think it was . . . you know, some of that community of "Rye-ters" just rising up to welcome me. Because in some tiny and very humble way, I, too, was going to join their ranks. That was really the very first impetus, was just to sort of go home and pay homage to all these writers.

ES: Your Acknowledgments indicate how much research you did. But I was curious how much time you spent on research, and how much writing the book.

HS: I was researching the whole time. I didn't realize when I started out that since it was 1914 I would have to do real work, and then I realized, Oh, this will require some research. I was really researching the whole five years. I would say there was, in aggregate, about two solid years of research and maybe three years of writing. But you soon realize it's not just military history and fashion and motorcars, but it's everything. When a character gets up in the morning, what do they put on to go to the window? When they open the window, what kind of window catch? Everything we take for granted . . .

ES: You have it all there.

HS: I have it all there, but I also had to then take a lot out. Nothing kills a historical novel more than all those facts that the author wants you to know . . .

ES: That you're so excited you learned.

HS: Yes, I'm so excited. So I say, "I know everything about the water and sewage system of Rye," and I had to edit all that out so as not to bore people. Paring away what you've learned.

ES: You looked at magazines?

HS: Yes, that was the best. In the British Library periodicals section, they will give you original magazines, ladies' magazines from 1914 in huge bound volumes. They give you a slanted desk by a big window, and at lunchtime they look after your laptop so you can go to the Pakistani café and have egg and chips. So I got to read the lady-gentlewoman-country life, as my matriarch Agatha Kent would have read them coming recently into her home. So my goal with the research was to make me feel that I had time-traveled there, so I could then write a contemporary novel as if I was living in 1914.

ES: Do you write from beginning to end?

HS: Yes. We should talk about that. I was looking at an interview that you did in which you said that you make all kinds of messes and scenes . . .

ES: Yes, I don't write linearly. So I'm curious, because here I am talking to you.

HS: I do the opposite. I never know where I'm going. I start with my characters, and I literally follow them around and see where they are going to go, and whom they are going to meet, and how those people fit into the story. So there is no plan. In this case, I did know there was a war coming, because it was 1914, but I had no idea if we were going, or how we were going. But I don't do what you do. That would totally terrify me, to write individual scenes.

ES: I read or heard that you said the whole world can be explained in a small town. I thought that was fabulous. Do you want to talk on that just a little bit?

HS: I really think that life is a comedy of manners, and somebody in describing this book had said, "Sometimes I'm in a comedy of manners, and sometimes more realistic fiction." I don't see a difference. Life is a comedy of manners. When it comes to wars and generals and politicians, they were just people who maybe their lunch didn't sit well with them today. They are just people like us. My favorite example is George Washington — my real hero: he was offered the chance to be emperor of America, and he turned it down. I think this is the greatest thing that ever happened in history. But I also happen to know that he had new dentures and they hurt him, so perhaps he was like, "To hell with America; I just want to go home to Mount Vernon and take my teeth out."

ES: At one point, Lady Agatha says, "My dear child, I fear we are all indentured servants of society." I just thought that was so funny and perfect. Do you remember writing that line?

HS: Yes. I do remember. Because that's the other thing in life, right? Nobody is truly free. The four-hour workweek, and maybe we'll escape to an island. You always end up reporting to somebody. So yes, Beatrice Nash is dependent on Agatha, who in turn is dependent on her patron lady Emily, who in turn is freaked out when a real earl comes to stay — and so it goes.

ES: I read that you tried not to worry about plot. I was so interested in that, because the book is so well plotted. For example, when Beatrice falls off her bicycle . . .

HS: Yes, she does. I'm glad you remembered that.

ES: Did you know when she fell off her bicycle that Hugh would come along and pick her up?

HS: I am going to say yes, because otherwise there would be no point in her lying in the ditch, looking all fetching with a twisted ankle. I mean, yes. But I guess I only know a couple of steps ahead. I've been talking a lot about my writing process, which can be summed up with one word: procrastination. I write as infrequently as possible. So I think what happens a lot of times is, I go to bed thinking about the novel, I wake up thinking about it. I am working it out in my head all the time. So then, when I have two or three steps, I write it down, and then when I run out of steps, I go back to not writing for a month or two.

ES: Do you rewrite much?

HS: No, I think, as I say, a lot of it is being worked out in my head. I work very much on the individual page. I am editing as I go all the time, and then the next day, if I am writing the next day and not putting it off for a month, I am going back and rereading the day before. So I feel like I'm editing as I go. Of course, Susan Kamil, my editor — and your editor — is here, and, yes, she will tell you I probably had to rewrite a lot at the end: the second draft. This book was written cold, by myself, without writing workshops, and then just handed to Susan. It was like a big, hot mess. There was definitely some rearranging. There were days when I had not only all the chapters laid out on the floor, but I had cut the chapters into pieces because there were sometimes different narrators . . . I was trying to move around thirty-five pages' worth of material. I'd never done that before. On Major Pettigrew I wrote Chapter 1, and then Chapter 2, and then Chapter 3, all the way through to the end. So I had never done this before. It was very exciting.

ES: Good luck. It sounds to me like you're on a slippery slope. One other point, when the refugees arrive in the village . . . I don't think this gives away anything. Beatrice thinks she had not expected the silence. I thought that was an astonishing detail. I just thought, Right, I wouldn't expect the silence. So where did that come from?

HS: I actually stole that from Henry James. He wrote an essay about standing on the ramparts of Rye and understanding on a beautiful summer afternoon that the war was coming, because he had been in the American Civil War as a young man, and so when everybody else thought it would be over by Christmas, he stood there and knew what was really coming. Then the next essay in that he talked about Belgian refugees coming to Rye, which was a story I had never heard, and I believe he talked about them coming silently. I guess because the townspeople are expecting it's like a celebration. You've arrived; have a cup of tea. And these refugees have nothing to say because they're just devastated.

ES: Can you tell us a little bit about Mr. Tillingham?

HS: I'm a huge Henry James fan, and I think I've been collecting materials to write a Henry James novel, and then Colm Tóibín came along and did it better. And I've read his letters, and I've read biographies. The wonderful thing about fiction, I realized, is I could use all this information about Henry James to really make Mr. Tillingham real, but then I could be totally scurrilous and also make him do and say anything I wanted, because it's not Henry James.

ES: And you do, and that's very funny.

HS: Well, whenever I got stuck on the novel and didn't know where to go next, I would just pop in Mr. Tillingham, and he would say something outrageous.

ES: Again, without wanting to give too much away, I wondered how the story of Celeste and Daniel came to you. Daniel I understand. He's been a major character all along. But their particular story is very poignant.

HS: Everybody in this book is an outsider to a certain degree. Right? Beatrice Nash is an outsider. Celeste is a refugee. She's an outsider. She's also blonde and incredibly beautiful, and so just the sort of person that people would latch onto who want to take care of refugees but not face the really bad things that are going on. And Daniel is a poet, and of course World War One is all about all the poets who went to the trenches and died, so he's an iconic character to me. But Daniel is a bit of an outsider because he is a little flamboyant, and so as the novel progresses he becomes more dangerously an outsider, and then bad things have happened to Celeste, and she becomes dangerously an outsider. But again, I work step by step. So I knew Daniel was important, but the way they manage to somewhat help each other kind of came to me one day, and it's like, Oh, I'll never get away with that.

ES: I thought you did get away with it. I thought it was just lovely.

HS: Thank you.

ES: Do you have a favorite character?

HS: Well, for laughs it will probably have to be Mr. Tillingham. As I say, he was my refuge. I feel closest in age and temperament to Agatha Kent. She is a little bit my Mrs. Dalloway, and on a good day I sometimes feel like the better part of Mrs. Dalloway. So it was much harder to get inside the head of Beatrice Nash, who is twenty-three. I had to really dig deep to remember being twenty-three. I finally did it, because I finally realized, you know, Beatrice has no money, and I remember being a young woman with no money, and that sent memories flooding back and enabled me to sort f live as a young woman again.

But as for Agatha Kent, working her way through the ladies' committees and trying to run everything . . . you know, she manages a lot more good putdowns than I ever managed. Somebody who had read the book and who'd grown up poor said to me, "Oh my God, it hit me like a blow — the arrogance and condescension of all your characters." I suddenly realized he was talking about Agatha as well as the funnier characters, and I suddenly realized that I was so close to Agatha that I hadn't even realized all her failings and foibles, because they are probably mostly my own. So that was really, really interesting, to realize that you were too close to a character, so you weren't actually seeing some of the things she did as being a little condescending.

ES: Were there characters that were harder to visualize, harder to conjure up?

HS: Yes. My problem is, I always have a big cast of characters. I wish I could write like Caroline Parkhurst, who wrote the book about the wife who committed suicide and the husband is trying to get the dog to tell him what happened — Dogs of Babel I think it's called. She writes their whole life story, including their marriage, and there's no one in the book except the husband, the wife, and the dog. I can't do that. If my characters go to a wedding, I have to tell you about everybody.

ES: You do it very well.

HS: But it gets more difficult as you get into the second and third layer of characters. OK, now, I've got to go commune with Mr. Poot, to find some reason that he thinks he's redeemable. I call them all "Smith" to begin with, and I had to come up with names, which I hate. Do you hate coming up with names?

ES: No, I love coming up with names.

HS: Would you come up with names for me, and I could do something else for you?

ES: This is maybe not a very fair question but I'll ask anyway. As you were going about this and working on it, did you feel a pressure from the success of Major Pettigrew?

HS: Well, I told everybody no. I told everybody, "No- no-no, no pressure, because I'm a mature woman and I have my family and friends and the validation of publication means the second book can hold no terrors for me." Of course, that was completely untrue.

ES: Whom did you tell this to?

HS: Oh, I was on some panel. There was an audience of the industry. But recently, a relative of mine at a wedding, he patted me on the back and said, "Feel no pressure about your second book, Helen; everyone knows second books tank." And I realized I did feel that pressure. I was determined not to tank. So the only way I knew not to tank was to set myself bigger challenges than Pettigrew. So this is three voices instead of one; it's war, which raises the stakes; and throw in the historical research, which means I have to prove that I can do that — or not. I'm sure I'll be getting emails that I did everything wrong.

ES: It's interesting how people are so willing to tell you what lies ahead.

HS: I've had people tell me, "You'll be good for three books and then you'll be toast." That was another good one. So I have one more book.

ES: I see.

HS: And then people tell me, "Well, lightning has struck twice; you can't expect it a third time." So I feel no pressure about the third book.

ES: I think people are so interesting.

HS: Life is a comedy of manners, right.

ES: As a fiction writer, with two fantastic books under your belt now, what do you want people to feel when they're done reading your books?

HS: Well, with this book I want to break their hearts. I want them to sob, and I want them to write and tell me they're still weeping. But actually, what's been the most special to me (and I've been out on the road for two weeks now) is that everywhere I go, the Pettigrew army shows up, and these are fans of Major Pettigrew — he meant so much to so many people, and there are people have read it multiple times, and they feel like they've added him to their family. I wasn't expecting that, because I think of him as sort of a petty little man. I adore him, too; he's been very good to me. But people whose fathers served in World War Two in England, people who've visited England . . . I know more than one person who had a parent die, and this was the book they were reading in the hospital.

ES: That's a nice thing.

HS: So I would like to continue to do that.

May 10, 2016

Customer Reviews